The ability to observe the ordinary things that everyone else takes for granted is a rare gift. This may be a trite observation, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The history of science and the arts is filled with the names of people who paid attention to mundane subtleties that the rest of us missed. Today marks the 194th birthday of one of those gifted observers – the great New England writer and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau.
These days Thoreau is mostly known by high school students (and adults) as the author of Walden and the man who spent two years living in a cabin in the woods and passing the time by writing about what he saw there. What’s remarkable, though, isn’t Thoreau’s stint as a hermit – living alone in the wilderness is practically an American pastime. What’s extraordinary is the way Thoreau wrote about his solitude and the natural world around him. Although Thoreau’s subject matter sounds ho-hum when summarized – ants, bean plants, shadows on the snow, the succession of trees in the forest – his affinity for metaphor and precise detail make his accounts of the New England countryside glitter with poetic detail and imbue it with life. Take, for example, his description of trees after a snowfall:
“The woods were incredibly fair, white as alabaster. Indeed, the young pines reminded you of the purest statuary, and the full-grown ones towering around affected you as if you stood in a titanic sculptor’s studio, so purely and delicately white, transmitting the light…”
In addition to being required reading for high school students, Thoreau’s legacy seems to be one of proto-environmentalist. He died in 1862, before the American environmental reform movement had gotten underway or anyone even used the word environmentalist. But in the years since then, he has become a sort of spokesman for the cause. It’s a role he would probably have embraced. Conservation activists, photographers, writers, and adventurers have turned to Thoreau when describing the beauty of wild spaces and the importance of preserving them. (In an interview with National Geographic Kids, explorer J. Michael Fay listed Thoreau as someone who inspired his love of the outdoors.)
Among Thoreau’s most ardent fans was Herbert W. Gleason, a pastor who left the ministry in 1899 at the age of 44 to become a photographer. A passionate conservationist, Gleason corresponded with other nature writers of the day (like John Muir) and used his camera to document some of the United States’ most ravishing landscapes including Yosemite and Bryce Canyon.
Natural Visions, one of the National Geographic Library’s books on the American environmental movement, contains an interesting account of Gleason’s shift from preaching about Christianity to proselytizing about the sublime beauty of nature, his switch from pulpit to camera. And according to author Finis Dunaway, Thoreau was a key figure in Gleason’s new religion. “To see landscape photography as a type of religious observance,” he writes, “Gleason needed to view Thoreau not only as his beacon and hero but also as a holy figure, someone canonized as an environmental saint.”
Evidence of just how taken Gleason was with Thoreau can be seen in the photographer’s 1920 National Geographic article, “Winter Rambles in Thoreau’s Country.” From the first paragraph, Gleason begins heaping on the praise:
“The National Geographic magazine being pre-eminently a magazine of travel, it is not inappropriate to call the attention of its readers to the journeyings of one of the most original, observant, and wholly entertaining travelers whom the continent of America has produced. To be sure, his travels did not cover a very wide field, geographically ; they consisted chiefly of daily walks afield or boating trips on the river to various points in his immediate neighborhood ; yet they resulted in giving to his name a higher place in the temple of fame than that of many another who has roamed the seven seas and encompassed the ends of the earth.”
Reading the article, it does seem that Gleason shares a sort of kinship with the 19th-century transcendentalist he admired so much. Gleason’s photographs of the wintry New England countryside may lack the drama of his Yosemite or Bryce Canyon vistas. But they do illuminate precisely the kind of details Thoreau wrote about so beautifully: icicle “organ-pipes”, white stars of frost spackling over a stream, and the “novel and picturesque” architecture of a snowdrift.
The Walden woods where Thoreau lived and wrote still exist today as a conserved area located 18 miles west of Boston. For information about visiting or to find out more about Henry David Thoreau and read his work, see the Walden Woods Project.