||January 7, 2005
Henry David Thoreau and Walden
A hundred and fifty years ago
this year Henry David Thoreau the great American poet, author, naturalist,
philosopher, social critic and early conservationist wrote the American classic
Walden: Life in the Woods. At a time when New England was well ahead of
Northern Ontario in its development he looked at some of the fundamental issues
of an evolving exploitative society and the purpose of life in such a society.
Walden has always been a
favorite book of mine in spite of its age and I have read it several times.
When I recently noticed the availability of a new 150th anniversary
edition with an introduction by the great American author John Updike I bought a
copy - a nice replacement for my old copy and an occasion to review my files and
the Internet on him.
First Day Stamp issue of 150th Anniversary of Thoreau’s birth
showing Thoreau and cabin.
Some 40 years ago when living
in the Niagara Peninsula I traveled to university in Buffalo for a masters
degree in English with a major in New England Literature. I took a course on
Thoreau and his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson and studied Walden and Thoreau’s
other work in some detail. A class study tour took me to Concord, Massachusetts
to visit the Walden site and visit Henry’s gravesite.
Thoreau came from a successful
pencil making family and attended Harvard University at an early age. He taught
school for a while and worked in the family business where he made some advanced
improvements. But he was a real loner who wanted to lead a simple life close to
nature and write about it and other interests. As one of Americas most quoted
authors he concluded that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation” and his
work became a manifesto for individualism and independence. His most quoted
statement applies to him. “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
he hears, however measured or far away.”
A lot of people did not like
his message to “simplify, simplify, simplify” and not buy into the burden of
hard work of a Puritan and capitalist society. On one occasion he stated that
he did not want a vocation where he worked 6 days a week with a day off but a
vacation where he had six days off and worked one. To do this he spent a lot of
time by himself, including his two years at Walden Pond. He also became a
vegetarian, had few friends, never married, never smoked or drank alcohol or
coffee, and shunned religion all of which made him a social outsider.
Thoreau didn’t care. He took
work as a surveyor and earned enough working when he wanted, to get by. He also
kept a journal all his life where he recorded his thoughts and later put them in
books. These journals of over 2 million words are preserved today and are also
on micro film. The Thoreau Society published the 14 volumes in 2 large volumes
and I purchased a copy when I was studying his work.
He enjoyed surveying because
he was out of doors close to nature. He was not just a “Nature Boy” but took on
many social causes such as slavery and was a great supporter of the anti-slavery
advocate John Brown. He refused to pay his taxes when the U.S. fought what he
considered an unjust war with Mexico and spent a brief time in jail. From this
he wrote his classic “On Civil Disobedience” which was read by many radicals in
the 1960’s and 1970’s and by leaders like India’s great Mahatma Ghandi.
He was also a great defender
of the Native way of life, of simplicity and closeness to nature. I found a
long article on line profiling his study of native life. Thoreau’s Walden
experience was also a manifesto for the back to nature movement in the 1960 and
1970s and the passion for wilderness experience today. In the 1970s I was aware
of Thoreau’s beliefs when I and 2 of my sons built a log house in the woods by a
pond near Algonquin Park in Chisholm Township. I live nearby today.
||Group of visitors to Walden Pond. D. Mackey Photo
Thoreau was a great
walker/hiker and made several long trips to Maine and Cape Cod and one to Canada
which resulted in books. The walking and conservation movement and the healthy
living movement today reflect some of his philosophy.
Canada’s first great
environmentalist Grey Owl whose sins were not of omission like Thoreau but of
commission has many similarities to Thoreau. This has been pointed out by Grey
Owl scholars such as his biographer Lovat Dickson. Professor Allison Micham in
her book Grey Owl’s Favorite Wilderness Revisited has a chapter called Grey Owl
– A Canadian Thoreau. Grey Owl’s cabin where he and Anahareo became two of our
greatest conservationists and Grey Owl’s cabin in Prince Albert Park where he
wrote his books were an important part of their story.
The Internet has many Thoreau
websites including one that tells about a group who built a replica of his cabin
to his exact specifications in Walden. Walden Pond is now a national historic
site with over 600,000 visitors a year. Canada’s new magazine Walrus had a
recent article on Walden Pond with several beautiful photographs of the site.
The photographer Thaddeus Holowina has a major exhibition of 24 large vertical
panels of Walden at the
Corkin Shopland Gallery in Toronto until January 22, 2005.
The book is online for those interested.
Thoreau did what he said he
would do when he went to Walden to learn “to live deliberately and, to front the
essential facts of life…and not when I came to die, discover that I had not
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