The Puritans of today’s environmental movement, the ecocentrists, have recently made Henry Thoreau their patron saint. The defense of the environment, they believe, requires us to adopt a wholly new way of thinking about our relations with nature. First, they argue, we must abandon the delusory notion that humanity’s chief reason for protecting the environment is its usefulness to itself; second, we must adopt an ecocentric ethic like that embodied in Thoreau’s later work, which calls for a commitment to live lightly on the earth, to restrict the scope of technological innovation and intervention, and to treat all forms of life and all parts of the nonhuman world responsibly, and with reverence and care.

In recent years, Thoreau’s life and work have been reassessed in light of his controversial mid-career change of outlook and method. Formerly most scholars had deplored Thoreau’s shift, around 1850-1851, from a poetic to an empirical or, as he put it, a “distinct and scientific” way of depicting nature. But today’s radical environmentalists see that shift as a major step forward, leading as it did to the ecocentric nature writing of the great Journal, and of the late natural history manuscripts like those recently published in Faith in a Seed (1993).

But today’s ecological revisionism raises some difficult questions. How, for example, did Thoreau’s shift of outlook affect the composition of Walden? We know that he was still working on the book in 1852 and 1853, long after he had changed the style of his Journal entries. Does that change also make itself felt in Walden? If it does, to what extent does it alter the book’s coherence? How does it affect nature writing? Is it the case, as some scholars contend, that Walden is flawed by the deep incompatibility between the two stories it tells: one about the pleasure Thoreau takes in the natural world, the other about his anger at the social world?

These questions go to the heart of Lawrence Buell’s recent study, The Environmental Imagination. An avowed ecocentrist and professor of English at Harvard, Buell concentrates on Thoreau and Walden to examine the implications of ecocentrism for literature and “humanistic thought generally.” An intermittently trenchant and pedantic work, it is impossible to categorize, but Buell’s fervent ecocentrism infuses it with a consistency of purpose. Quoting then Senator Albert Gore’s statement that “we must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization,” Buell would enlist writers and humanistic scholars in an urgent rescue operation. Since, as he believes, the crisis originates in consciousness, the work of writers surely can help to ameliorate it. In fact, he reminds us, American writers began creating a rich body of environmentally conscious literature some two centuries ago. Now it is up to us “to look searchingly” at that body of writing with a view to finding “better ways of imaging nature and humanity’s relation to it.”

The Environmental Imagination is, among other things, a handbook on nature writing. Buell addresses a variety of historical, theoretical, and formal questions, such as the various methods of depicting place; environmental apocalypticism; the personification of nature; resemblances between the dream of New World nature in American literature and in other “settler cultures,” such as Canada, Australia, and South Africa. He devotes one of the three main sections of his book to a detailed account of the “canonization” of Walden. This section, a virtually self-contained monograph, is conventional literary history of the kind Buell practiced effectively in his two previous books about New England literary culture.1 What are the implications for literature, Buell asks, of the “turn to nature” in politics, the arts, and the collective imagination? How will literature change as writers come to believe, at a truly visceral level, that human experience is inseparable from the all-inclusive and complex interconnected biophysical process? Buell foresees the day when representing nonhuman nature will be a central literary subject “in its own right.”

For a work to qualify as an “environmental text” it is not enough, Buell maintains, for the natural environment to be a prop, the way landscape images serve as backdrops in realistic novels; it must be an active presence—as it is in, say, E.M. Forster’s Passage to India, where the echo chambers of the Marabar Caves serve to confirm and reinforce the Anglo-Indian characters’ sense of the emptiness of Indian culture. (Other novelists who presumably would meet Buell’s test are Cooper, Hardy, Tolstoy, Lawrence, Cather, and Faulkner.) In the ideal work, according to Buell, nature is an ever-present, ever-changing web in which humanity is forever entangled, and the specifically human interest is no more the only interest than it is in, say, Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” where the presumed death of a bird helps to transform the boy observer’s consciousness into that of a mature poet.


In view of the centrality of man’s relations with nature in “classic” American literature, Buell is outraged by the “marginalization” of nature writing in the study of literature. What he finds especially valuable about good nature writing—exhibited by such modern American practitioners as Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, or Peter Matthiessen, or by their precursors William Bartram, Susan Fenimore Cooper, John Burroughs, Mary Austin, John Muir, or Aldo Leopold—is the strong bond it creates between readers and the natural world. Nature writing, he believes, is the literary genre of choice for writers of an ecocentric persuasion and, as Rachel Carson demonstrated, it can be a potent weapon in the defense of the environment.

When he moved to the pond in 1845, Thoreau was neither a nature writer nor an ecocentrist, and Buell reads Walden as a record of the process by which he became both. Then, too, Buell has a personal attachment to the book, for he attributes his initial responsiveness to nature as well as his decision to teach American literature to his lifelong engagement with Walden. Since then he has acquired a Talmudic mastery of Thoreauvian minutiae and of the immense corpus of Thoreau scholarship.

Walden is for him the outstanding model of the intellectual and spiritual reorientation that the environmental crisis demands of all of us. Despite patches of jargon and some arid theorizing, Buell’s identification with Thoreau infuses his book with moral urgency. For him Walden is the record of an

always somewhat conflicted odyssey of reorientation, such as I myself have begun to undergo in recent years, such as it seems American culture has been undergoing, such as I am asking the reader to undergo by reconsidering the place of the environment in our conventions of reading and writing.

The Puritans called evangelizing works like The Environmental Imagination, written with a calculated design on the souls of their readers, “converting ordinances.”

Yet, in spite of Buell’s ardor, Walden is not what he would like it to be. Its subject is not the representation of nature “for its own sake”; nor is it primarily a work of nature writing. It is a pastoral, and despite their superficial similarities the two kinds of writing are quite different, in some ways antipathetic. For some two millennia, beginning with the work of two poets of antiquity, Theocritus (third century BC) and Virgil (first century BC), the pastoral in literature had portrayed the idealized lives of shepherds, its one constant feature being the contrast, explicit or implied, between their simple ways and the complex worldly lives led by courtiers and city dwellers. Although herdsmen lived in particularly close relations with nature, the literal representation of the nonhuman world rarely if ever had been a part of pastoral.

This distinction between pastoral and nature writing may help to explain why Buell, after years of study, is also perplexed by Walden’s uncommonly strong hold upon him. “No other book I have lived with for so long a period,” he admits, “has so resisted my power to explain what it is about it that matters to me.”

Some of the difficulty lies with Walden itself, with the ambiguous way, for example, that it initially invites, but then resists, being read as a book about nature. The original title, Walden, or, Life in the Woods,2 reinforced that expectation, and so, except for one telling remark, does the capsule preview of the plot with which it begins:

When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.3

The matter-of-fact voice makes it easy to miss the oddness of Thoreau’s choice of a site for his experiment in solitary living. So does his remark that he has returned to “civilized life” again, as if he, like the narrator of Melville’s Typee (1846), had been off in the Pacific living with cannibals. In fact, the parcel of Emerson’s land on which he lived for twenty-six months was only a mile or so from Concord, and it was tightly bounded by the new tracks of the Fitchburg railroad and the Walden Road. A prelude to a strain of self-parody that runs through the book, the mock heroism, intimates that a remote wilderness setting would not have suited Thoreau’s purpose. (In 1845 many such places were within easy reach.) He clearly did not intend to exclude the ordinary life of Concord.


Thoreau was no less interested in society than in nature. He frames Walden with chapters of caustic commentary on the quality of American life in “this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century,” and he repeatedly juxtaposes chapters about his life at the pond with chapters on the lives led by his Concord neighbors. In one of his more revealing statements of purpose, he surmises that “it would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of outward civilization, if only to learn what are the gross necessaries of life” (my emphasis). Throughout the book he sustains the contrast between the two ways of life, each exemplifying a radically different set of relations with nature. Walden, in short, is a distinctively American version of pastoral.

Because pastoral is an anthropocentric form, Buell cannot reconcile it with his view of Walden as a record of Thoreau’s “odyssey of reorientation” toward ecocentrism. In the curious passage that begins the first chapter he writes,

I start with the subject of pastoral for “pastoral” has become almost synonymous with the idea of (re)turn to a less urbanized, more “natural” state of existence. Indeed this entire book, in focusing on art’s capacity to image and to remythify the natural environment, is itself a kind of pastoral project.

As this diluted conception of pastoral suggests, Buell is bent on accommodating it to ecocentrism. “To what extent,” he asks, “is the ambiguous legacy of western pastoralism adaptable to an environmental end?” In answering the question, however, he glosses over the origin of pastoral and its attributes, concluding that “pastoral representation cannot be pinned to a single ideological position.”

My impression is that while most scholars now assume that the pastoral mode, like the tragic, comic, or epic modes, may serve as a vehicle for the expression of various ideologies, they do not regard the pastoral mode as constituting a distinct ideology. While Buell concedes that the ideological efficacy of pastoral has been negligible, he claims that it has served as a “bridge” in humanity’s progression from its benighted anthropocentric past to its ecocentric future. In effect, his claim for the “ecocentric repossession of pastoral” leads to his proposal, tucked away in an endnote, to dispense entirely with the term “pastoral,” collapsing it into the un-anthropocentric term “naturism.”4

In Buell’s most comprehensive discussion of Walden, “Walden’s Environmental Projects,” he defines six “projects” that serve to make the book a key environmental text: its pastoralism; its inquest into the correspondence between the natural and spiritual; Thoreau’s pursuit of the frugal life; his interest in natural history and landscape aesthetics; and his effort to promote social reflection and change. But slicing the text up into six arbitrarily contrived “projects” hardly accomplishes Buell’s purpose. Instead, it fragments the book and minimizes the order imposed by its controlling principle: the contrast, hallmark of pastoral, between two ways of life, each exemplified by a distinctive set of relations between humanity and nature.

To his credit, however, Buell persuasively shows that Walden does bear the imprint of Thoreau’s turn toward a closer relation with nature in mid-career. In 1851, after all, when Thoreau himself acknowledged this change, he had yet to complete almost half of the work on Walden. Buell provides fresh textual evidence of that change. Critics hitherto had recognized the increased importance that Thoreau gave to the seasonal cycle in later revisions of the manuscript,5 but now Buell presents fresh textual evidence of a corresponding shift of emphasis from his own person to the natural world, and of his heightened sense of “moral accountability toward nonhuman creatures.”6

And yet, granted that Thoreau’s change of outlook can be detected in the last segments of Walden he wrote, the fact remains that its controlling thematic and formal structure had been firmly set in the first (1846-1847) draft,7 and that Thoreau’s later shifts of emphasis did not effect a major change in its overall design. Nor did they affect the political bias manifest in Thoreau’s satiric assault, in the opening pages, on the citizens and institutions of Concord. Indeed, almost everything he wrote between 1845 and 1849, when he conducted his experiment at the pond and spent his night in jail, was informed by an intense awareness of the social and cultural costs of the transition to industrial capitalism. It was then, of course, that he wrote “Economy,” Walden’s politically charged opening chapter, as well as “Civil Disobedience,” and that he joined anticapitalist satire and pastoral.

The way had been prepared by the great eighteenth-century transformation of pastoral. After the Renaissance, when pastoral poetry, drama, painting, and music had enjoyed an unprecedented burst of popularity, the moral and aesthetic resources of the shepherd convention became all but totally exhausted. By the 1770s, the depiction of shepherds, flocks, and flutes had been carried to ridiculous extremes of preciosity. The pastoral mode had become virtually moribund. At the same time, the new science was making available far more credible and realistic ways of representing the nonhuman world. With Romanticism and the new interest in depicting the actual lives of countrymen, the survival of pastoral became uncertain.

Today, however, many scholars believe that pastoral fantasies not only survived the demise of the shepherd, but thrived.8 The shepherd himself soon reappeared in a variety of new guises: Rousseau’s innocent savages and children, Jefferson’s noble husbandman, Wordsworth’s country folk, Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, and of course the narrator-hero of Walden, who instructs his readers to “Simplify! Simplify!” and who is a fastidious recorder of natural facts and a critic of emerging industrial capitalism.

Thoreau’s dissident politics antedated his reverence for nature. As early as 1837, in the “part” he wrote for delivery at his Harvard Commencement, “The commercial spirit of modern times,” he warns his classmates that the spirit of commerce, wherever it exists, is “sure to become the ruling spirit, and…[that] it infuses into all our thoughts and affections a degree of its own selfishness”9 (Thoreau’s emphasis). By the time he composed the first draft of Walden, about eight years later, the former Commencement speaker had turned his moral abstractions into a lurid depiction of the behavioral deformations induced by the commercial spirit.

It is very evident what mean and sneaking lives many of you live, always on the limits, trying to get into business and trying to get out of debt…Seeking to curry favor, to get custom by how many modes only not state prison offenses—lying, flattering, voting, contracting yourselves into a nutshell of civility, or dilating into an atmosphere of thin and vaporous generosity that you may persuade your neighbor to let you make his shoes or his hat or his coat or his carriage or import his groceries for him.10

In the 1990s, with the vast expansion of the commercial spirit in America, Thoreau’s inspired contempt for the shallowness of a money-fixated culture helps to explain—and even to extend—Walden’s enduring pertinence. Less obvious, however, is the degree to which the essential pastoral contrast between the two ways of life heightens its political power. The continuous juxtaposition of the “mean and sneaking” ways of his Concord neighbors with the simplified life he lives “closer” to nature, and the question that juxtaposition raises—where does nature end and culture begin?—account for much of Walden’s capacity to enlist its readers in the defense of the environment.

Take, for example, the awareness of environmental degradation in the central chapter, “The Ponds.” As Thoreau observes in his other chapter on the pond, “The Pond in Winter,” this enchanting body of water “was made deep and pure for a symbol.” Transparency is a physical attribute of special value, for it makes the pond, unlike other features of the landscape, penetrable by the human eye and intellect. At one point, Thoreau recalls a somber November afternoon when, in the calm following a rainstorm, he saw here and there in the distance a faint glimmer.

Paddling gently to one of those places, I was surprised to find myself surrounded by myriads of small perch, about five inches long, of a rich brown color in the green water, sporting there and constantly rising to the surface and dimpling it, sometimes leaving bubbles on it. In such transparent and seemingly bottomless water, reflecting the clouds, I seemed to be floating through the air as in a balloon, and their swimming impressed me as a kind of flight or hovering, as if they were a compact flock of birds passing just beneath my level on the right or left, their fins, like sails, set all around them.

This is a particularly vivid display of Thoreau’s sensitivity to the interplay of phenomena—fish, water, colors, clouds, light, and shadows, sensations that compose a commonplace natural event. It reveals, too, his ability to come up with a single figure to convey the response of his whole being: “I seemed to be floating through the air.” As in similar passages in Walden, this transcends the conventional subject/ object model of the human relation with nature, ending with Thoreau having attained, as it were, a third state that embraces both.

This also may be said of many of Thoreau’s self-contained Journal entries, but in Walden such accounts of immediate sensory experiences are intensified by the discordant effect of an impinging society. In “The Ponds” Thoreau takes note of the woodchoppers who have laid bare stretches of shoreline, and the “ear-rending neigh” of the passing train heard “throughout the town.” The strident whistle of the train intermittently suggests the ultimate inseparability of each domain and invests Thoreau’s evocation of natural beauty with its environmental point. Walden Pond, it should be said, is only one of several ponds that figure in “The Ponds,” and Thoreau ends the chapter with a fierce account of a pond named by a greedy farmer called Flint.

“Flint’s Pond!” Thoreau begins. “What right had the unclean and stupid farmer, whose farm abutted on this sky water, whose shores he has ruthlessly laid bare, to give his name to it?” The thought of Flint’s depredations, following the lyrical evocation of the purity of the pond, provokes an outburst of detestation even more extreme than the caricature of Concord’s money-obsessed inhabitants.

Some skin-flint, who loved better the reflecting surface of a dollar, or a bright cent…who regarded even the wild ducks which settled in it as trespassers; his fingers grown into crooked and horny talons from the long habit of grasping harpy-like…

In concluding his diatribe (not mentioned by Buell), Thoreau makes Flint a prototype, not unlike Faulkner’s Snopeses, of the commercial rapacity that threatens to destroy land and water.

Rather let…[Flint’s Pond] be named for the fishes that swim in it, the wild fowl or quadrupeds which frequent it, the wild flowers which grow by its shores, or some wild man or child the thread of whose history is interwoven with its own; not from him…who thought only of its money value; …who exhausted the land around it, and would fain have exhausted the waters within it;…and would have drained and sold it for the mud at its bottom.

“The Ponds” shows how the pastoral mode, with its emphasis on the opposed relations between human and nonhuman nature, can serve to spur the environmental conscience. And, by the same token, the chapter calls into question Buell’s belief in the superiority of unalloyed, which is to say, apolitical, nature writing. He misses the extent to which the lyrical quality of the nature writing in “The Ponds” is intensified by the force of Thoreau’s socially framed attack on Flint, and, by implication, the cultural hollowness of the emerging economic order. Instead, The Environmental Imagination is filled with gratuitous, free-floating pejorative references to cities, technology, progress. But nowhere does Buell more clearly reveal the distorting effect of his ecocentric bias than in his cursory dismissal of another great nineteenth-century American work, Moby Dick; its environmental significance is negligible, he implies, because “Melville’s interest in whales was subordinate to his interest in whaling.”


A disregard of humanity’s unique place in nature is the central flaw of much environmental, and especially ecocentric, writing. It is manifest in the recoil from anthropocentric thinking, and in the ambiguous use of the idea of “nature” to mean an entity that either includes or excludes humanity, or that suggests both at once. Some writers, notably the distinguished environmental historian William Cronon, recently have reclaimed the distinction, favored by Hegel and Marx, between “first nature” and “second nature.” The former is the original nonhuman world, as it existed without Homo sapiens, and the latter is the artificial environment humanity has superimposed upon it. By invoking this distinction these writers have retained the idea of a single, subdivided if hypothetically unified, realm of nature while simultaneously acknowledging the unmatched power of one species to superimpose on it an all-encompassing material and cultural environment of its own making.11 The unambiguous distinction between “first nature” and “second nature” is helpful in sorting out some of the confusions surrounding recent revisionist Thoreau scholarship.

The argument in support of Thoreau’s status as a patron saint of ecocentrism exaggerates the extent, and the significance, of the change in his attitude toward science. For Thoreau, as for Emerson (and many other adherents of Romanticism), the study of nature had always been both a scientific and a religious task. In his youth, the practice of science had not yet become an established vocation, and in fact the term “scientist” was coined while he was in college. He never changed his mind about the unitary design of the cosmos. Much has been written about Thoreau’s evolving view of science, and his steadily growing interest in the work of leading contemporary theorists and practitioners of evolutionary biology, notably Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin, is well established. But there are good reasons for skepticism about his ever having been involved in what Gary Nabhan, in his foreword to Faith in a Seed, calls “purely scientific inquiry.” As Thoreau famously observed in the Journal in 1853, after turning down an invitation to join the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he would make himself “the laughing stock of the scientific community” if he described the kind of science that specially interested him, for “they do not believe in a science which deals with the higher law…. The fact is I am a mystic—a transcendentalist—& a natural philosopher to boot.” There is no evidence that he ever became anything else.

But then which new scientific idea,if any, figured in the change in Thoreau’s outlook in 1851? Laura Dassow Walls, in her 1995 study Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science, provides the most persuasive explanation I know, which is also consistent with Thoreau’s own words. His dilemma, she writes, was to retain his faith in the idea of nature as “one great whole” in the face of the increasingly empirical character of his ideas and his writings. His was not a conventional romantic transition from a predominantly mechanistic to a predominantly organicist view of the universe, entailing a new conception of the relationship between the observation of discrete facts and the largest truths. According to Walls, he had begun as a “rational holist,” conceiving of the cosmos as a transcendent unity apprehendable only through the exercise of thought. But after his experience as an amateur naturalist and as an admiring reader of Darwin and von Humboldt (among many others), he had become an “empirical holist.” He then set out to apprehend the whole by closely observing the interconnections of its constituent parts.

It is true that the Journal is a masterpiece of proto-ecocentric nature writing, but it isn’t a step closer to ultimate veracity than Walden. One cannot help feeling, in fact, that the anxiety Thoreau expressed in 1851 was justified. As his knowledge became “more distinct & scientific,” it also had been “narrowed down.” As he feared, his greater ability to see details meant a decreasing ability to see the “whole.” Most of the details recorded in the Journal belong to “first nature,” whereas the whole, as he conveys it in Walden, comprises the far more complex and meaningful relations between “first” and “second” nature.

It is important, finally, to recall the route by which Thoreau arrived at the views that shaped Walden. By the time he graduated from Harvard he had already formed a principled disdain for the selfish, acquisitive ethos propagated by industrial capitalism. In his first draft, composed during his 1845-1847 stay at the pond, he drew extensively on the dissident spirit of the socialist, utopian, and reformist movements of the 1840s. That quintessentially protestant spirit energizes his satiric account in “Economy,” Walden’s opening chapter, of his busy, covetous Concord neighbors, and it makes itself felt throughout the book in such passages as the acerbic portrait of the farmer Flint, whose greed exemplifies the economic motives for degrading the environment, and in his dismissive summary, in the “Conclusion,” of the trivial preoccupations of the nineteenth century.

Thoreau’s politics are no less significant as a formative unifying aspect of Walden than his concern for the integrity of the nonhuman world. Though the change in 1851 was expressed in the elegant, spare, precise nature writing that distinguishes the Journal of the next few years, and though it led to some diminution of the anthropocentric—one might say egocentric—tone of Walden’s last few chapters, it did not significantly alter the overall import of that masterwork. Indeed much of the book’s greatness derives from Thoreau’s unique way of connecting his observations of the political and the biological—of second with first nature. It is our good fortune that he had conceived of Walden while he was still drawn to the larger and riskier project, before so wholly committing himself to nature writing and its spiritual corollary, the quest for purification.

—This is the second of two articles.

This Issue

July 15, 1999