In the materialistic and prolific America of the 1850s, none of his contemporaries could have imagined that Henry David Thoreau would, a century and a half later, become the guardian ancestor of ecologists, a Zadian icon, even a survival inspiration. In their eyes, this marginal and ascetic Diogenes was more bizarre than prophetic. True, Thoreau did everything for it. Regardless of resisting the aspirations of his time, he summed up his life judgment as follows:not having to take a step; I do not live in this turbulent, nervous and vulgar nineteenth century, but, on the contrary, stand still and meditate while watching it go by”.
From Concord to Walden
Indeed, barely having, without enthusiasm, finished his Harvard studies, Thoreau returned to the small town of Concord where he was born in 1817. 30 kilometers from Boston, Concord is neither the adventurous Wild West, nor the slave of the South. Who hates, but a peaceful community of 2000 inhabitants. Farmers are the most numerous there. His father established a thriving pencil factory there. A railway has run through it since 1844. It has also been a cultural center since Ralph Waldo Emerson resided there and has attracted writers and poets. The first self-proclaimed American thinker, in 1836 he was the author of an essay titled Nature, a statement of philosophy – transcendentalism – which seeks to combine knowledge of self and knowledge of nature in the same approach. Thoreau, who is fifteen years her junior, became her pupil, friend, mentor and tutor to her son. So the meeting is crucial but temporary. He would write it frankly a few years later: “To be a philosopher is not only to nurture hidden ideas, not even to establish a school, but to love wisdom to the point of living according to its requirements.“.Without him the success of great thinkers.”Often a worldly success“.
Two years in the woods
Thoreau is clearly not mundane. Soon it will be demonstrated radically. Judging by the bad, stupid, or useless things his countrymen seek—comfort, novelty, property, wealth, marriage—he puts himself on the margins of society. During the summer of 1844, he settled in the woods, at the edge of the wild Walden Pond, two kilometers from Concord. He built a log cabin and planks there, put a bed, a table, and three chairs, and when winter came, he built a fireplace. All of that, he accurately notes, for a modest $28.12. In the morning, he logs loggers, weeds his grain, bakes his bread, fishes, or wanders through the woods like an Indian on secret paths. In the afternoon, he reads, meditates and observes plants and flowers, marvels at the song of birds, and meditates on the movement of animals. He keeps a diary from which he will draw in a few years Walden, or Life in the Woods, the wonderful account of this unique experience. In the evening, the hermit often breaks his solitude, and goes to dinner at Concorde with his family. Before that, in all weathers, he would return to his shelter in the dark night, guided only by the memory of his steps.
Thoreau read the story of Alexander von Humboldt’s voyage to South America or Charles Darwin’s voyage around the world. Retain a flair for observation and a desire to know all natural phenomena. But not at all that of sailing, which he mocks with humor: “Not worth traveling around the world to go count the Zanzibar catsTo wander in his soul is a more demanding exploration in his eyes. Therefore, the woods of Concord suffice. There he will spend two years, two months and two days, with the seasons of friends.
I wanted to live intensely, to suck the marrow out of life; To live vigorously, and austerely, so that I could root out everything in life that was not life. Every morning was a cheerful call to make sure my life was as simple and innocent as nature itself.
Henry David Thoreau
This retreat is a hymn to nature, a declaration of fusion love. “I go and go in nature with a peculiar freedom, like one of its ingredients. Aren’t they also made partially from organic humus? “ His joy is never so great as to nullify the part of man that is in him to allow his plant, animal, or mineral fibers to express themselves. Some sayings attest to this:We are aware of the presence of an animal within us, both reptilian and sensual“,”I grew up then like corn grows in the nightOr, again, this astonishing, almost hallucinatory, description of the thaw in the pond in the spring, when everything that has been frozen comes back to life, deaf from the ground, gliding and drawing wonderful hieroglyphs in the sand.
This indicates at least that the earth has bowels and that in this too it is the mother of mankind. Earth is not just a tacky bit of dead history, it’s not just made up of layers superimposed like the pages of an old book. The earth is a living hair like leaves.
Henry David Thoreau
Once his demise is complete, a savage is discovered in him, and his cabin is abandoned, Thoreau returns to settle in Concord in the family home. But he will not deviate from his certainty anymore. Man is not the master of nature, only the resident. He has no rights over her, only the duty to understand her language and treat her tenderly; Unlike farmers, these are thieves. Having thoroughly surveyed Walden’s forests—and later, Massachusetts and Maine forests during long trips—he became an expert surveyor, hiring his services for three dollars a day to prepare cadastral surveys, property boundaries, or road layouts. The minimal franchise of a company will continue to criticize him. Tax? He refuses to pay it and spends a day in jail for it. the state? He refuses because he wants to financially force the citizen to support slavery and the war against Mexico in this case. He opposes it with civil disobedience, the title of an essay that would inspire Gandhi or Martin Luther King later.
As for the best government, it is in his eyes that it governs as little as possible and fully respects the supremacy of the individual conscience. But, regarding his experience with nature, he does not intend to preach or propose a model. Individualistic as much as libertarian, concludes curtly, in Walden : “Everyone cares about their own business! “ Before he unleashed this utter bravado in the face of his fellow countrymen: “Explore yourself. And for this task it is necessary to have courage and an eye.”
Thoreau died at the age of 44 of tuberculosis in 1862. Emerson, who had been estranged from him, delivered his eulogy. He had a nice formula: “Thoreau, undoubtedly very wisely for himself, chose to be celibate from intellect and nature.”. He added that his only mistake was “She has no ambition. Others, much later, took care of him for his sake.
To listen again:
Being Right With…Henry David Thoreau
They thought naturea podcast written by Gerard Courtois
- Texts read by Rachel Khan
- Directed by Thomas Dater
- Confused: Ludovic Ogi