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Wednesday, April 24, 2019

April 24, 2019: Earth Day Studying: Henry David Thoreau

[The 49th annual Earth Day is April 22nd, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of environmental stories and histories. Share yours in comments to help us celebrate this wonderful and all too often underappreciated home of ours!]
On three distinct but interconnected ways to commemorate one of our most foundational and enduring environmental voices.
1)      Read Faith in a Seed: I’ve made the case many times in this space for broadening our Thoreau canon beyond the most established texts, and one of the most important ways to do so would entail reading Faith in a Seed: The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings. Collected by the wonderful Thoreau scholar Bradley Dean from various works left unfinished at Thoreau’s death (including The Dispersion of Seeds), Faith in a Seed offers a vision of Thoreau the naturalist and scientist that goes well beyond any of the other works I’ve previously highlighted in this space (or, indeed, any of the works published in his lifetime). Yet Faith also reflects how much Thoreau’s perspective, ideas, and writing had evolved in the course of his two decades as a published writer—an evolution that highlights the tragedy of his far too youthful passing but also offers a vital challenge to any attempt to define Thoreau only through Walden or any one text or project. For all those reasons, I can’t imagine a more apt Earth Day week read than Faith in a Seed.
2)      Visit Walden Pond: Thanks to the efforts of Don Henley (yes, that Don Henley) and many others in the Walden Woods Project, the woods and pond have been largely preserved as they were in Thoreau’s era. As I wrote in this post about six years ago, however, even the changes, which have made the pond more accessible to modern visitors, seem to me to be in the spirit of Thoreau’s project and book. The site now features a newly renovated and still evolving Visitor Center, one which in its numerous green elements and initiatives as well as in its exhibits both presents and honors Thoreau’s legacy and vision. Moreover, I can testify from personal experience that simply sitting on the beach at Walden—or, as highlighted in this blog post by a favorite nature writer of mine, walking through the woods as a train passes by—allows you to feel a genuine and moving kinship with both Thoreau and the many millions of others who have spent meaningful time in these spaces. You won’t spend a summer or fall or winter day more happily, and certainly won’t better commemorate Earth Day, than by visiting Walden Pond.
3)      Walk with Others: Maybe you lived thousands of miles away from Walden, though. And maybe you’re not able to get your hands on a copy of Faith in a Seed. Well, I’m here to tell you that you can commemorate Earth Day in a deeply appropriate Thoreau-inspired way wherever you are, and with nothing other than your own two feet and (ideally) a companion or two. I don’t know of any American author or figure who more consistently or convincingly made the case for walking than Thoreau, a fact illustrated by the wonderful children’s book character who bears his name. It might seem that solitude was an important part of those walks, and certainly Thoreau wasn’t averse to such solo treks. But as “A Walk to Wachusett” reflects, Thoreau was always more than happy to share his walks, and indeed wrote about such companionship as a vital part of the experience. Having walked around Walden Pond (and many many other places, some familiar to one or all of us, some new to all) with my parents, with my sons, and with other good friends, I can say that here I entirely agree with the sometimes iconoclastic but always interesting and important environmental writer.
Next Earth Day post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Earth Day stories or histories you’d highlight?

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