HDT200

Born two hundred years ago today, David Henry Thoreau entered the world some 182 years after Concord was settled by English colonialists. What a half-way point for America! Concord’s establishment was, by the way, half a dozen years after the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony: the Puritans were reluctant to move inland. At first.

In The Boatman: Henry David Thoreau’s River Years, Robert M. Thorson points out that HDT (who changed the order of his given names after college; some Concordians continued to call him David) spent far more time on the waters of the Sudbury and Assabet and Concord rivers and their sprawling, sometimes flooded meadowlands than in the more famous woods. But more importantly, he argues that the Anthropocene had already commenced! In 182 years, the landscape had already been radically transformed, disrupted, deforested, depopulated (of its original inhabitants, two legged and otherwise). A local battle between farmers and early industrialists over control of the river waters, something Henry was a part of as surveyor, was a piece of this human transformation of the planet, at local and global levels.

In her new biography of Thoreau, Laura Dassow Walls, distilling her own lifetime as a scholar of Thoreau and his times, gives us a majestic life in the round. Her stated aim is a reading of “Thoreau as a writer — for remarkably he made of his life itself an extended form of composition, a kind of open, living book.” And she notes that the two Thoreaus we’ve invented for our own time (the nature writer; the social justice figure) really are one.* “His social activism and his defense of nature sprang from the same roots.” Indeed, a “knot of roots” (the description is Emerson’s).

A knot of roots! Aren’t we all, out here on our little twig on the great shrub of life? And sometimes we’re all a little prickly, too. (That was a tangle of plant metaphors, wasn’t it?) Thoreau was no saint. Who is? The testimony of his longevity and continued relevance, particularly at this moment of crisis in the Republic — indeed, the planet as we know it — is more than enough.Kevin Dann, in his wonderfully quirky Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of HDT wants to co-opt Emerson’s disappointed comment about his one-time protege as nothing more than a leader of a huckleberry party. (Emerson, meanwhile, wends his way to the nihilistic individualism of libertarianism….) Dann says this is precisely the point: get out there and gather huckleberries, real or imagined, and make it a party. (Lately, I’ve been cooking with sour cherries and making peach ice-cream, so I think I’m on the right track.)

*”Saving the world requires saving democracy,” echoes Carl Safina (quoted in Patrick Lynch’s A Field Guide to Long Island Sound, a book impossible to imagine without Thoreau), “That requires well-informed citizens. Conservation, environment, poverty, community, education, family, health, economy — these combine to make one quest: liberty and justice for all. Whether one’s special emphasis is global warming or child welfare, the cause is the same cause. And justice comes from the same place being human comes from: compassion.”

All the Thoreau here at B&B.

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