Beyond ‘Walden’

Wanderings offer a new path to understanding Concord writer

By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / July 3, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

CONCORD - Few people are as historically entwined with a geographical location as the writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau is with his beloved hometown of Concord.

His signature work, “Walden,’’ about his solitary year living on the local pond, is filled with observations on local ecology and large ones on the nature of life and political freedom.

It is less known that Thoreau wandered extensively around Massachusetts and even farther, said Michael Frederick, executive director of the Thoreau Society.

“Most people are aware that he was in jail, wrote ‘Civil Disobedience’, and about his stay at Walden,’’ said Frederick. “There is so much more depth and breadth to his endeavors.’’

To increase scholarly and popular understanding about Thoreau’s influence on history, the society has partnered with the Walden Woods project and the University of Massachusetts Lowell on a new online collaboration called “Mapping Thoreau Country.’’

The project allows scholars and historians to share primary source documents - including Thoreau’s extensive diaries and homemade maps - and aims to help local historical organizations learn more about what Thoreau did and said when he traveled through their communities.

The project has already plotted the author’s travels through Con cord, Framingham, Cambridge, Lowell, and Salem, and plans to add more, said Susan Gallagher, a society board member and professor at UMass Lowell.

The project was launched earlier this year in advance of the 70th celebration of the Thoreau Society - one of the oldest and largest organizations devoted to an American author.

The four-day gathering scheduled for this Thursday through Sunday in Concord will have a theme of “Environmental Ethos’’ and will include special tours of Walden Woods and the Concord River. Organizers expect close to 200 people from all over the world to attend.

The mapping project is designed to allow historians from afar to collaborate. Thoreau traveled to the North Woods of Maine, among other areas in New England.

And accompanied by fellow naturalist Horace Mann Jr., son of the education reformer, an ailing Thoreau journeyed to Minnesota in 1861 “for the wide-open plains and fresh air’’ he’d heard about, said Frederick.

The two-monthlong trip failed to improve his health - Thoreau died of tuberculosis the following year. But his visit is still commemorated by local historians half a continent away.

Plotting Thoreau’s movements has proved invaluable to those studying local ecology and history.

Because he was such a meticulous journal-keeper about local flora and fauna and an amateur cartographer, contemporary scientists have been able to use his observations on nature to help track climate change over the past 150 years, Gallagher said.

During a recent visit to the Thoreau Society’s offices - located in the same building where the iconic American writer and philosopher was born in 1817 - the walls were lined with portraits of people who cite Thoreau as direct inspiration.

They include civil rights pioneers Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., 20th century naturalist John Muir, and contemporary food writer Michael Pollan.

One could also include in that number the student activists from the Arab Spring, a series of prodemocracy uprisings in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Arab world since 2010, said Frederick, the society’s executive director.

“Thoreau, and his work, are as vital as ever,’’ said Frederick.

The theme of this week’s gathering - which will look at all aspects of Thoreau’s life and work in relation to nature, the environment and ecology - could hardly be more appropriate, said Gallagher.

Most people are familiar with Thoreau’s role in history as an antislavery activist, but are not as aware of his pioneering work as an early environmental philosopher and advocate.

“Climate change is reaching a crisis point as slavery did in Thoreau’s lifetime,’’ said Gallagher. “You can’t be a rational or ethical person and ignore it.’’

The 70th anniversary event will feature dozens of panels, lectures, and discussion groups, including a presentation led by author and environmental activist Joanna Greenfield.

Greenfield, 45, who lives in upstate New York, studied Thoreau and transcendentalism as a writing student and has in recent years become an advocate for environmentally sensitive and simple living.

She is scheduled to present a talk called “Recipes for Living a Thoreauvian Life in the Modern Home,’’ with a focus on chemical-free cleaning and pest control - drawing inspiration from Thoreau, who was a passionate ecologist and conservationist of his own time.

Greenfield recommends vinegar and baking soda as substitutes for chemical cleaning products, and fruit oils instead of pesticides.

“These are things that are both simpler and easier, and it creates better health for you, your pets and the world,’’ she said. “People want clean and healthy lives.’’

Erica Noonan can be reached at

Thoreau’s travels
Though he is most well known for his stay at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau left his mark across the state. Some journeys traced by the “Mapping Thoreau’’ project:
1. Concord Thoreau’s birthplace, in 1817, and the town most associated with his life and work. He was buried on Author’s Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery after he died of tuberculosis in 1862 at the age of 44.
2. Chelmsford Shortly after his birth, a young Thoreau moved with his family to Chelmsford, where his father ran a grocery. The family relocated to Boston in 1821.
3. Cambridge Thoreau graduated from Harvard in 1837 and participated in commencement exercises with an address that urged his fellow students to make money the “means and not the end of existence.’’
4. Lowell Thoreau traveled up the Concord and Merrimack rivers with his brother, John, in 1839. In his writings, published a decade after the trip, he reflected on the city’s intense industrial growth.
5. Salem Thoreau went to Salem to lecture at least twice, in 1848 and 1849. On the later date he spoke about his time at Walden.
6. Danvers Thoreau spoke about his travels to Cape Cod at the Danvers Lyceum in 1850.
7. Framingham Thoreau made his largest, most famous public address here in 1854 calling for the end of slavery.
8. Nantucket Thoreau gave a popular lecture called “What Shall it Profit’’ at the Nantucket Lyceum in 1854.
9. Boston Thoreau delivered several lectures in Boston between 1844 and 1859, including “Life in the Woods’’ and “Life Misspent.’’
10. Bedford Thoreau delivered a lecture on “Wild Apples’’ at the Bedford Lyceum in February 1860.

    waiting for twitterWaiting for Twitter to feed in the latest...