Thoreau’s great insight for the Anthropocene: Wildness is an attitude, not a place

When Americans quote writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau, they often reach for his assertion that “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” This phrase elicited little response when Thoreau first read it during a lecture in 1851. A century later, however, it had become a guiding mantra for the American environmental movement, adopted by the Sierra Club as its motto and launched into the cultural stratosphere via bumper stickers, T-shirts and posters.

Unfortunately, the line was cherry-picked from its original context, conflates wildness with wilderness and predates Thoreau’s later, more nuanced insights about wildness. His mature views, which I stumbled onto when researching my book “The Boatman: Henry David Thoreau’s River Years,” can more effectively help us cope with a world so changed by people that geologists have proposed a new epoch, the Anthropocene.

To the mature Thoreau, wildness was an entanglement of different realities and more of an attitude than an attribute. A pervasive condition lurking beneath the surface – especially in the midst of civilization. A creative force, willed not by intent but by impulse, accident and contingency. As a card-carrying geologist who has written two books on Thoreau as a natural scientist and lifelong “river rat,” and the first “Guide to Walden Pond,” I believe the mature Thoreau lurking beneath distorted cultural motifs has much to tell us.

People often assume Thoreau lived in solitude at Walden for decades, but he actually spent most of his life on Concord’s Main Street. Ticknor & Fields/Wikimedia

Romanticizing the wild

Shortly after sunset on April 23, 1851, members of the Concord Lyceum gathered at First Parish Unitarian Church. One of their most loyal members, “H. D. Thoreau,” stepped up to the podium to read his newest lecture “The Wild.” His late-spring timing was perfect, this being the wildest time of year for the romantics and naturalists of his 19th-century agroecosystem.

“I wish to speak a word for Nature,” he opened boldly, “for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil.” Humans, he claimed, were “part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.” These prophetic, inclusive statements constitute America’s declaration of interdependence.

This lecture was published in The Atlantic as an essay titled “Walking” after Thoreau’s death in 1862. In it Thoreau recast the “howling wilderness” of the Puritan divines who settled Concord, Massachusetts in the mid-1630s as an ideal spiritual landscape for neo-pagans of the early 1850s.

But we know from Thoreau’s voluminous writings that the insight for his “In Wildness” mantra came not from some high mountain temple, deep forest or dismal bog, but a from pair of panoramic art exhibits that Thoreau saw in late 1850 – likely in urban Boston, likely via the rattling railroad.

In September 1853, having recently returned from a moose hunt in interior Maine, Thoreau came up with the idea of setting aside wild landscapes for posterity:

“Why should not we… have our national preserves… in which the bear and panther, and some even of the hunter race, may still exist, and not be ‘civilized off the face of the earth’ –our forests… not for idle sport or food, but for inspiration and our own true recreation.”

By then Thoreau was a middle-class, stay-at-home resident of the bustling market town of Concord, and the surrounding area was being rapidly clear-cut for farms and fuel and industrialized with mines, turnpikes, railroads, bridges, dams and canals. “I cannot but feel,” he wrote despondently on March 23, 1856, “as if I lived in a tamed, and, as it were, emasculated country… Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature that I am conversant with? I am reminded that this my life in nature… is lamentably incomplete.”

Concord Center, Massachusetts, in 1865, shortly after Thoreau’s death. HistoryofMassachusetts.org

No wildness distant from humans

Finally Thoreau resolved the tension between his yearning for primitive nature and his role in helping to civilize it as a surveyor for land development. While searching for native cranberries in late August 1856, he found himself in the far corner of a small bog so worthless that it had been apparently untouched by human hands. There, he realized,