Happy Birthday, Henry

Note: The Antiplanner wrote the first draft of this article about the Wildness phrase before the New York Times essay mentioned below appeared. A more concise version of this article is available on The American Spectator.

Today marks the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of David Henry Thorough. At least, that’s how his family pronounced their name, though they spelled it Thoreau. While his first name was David, everyone called him Henry, and later he legally changed his name to Henry David.

To commemorate his birthday, the New York Times last week featured a lengthy essay by historian Douglas Brinkley based on a popular misinterpretation of one of Thoreau’s most famous quotes: “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” Brinkley equates “wildness” with “wilderness,” thereby connecting Thoreau with today’s environmental movement. While that’s a mistake I once made myself, in fact that is not what Thoreau meant at all.

Thoreau used the phrase in an 1851 lecture called Walking or “the Wild” that was reprinted by the Atlantic Monthly in 1862, a month after Thoreau died. The article uses the term wildness in three different places.

The speech/article opens, “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted. with a freedom and culture merely civil,–to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.”

On page 6 is written, “The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world. Every tree sends its fibers forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plough and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind.” Notice that he uses wilderness here to mean something different from wildness.

Finally, page 13 says, “In short, all good things are wild and free. There is something in a strain of music, whether produced by an instrument or by the human voice,–take the sound of a bugle in a summer night, for instance,–which by its wildness, to speak without satire, reminds me of the cries emitted by wild beasts in their native forests. It is so much of their wildness as I can understand. Give me for my friends and neighbors wild men, not tame ones. The wildness of the savage is but a faint symbol of the awful ferity with which good men and lovers meet.”

All three quotes make clear that Thoreau regards wilderness as a state of nature, but wildness as a state of humanity. People could have “absolute freedom and wildness” or mere partial “freedom and culture merely civil.” Thoreau appreciated nature not because it was wilderness but because it allowed him and others to be wild. Similarly, he appreciated the West for the same reason, not because it consisted of millions of acres of untracked wilderness.

By wildness, I suspect Thoreau meant people who were unconstrained by conventional mores; people who would speak their minds and act the way they wanted so long as they didn’t harm others. I think of R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural. Of course, everyone thinks that they are the wild ones and it is everyone else who is overly civilized.

Regardless of exactly how he applied wildness to people, the fact that he did at all calls into question the embrace by the environmental movement of Thoreau in support of their own goals. Brinkley’s article treats Thoreau as the inspiration for government actions creating national parks, monuments, wilderness areas, and other natural areas. Yet it isn’t clear Thoreau would support such actions.

Thoreau is best known today as a naturalist–someone who collected and wrote about biological specimens–and for living two years by a pond on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s land. But he was much more than that. He was a school teacher, a civil engineer, a manufacturer, a scientist in the as-yet-unnamed field of ecology, an outspoken critic of slavery, and an advocate of what today might be called anarchism.

Thoreau’s father owned a graphite mine and used the graphite to make pencils. Initially, Thoreau’s pencils weren’t as good as those imported from Europe, but Henry David figured out how to combine clay with graphite to strengthen the lead and provide varying degrees of hardness or softness. This work made Thoreau pencils the finest made in America, and when Henry was in need of funds, he would make a batch of pencils to sell.

The Fitchburg Railroad, which passed Walden Pond, made Concord into a suburb of Boston. Thoreau used his skills as a surveyor to subdivide his neighbors’ properties so they could sell lots to wealthy commuters. Thus, he was one of the earliest contributors to urban sprawl.

He was also motivated by science–true science, not today’s politicized science. The Book That Changed America argues that, of the many great American thinkers who read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species when it was first published, only Thoreau was willing to accept its full implications.

Darwin directly influenced Thoreau’s work, turning him from a naturalist to an ecologist before that term had been coined. Before reading the book, he was content to tramp in the woods and collect specimens. Afterwards, he used what he knew about the forests to develop the theory of plant succession, an idea still being taught in ecology texts today.

The whole idea behind wilderness and national parks is to freeze nature in one particular state. Yet Thoreau understood that natural ecosystems change continuously. As modern-day ecologist Daniel Botkin says, “There is no balance of nature, but we keep acting as if there was.”

Miner, manufacturer, subdivider–not exactly the professions associated with environmentalism today. Unlike today’s environmentalists who are often critical of capitalism, Thoreau relished it. “What recommends commerce to me is its enterprise and bravery,” he wrote. “It does not clasp its hands and pray to Jupiter.” In other words, it is wild.

Nor was Thoreau a supporter of the regulations that today’s environmentalists want to impose on everyone. Government regulators, he wrote, “deserve to be classed and punished with those mischievous persons who put obstructions on the railroads.” Instead of more government, he wanted less. “Government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of the way,” he said.

Sierra Club founder John Muir appreciated Thoreau’s nature writings, but derisively called him “that huckleberry picker” when he realized Thoreau wouldn’t have supported the Sierra Club’s agenda of preservation through government action. Today, the Sierra Club is the epitome of collectivist environmentalism, the idea that only big government can save the planet.

I’m sure Thoreau would support private efforts to preserve wild areas, both for their own sake and to allow him and others to express their Wildness. But he would be more likely to endorse wild people such as Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Steve Jobs than communitarian environmentalists such as David Brower, Carl Pope, and Michael Brune.

“I please myself with imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men.” In this, Thoreau is probably closer to many rural conservatives than to the urban environmentalists of today.

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One thought on “Happy Birthday, Henry

  1. the highwayman

    I think that every town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres, either in one body or several, where a stick would never be cut for fuel, not for the navy, not to make wagons, but stand and decay for higher uses – a common possession for instruction and recreation. -Henry David Thoreau

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