The legacy of Henry David Thoreau

The naturalist, social reformer, and literary artist, Henry David Thoreau, was born in Boston, Mass., in 1817 but moved with his family to Concord in 1822. He lived the remainder of his life there and died in 1862. He was an enigmatic, gnarly, and opinionated man who wrote a great deal but published very little during his lifetime. Actually, only two books of his books were published: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in 1849 (of which the publisher returned 700 copies of the 900 printed) and the much more famous Walden in 1854. Neither of the books was what we would call today “best sellers,” but with the passage of time Walden has become a classic and is now considered to be among the six or seven undisputed masterpieces of American literature. Thoreau once remarked, “I have 900 volumes in my library, 700 of which I wrote myself.”

These two books reveal a great deal about the man, but his meticulously written journal, which was not published until years after his death, gives a much more detailed account of his astute observations of the natural world and his thoughts on the philosophy of life and social reform.

Thoreau is probably best known as a social critic, but he was an excellent, self-educated, field naturalist. Though he took no formal courses in zoology or botany at Harvard where he graduated in 1837, his knowledge of the classification of animals and plants and their relationship to the environment was profound. His nature writing was superb, sinewy and specific.

Some modern-day naturalists may criticize his occasional lapse into anthropomorphism (he once saw a woodsman fell a stately tree, and he wondered if he would meet that tree again in heaven). One must consider, however, that the “sin” of endowing human qualities upon nonhuman species was a common practice in the 19th century.

Despite his anthropomorphic leanings, Thoreau understood the natural pattern of predator-prey relationships, and that nature was not some idyllic Garden of Eden where all creatures lived in peace and harmony. In Walden he wrote, “ I love to see that nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered as prey to one another.”

On the other hand, if Thoreau were alive today, he would probably be an active member of an anti-hunting organization. He was not averse to hunting and fishing to sustain one’s self in the wilderness, but he abhorred killing for the mere sport of killing.

The primary lesson Thoreau taught himself and tried to teach to others can be summed up in one word, “Simplicity.” Simplify your needs and ambitions and learn to delight in the pleasures the natural world affords. He believed that the best chance man had for understanding himself and the reason for his existence was when he learned to communicate with nature

Though he shunned and often derided organized religion, he was a deeply spiritual man who believed he could best commune with God by understanding how the Creator expressed himself via the natural laws of the universe. His frequent reference to the creative hand of God, even in the formation of the exquisite shapes of snowflakes and the beauty of autumn foliage, underscores his deep religious beliefs.

For many years there has been a project called The Thoreau Edition whose primary objective is to publish all of Thoreau’s previously unpublished work (letters, essays, manuscripts, and other papers). To date, Princeton University Press has published 14 volumes of a projected 30. The headquarters for The Thoreau Edition is now located in Founders Memorial Library at Northern Illinois University. The project is supported by grants from The National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Trust for Humanities.

In these hectic modern days, filled with stress, anxiety, and depression, perhaps it would not be a bad idea for many of us to reread the works of Henry David Thoreau and try to incorporate at least some of his philosophy into our own lives.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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