May 6, 2012, marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Henry David Thoreau, the father of American nature writing. His influence on contemporary environmental writing is still very significant, and this weekend, we're highlighting that influence on our blog. Today, we hear from Michael Lanza and Elizabeth Gehrman.
Michael Lanza is the creator of TheBigOutside.com and author of Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, which traces his journey to show his kids iconic national parks that could be altered forever by climate change.
I would be less than honest to claim that, when I read Thoreau’s classic Walden; or, Life in the Woods, years ago, I couldn’t put it down. To me, it seemed like the book begged to be put down. By modern literary standards, it is not the most accessible read. It probably wasn’t back when it was first published in 1854, either.
I grew up not far from Walden Pond, where, beginning on July 4, 1845, Thoreau lived for two years, two months, and two days alone in a cabin “to front only the essential facts of life, and… suck out all the marrow of life.” That’s heady stuff. I’ve walked the trail around the pond—which can take an hour only if you dawdle—and visited the replica of his tiny cabin that stands there today. In reality, the second-growth forest (less dense than Thoreau’s prose) in which he dwelled just two miles from town probably felt little more isolated back then than it does today, within earshot of a busy highway.
But the degree of Thoreau’s isolation is not what matters; and in an era when so much entertainment delivers an intellectual experience akin to eating apple sauce—no chewing necessary—perhaps we should celebrate writing that requires some brain effort to interpret. Thoreau’s real importance was introducing ideas about returning to nature that were ahead of his time and helped inspire the conservation movement, among other social trends to which he contributed (transcendentalism, abolition, and civil disobedience, to name-drop a few noteworthy examples). His words ring particularly prescient now, when we lament the myriad, tragic consequences of so many children spending so little time outdoors. Certainly, all of us who today write about personal experiences in nature stand on Thoreau’s shoulders.
As no less an authority than the late John Updike once wrote: “A century and a half after its publication, Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience mindset, and Thoreau so vivid a protester, so perfect a crank and hermit saint, that the book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible.”
Maybe Thoreau’s classic work should be required reading for all high-school students, or at least any who would aspire to join the long parade of writers walking rocky trails in his footsteps. Those who put in the time and effort might discover the meaning that has stirred so many people. And I doubt we’ll ever have an app for that.
Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Boston Globe Magazine and has written for the New York Times, Archaeology, More, and This Old House. Her new book, Rare Birds: The Extraordinary Tale of the Bermuda Petrel and the Man Who Brought It Back from Extinction, will be published by Beacon in October.
Though I dutifully recorded and often revisited quotes from it — so many I could never choose just one to cite here — what I remember most from my high school English reading of Walden is that it was a bit of a slog. I was no philosopher, and though I grew up on an island, my playgrounds the Niagara River and acres of untamed forest, nature had never really flipped my introspection switch. Maybe, as an only child, I had enough solitude; I was content simply to explore the woods and water without feeling the need to examine myself in the bargain. It wasn’t until college, when I got around to Cape Cod, that I really discovered Thoreau.
Where Walden turns inward, Cape Cod turns outward. Often described as Thoreau’s “happy” book, it is not so much about nature as about people in nature. It tells of those who are drawn to the sea — the oystermen and lighthouse keepers and industrious old women who come to it because of work or circumstance or its inexorable pull on the soul. “Cape Cod is but another name for human culture,” Thoreau writes early on. His initial tale of a horrific shipwreck never strays far from his mind as he recounts the power of the “vast and wild” Atlantic over the lives cast upon its shores with an eye for detail that any journalist would envy.
And that, it seems to me, is more affecting than bean-planting any day.