Henry David Thoreau was a pretty brilliant guy, but he didn't feel the need to answer to anyone. When The Advancement of Society asked him what kind of scientist he was, he refused to give a clear response. In his Journal, he writes, "I am a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot" (source). To boot!
Thoreau's refusal to be buttonholed is characteristic of this "wild child" of the American Transcendentalists. The Transcendentalists – proto-hippies, you might say – were a group of writers and thinkers based in Concord, Massachusetts, in the mid-19th century. The leader of the pack was actually Thoreau's pal Ralph Waldo Emerson, who happened to loan him the land by Walden Pond where Thoreau would ultimately commence his personal experiment. Emerson expressed his Transcendentalist philosophy in famous essays like Nature (1836) and "Self-Reliance" (1841), where he promoted such values as individualism, freedom from conformity, and nature as a source of spiritual renewal for mankind.
So what distinguishes Thoreau from Emerson? Well, for the Walden author, it is nature, not man, that takes center stage. Thoreau is often known as the first environmentalist or ecologist. Sure, there were already nature conservationist movements at the time, but Thoreau's Walden (first published as Walden; or Life in the Woods in 1854) was one of the earliest attempts to present these ideas as a coherent philosophy. He embraces the wildness of nature for its own sake and argues that man is obligated to conserve nature – total tree hugger.
Covering the years 1845-1847, Walden explores Thoreau's life in an isolated cabin, with the barest of necessities. ("Bare Necessities" – go ahead and sing it. We'll wait… Okay, ready?) In the book, Thoreau does a lot of observing, watching, and ruminating on nature and its seasonal changes. But he also takes it one step further. He uses his vast knowledge of philosophical and religious texts to turn these observations into answers. In particular, he answers the most universal of questions: what is a good life, and how should we live?
Walden's exquisite descriptions of natural life, with an attention to species-specific detail (and boy, do we mean detail), show us a richness of natural diversity that corresponds to the varieties of human experience. If we could just break out of our habits of conformity and prejudice, Thoreau thinks, the possibilities for living would be endless.
Why Should I Care?
Let's say you are one of those people who just doesn't like nature. Sure, you might appreciate intellectually why there should be national parks, or you might consider yourself environmentally conscious and support environmental causes. But let's face it: grass leaves green smudges on your skinny jeans, it's always either too hot or too cold outside, squirrels can be vicious and annoying, insects bite, and flowers produce sneeze-inducing pollen. Not to mention, you can't go a day – let alone an hour – without plugging into your iPad. After all, there's a reason why we fly on airplanes, talk on cell phones, work at computers, wear nice clothes, and eat chocolate: civilization.
You can see why tree-huggers, granola-munchers, and English majors might enjoy Thoreau's Walden, but – no offense – what's in it for you?
Thoreau, you might be relieved to know, would totally get where you are coming from. He doesn't want his readers to follow the exact same path that he took. That would be missing the point of his entire book. He wants each of his readers to find his or her own unique and original path, and share it with the world. He's after that originality that doesn't necessarily look like originality. Besides, rock 'n' roll rebelliousness is hardly original, is it? Thoreau supports every one of us doing whatever we do really well and being whoever we are to the max. We do what we do for ourselves, and not to please others.
So you know what? If you're not the crunchy type, you may not resonate with Thoreau's bordering-on-obsessive love of and appreciation for nature. Surely, though, there's something you value, something you're passionate about, that can lead you to a fuller understanding of yourself. And we think that Walden might just be able to help you find that something.