Ways of Seeing, Johanna Nichols: At 200, Thoreau still speaks to us

Happy 200th anniversary of your birth Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817). I am sure you would have something to say about being remembered so many years later for the writer you dreamed to be in your lifetime. Before “Walden” was published, you spoke at the Concord Lyceum, in your Massachusetts hometown, about the interrelationship of God, man and nature. You ended your oration with these eight words “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Little did you know how long that gift would keep on giving.
Thoreau might celebrate the same way he spent most days — walking in the woods and hills around his home in Concord, Massachusetts, or along the coast of Cape Cod, hiking Mt. Katahdin in Maine, canoeing on the Merrimack River, or working in the garden, and by that, I mean experimenting with some new method for growing beans, or reading an ancient text in the original language, and writing about his experiences.
Toward the end of his life, Thoreau called for townships to have “a park, or rather a primitive forest, of 500 or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation.” We are fortunate to enjoy the TAM (Trail Around Middlebury). I have walked much of it through woods, across meadows, by a rock cliff, to a waterfall, and along the banks of the Otter Creek.
Thoreau’s life was not just about walking and creating extensive journals. His writings on civil disobedience and his choice to go to jail rather than to pay taxes to support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico inspired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote in his autobiography: “I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest …”
Thoreau turned that gesture into the central act of his life — opposing slavery. His idea was that injustice in the community touches everyone. For Thoreau, “civil disobedience” was a moral response to immoral laws. He defended the “sovereignty” of the individual, the inviolability of the human conscience. He railed against an economy of rampant consumerism. Thoreau’s activism was grounded in self-reflection. That is an essential gift he gave us — reflect, then act.
The Transcendentalists considered reading to be an important spiritual discipline. “To read well, that is to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise,” wrote Thoreau. They read for spiritual insights. I spent a year with daily excerpts from the writings of Thoreau — “True Harvest,” and a year with the writings of Emerson — “A Dream Too Wild,” both published by Skinner House Books. I followed their method — reading, reflecting, and writing.
Most of the Transcendentalists kept a journal or diary. Emerson recommended the practice to “pay so much honor to the visits of Truth in your mind as to record those thoughts that have shone therein.” Excursions in nature, reading, contemplation, journal writing, and conversations were the means of cultivating the self or soul. But, in keeping with that practice, the Transcendentalists believed that spirituality required outward ethical behavior as well.
Singly, and as a group, they were active in social and political reforms: Margaret Fuller’s feminism, Thoreau’s civil disobedience, Theodore Parker’s commitment to abolitionism and women’s rights. It is said that Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Thoreau when he was in jail and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” and he replied, “What are you doing out there?”
Thoreau, we celebrate you on this 200th year of your birth. Your writings keep reminding us that we must have wildness to live — to look to nature as a source of revelation. In your ten-by-fifteen foot cabin, you set three chairs: one for self, one for friendship, and one for society. Thank you for inviting me into your life, for setting an example to live simply, to balance activity with contemplation, to open my mind by reading and writing, and to stay engaged in social reform. You have persisted, and so must we.
Johanna Nichols is a grandmother, writer, and Unitarian Universalist minister emerita. She welcomes responses to these columns at [email protected].

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