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Henry David Thoreau (July 12th, 1817– May 6, 1862)


Gary M
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Sorry for the text quality. I had some sort of browser issue and developed a problem with the copy and paste function of posting this on TrailGroove.  For anyone interested, I hope you will be patient, and give Thoreau's life story and words a chance!
 

Gary M

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Did you ever wonder where some of our greatest American nature writings and inspirational sayings came from? Such wonderful nuggets such as........
 

“An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.”

“I have a room all to myself; it is nature.”

“If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a spectator, shearing off those woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.”

“Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.”
 

These and many other great works were written by Henry David Thoreau (July 12th, 1817– May 6, 1862), one of the truly great American authors, philosophers, and poets. Thoreau was an early advocate of recreational hiking, conservation of natural resources, and of preservation of wilderness.

Thoreau is best known for his masterpiece, Walden, and his often misunderstood essay Resistance to Civil Government (also known as Civil Disobedience). He was an early American naturalist and a founding father of what eventually came to be called Environmentalism.

Although today Thoreau is not read as often as he merits, he was a true giant in his field and many greats have followed in his footsteps. You can easily draw a direct line of literary influence and a love of the outdoors from Thoreau to John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and Walt Whitman. With a little imagination, you could add Edward Abbey, Rachael Carson, and many others even to the current day. I would include those who read TrailGroove and love the thrill of the outdoors as his modern day descendants.

His writing style is dense and complex, making it difficult at times for modern readers to comprehend his sly satire. He combined an innate ability of natural observation, 19th Century rhetoric, and rich symbolism; all while displaying an advanced poetic and philosophical artistry. He was a dedicated advocate for simplicity and abandoning waste in order to discover life's true meaning. Thoreau is often described today as a philosopher of nature in relation to the human condition.

In his early years, Thoreau was a literary disciple of an eclectic group of very influential poets and philosophers including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. They were called Transcendentalist, a philosophy which basically replaces dogmatic religious doctrine with the belief that an ideal spiritual state “transcends”, or goes beyond the physical. Nature is seen as the positive outward representation of an ideal human spirit.

This was in direct opposition to the then widely held view of nature as something almost malevolent or evil. Nature was seen as something that needed to be conquered and controlled, as if in some sort of environmental Manifest Destiny. Others thought of a heaven in the sky; Thoreau brought heaven down to the wilderness of the earth.

The American nation was still very young, and still trying to find its place in the world. Thoreau and his intellectual friends helped form the fundamental American way of thinking, which is still alive today.

On July 4th, 1845 (a symbolic Independence Day), Thoreau began what he described as a two-year experiment in simple living. He built a cabin on Walden Pond and began writng about his experience. In 1854, he published Walden, or Life in the Woods, recounting the two years, two months, and two days he had spent at Walden Pond. The book compresses his time into a single year, using the four seasons to symbolize human spiritual development. It became a true American classic, preaching love of nature, simplicity, and individualism.

 

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden, "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For"

 

American author John Updike has stated, "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."

Thoreau was a well-known proponent of limited government, although at the same time he rejected violent anarchist views, writing: "I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government." He was a very outspoken and influential abolitionist; his work concerning civil disobedience was a very major influence on both Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In another well-known episode in his life, in July of 1846, Thoreau was arrested and put in the Concord jail for refusing to pay his delinquent poll tax. He had refused because of his staunch opposition to the Mexican-American War, which Thoreau believed was being waged so as to extend human slavery.

After spending a night in jail, Thoreau was freed when someone paid the tax against his wishes. I remember many years ago in school being taught Emerson himself bailed him out, although today experts dismiss this possibility.

Thoreau had many wide-ranging interests; he admired and wrote about Charles Darwin (Voyage of the Beagle), John Brown (of Harpers Ferry fame), and the sacred texts (Bhagvat-Geeta) of India. In the 1960's, he was rediscovered and became the patron saint to a new back to nature counter-cultural movement in the United States. In college at the time, I remember I carried a copy of Walden around for inspiration.

In 1835 Thoreau contracted tuberculosis, a rather common and often deadly disease of the period and his health suffered throughout the remainder of his life. As his health continue to fail, his close friends were fascinated by his acceptance of death. It was reported when asked in his last weeks if he had made peace with God, Thoreau famously responded: "I did not know we had ever quarreled."

Thoreau's last words were "Now comes good sailing", followed by the words, "moose" and "Indian". He died May 6, 1862. Emerson delivered his eulogy, Thoreau was only 44 years old.

Thoreau rejected complexity and artificiality in life. He argued that simplicity and intellect were not incompatible, so as we grow we need not lose contact to the wild and the untamed.

The Transcendentalist movement tended to veer off into mysticism and communal Utopias, while Thoreau mainly kept his feet firmly planted on the ground. As diverse as his interests and writings were, he will forever be remembered for his love of nature and the wilderness.


Following are just a few excerpts from some of Thoreau's best known works:


“We need the tonic of wildness...At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplored, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
Walden: Or, Life in the Woods
 

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”
Walden: Or, Life in the Woods
 

“Things do not change; we change.”
Walden: Or, Life in the Woods
 

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”
Walden: Or, Life in the Woods
 

“Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”
Walden: Or, Life in the Woods
 

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Walden: Or, Life in the Woods
 

“Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.”
On the Duty of Civil Disobedience
 

“One farmer says to me, 'You cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make bones with;' and so he religiously devotes a part of his day to supplying his system with the raw material of bones; walking all the while he talks behind his oxen, which, with vegetable-made bones, jerk him and his lumbering plow along in spite of every obstacle.”
Walden: Or, Life in the Woods
 

“Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself.”
Walden: Or, Life in the Woods
 

“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. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple-tree or
an oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer?”
Walden: Or, Life in the Woods
 

“Wildness is the preservation of the World.”
Walking
 

“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.”
Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

 

“A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us.”

Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

 

“When I consider that the nobler animal have been exterminated here - the cougar, the panther, lynx, wolverine, wolf, bear, moose, dear, the beaver, the turkey and so forth and so forth, I cannot but feel as if I lived in a tamed and, as it were, emasculated country... Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature I am conversing with? As if I were to study a tribe of Indians that had lost all it's warriors...I take infinite pains to know all the phenomena of the spring, for instance, thinking that I have here the entire poem, and then, to my chagrin, I hear that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess and have read, that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages, and mutilated it in many places. I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best of the stars. I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth.”
The Journal, 1837-1861

 

“A taste for the beautiful is most cultivated out of doors”
Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

 

“In short, all good things are wild and free.”
Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

 

“I rejoice that there are owls. Let them do the idiotic and maniacal hooting for men. It is a sound admirably suited to swamps and twilight woods which no day illustrates, suggesting a vast and undeveloped nature which men have not recognized. They represent the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all have. All day the sun has shown on the surface of some savage swamp, where the double spruce stands hung with usnea lichens, and small hawks circulate above, and the chickadee lisps amid the evergreens, and the partridge and rabbit skulk beneath; and now a more dismal and fitting day dawns, and a different race of creatures awakes to express the meaning of Nature there.”
Henry David Thoreau

 

“I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit.”
Walking

 

“Life consists with Wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him. One who pressed forward incessantly and never rested from his labors, who grew fast and made infinite demands on life, would always find himself in a new country or wilderness, and surrounded by the raw material of life. He would be climbing over the prostrate stems of primitive forest trees.”
Walking
 

“The tops of mountains are among the unfinished parts of the globe, whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets, and try their effect on our humanity. Only daring and insolent men, perchance, go there.”
The Maine Woods

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Gary,

You have inspired me to do some searching for some of his works.  Not sure if there's free stuff out there for download to my kindle, but I would think so.  Just got back from a short backpack in the Elk mountains (of Colorado).  I'm due to post TWO trip reports now.

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Gary,

You have inspired me to do some searching for some of his works.  Not sure if there's free stuff out there for download to my kindle, but I would think so.  Just got back from a short backpack in the Elk mountains (of Colorado).  I'm due to post TWO trip reports now.

 

John B................

Thanks for reading my post, and glad you were interested in some Thoreau!  

Here is a Kindle link you should be able to use:

http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/205

It's great reading, again a bit dense for modern day readers, but well worth the effort.  Thoreau was a true genius, and an artist of the outdoors.  He was literarly, 200 years ahead of his time.  

Looking forward to the trip reports, they are great for a Kansas flat-lander such as myself to read and dream about! 

Good luck!

Gary M

 

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