Thoreau’s Wilderness Legacy, Beyond the Shores of Walden Pond
Cherished public lands: Bird-watching at Walden Pond.CreditCreditPhotograph by S.B. Walker, from his book “Walden” (2017)
On April 23, 1851, Henry David Thoreau spoke at the Concord Lyceum about the interrelationship of God, man and nature. It was the opening salvo of the modern American conservation movement. Equating sauntering with absolute freedom, Thoreau, whose “Walden” would be published three years later, ended his oration with eight words that in coming decades helped save the Maine woods, Cape Cod, Yosemite and other treasured American landscapes: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” The sentiment became popularized when The Atlantic published Thoreau’s essay “Walking” in May 1862, with the line as the centerpiece, a month after his death.
This July 12 will be Thoreau’s 200th birthday. Lovers of his back-to-nature musings will flock to the shores of Walden Pond to celebrate his literary greatness. I’ll be one of them. But our pilgrimages to honor Thoreau shouldn’t be confined to wood-fringed Concord. Thoreau, toward the end of his life, famously called for townships to have “a park, or rather a primitive forest, of 500 or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation.” A full 14 years before Congress established Yellowstone National Park (America’s first) in 1872, Thoreau, courtesy of this visionary preservationist offering, helped inspire our magnificent National Parks system. The true largess of Thoreau, then, can perhaps best be discovered by experiencing one of the outdoor temples that his “in wildness” declaration helped protect.
Most Americans know Thoreau from reading “Walden,” with its simple assertion, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” But it’s the “in wildness” epigram that’s near scripture for environmentalists rallying against hyper-industrialization and climate change. Just as Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government” nourished the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., his kinetic “in wildness” precept has electrified the literary imaginations of Barry Lopez, T. C. Boyle, Terry Tempest Williams, Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry, David Quammen, Edward Hoagland, Carl Hiaasen, Rick Bass, Gary Snyder, Louise Erdrich and other wilderness warriors safeguarding our cherished public lands.
The environmental activist John Muir, who worshiped Thoreau — particularly the passage in “The Maine Woods” (1864) that called for “national preserves” — acknowledged that the Concord sage spurred his Yosemite protection advocacy. Often borrowing from his literary hero’s dictum, Muir harnessed Thoreau’s statement to promote his drive to save California wilderness from ruin. “Civilization,” Muir wrote, “needs pure wildness.”
Theodore Roosevelt, who saved over 234 million acres of wild America as president from 1901 to 1909, was so taken with “The Maine Woods” and “Walking” that as a Harvard undergraduate he climbed Mount Katahdin to follow in Thoreau’s footsteps. Around 2000, a modern-day Thoreauvian, Roxanne Quimby, co-founder of Burt’s Bees, started buying up the Maine acreage her literary hero often tramped. Once Quimby acquired Thoreau’s North Woods stamping grounds she donated 87,563 acres to the Interior Department. In August 2016, President Obama, on the eve of the National Park Service centennial, established Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument from her holdings. (Sadly, the Trump administration is now reviewing opening it to timber harvesting and hunting. )
Rose Kennedy, the mother of the 35th president, spent much of her childhood in Concord, and she treasured both the book “Walden” and the pond. When her husband, Joseph Kennedy, bought a home in Hyannis Port in 1928, she read Thoreau’s less well-known “Cape Cod” (1865) and was awe-struck. Thoreau had first hiked the Outer Cape’s shoreline in 1849 and began composing reflections for public lectures. Young Jack Kennedy, influenced by his mother, adopted Thoreau’s elevated notion of Cape Cod as being where “a man can stand” and “put all of America behind him” as his own.
Coinciding with the Kennedys’ move to Cape Cod was the publication of Henry Beston’s book “The Outermost House” (1928). Beston spent a solitary year on the Outer Cape, journaling about the migrations of shore and seabirds, the headlong waves, the glories of sand dunes, the pageantry of the stars. Born in 1888 to an upper-middle-class Catholic clan in Quincy, Mass., Beston was encouraged at an early age by his parents to explore the Cape. As an Atlantic Monthly correspondent, a farmer of herbs, a rustic wanderer and a writer of children’s books, Beston fell in love with the primitive grandeur of the New England seaside. When he turned 38, he purchased 50 acres of dunes near the town of Eastham on the outermost beach of Cape Cod. His small Fo’castle residence — a locally built home with 10 windows offering unobstructed views of the Atlantic — offered Beston the kind of Walden-like solitude he craved. The National Park Service of the 1950s adopted “The Outermost House” and “Cape Cod” as justifications for establishing a 44,000-acre national seashore of secluded beaches and mysterious bogs in coastal Massachusetts. Likewise, Senator John Kennedy, inspired by Thoreau and Beston, introduced legislation in 1959 to establish Cape Cod National Seashore.
Just as Muir’s book “Our National Parks” had helped save the High Sierras of California, “Cape Cod” served as an important catalyst for protecting what Thoreau called “the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts.” In a 1959 New York Times article titled “Walking in Thoreau’s Footsteps on Cape Cod,” Caroline Bates enthusiastically embraced the national seashore effort. “The adventurer in search of wild America,” she wrote, “visits this coast for the same reason that Thoreau did.” As president, in 1961, Kennedy pushed a Cape Cod N.S. bill through Congress. (The Trump administration, in an unprecedented act, has suspended the local commission that regulates Cape Cod N.S. in possible preparation for gutting environmental protections there.)
Thoreau became the all-seasons environmental guru of the Long Sixties (1960–74). After Rachel Carson learned she had breast cancer, she adopted a sentence from “Walden,” which she always kept at her bedside, to spur on her writing of “Silent Spring”: “If thou art a writer, write as if thy time were short, for it is indeed short at the longest.” Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society used the “in wildness” quote on his nonprofit’s stationery. David Brower of the Sierra Club published a book titled “In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World” with excerpts from Thoreau’s nature writings accompanied by the landscape photography of Eliot Porter. “To me, it seems that much of what Henry David Thoreau wrote more than a century ago was less timely in his day than it is on ours,” Brower offered in the introduction.
Thoreau’s first book, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” (1849), was an inspiration for Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” (1957). The following year, in his novel “The Dharma Bums,” Kerouac called for a “rucksack revolution” of young people searching for Thoreauvian enlightenment in wildness. Thoreau’s Concord, Kerouac insisted after visiting Walden, was best experienced in “blue aquamarine in October red sereness.”
The last time our country rolled out the red carpet for Thoreau was in 1962, the year “Silent Spring” was published and the 100th anniversary of his death. Kennedy’s secretary of the interior, Stewart Udall, sponsored a remembrance held at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown. The Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas and Robert Frost spoke about Thoreau’s enduring greatness. When Udall squired Frost around the arboretum-like grounds that afternoon, they discussed how Thoreau animated the Yosemite campaign (through Muir) and Cape Cod (through Beston). Frost was on record praising “Walden” as one of his favorite books because it was miraculously “a tale of adventure,” a “declaration of independence” and a “gospel of wisdom” all rolled into one. When Walden Pond came up, however, Frost confessed to Udall that he never visited the Concord sanctuary for fear of heartbreak. “I couldn’t bear to go,” he said. Instead, Frost found the spirit of Thoreau alive in his beloved Green Mountains of Vermont.
So this summer, if, like Frost, you’re looking for Thoreauvian inspiration but feel hemmed in by Concord or intimidated by tourists at Walden, I recommend sojourning to Yosemite or Cape Cod or Katahdin or along one of America’s stupendous rivers. Or, for that matter, your local “township” park. Because Thoreau insisted on the preservation of wildness, we have millions of acres of public lands to explore — and the sanctity of Cape Cod and Katahdin to defend from profiteers and bandits.
Douglas Brinkley is professor of history at Rice University and the author of “Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America.”