150 Years After Thoreau: How the Cabin at Walden Gave a 21st Century Father Cabin Fever
150 Years After Thoreau: Michael Lanza and Elizabeth Gehrman

150 Years After Thoreau: Christine Byl and Brad Tyer

May 6 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 Christine Byl and Brad Tyer, two forthcoming Beacon authors. 

Christine Byl is the author of Dirt Work, forthcoming from Beacon Press in 2013. She lives in a yurt outside of Healy, Alaska with her husband and retired sled dogs. Her fiction and essays have appeared in CrazyhorseThe SunGlimmer Train,Broadsided PressLumberyard, and others. She worked on trail crews on public lands for 15 years; with her husband she now runs a family business doing trail design and construction.

Byl headshotI had not split firewood or hoed a row of beans when I first read Thoreau in high school English. I lived in urban Michigan, had no experience with subsistence tasks. Yet I loved Thoreau from the first page. Now I live in Interior Alaska, off-the-grid without running water, and daily chores take up much of my time (picking berries, hauling water, cutting wood). But the reasons I was drawn to Thoreau in high school remain consistent now: something about what centered him made sense to me—life connected to a place you lived, and what you did there. I liked how he was humble yet sure of himself. I liked that he admired squirrels.

As a writer, I've respected other things. His cultural critique feels germane 150 years out. He's a dialectical thinker, finding fertile ground between assumed dichotomies. He summons a childlike wonder at the world. He reminds me to laugh, to take words and ideas seriously, but myself less so. Simply put, Thoreau writes with mind, heart and body fully engaged. Among the many writers who've influenced me, Thoreau may best embody Henry James’ famous quote: "A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost."

The conventional way to write off Thoreau is on his so-called inconsistencies (Walden wasn't wild, it was a mile from Concord!), but Thoreau's wisdom is that he never claimed a deliberate life had to happen in the middle of nowhere. An authentic life isn't an escape: it has less to do with location than attentiveness to it.

Despite the solitude he was best known for, I think Thoreau would make good company. (I feel so friendly toward him that I refer to him in my mind by the pet nickname, HDT.) I can imagine working in the woods with him, tossing 8-foot logs into the truckbed, making him blush at a bawdy joke. After, in the cool spring evening I'd pour us hot cocoa (mine with whiskey, his without.) I can see myself leaning on the axe near the splitting stump while HDT quotes himself from Walden, "Every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection." Yep, HDT, and every woman, too.


Brad Tyer is the author of Opportunity Montana, forthcoming from Beacon Press in 2013. He is a journalist whose work has appeared in Outside magazine, High Country News, the Texas Observer, and many other newspapers and magazines.

Brad_tyerI grew up the child of a first-generation middle-class family for whom a motorboat and a weekend place on a lake defined the lap of suburban luxury. My parents were just a generation removed from fishing for food and rural isolation as facts of life; to transform those memories of need into leisure marked their triumph over circumstance. They’d escaped. To prove it, they bought a place to escape to.

I’d never heard of Thoreau, but it was our Walden. Like Henry’s cabin, adjusted for interstates and dams, it was just north of town (Houston) on a reservoir (Lake Conroe). Curb to gate, we could drive there from home on the other side of the city in about as long as it took HDT to walk into Concord and bum a beer from Emerson. We called our place Hard Times, with the reflexive self-deprecation of insecure East Texas arrivistes.

At the other end of Lake Conroe was the only Walden I knew of: a lakefront development of condos clustered around a marina full of boats at the western end of what had once been the San Jacinto River. Walden had a golf course and tennis courts. Walden had a shop on a pier selling gasoline and life jackets and bait and polo shirts embroidered with the resort logo. Walden was the rich end of the lake.

It was years before I read Thoreau’s Walden and understood the references and aspirations playing out at the rich end of the lake—and, acknowledged or not, at our end too.

What I remember of Walden is the occasional diamond clarity of its sentences, and Thoreau’s constitutional contrariness. I don’t remember his celebrations of nature so much as his condemnations of so-called civilization. 

To realize that developers were repackaging that contrary clarity as a hive of internal combustion, on a time-share basis no less, marked maybe my first real awareness, in retrospect, of the ways of the commercial world. They’d take a word that meant something—Walden—and turn it upside down. They’d try to fool you. They’d advertise one thing and sell you another. Your parents could do the same thing: Hard Times my ass...

Words can serve truth, or they can serve their speakers. That’s an awareness—call it a bias; fair enough—that I’ve carried through 20 years of journalism aimed, when I could see, at clarifying that which has been obfuscated. It’s a bias that informs Opportunity, Montana pretty deeply. As influences go, it’s indirect, but that’s the note Thoreau sings for me.