Next month, July 12, will be the 200th birthday of Henry David Thoreau. The man most remember as just another author read in high school English classes, was in fact an early American man of letters, an archetypal naturalist, and a person both reviled and respected for his moralist posturing. William Howarth, a Thoreau scholar, has taken this opportunity to write of Thoreau’s complexities in the most recent issue of American Scholar (Summer 2017), “Reading Thoreau at 200,” of how in an era in which we value corporate profits over a natural environment that can only offer us sustenance, Thoreau’s work has slipped into disfavor.
Odd how educational thought finds it so easy to draft behind the surges of an overreaching business world, isn’t it? The truth? As Thoreau might have put it, there are connections here, some illusory, some tenuous and prone to expedience, others slowly rooted and out of sight, holding such disparate worldly structures together. Shallow societies neither note nor respect these deeper connections between human society, its technologies and regimens, and the seemingly spontaneous and chaotic natural world.
The further truth? Nature’s constructs do have a sense about them, but they are there playing the long game; they’re in it for the long haul, persisting for millennia uncounted as human societies rise and fall. Maybe this is why we all but declare war on nature, hacking farms into the Amazonian rainforest, filling the atmosphere with our technological offal: we sense our frailty and wish to impose it on the natural world.
But it’s just this situation that eventually compels a human seed to grow within nature, a person such as Thoreau, to walk away from the ways of our human world and return (if only for strategic moments) to the soft-spoken natural world that encompasses everything we do. This may be the only way we can allow ourselves to understand nature, to give a nod to its lessons and perhaps for an occasional brief and shining moment accommodate them within human activity.
This is why I was so enthralled with the subject of my last post, Connie May Fowler’s memoir, A Million Fragile Bones, of her struggles against the Deep Horizon debacle in the Gulf of Mexico, of the manifold ways the gulf’s flora and fauna struggled against this poisoning tide, of how dependent we clearly are on a flourishing natural world.
The world of 200 years ago had a single Thoreau, and this person’s thought helped damp the worst of humanity’s instincts for most of two centuries. The world of the 21st century, however, and despite the passion and drive Ms. Fowler displays in her memoir, will need a thousand of her to accomplish the same balance between us and an environment that helped create us and will likely preside over our eventual passing.
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