While the exploration or exploitation—take your pick—of the American West was just beginning to flourish, two more of our past environmental heroes—Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau—were sitting, thinking, and writing in the newly-minted Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As the original transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau believed that there was much more to life than working feverishly and accruing wealth. Their thoughts and words were the first cries in the wilderness about living simply and compatibly with the natural world, and their words are still inspiring millions of people around the planet who want to make peace with—instead of continually exploiting—their environment.
Emerson, generally considered the “Father of Transcendentalism,” and Thoreau’s mentor, was born in 1803. His most famous work, Nature —published in 1836—explained his belief that God was suffused throughout the natural world and was not a separate, divine countenance living off in some heavenly sphere. Meanwhile, Thoreau took the teachings he gleaned from Emerson and turned them into two books that ran completely counter to the religious and social forces that were then driving our nation’s expansion. Today, Thoreau’s works form a significant portion of the backbone of the US environmental movement.
In 1849, Thoreau published his essay Civil Disobedience, which—while much less famous than his monumental work, Walden —opened many people’s eyes to the abject horrors perpetrated right in front of them. First and foremost among Thoreau’s described atrocities was slavery—foreshadowing the tragic war that was only slightly more than a decade away from sending the United States spiraling into the depths of human chaos and pathos.
With his face-framing beard and dark wavy hair, Thoreau could have easily passed for Abraham Lincoln’s brother—appropriate considering they were both brandishing the same moral sword against the institution of slavery. They each, however, advocated different methods of dealing with this scourge on the American landscape. While Lincoln believed in achieving his desired results by operating within the law of the land, Thoreau insisted that the country should stand against slavery, even if that led to civil war and the destruction of the Union.
Ever since its publication, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience has inspired many leaders of protest movements around the world. Nicknamed the “Prophet of Passive Resistance” http://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/thoreau/ by some, Thoreau and his writings have provided supreme spiritual guidance for inspirational figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Thoreau spent much of his life looking for the ultimate truth in the natural world. At night, he enjoyed hours of “looking through the stars to see if [he] could see God behind them.” His two older siblings—Helen and John Jr.—who were schoolteachers, paid Thoreau’s tuition to attend Harvard, where he immersed himself in classic literature, philosophy, and languages.
After graduating in 1837, Thoreau returned to Concord, Massachusetts, and opened a school with his brother, John. While Thoreau enjoyed teaching, he always fancied himself as a writer and soon after he left Harvard began keeping a detailed personal journal. Henry’s brother contracted tuberculosis in 1841, forcing the brothers to close their school; John died from lockjaw in Henry’s arms one year later. When the school closed, Henry realized he needed to find another way to make a living because writing was not paying the bills, so he turned to his family business—pencils.
Inconsistent with most popular beliefs about his life, Thoreau was—at times—a successful businessperson. The Thoreau family’s pencils were the first produced in the United States, and they equaled the worldwide standard—the German-made Faber pencils. After his father’s death in 1859, Thoreau took over as head of the family business and, characteristically, started recycling the company’s scrap paper for lists, notes, and drafts of his natural history essays. He also maintained his own active and highly respected local practice as a self-taught land surveyor.
But let’s get back to the Thoreau story with which everyone is most familiar. In 1845, Thoreau built a small home for himself on Walden Pond in Concord, on property owned by Emerson. Thoreau desired a simpler type of life, so for two years and two months he experimented with working as little as possible, rather than engaging in the standard pattern of six days on with one day off. He felt that this fresh approach helped him avoid the misery he saw around him, once famously writing, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” To his critics, who were perhaps trying to counter this desperation in their lives, , Thoreau wrote: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” (Note: After two years and two months, Thoreau left Walden Pond and moved back into his parents’ home and then into a house owned by Emerson, who was conducting a lecture tour in Europe. As Thoreau writes in Walden: “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”
Repeated questioning by the Concord townspeople about how he was living at Walden Pond inspired Thoreau to write his best-known collection of essays. Finally published in 1854—after initial public rejection and seven complete drafts—Thoreau’s Walden emphasized living life in close harmony with the natural world. Since its publication, Walden has served as a source of supreme inspiration for countless naturalists, writers, and—in more recent decades—environmentalists.
Most important for the issue of climate change are Thoreau’s dual beliefs that we can achieve significant changes in cultural and societal mores by passionate, passive resistance and sustainable living in harmony with the natural world. Sometimes it’s not the earliest or the most aggressive bird that gets the most worms but the one that stays most focused on the long-term task of raising healthy chicks.