Thoreau and the Search for a Cosmic Community
His Thinking Was Structured by Deep Time and Planetary Space
What youthful philosophers and experimentalists we are!
There is not one of my readers who has yet lived a whole human life.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Everyone who comes to Thoreau has a story. Mine begins in a neighborhood bookstore where I pulled a book off the shelf simply because it was small and green—like the little green book I’d been carrying around (filched from my father’s library) by a writer named Ralph Waldo Emerson. “There is one mind common to all individual men,” it opened. “Of the works of this mind history is the record.” To a restless, idealistic teenager, this was catnip. And here was a second green book! This one had a double title, Walden and Civil Disobedience: “I have lived some 30 years on this planet,” I read, “and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.”
That made sense. Don’t trust anybody over 30, we were all saying, for the adult world was clearly mad. every afternoon I brought the newspaper in off the front porch and read the headlines: how many soldiers had died in Vietnam, where the latest riots were burning, which of my heroes had just been assassinated. “Here is life,” continued the new green voice, “an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it.” More catnip! I bought the book and brought it to school. Next time I was marched to the mandatory football rally, I split off at the door, sat on a grassy rise nearby, and opened my copy of Walden, holding it high so my teachers could see the title. They left me alone, and I’ve been stepping to the music of that different drummer ever since.
I began writing a biography of him to return to the figure who opened up that space for independent thinking, to learn how he had opened up that space for himself. “A man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world,” wrote emerson. Thoreau’s roots were in Concord, Massachusetts, where he was born in 1817— far from the Seattle of 1970. Yet had Thoreau lived a normal life span, my grandmother could have shaken his hand; our world is that close, in many ways the flower and fruitage of his. Two hundred years ago, American democracy still felt raw, experimental, and uncertain, especially in Concord, where America was a family affair, earned by one generation and about to pass to the next. Thoreau felt the weight of that responsibility more than most, and when he returned home from college, he set about reexamining the roots of democracy for himself. For it was clear to him that the American Revolution was incomplete: inequality was rife, materialism was rampant, and the American economy was wholly dependent on slavery. Yet in a terrible irony, his elders seemed content to let this state of things, from which they all benefited, continue. No, they were not to be trusted; he must try the experiment for himself.
By the time Thoreau built his house on Walden Pond at the edge of town, he had come of age among a circle of radical intellectuals called “Transcendentalists,” for their belief in higher ideas that “transcended” daily life. emerson was their leader; he had moved to Concord while Thoreau was at Harvard, class of ’37. Back home, Thoreau found his new neighbor declaring America’s intellectual independence, even as his own household had become a hotbed of antislavery activism. Thoreau joined the new revolution, but by 1844 he was less certain that emerson, now his mentor, had all the answers. The dilemma that pressed upon him was how to live the American Revolution not as dead history but as a living experience that could overturn, and keep overturning, hidebound convention and comfortable habits.
Moving to Walden Pond thus had a double purpose: it offered a writer’s retreat, where Thoreau could follow his calling as spiritual seeker, philosopher, and poet; and it offered a public stage on which he could dramatize his one-person revolution in consciousness, making his protest a form of performance art. In writing Walden, Thoreau encouraged his readers to try the experiment of life for themselves, rather than inheriting its terms from others—including himself. When he returned from Walden and became, once again, a working member of a large family in town, he tried to bring into the heart of workaday America his belief in life as a quest toward higher truth. Thoreau is often said to have turned to “Nature,” but what he actually turned to was, more exactly, the “commons”—spaces that, back then, were still open to everyone: woods, fields and hilltops, ponds and blueberry thickets, rivers, meadows, trails up nearby mountains, the long open beaches on the Atlantic shore. Nearly all his writings use landforms and watersheds to explore the commons, expanding our shared natural and intellectual heritage until it touches the Cosmos itself. When Thoreau sailed on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, he traveled the deep stream of time; when he walked the shore of Cape Cod, he dabbled his toes in a wild ocean stretching around the globe; when he stood on the shoulder of Mount Katahdin, he breathed the thin chill air of a planet in stellar space.
This viewpoint—deep time, planetary space—structured Thoreau’s thinking from his Harvard years onward. He read at least six languages; to him, literature was world literature, beginning with the written word itself—Homer, Virgil, the Bible, the ancient scriptures of India and China, Old English poetry—on through the latest in German philosophy and science, French histories of the New World, England’s most advanced Romantic poetry, and Scotland’s most vigorous prose. Thoreau filled dozens of notebooks with extracts from hundreds of volumes, creating his own working library: poetry, history, science, anthropology, travel, and exploration. His ferocious curiosity meant the least detail in his own backyard could speak to him of faraway times and places: farmers working their fields evoked Virgil’s Georgics; Arctic explorers helped him analyze winter in New England; Irish laborers showed him the Bhagavad Gita in the waters of Walden.
Through the 1840s and 50s, Thoreau’s commitment to social activism deepened as he linked the actions of his Northern neighbors to the perpetuation of slavery in the South, a connection that led to his famous acts of protest: his night in jail for nonpayment of taxes, his essay “Civil Disobedience,” his furious denunciation of “Slavery in Massachusetts,” his passionate support for John Brown’s attempted insurrection. When death stilled his voice just after the onset of the Civil War, Thoreau’s friends mourned not only him, but also the loss of all the work he had begun and never lived to complete.
When I began writing my biography, the term Anthropocene was a novelty: human beings, scientists were suggesting, had become a geological force changing the planet itself. As I worked, I realized that Thoreau’s life span, though short, had been long enough to witness and record the arrival of the Anthropocene epoch in America. He was born on a colonial-era farm into a subsistence economy based on agriculture, on land that had sustained a stable Anglo-American community for two centuries and, before that, Native American communities for 11,000 years. People had been shaping Thoreau’s landscape since the melting of the glaciers. By the time he died, in 1862, the Industrial Revolution had reshaped his world: the railroad transformed Concord from a local economy of small farms and artisanal industries to a suburban node on a global network of industrial farms and factories. His beloved woods had been cleared away, and the rural rivers he sailed in his youth powered cotton mills. In 1843, the railroad cut right across a corner of Walden Pond, but in 1845 Thoreau built his house there anyway, to confront the railroad as part of his reality.
By the time he left Walden, at least 20 passenger and freight trains screeched past his house daily. His response was to call on his neighbors to “simplify, simplify.” Instead of joining the rush to earn more money for the latest gadgets and goods from China, Europe, or the West Indies—feeding an economy that grew mindlessly, he wrote, like rank and noxious weeds—he called for mindful cultivation of one’s inner being and one’s greater community, a spiritual rather than material growth through education, art, music, and philosophy. When he wrote that “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” he meant not an ascetic’s renunciation, but a redefinition of true wealth as inner rather than outer, aspiring to turn life itself, even the simplest acts of life, into a form of art. “There is Thoreau,” said one of his closest friends. “Give him sunshine, and a handful of nuts, and he has enough.”
Thoreau’s own family rose from penury to middle-class respectability after his father founded a small pencil factory. Thoreau was fond of machinery, and his inventions and improvements to the manufacturing process brought prosperity to his family. To pay his own expenses—including the bills for living in the family’s boardinghouse—he worked as a day laborer and eventually built up his own business as a land surveyor. When he wasn’t laying out property bounds, he was crossing those bounds in his own private enterprise as a walker and writer, earning just enough from publishing and lecturing to cover travel expenses.
The more closely Thoreau lived and worked in nature, the more he was drawn to science, for the workings of things always fascinated his engineer’s mind; his quest to understand nature’s “bundle of relations” made him a pioneer of ecological science well before the field existed. Yet the more deeply he understood natural science, the more intensely he longed for something beyond understanding—what he called “the wild.” In “Walking,” one of his most famous essays, Thoreau declared his credo: “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” In later years, he kept a detailed journal to record his observations of nature (including human nature), noting the date each flower bloomed, the date the ice melted on Walden Pond, when leaves turned color, and the dates and depths of snowfalls. He bragged that from looking at the flowers, he could tell the day of the month within two days. Scientists are now using his meticulous records to track with precision the ever-earlier onset of spring and the lingering of fall, as year by year climate change shrinks winters and alters the composition of Walden’s plant communities.
But today, as those scientists have shown, Thoreau’s flower calendar is deranged, for the synchronies he documented are falling out of rhythm. His records thus help us measure the arrival of the Anthropocene epoch that threatens to overturn everything he believed. Thoreau could look to “Nature” as an eternal fountain of renewal and regeneration, a sacred force capable of healing even the deepest acts of human destruction, including slavery, war, and environmental devastation. He ended Walden with an ecstatic vision into the regenerative forces of the Cosmos, and late in life, when he took up Darwin’s Origin of Species, he saw in a flash that the theory of evolution meant nature was a “constant new creation,” a creative principle unceasingly at work, all around, every day. That the actions of human beings and the ancient fossil fuels they dug out of the ground to feed the engines of industry could fundamentally alter those natural processes—changing the chemistry of the atmosphere and of the encircling oceans, melting the poles, killing winter, killing life itself—was beyond Thoreau’s reckoning. Can his faith live on after nature, at least nature as he knew it, has ended?
I think it can and will. Thoreau could speculate that even a slight shift in natural processes—a little colder winter, a little higher flood—might put an end to humanity, so dependent are we on a wild nature that gives us no guarantees. Hence he emphasized living “deliberately”; that is, living so as to perceive and weigh the moral consequence of our choices. “Civil Disobedience” insists that the choices we make create our environment, both political and natural—all the choices, even the least and most seemingly trivial. The sum of those choices is weighed on the scales of the planet itself, a planet that is, like Walden Pond, sensitive and alive, quick to measure the least change and register it in sound and form. To Thoreau this was cause for tremendous optimism: as the village expanded and the old trees fell, he planted new ones and reveled in the young forest. If the english settlers had wiped out many of New England’s animals—beaver, wolf, bear and cougar, moose and deer, wild turkey—still there was much remaining, enough to assure him the wild was everywhere, ready to reseed and reclaim what it had lost. His last, unfinished works, Wild Fruits and The Dispersion of Seeds, emphasize how the smallest of seeds, let loose on the winds or carried by the least of beings, could transform the world. All humans need to do is learn to work with instead of against the vital currents of life.
The books Thoreau didn’t live to finish are about building a community of life, and he died in the faith that his words, like seeds, would take root and grow. Exactly insofar as we, today, share his belief in the future of life and act on it, will he continue to speak to us.
From Henry David Thoreau: A Life. Used with permission of University of Chicago Press. Copyright © 2017 by Laura Dassow Walls.