I’m pleased to publish this guest review by Joshua Novalis.
Every morning, on my way to work, I drive past an apartment complex amusingly named Walden Pond. While I’ve never spoken with the owners, I assume the name to be their attempt to woo prospective tenants with the cozy idea that their two-bedroom floorplans will whisk them away from the clamor of the city and its pesky industrialists—a portal into “deliberate living,” provided you pass the credit check. Turn into the entrance, and you’ll be greeted by a series of buildings, each named after key landmarks and figures surrounding that famous body of water: The Hawthorne, The Emerson, The Concord, and, in the center of it all, Thoreau’s Cove.
The construction of this apartment complex reminds me of James K.A. Smith’s reflections on reading Wendell Berry in a Costco: though well-intended, the action is inherently dissonant with the underlying worldview. Nevertheless, it reveals just how much the mythology of Walden Pond is ingrained into our culture, and even further, how often we find Walden, both the book and its philosophical underpinnings, to be synonymous with Thoreau himself.
It’s this misconception that Robert Thorson seeks to correct with his biography The Boatman: Henry David Thoreau’s River Years. Thorson argues that, due to Walden’s renown, Thoreau’s wider body of scientific work has largely been ignored. As he writes, because of Walden, “[Thoreau’s] pine-scented, terrestrial, woodsy persona is affixed to his public image like a burr to a pair of trousers . . . forever branding our impression of him as a man of the woods first and foremost.” While there’s nothing wrong with studying the simple, nature-loving literary Thoreau we meet in Walden, The Boatman’s thesis is that these studies have overshadowed Thoreau’s true magnum opus: his decades-long studies of the Concord River Valley. It’s a convenient claim for Thorson to make, himself being a professor of geology, but throughout The Boatman, he makes a convincing case that Thoreau’s mind was more preoccupied with river channel hydraulics and fluvial geomorphology than it was with his more radical youthful works, such as “Civil Disobedience.”
Thorson believes that by shifting our focus to Thoreau’s life as a boatman and land surveyor in the Concord River Valley, we can better understand how his conceptions of nature matured, well after his famous retreat to Walden Pond. It’s Thoreau’s beliefs at this stage of his life, rooted in the notion of the “Anthropocene,” that comprise much of the book’s commentary, and it’s here where Christian readers may find themselves wrestling with The Boatman, as they seek to reconcile Thoreau’s beliefs with a biblical understanding of nature and anthropology.
Recovering Man’s Relationship with Nature
In his excavations into Thoreau’s massive journals, Thorson uncovers evidence that Thoreau believed we live in the Anthropocene epoch, a geological period where mankind holds massive influence over the earth’s ecosystems, so much so that men and women have become inextricably linked with the natural world they inhabit. As Thoreau observed the construction of a large bridge across the lower Assabet river, for example, he reflected on how “everything about this scene was a consequence of human action: the quarry from which the stone was hewn, the bridge built of these stones, the second-growth trees rising in the woods, the unplanned double waterfall, and even the sandbar he was standing on” (17). Moving beyond his youthful laments, Thoreau no longer dreamed of a nature free of man’s influence; the Concord River Valley he intimately knew was as much a product of human hands as it was a product of beaver dams, seasonal flooding, or the migratory patterns of native species—and perhaps moreso.
However, rather than rail against mankind’s interventions in this natural world, as his younger, grumpier self may have done, Thoreau began to find peace in this conception of reality. As Thorson writes:
“No longer would [Thoreau] see his landscape as something being crushed by the nineteenth-century makeover . . . Thoreau’s daily river adventures were populated with fauna adapted to the human presence—for example, basking tortoises (occasionally the object of thrown snowballs) and red foxes (easily tracked during the fresh snowfalls of freeze-up). All of these joyful episodes were contingent on the human makeover in some way. Knowing this did not diminish his appreciation for the beauty or the excitement of his river life.”
Through embracing the inevitability of mankind’s role in an Anthropocene epoch, Thoreau discovered that the wildness he desperately sought in the world could be found even among his fellow men and even the most cultivated and industrialized locales of his beloved river valley.
For the reader seeking to reconcile Thoreau and his Transcendental peers to a Christian theology of nature, there’s much to resonate with in this later period of his life. Though Thoreau himself was adamantly against organized religion, within a scriptural theory of ecology is the Thoreauvian idea that mankind is meant to be a harmonious participant in nature. If God has truly formed the earth and found it to be good, those who claim to be made in His image should seek to find joy in that goodness and participate in the created order that surrounds them, much as Thoreau habitually did every day of his unfortunately brief life.
There are even points in The Boatman where both Thorson and Thoreau come remarkably close to imbuing nature with something close to sanctity. As Thoreau reflects in his journal, which Thorson regularly cites, “I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador any greater wildness than in some recess in Concord . . . A little more manhood or virtue will make the surface of the globe anywhere thrillingly novel and wild.”
Thoreau’s maturity grew in him a sense that the more we embrace our humanity, the more we’ll value of all corners of the created order, be they sublime or mundane. And who could object to such a hopeful disposition? In reading these passages of The Boatman, I often found myself wildly highlighting passages and scribbling down notes in an attempt to grasp how a man so often at odds with my theological presuppositions seemed to incarnate them in his daily habits better than I ever have.
The Boatman uncovers a Thoreau who has willingly submitted to mankind’s inextricable relationship with nature and found peace within an Anthropocene epoch. This evolution in thought gave birth to a new era in Thoreau’s life where he sought to embrace nature’s wild beauty in all parts of the earth, even those primarily controlled by man-made systems. Thoreau did not retreat from human civilization; as Thorson writes, Thoreau found the wildness of nature even while “sailing transient inland seas that were enlivened by human intervention.” For the mature and wizened Thoreau, nature’s beauty could be seen anywhere.
Disembodiment from Nature
However, difficulties arise when Thorson elaborates on exactly where Thoreau believed nature’s true value originates. For inasmuch as both Thorson and Thoreau see a transcendent beauty in man’s relationship with nature, their understanding is that such goodness is man-made. Thorson concludes that “the wildness of nature lies within our minds, not in our landscapes,” believing that finding beauty in all nature is, at best, an emergent property of the evolving human mind. Liberally paraphrasing Thoreau’s famous maxim that “in wildness is the preservation of the world,” Thorson proposes instead that it resides “in genius . . .[man’s] own instinctive, intuitive, individualistic, impulsive being.”
Thorson’s explanation of Thoreau’s newfound philosophy calls to mind Gaius and Titius, authors of the infamous Green Book in Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, who implicitly instill in their readers a similar notion: That he who finds nature to be sublime is merely experiencing sublime feelings in his mind. Thoreau essentially sees nature as a mirror for the mind, an existential surface which reflects the inner beauty of he who perceives it. Thorson concludes that when Thoreau refers to the world in his writings, “he was referring to the one we create in our minds.”
The profound irony in such an argument is that in seeking to reconcile man’s relationship with the earth, Thoreau’s conclusion ultimately encourages disembodiment from nature. It’s the antithesis of incarnation—man becomes pure intellect and retreats from his fleshly reality. If Thoreau “could easily convert his flooded meadows into the wild waters of an inland sea” what worth is there in its upkeep?
Even Thorson must admit that Thoreau could not reconcile this paradox in practice. The final years of Thoreau’s life are characterized by an increasing disinterest in conservation efforts, much unlike his youth. The latter half of The Boatman details “the flowage controversy,” a years-long legal battle between industrialists and farmers in the Concord River Valley, the latter of which argued that industries in the area were destroying farmland due to negligence. At different points throughout the controversy, Thoreau conducted extensive studies of the man-made dams and bridges being disputed, and while his findings showed legitimate issues in the ways the local business-owners were managing the land, his philosophy counter-argued that the farmers had been manipulating the environment for decades. As Thorson writes, “The valley farmers were unknowingly entangled within a larger environmental transformation that they, themselves, were helping to create.”
Faced with the Anthropocene belief that mankind will inevitably shape nature, and the Transcendental belief that the mind can create beauty wherever it wishes, Thoreau, logically, retreated from the controversy and let the legal proceedings play out without his well-informed input. Thorson chides Thoreau for this decision, saying, “Thoreau stepped aside. We cannot” (33). But I can’t help but think that Thorson, for all his intimacy with Thoreau’s history, is being a bit unfair. Thoreau was merely taking his beliefs to their unavoidable conclusions—letting an Anthropocene earth take its inevitable course. It’s a tragic notion, but a consistent one.
Looking over The Boatman as a whole, Thorson has done an impressive amount of research, effortlessly weaving Thoreau’s scientific, literary, and political pursuits into one narrative thread. For readers seeking to expand their knowledge of Thoreau past the cultural mythologies that spawned ill-named apartment complexes and more, I’d be hard-pressed to find a more patiently-researched work than The Boatman.
However, one can sense that Thorson and Thoreau’s naturalistic philosophies nearly pierce their way through to a deeper reality, but stop short with the resolute finitude of mankind. Thorson’s notion of the Anthropocene rightly intertwines man’s fate with the created order, but in doing so, he tacitly argues that the genius of man is the true source of sanctity, thus encouraging disembodiment and disinterest. When decontextualized from divinity, Thoreau’s “wildness” is a trail of god-breathed breadcrumbs ultimately leading nowhere.
Joshua Novalis is a writer and editor who lives in central Virginia with his wife, Ashley. He graduated with his B.A. and M.A. in English from Liberty University and currently works in Curriculum Development. His honors thesis focuses on divine mystery in C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, and his graduate thesis explores the importance of dialogic thought in Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. Joshua has also had his poetry published in LAMP Magazine.