Oct 27 2009

Nature’s Economy Part II: Thoreau as Ecologist

by at 11:41 pm

As an “active field ecologist and a philosopher of nature,” much of Henry David Thoreau’s ideas, David Worster asserts, have anticipated modern day ecology (58). This would explain why Worster devotes three full chapters to the Romanticist in his history of ecology.

Thoreau as field ecologist: excavating America’s ecological past

Thoreau meticulously documents the change of seasons in 1852. A self-described “inspector of snowstorms” during the winter of that year, Thoreau documents the coming spring in a “journal of no very wide circulation” (ie: his own private journal) (Worster 59). Thoreau assembles his  very own naturalist library of local flora and fauna and even makes trips into Boston to visit the rooms of the Natural History Society (Worster 59). “The Thoreau of this decade of ramblings, the 1850s,” Worster notes, ” is not nearly so well known today as the man who lived from 1845 to 1847 in a house built at Walden Pond” (61). Hmm, peculiar isn’t it? Questions: Brown’s stint as a translator of a french naturalist text is overlooked, Thoreau’s work as a field ecologist is all but forgotten. Why is this? Is this because of a tradition in the humanities that has cringed from anything related to sciences? Do we not want to think that Brown could have been a naturalist because then we would have to, God forbid, read his scientific writing? Do we choose to forget the scientific productions of these literary figures and philosophers, because it’s, let’s face it, less sexy? In overlooking these works, do we do a disservice to our research? Well, I certainly think so.

Worster makes note of Thoreau’s years after writing Walden. Once again, this sounds similar to the lack of scholarly interest in Brown’s translation:

Unfortunately, no book like Walden emerged from that last decade or so of his short life, and so that continuing and deepening intimacy [with nature] has been widely ignored. But his journal of some two million words should be sufficient proof that  Thoreau himself took these years seriously. It was the time, one might say, of the maturation not only of his science but also of his personal ecological philosophy. Therefore, in interpreting this philosophy here, the principal source of evidence will be the often neglected entries in his journal from the early 1850s until the spring of 1861, when, fatally ill with tuberculosis, he gave up writing altogether. It is not too much to claim that the attitudes toward nature conveyed by Thoreau in these volumes may be his most important legacy to another age. This body of work is also perhaps the best single expression we have of the shift to Romantic ecological thought in England and America (Worster 61).

In Thoreau’s Fact Book, a collection of notes from his reading, he copies long passages from Charles Linneaus, the noted eighteenth-century naturalist. In his journal of 1852, he even includes the following note-to-self: “Read Linneaus at once” (Worster 63). While this doesn’t seem related to my studies, I will sum up the crux of Worster’s argument in two sentences. Worster asserts that  Thoreau saw in nature an overabundance and tendency to wastefulness in contrast to Linneaus’s view of nature as a “careful and tidy economist” (65). Thoreau noted that the mildewing of acorns before they could be eaten exposed, ” a glaring imperfection in Nature, that the labor of the oaks for the year should be lost to this extent” (Worster 65).

Thoreau as ecological historian

Much of Thoreau’s ecological work, Worster argues, stems from his desire to reconstruct America’s not-so-distant ecological past.

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