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Late Bloomer Henry David Thoreau Accidentally Started Forest Fires Before Becoming A Renowned Environmentalist

On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved into the “tiny house” he built at the northwest edge of Walden Pond. By most accounts, he was a later bloomer in life. Despite several missteps and at least one huge mistake, he became one of the world’s most influential environmentalists.

Thoreau’s tiny house sat on a tract of second-growth woods owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson in Concord, Massachusetts. (Technically, the pond is an excellent example of a “kettle hole” which  was formed by retreating glaciers 10,000–12,000 years ago.)

Why Did Henry David Thoreau Drop Out To Play At Survivor?

In short, it was an experiment in which he planned to live simply in nature to discover what she could teach him about life and the essence of the universe.

During his stay of two years, two months and two days at Walden, Thoreau honed his skills of self-sufficiency like a contestant on Survivor. He planted a bean field, chopped wood, gardened and wandered the woods to study the flora and fauna. He meditated and wrote extensively.

Henry David Thoreau’s Book Deal

Thoreau’s time on Walden Pond helped him fine-tune his philosophy of passivism and reverence for all living things. He used his experience from his “reality show” experiment to write what became his best-known work, Walden.

No one can argue that Thoreau profoundly influenced 19th and 20th century thought. Many of his insights about nature, spirituality and politics are as relevant today as they were on the fourth day of July, 1845  when he first moved his things into the cabin. But Thoreau wasn’t always revered, or even respected in his early days.

The Great American Thinker Was A Late Bloomer

Thoreau’s road was not always an easy one and it was definitely filled with detours,  wrong turns and dead ends. In fact, he was considered by some in his town to be an irresponsible  “ne’er-do-well.” That’s some strong language for one of America’s great thinkers. Consider the following turns on his life path.

Henry David Thoreau Was A College Drop-Out

Thoreau graduated from Harvard University in 1837, but according to legend, he refused to pay the five-dollar fee for his diploma. He said, “Let every sheep keep its own skin.” (Diplomas were written on sheep vellum.)

Post Harvard in 1837, Thoreau returned home in search of an occupation. He tried many, with greater or lesser degrees of success. These included teaching and working in his family’s pencil factory. (He was credited with developing one of the best pencils ever to hit the U.S. market.)

Henry David Thoreau Quit His Teaching Gig

Thoreau taught at Concord’s elementary school, but quit after he refused to administer corporal punishment to his students.  Rebelling against the repressive educational system, he and his brother founded their own school in 1838.  They taught the full range of subjects, from math and science to literature an philosophy, all through conversation and exploratory activities.  (Sounds like the first magnet school?) They closed the school in 1841 because of his brother’s declining health.

Henry David Thoreau Was Emerson’s Manny/House Man

Thoreau was writing regularly, but he found few journals other than Dial, the Transcendentalist Magazine, to publish his poems and essays. Between 1841 and 1844, he moved into the Emerson estate where he served as a tutor to the Emerson children, an editorial assistant to Emerson and a general handyman and gardener.

At One Time He Was A Pencil Pusher

Unable to find a publisher, he was restless and moved back to his family in 1843 to resume his work in their pencil factory.

Henry David Thoreau: A Woods Burner Who Accidentally Torched 330 Acres of Forest

In April of 1844, Thoreau and a friend, Edward Sherman Hoar, went fishing. Afterwards, they built a fire in a tree stump to make fish chowder, in the middle of a draught with high winds. An ember sparked a fire on the wind and 330 acres were burned.

It took a day for volunteers to put out the fire with hoes and shovels and backfires. An article in the Concord Freeman on May 3, 1844 said, “It is to be hoped that this unfortunate result of sheer carelessness will be borne in mind by those who may visit the woods in the future for recreation.”

According to Walter Harding’s biography of Henry Thoreau, “for years Thoreau had to endure the whispers of ‘woods-burner” behind his back.“ (Stay tuned.  A fascinating novel by John Pipkin that was inspired by  this event will be discussed in our next post.)

A little more than a year later, Thoreau began his great experiment at the edge of Walden Pond.

Henry David Thoreau Under Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Wing

Emerson introduced Thoreau to his circle of local writers from the Transcendental movement, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Bronson Alcott.

It was Ellery Channing who told Thoreau to “…build yourself a hut and there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive. I see no other alternative, no other hope for you.” Two months later, Thoreau moved into his now famous “man cave”.

Was Henry David Thoreau A Model For Kato Kaelin?

According to Ken Jennings, Jeopardy champion, contemporary author and self-proclaimed debunker, Thoreau was living on Emerson’s property, just a mile outside town near two major roads. “Far from being Kit Carson, Thoreau was actually more like a 19th-century Kato Kaelin.”

Henry David Thoreau Was The Original Glamper

Rather than living in austere simplicity, Jennings points out that Thoreau was a quick walk to town where he could pick up supplies when needed. He frequently went into town for dinner parties and other occasions, and was known to drop off his laundry at home.

To combat the sting of solitude, he had a constant stream of visitors. Thoreau himself said that he had as many as “twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under his roof.” Impressive hosting skills, given the 10’ x 15’ dimensions of his bachelor studio.

Henry David Thoreau’s Lasting Influence

In 1890, shortly after Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland returned from their race around the world in less than eighty days, Thoreau’s work flamed in popularity thanks to the essays and biography by social reformer and animal rights activist,  Henry Salt.

Despite the twists and turns and at least one huge careless mistake, Thoreau inspired generations of “influencers” including Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi, along with the rest of us.  For all of us who have made mistakes and not quite lived up to our own expectations or fulfilled our dreams, there’s still hope!  Happy Fourth of July.
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2 Responses

  1. Loved your summary here. Just finished Walden. Many of your history anecdotes validated my conclusions from the book.

    Thank you!!

    1. Thanks for your comment Pat. I was surprised when I learned this. It certainly adds new layers to our history. I hope you’ll visit again. We’re improving the site as we go and open to your suggestions for topics and improvements.

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