Henry David Thoreau is considered by many to be the environmental father of the green movement. As a teacher, scientist, historian, student, author, and naturalist, Thoreau has made a number of contributions to the ecological movement, his most significant including his own personal published reflections on conservation and his search for the meaning of life through the relationship he had with nature. His published works have “helped to launch the American environmental movement that continues to this day,” (Weiner, 30) and understanding Thoreau is key to conservation efforts today. Thoreau offers counsel and example exactly suited for our perilous moment in time: By studying Thoreau and putting his ideals into practice, we can overcome the challenges facing the modern environment.
Henry David Thoreau, disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson, sought isolation and nearness to nature. In his writings he suggests that all living things have rights that humans should recognize, implying that we have a responsibility to respect and care for nature rather than destroying it. Thoreau proclaims, “Every creature is better alive than dead, men moose and pine-trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it” (Neimark, 94).
Centuries of farming, logging, mining, dam building, and rapid population growth have created a serious ecological crisis. Pollution, overpopulation, and deforestation are just a few of the consequences — and they are killing our environment. It is important that humanity transcends it’s centrism and works together to save our environment here on Earth. The Earth is our habitat, our surroundings, everything we interact with. It is home to more than just people – it is home to plants, animals, and microscopic organisms alike, all of which the human race relies on for survival.
Associated with the transcendentalists, Thoreau uses nature to understand the meaning of the soul. Seeking experience, Thoreau uses nature as a tool for learning, making the wilderness his role model and reference point. The language Thoreau chooses creates a comparison between apples and the divine, appealing simultaneously to transcendentalist and religious beliefs. In “Wild Apples” Thoreau reflects on the ethereal quality of apples “which represents their highest value, and which cannot be vulgarized, bought and sold.” (Westling, 141) Similarly, in “Solitude” Thoreau reminds us that one is never alone in solitude with nature, praising the benefits of nature and his deep communion with it.
Transcendentalism of the nineteenth century taught that divinity pervades all nature and humanity; transcendentalism attempts to raise awareness about the existence of nature and the spirituality that pervades in nature, and therefore, the spirituality and nature that exists within the self. Transcendentalism implies movement: an intellectual and spiritual wakening, a rise in consciousness, a transcendence of one’s boundaries. Among the transcendentalists’ core beliefs was the inherent goodness of both people and nature. They believed that society and its institutions (eg. organized religion or political parties) ultimately corrupt the purity of the individual. They have faith that people are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. “Self-reliance” refers mainly to an intellectual independence that makes one capable of generating completely original insights with as little deference paid to past masters as possible.
Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” promotes self-reliance as an ideal, even a virtue. Frustrated with society, he turned “more exclusively than ever to the woods, where I was better known” (Thoreau, 17). Thoreau implies that a of solitude and distance from our neighbors may actually improve our relations with them, but by moving away from town entirely we liberate ourselves from our slavish adherence to society. Self-reliance suggests that we are influenced by our surroundings; therefore, the essential aspect of the person is found in solitude, devoid of outside societal influences. Influenced by Emerson, Thoreau’s selected essays in Walden leads readers through a self-reliant existence, lived in balance with nature and the individual self. In “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” Thoreau asserts his decision to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” (Thoreau, 85). His record of what it means to live a humble, simple existence present a contemporary model for living.
Thoreau’s Walden promotes a philosophy of simplicity derived from Emerson’s philosophy of “self-reliance” that could inspire people to live in better connection with nature and, if followed, that could help to save our planet. It is imperative for people to form an individual bond with nature in order have respect and love for their environment. We must put Thoreau’s ideals into action in order to understand his message better.
Thoreau’s experience at Walden Pond fostered his love for nature and reaffirmed the importance of preserving the wilderness and furthermore living in harmony with nature. His later essays reiterate and reinforce Walden, drawing inspiration from experience.
Thoreau continues to inspire environmentalists who study his principles in an effort to change our current relation to the planet. In modernity, people have shaped nature to fit human environments, which has created an interplay between technological advances and pure nature itself. By studying the writings of Thoreau, we can begin to understand nature and furthermore work in conjunction with nature, rather than in opposition to nature. His writings about the “importance of leaving nature undisturbed, the need for all humans to have contact with nature, and the relationship between humans and other living things” (Neimark, 94) advocates for people to get away from urban, industrialized areas. According to Thoreau, “modern life, whether in the nineteenth or twenty-first century, robs people of their best selves, and strong medicine is needed to restore that sense of individualism” (Weiner, 11). Like his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau not only acknowledges the benefits of humans coexisting with nature. but believes that living in harmony with nature is essential.
Truthfully, the human condition requires some degree of disconnect from the natural world in order to survive in a livable environment, but as humans we have the capacity to form a relationship between the two opposing ideas of human nature and the natural world. The problem in modern society is rooted in the disconnection people have to the natural world. Population growth, increasing pollution, and deforestation are serious problems facing the world today. By studying Thoreau and putting his principles into practice, we could get much closer to reaching equilibrium between humankind and our environment.
The dictionary defines nature not only as “the material world, especially as surrounding humankind and existing independently of human activities,” but also as “the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations.” In other words, nature is everything. Nature is the universe as a whole, in its entirety; to be a human is to be a spiritual being having a human experience. To be human is to be a small part of nature itself — everything and everyone contribute to the never-ending cycle of life and energy that ultimately makes up the universe (nature).
The universe itself and everything it is comprised of, from the smallest grain of sand to the wide expanse of space and each and every human in between, can be considered nature. As humans, we tend to separate nature in our minds, creating some distinction between the outside world and our inner worlds. Human nature has always been inherently disconnected with nature in this sense: we form communities for protection, shelter from the elements, and to share our emotions and experiences. There is a fear embedded deep into the human consciousness — a fear of nature and an inherent need to establish a boundary between the self and nature. Thoreau, inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson, attempts to deconstruct this stigma in an effort to influence people to be “self-reliant,” to embrace their connection to nature, and to create harmony between the outside and inner worlds. Throughout the collected essays in Walden, Thoreau invites us to find a sense of meaning, direction and purpose in life through immediate contact with nature.
Modern ecologists acknowledge the critical need to recognize and address the spiritual dynamics that exist at the root of environmental degradation. In order to resolve issues such as species depletion, global warming, over-consumption, humanity must examine and reassess our relationship to nature and furthermore our responsibility to this planet. The works of Thoreau present us with a social mandate that demands the readership to consider their own relationship with nature and attempts to persuade readers to foster a harmonious balance.
Throughout his works, Thoreau questions his audience, encouraging existential thought and consideration. His methodical questioning forces readers to be introspective and discerning, encouraging and ethical approach to ones engagement with nature. Thoreau has helped readers began to recognize the need for environmental conservation. Of course, Thoreau could never have predicted the severe degree of degradation that our environment currently faces. He preceded his time, thankfully, and has left behind his legacy for us to study as a guide for how to approach environmental conservation.
Thoreau’s essay “Walking” aims to identify the importance of engagement with
Nature, claiming that “in Wildness is the preservation of the world” (Westling, 4). We need to sustain the vital resources that can only be found of the Earth in order to secure our own survival. Humans depend on trees to produce oxygen and clean rainwater to grow healthy food; if our atmosphere gets too polluted, clean air to breathe and food to eat will be seriously threatened. We need to care for the Earth in order to preserve it and us.
Thoreau advocates the “need to get away from urban, industrialized areas” (Neimark, 79), sensing the danger associated with urbanization. Crowded cities contribute to overpopulation, which facilitates overconsumption and pollution. Because we have too many people to feed, we deplete natural resources (like fields for farming), which forces factories to work harder and therefore pollute more. It is a vicious cycle that only creates more problems. In order to save our environment, we must return to wildness as Thoreau suggests.
Thoreau sounded the call for environmental awareness and helped launch a movement that has continued to this day. Twenty-first century environmental issues can be resolved by paying more attention to Thoreau’s practical nineteenth century methodology. Pollution, overpopulation, and deforestation are just a few of the serious issues contributing to the current ecological crisis. Despite the severe amount of degradation that the Earth has suffered in the name of “progress” the works of Thoreau present us with a social mandate that demands the audience to consider their own relationship with nature and attempts to persuade readers to foster a harmonious balance with their environment. By studying Thoreau and putting his ideals into practice, we can overcome the challenges facing the modern environment.
“Nature” Def. 1-7. Merriam Webster Online, Merriam Webster, n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.
Neimark, Peninah, and Peter Rhoades Mott. The Environmental Debate: A documentary
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Weiner, Gary. Social Issues in Literature: The Environment in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.
Farmington Hills: Greenhaven Press, Gale Cengage Learning, 2010. Print.
Westling, Louise, ed. Literature and the Environment. New York: Cambridge University Press,