Why Walden matters now
ON SATURDAY, I’ll be walking with friends to Walden Pond, six miles from where I live in Wayland. From there we’ll head to the MBTA station and take the commuter rail (the same Fitchburg line Henry Thoreau knew) to Boston, to join the Moving Planet rally at Columbus Park and call for the world’s leaders to get serious about moving beyond fossil fuels.
Ah, Walden, you’re thinking, of course. Environmentalism. Thoreau. Walden Woods. Don Henley. Right on.
Actually, wrong. Or I should say, only partly right. I’ll be walking to Walden because, like the writings that made it famous, this is about far more than environmentalism. It’s about humanity.
Henry David Thoreau’s great subject - in “Walden’’ and “Civil Disobedience’’ and just about everything he wrote - wasn’t the environment (a term he wouldn’t recognize) or even nature (though he was a first-rate naturalist). It was “Nature,’’ as he wrote in “Walking’’ and “man as an inhabitant, or part and parcel of Nature.’’ It was our relationship, as human beings - physically, morally, spiritually, politically - to the world in which we live, which is to say, to everything, both human and wild.
Thoreau was not an “environmental’’ writer but a deeply human, moral, and spiritual writer - and a deeply political one. And he knew that on the most pressing moral questions, the spiritual and political can, and often must, go hand in hand - a conviction shared by one of Thoreau’s 20th-century readers, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
There’s also a popular misconception that Thoreau was a hermit or recluse, indulging a utopian fantasy in his refuge in the woods. Thoreau’s cabin at Walden was no retreat from the world. He had an active social life at the pond, but more to the point, he was socially and politically engaged.
In fact if anyone took refuge in that cabin, it was the runaway slave Thoreau sheltered along the Underground Railroad. Thoreau’s antislavery activism, in words and actions, needs to be remembered as central to his legacy. For Thoreau, to be morally awake and in harmony with nature meant to act on behalf of human freedom.
In May 1854, as Thoreau was putting his final touches on “Walden,’’ another runaway slave named Anthony Burns was arrested in Boston. A riotous crowd, led by abolitionist friends of Thoreau’s, tried to free Burns from the city’s courthouse, but Burns was sent back to the South after federal troops intervened.
On July 4, at a rally in Framingham, Thoreau delivered the fiery abolitionist speech called “Slavery in Massachusetts’’ and indicted the Commonwealth for its complicity in human bondage. His sense of serenity in nature was shaken: “I walk toward one of our ponds but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base?. . . Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk.’’
But did it spoil the walk, or reveal its purpose? Thoreau’s immersion in nature, and his spiritual awakening there, led him back to society and its reform.
There is no greater threat to human freedom today than climate change. If slavery was the human, moral crisis of Thoreau’s time, then global warming - and its impact on countless innocent lives - is the human, moral crisis of our own. We know that our burning of fossil fuels is global warming’s major cause, with vast and potentially catastrophic consequences for future generations, including our own children.
As Thoreau knew, in the face of such facts the thing to do is not retreat, but engage.
There’s still time to preserve a livable planet for our children. But we need more than small gestures of personal green virtue. We need decisive government action - which means a political movement that transcends “environmentalism.’’ Because the climate crisis is more than an environmental crisis, it’s a human crisis, and we need a new politics to address it on those terms.
That may sound hopeless, especially now. But then, abolishing slavery sounded hopeless in 1854 - as Henry David Thoreau no doubt knew.
Wen Stephenson is a former editor of the Globe’s Ideas section.