It’s the birthday of American author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, tax resister, and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau (books by this author), born in Concord, Massachusetts (1817). After graduating from Harvard, he worked in his father’s pencil factory. He taught for a time, but resigned because he didn’t want to administer corporal punishment. He opened a school with his brother, John, but John caught tetanus after cutting himself shaving and died in Thoreau’s arms.
He went to work for Ralph Waldo Emerson, the poet and leader of the American transcendentalist movement. Thoreau moved into Emerson’s house and tutored his children. After he accidentally burned down 300 acres of woods near Concord, his friend Ellery Channing told him: “Go out upon that, build yourself a hut, and there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive. I see no other alternative, no other hope for you.”
On July 4, 1845, Thoreau entered the woods at Walden Pond near Concord, built a small cabin, and spent two years, two months, and two days listening to whip-poor-wills singing, frogs croaking, and owls hooting. He cultivated beans, ate fish, salt pork, and woodchuck, and spent considerable time pondering which pond was more beautiful: Walden Pond, Flint’s Pond, or White Pond. He always left three chairs ready for visitors. It was a grand experiment: to see if simple self-sufficiency could lead to a greater, more objective understanding of society.
It took almost nine years for Thoreau to complete his book on his experience in the woods. He titled the book Walden; or, A Life in the Woods (1854). The book became the foundation for the future movements of ecology and environmentalism. Thoreau developed a penchant for yoga and Hinduism. He contracted tuberculosis, which set his health back, and after spending a rainy evening counting tree rings on a stump, he developed bronchitis and never recovered. On his deathbed, his Aunt Louise asked if he had made his peace with God. Thoreau replied, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”
In Walden, Thoreau writes: “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”