Thoreau as a Friendly Neighbor

Henry David Thoreau. (Photo: Benjamin D. Maxham/Google Art Project /via Wikimedia Commons)

Did you know Henry David Thoreau walked around wearing a hat with a special top compartment for carrying plant samples? That he enjoyed swimming naked in ponds and lakes, discomfiting his neighbors and passers-by? These are the oddities about Thoreau that perpetuate his rep as a man apart, as a loner in love with nature.

The Thoreau You Don't Know
The Thoreau You Don't Know.

There are, of course, less flattering portraits of Thoreau too — that he was not so much a nature man as an elitist, a Harvard-educated guy who enjoyed translating works from Latin, with the bourgeois luxury to take a two-year vacation in the woods — after burning down a huge chunk of his neighborhood forest, earning the nickname “woods burner.”

All those details are true to a degree — and in "The Thoreau You Don’t Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant," you learn about those and many more. But the author of the book, Robert Sullivan, proposes a new way of looking at Thoreau — a way that’s less man vs. nature and more man plus nature — a Walden that’s less man vs. modern society but more a community-oriented “view of a civilized or even urban world.”

Writes Sullivan: “The central question is this: If we think of Thoreau differently, will we think of his place — that is, nature — differently too?”

After all, Thoreau wasn’t simply a loner who preferred nature to people. He didn’t just collect those plant samples in his hat for himself; he collected them for Harvard, and was an elected member of the Boston Society of Natural History. He took children on hikes, gave frequent lectures, and helped farmers survey their lands. Sullivan makes a strong case for a “city level” view of Thoreau’s writing, arguing that Thoreau was “not against technology but frustrated by misapplication, its unpractical application.”

“Thoreau’s not necessarily part of a green movement; he’s the guy who wonders where the movement’s moving to and asks what green means, anyway?” Sullivan writes. “Walden is not about building a house or a place but rather about building a life and community, starting with you and your own.”

This new, society-oriented view of Thoreau certainly echoes a lot of the discussions happening in the enviro-movement today, from locavoring to walkable neighborhoods. The ideas teased out in the book recalled for me many of the issues that Bill McKibben brings up more emphatically in his book "Deep Economy," where McKibben makes a compelling argument that our new technologies — the cars, the freeways, and the new big homes in the far-off suburbs — have made us not happier, but lonelier — and that a new, more community-oriented thinking’s necessary both for our own sanity and for environmental well-being.

"The Thoreau You Don’t Know" doesn’t so much posit a new “correct” view of Thoreau as encourage us to think about how we use our society’s technologies. At the end of the book, the author recounts his own experience of visiting Walden, from the shocked reactions he gets when he asks for walking (vs. driving) directions for the two-mile or so trek, to the urban loneliness of being stuck on a traffic island alone.

I think freelancers who have a hard time describing what exactly it is they “do” will find this book especially poignant. Does this remind you of social interactions you’ve had to endure?:

People are never more expert than when discussing how others are running their lives, and a noncareer choice, especially if a person can pull it off, is the kind of thing that confuses people and sometimes even makes them mad especially if it contrasts with their own life choices.

Then pick up the book. "The Thoreau You Don’t Know" is available on Amazon.