What Would Thoreau Do?

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Tim Laman
Ice on Walden Pond; from Richard Primack’s Walden Warming

Henry James once called Concord, Massachusetts, “the biggest little place in America,” and for its role in both political and literary history the title is probably forever secure. Concord was the site of the second battle of the American Revolution (and the first victory for the colonials), and a few generations later it witnessed a baffling outbreak of literary virtuosity. The Author’s Ridge in the town’s cemetery is as close to an American Pantheon as we will ever have, with the graves of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau. In any other town Ephraim Bull, the developer of the Concord grape, would have been a local hero, but here he is not much noticed.1

Of these Concordians, I think history tends more and more to favor Thoreau, the least known in his day but whose monumental masterpiece Walden has steadily risen on the list of the greatest books any American has ever produced. And Richard Primack, in Walden Warming, adds to Thoreau’s legacy by highlighting the increasing value of another aspect of his life, one well known to scholars but not so much to casual readers: Thoreau was a remarkable and systematic naturalist. He walked many hours each day across his Concord domain: “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements,” he wrote in his great essay on walking.

The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours…but it is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.

And along with forming the transcendental insights that would power his writing, Thoreau was also assiduous in gathering data: a careful record of the flora and fauna of the region that included, among other things, an almost spreadsheet-like collection of the dates when hundreds of plants first budded out each spring.

Concord is now an affluent Boston suburb, but Primack and his Boston University graduate students have fanned out across the twenty-five-square-mile town (which includes several large tracts of preserved swamp and forest) spring after spring, duplicating Thoreau’s labors. They’ve learned where dozens of rare plants hide, and made sure that they’re on hand to observe their first flowering. The result is one of the best records of the transformative power of global warming—a before-and-after picture of a planet in very rapid transition to a new climatic state.

Take, for instance, the pink lady’s slipper orchid. In 1852, the second spring of his careful record-keeping, Thoreau noted the first open flower on May 28. As Primack points out, this is an easy flower…



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