Nature Bulletin No. 678 May 5, 1962
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
John J. Duffy, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
May 6 is the 100th anniversary of the death of Henry David Thoreau,
the philosopher, poet and writer who worshipped nature and chose to
live as he believed a poet should -- alone and simply, reading great
books, sauntering through the woods, thinking and writing. He was an
eccentric, shy and solitary man who wrote: "I have never found a
companion so companionable as solitude..
Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said that Thoreau had acquaintances but no
friends, summed up his life in these words: "He was bred to no
profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church;
he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to the state; he ate no flesh; he
drank no wine; he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a
naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun. .
Thoreau, the second son of a pencil maker, was born in Concord,
Mass., on July 12, 1817. After graduating from Harvard College in
1837 he returned home to decide upon a career. The professions then
considered suitable for a Harvard man -- ministry, law, medicine and
teaching -- were not attractive and his contempt for commerce and
business men was even greater than that for churches and preachers.
In his account of a trip to Quebec and Montreal -- A Yankee in Canada
-- Thoreau was impressed by the Catholic churches "which you can
enter any day" instead of only on Sunday, as in New England. "Our
forests are such a church, far grander and more sacred.
As for the Protestant churches, here or elsewhere, they did not interest
me, for it is only as caves that churches interest me at all, and in that
respect they were inferior. " On Sundays, when everyone else in
Concord attended church, Thoreau went for a walk by Walden Pond.
In September, 1837, he was engaged as a teacher in the town school,
but because he refused to flog a pupil, resigned after less than a month
of it. Thoreau was a rebel who, like the Mahatma Gandhi, believed in
resistance without violence. His famous essay, Civil Disobedience,
relates how he spent a night in jail because he refused to pay a poll tax
and was released because someone interfered ' and paid it.
He and his brother established an academy in Concord but abandoned it
in 1841. For the next four years he lived in Emerson's home while
employed as a laborer, pencil maker, handyman, tutor to Emerson's
nephew, and lecturer on lyceum platforms. He became convinced that
such jobs took too much of his time; that "To maintain one's self on this
earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely. .
In 1845, Emerson, who owned a wooded tract bordering on Walden
Pond, gave Thoreau permission to use it. Henry borrowed an ax, felled
and hewed some pines, and built a snug cabin that cost him only a bit
(12-1/2¢) more than 28 dollars. He cleared a little patch where he raised
beans, peas, sweet corn, turnips and potatoes. By working at one of his
trades -- he was also a surveyor -- for only six weeks in summer, he
supported himself at an average cost of 27 cents per week.
In his masterpiece -- Walden -- he wrote: "I went to the woods because
I wanted to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and
see if I would not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to
die, discover that I had not lived." His poetic prose will always inspire
us to wonder, when 'The grass flames up on the hillsides like a spring
fire.Why the jailer does not leave open his prison doors . Why the
preacher does not dismiss his congregation ! "
After returning to Emerson's home in 1847, the remainder of his life
was spent in writing, lecturing, some surveying, and a few trips
including one on the Minnesota river, in search of health. When less
than 45 years old, in spite of his outdoor life, he died of tuberculosis.
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Update: June 2012