In 1839, fifteen years before Walden, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) set out with his brother John to drift and row at leisure up two rivers in northern Massachusetts.
Gradually the village murmur subsided, and we seemed to be embarked on the placid current of our dreams, floating from past to future as silently as one awakes to fresh morning or evening thoughts.
Although the trip with his brother occurred in 1839, Thoreau didn’t write A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers until he was living at Walden and after his brother died. The account is subsequently immediate and somewhat removed, which allows Thoreau ample space to observe and philosophize.
By noon we were let down into the Merrimack through the locks at Middlesex, just above Pawtucket Falls, by a serene and liberal-minded man, who came quietly from his book… With him we had a just and equal encounter of the eyes as between two honest men. The movements of the eyes express the perpetual and unconscious courtesy of the parties.
In this deeply reflective writing, Thoreau considers religion, humanity, government, and wilderness. He tries to make sense of the disruptive Industrial Revolution.1
We often imagine Thoreau to be an anti-society advocate, but that is a modern imposition. As the majority of society ceases to earn a living from the land, we’ve begun to see nature as something we enter or exit, not something with which we coexist.2
Thoreau—like his contemporary Emerson and like Rachel Carson, who wrote Silent Spring a century later—was interested in the threshold of nature, the point at which humans interact—hiking, fishing, hunting etc.—and how to keep that interaction balanced, sustainable.
The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings. To a large extent, the physical form and the habits of the earth’s vegetation and its animal life have been moulded by the environment. […] Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species—man—acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.
From Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
Thoreau went into nature, surely, but he wasn’t a hermit. Thoreau was known to be quite social at Walden (though he tired of the company), and even his sojourn along the Merrimack is primarily focused on people and their societal constructions.3
The small houses, which were scattered along the river at intervals of a mile or more, were commonly out of sight to us, but sometimes when we rowed near the shore, we heard the peevish note of a hen, or some slight domestic sound, which betrayed them. […] These humble dwellings, homely and sincere, in which a hearth was still the essential part, were more pleasing to our eyes than palaces or castles would have been.
Humility and austerity were critical features of the Transcendental movement—aspects that are often overlooked in favor of the more splashy environmental aspects.
Transcendentalists believed humans can figuratively transcend our daily lives and habits to a higher atmosphere, to something eternal, to something outside our existence. Thoreau called it a great “Something.” Many words have been used for this (a few are gathered in A Singular Focus on the Eternal). Nature was a primary catalyst for such transcendence.
Thoreau varies his pace and his view. Moving deftly from the infinite to the immediate. I particularly liked a passage where he gazes upon those who came before. 4
It is a wild and antiquated looking grave-yard, overgrown with bushes, on the high road, about a quarter of a mile from and overlooking the Merrimack, with deserted mill stream bounding it on one side, where lie the earthly remains of the ancient inhabitants of Dunstable. […] You read the names of Lovewell, Farwell, and many others whose families were distinguished in Indian warfare. We noticed there two large masses of granite more than a foot thick and rudely squared, lying flat on the ground over the remains of the first pastor and his wife. It is remarkable that the dead lie everywhere under stones.
Both Thoreau and Emerson are buried in Concord, Massachusetts, marked by well-visited stones. Will they always be remembered? Thoreau noted, “I have seen how the foundations of the world are laid, and I have not the least doubt that it will stand a good while.” Now that he’s part of the foundation, I can’t help but agree.
I turn to Emerson and Thoreau frequently for insight, comfort. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, especially. I wonder how these men would react to today’s world. The belief that man’s dignity was rooted in his associations with nature was a core value of the U. S. Founding Fathers and in 19th-century Transcendentalism.
I think if Thoreau were alive today, the loss of that association—that people can exist without connection or care for nature—would sadden him most.
Accompany this contemplation of the flux of all things with a read of Wendell Berry’s case for our harmony with nature, Emma Mitchell’s diary to the healing powers of nature, and my own observations of the observations of insects.