Environmental Writing Since Thoreau
By Bill McKibben


Copyright © 2008 Literary Classics of the United States, New York, NY.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59853-020-9

Chapter One


Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was born, grew up, lived out his life, and died in Concord, Massachusetts. He studied at Harvard from 1833 to 1837, then signed on as a teacher at Concord Academy but was dismissed for refusing to whip students. He and his brother John opened an elementary school in 1838, where, according to some authorities, they invented the idea of the field trip. John became sick in 1841 and the brothers closed the school; Henry went to live with Ralph Waldo Emerson, beginning a long friendship with him and with the other members of the Transcendental Club, among them Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller. The other transcendentalists experimented with communes like Brook Farm, but Thoreau was more solitary, and the most important years in his life began in 1845 when he took up residence in a small cabin he'd built on the shore of Walden Pond a short walk from town. He spent two years, two months, and two days there, experimenting with simplifying his life. Thorean's isolation at Walden wasn't absolute or deliberately ascetic-he often returned to town to see friends and eat meals, had a steady stream of visitors (often too steady for his taste), and at one point engaged in a political protest, spending a night in Concord jail for his refusal to pay his poll tax. But it was notably productive: he returned to town with the draft of one book (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers) and the notes that he would spend the next six years turning into Walden (1854), perhaps the most remarkable book in the American canon. As dense as scripture, crowded with aphorism, Walden is full of enough ideas for a score of ordinary books. But it has lived as long and as fully as any other writing of its vintage and inspired all the best kinds of people: both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. claimed him as a major influence. Thoreau suffered from tuberculosis contracted during his college years: his condition worsened beginning in 1859, and he spent his last years revising his accounts of the Maine woods and other works. As he neared death his aunt Louisa asked him if he had made his peace with God. "I did not know we had ever quarreled," he said. He died at the age of 44.

Picking a few fragments from his writings is an impossible task: an anthology of American environmental writing might well be one-third Thoreau. Here are a few entries from his copious journals, and then the description from Walden of the building of the famous cabin. "Huckleberries," a late essay or lecture-text, shows the modern nature essay being born, with a small root giving way to a luxuriant growth of thought and speculation.

from Journals

Oct. 24th 1837.

The Mould our Deeds Leave.

Every part of nature teaches that the passing away of one life is the making room for another. The oak dies down to the ground, leaving within its rind a rich virgin mould, which will impart a vigorous life to an infant forest - - The pine leaves a sandy and sterile soil-the harder woods a strong and fruitful mould. - -

So this constant abrasion and decay makes the soil of my future growth. As I live now so shall I reap. If I grow pines and birches, my virgin mould will not sustain the oak, but pines and birches, or, perchance, weeds and brambles, will constitute my second growth. - -

March 6th 1838

- - How can a man sit down and quietly pare his nails, while the earth goes gyrating ahead amid such a din of sphere music, whirling him along about her axis some twenty four thousand miles between sun and sun? but mainly in a circle some two millions of miles actual progress. And then such a hurly-burly on the surface-wind always blowing-now a zephyr, now a hurricane-tides never idle, ever fluctuating, no rest for Niagara, but perpetual ran-tan on those limestone rocks-and then that summer simmering which our ears are used to-which would otherwise be christened confusion worse confounded, but is now ironically called "silence audible"-and above all the incessant tinkering named hum of industry-the hurrying to and fro and confused jabbering of men-Can man do less than get up and shake himself?

April 24th 1838.

Steam ships

-Men have been contriving new means and modes of motion-Steam ships have been westering during these late days and nights on the Atlantic waves-the fuglers of a new evolution to this generation - - Meanwhile plants spring silently by the brook sides-and the grim woods wave indifferent-the earth emits no howl pot on fire simmers and seethes and men go about their business. - -

Saturday March 19th 1842

When I walk in the fields of Concord and meditate on the destiny of this prosperous slip of the Saxon family-the unexhausted energies of this new country-I forget that this which is now Concord was once Musketaquid and that the American race has had its destiny also. Everywhere in the fields-in the corn and grain land-the earth is strewn with the relics of a race which has vanished as completely as if trodden in with the earth.

I find it good to remember the eternity behind me as well as the eternity before. Where ever I go I tread in the tracks of the Indian-I pick up the bolt which he has but just dropped at my feet. And if I consider destiny I am on his trail. I scatter his hearth stones with my feet, and pick out of the embers of his fire the simple but enduring implements of the wigwam and the chace-In planting my corn in the same furrow which yielded its increase to his support so long-I displace some memorial of him.

I have been walking this afternoon over a pleasant field planted with winter rye-near the house. Where this strange people once had their dwelling place. Another species of mortal men but little less wild to me than the musquash they hunted-Strange spirits-daemons-whose eyes could never meet mine. With another nature-and another fate than mine- The crows flew over the edge of the woods, and wheeling over my head seemed to rebuke-as dark winged spirits more akin to the Indian than I. Perhaps only the present disguise of the Indian- If the new has a meaning so has the old.

Nature has her russet hues as well as green-Indeed our eye splits on every object, and we can as well take one path as the other-If I consider its history it is old-if its destiny it is new-I may see a part of an object or the whole-I will not be imposed on and think nature is old, because the season is advanced I will study the botany of the mosses and fungi on the decayed-and remember that decayed wood is not old, but has just begun to be what it is. I need not think of the pine almond or the acorn and sapling when I meet the fallen pine or oak-more than of the generations of pines and oaks which have fed the young tree.

The new blade of the corn-the third leaf of the melon-these are not green but gray with time, but sere in respect of time.

September 12, 1851

2 PM To the Three Friends' Hill beyond Flints Pond-via RR. RWEs Wood Path S side Walden-Geo Heywood's Cleared Lot & Smith's orchards-return via E of Flints' P via Goose P & my old home to RR-

I go to Flints P. for the sake of the Mt view from the hill beyond looking over Concord. I have thought it the best especially in the winter which I can get in this neighborhood. It is worth the while to see the Mts in the horizon once a day. I have thus seen some earth which corresponds to my least earthly & trivial-to my most heaven-ward looking thoughts-The earth seen through an azure an etherial veil. They are the natural temples elevated brows of the earth-looking at which the thoughts of the beholder are naturally elevated and etherialized. I wish to see the earth through the medium of much air or heaven-for there is no paint like the air. Mts thus seen are worthy of worship. I go to Flints' Pond also to see a rippling lake & a reedy-island in its midst-Reed Island.

A man should feed his senses with the best that the land affords

At the entrance to the Deep Cut I heard the telegraph wire vibrating like an ��olian Harp. It reminded me suddenly-reservedly with a beautiful paucity of communication-even silently, such was its effect on my thoughts-It reminded me, I say, with a certain pathetic moderation-of what finer & deeper stirrings I was susceptible-which grandly set all argument & dispute aside- -a triumphant though transient exhibition of the truth. It told me by the faintest imaginable strain-it told me by the finest strain that a human ear can hear-yet conclusively & past all refutation-that there were higher infinitely higher plains of life-which it behoved me never to forget. As I was entering the Deep Cut the wind which was conveying a message to me from heaven dropt it on the wire of the telegraph which it vibrated as it past. I instantly sat down on a stone at the foot of the telegraph pole-& attended to the communication. It merely said "Bear in mind, Child & never for an instant forget-that there are higher plains infinitely higher plains of life than this thou art now travelling on. Know that the goal is distant & is upward and is worthy all your life's efforts to attain to." And then it ceased and though I sat some minutes longer I heard nothing more.

There is every variety & degree of inspiration from mere fullness of life to the most rapt mood. A human soul is played on even as this wire-which now vibrates slowly & gently so that the passer can hardly hear it & anon the sound swells & vibrates with such intensity as if it would rend the wire-as far as the elasticity & tension of the wire permits-and now it dies away and is silent-& though the breeze continues to sweep over it, no strain comes from it-& the traveller hearkens in vain. It is no small gain to have this wire stretched through Concord though there may be no Office here. Thus I make my own use of the telegraph-without consulting the Directors-like the sparrows which I perceive use it extensively for a perch.

Shall I not go to this office to hear if there is any communication for me-as steadily as to the Post office in the village?

Tuesday Dec 30th

Mem. Go to the Deep Cut. The flies now crawl forth from the crevices all covered with dust, dreaming of summer-without life or energy enough to clean their wings

This afternoon being on fair Haven Hill I heard the sound of a saw-and soon after from the cliff saw two men sawing down a noble pine beneath about 40 rods off. I resolved to watch it till it fell-the last of a dozen or more which were left when the forest was cut and for 15 years have waved in solitary majesty over the sproutland. I saw them like beavers or insects gnawing at the trunk of this noble tree, the diminutive mannikins with their crosscut saw which could scarcely span it. It towered up a hundred feet as I afterward found by measurement-one of the tallest probably now in the township & straight as an arrow, but slanting a little toward the hill side.-its top seen against the frozen river & the hills of Conantum. I watch closely to see when it begins to move. Now the sawers stop-and with an axe open it a little on the side toward which it leans that it may break the faster. And now their saw goes again-Now surely it is going-it is inclined one quarter of the quadrant, and breathless I expect its crashing fall-But no I was mistaken it has not moved an inch, it stands at the same angle as at first. It is 15 minutes yet to its fall. Still its branches wave in the wind as if it were destined to stand for a century, and the wind soughs through its needles as of yore; it is still a forest tree-the most majestic tree that waves over Musketaquid.-The silvery sheen of the sunlight is reflected from its needles-it still affords an inaccessible crotch for the squirrel's nest not a lichen has forsaken its mastlike stem- -its raking mast-the hill is the hull. Now's the moment the mannikins at its base are fleeing from their crime-they have dropped the guilty saw & axe. How slowly & majestically it starts-as if it were only swayed by a summer breeze and would return without a sigh to its location in the air-& now it fans the hill side with its fall and it lies down to its bed in the valley from which it is never to rise, as softly as a feather, folding its green mantle about it like a warrior-as if tired of standing it embraced the earth with silent joy.-returning its elements to the dust again-but hark! there you only saw-but did not hear-There now comes up a deafening crash to these rocks-advertising you that even trees do not die without a groan. It rushes to embrace the earth, & mingle its elements with the dust. And now all is still once more & forever both to eye & ear.

I went down and measured it. It was about 4 feet in diameter where it was sawed-about 100 feet long. Before I had reached it-the axe-men had already half divested it of its branches. Its gracefully spreading top was a perfect wreck on the hill side as if it had been made of glass-& the tender cones of one years growth upon its summit appealed in vain & too late to the mercy of the chopper. Already he has measured it with his axe-and marked out the mill logs it will make. And the space it occupied in upper air is vacant for the next 2 centuries. It is lumber He has laid waste the air. When the fish hawk in the spring revisits the banks of the Musketaquid, he will circle in vain to find his accustomed perch.-& the henhawk will mourn for the pines lofty enough to protect her brood. A plant which it has taken two centuries to perfect rising by slow stages into the heavens-has this afternoon ceased to exist. Its sapling top had expanded to this January thaw as the forerunner of summers to come. Why does not the village bell sound a knell. I hear no knell tolled-I see no procession of mourners in the streets-or the woodland aisles-The squirrel has leapt to another tree-the hawk has circled further off-& has now settled upon a new eyre but the woodman is preparing to lay his axe at the root of that also.

Dec 31st

The 3d warm day. now overcast and beginning to drizzle. Still it is inspiriting as the brightest weather though the sun surely is not agoing to shine. There is a latent light in the mist-as if there were more electricity than usual in the air. These are warm foggy days in winter which excite us.

It reminds me this thick spring like weather, that 1 have not enough valued and attended to the pure clarity & brilliancy of the winter skies-Consider in what respects the winter sunsets differ from the summer ones. Shall I ever in summer evenings see so celestial a reach of blue sky contrasting with amber as I have seen a few days since-The day sky in winter corresponds for clarity to the night sky in which the stars shine & twinkle so brightly in this latitude.

I am too late perhaps, to see the sand foliage in the deep cut-should have been there day before yesterday-it is now too wet & soft.


Excerpted from AMERICAN EARTHby Bill McKibben Copyright © 2008 by Literary Classics of the United States, New York, NY.. Excerpted by permission.
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