Henry David Thoreau got a lot of good press in 2020 during the pandemic. One hundred and fifty-eight years after his death, the so-called hermit from Concord was suddenly hot. And why not? The original social distancer seemed a fine model in a world that valued sheltering in place, exploring the nature in your backyard, doing with less, and civil disobedience. For many, Walden has long been a map for a different way of living, but as the world shut down it seemed newly significant: part prophecy, part survival guide.
Growing up in Worcester, my own Thoreau addiction began in high school and has never really let up, though sometimes it cools — he can seem too uptight, too strict, too moral, a voice like an external conscience or a nagging parent. And then at other times I feel like he is truly pointing to a way that can break us free of our neurotic, inward-turned, fractious lives. As it happened, my Thoreau moon was waxing right before the pandemic struck. I was rebuilding the writing shack on the creek behind my house in North Carolina that had been destroyed during Hurricane Florence, reading a new biography of Thoreau, building an osprey platform, and rereading Walden. It was as if I were studying for a test I didn’t know I would have to take.
You might have spent your pandemic year with your dog or with your kid home from college, or on the front lines at a hospital or grocery store. I decided to spend mine with Henry. I read more of his books, more books about him, wrote about him, and tried my best to live him. Not that I was a Thoreau groupie or purist. He would have frowned at my pandemic staple, beer — ”Water is the only drink for a wise man,” he once wrote — and my Netflix binging. He was the first to tell people not to try on his clothes unless they fit. But some of his clothes did fit me well enough. He helped me make it through the year and I feel that some of the lessons I learned will stay with me.
Thoreau’s most obvious lesson remains his deepest: the understanding of just how much nature can still offer us. Not nature in any vague or high-handed sense, but in the physical daily experience of it, a getting outside of ourselves and into the world. That’s where it starts, with, as he famously exclaimed, “Contact!”
Before the pandemic, in my life as a university department chair, I sometimes felt like I spent my days playing the video game Space Invaders: E-mails and phone calls would come at me faster and faster as I tried to shoot down the incoming, row after row. But when school shut down, I began spending more time noticing the world on the marsh behind my house. Fiddler crabs, in particular, caught my attention. Hundreds of them, revived after months of dormancy, most with shells no bigger than dimes, seething across the muck behind my shack. They greeted me with their scuttling, and they sometimes turned around to ward me off with their oversized claws before racing back to their muck holes.
I also noticed that something else was going on during this time of isolation that was the opposite of isolation, that this period of crisis for Homo sapiens was occurring during one of the great hinges of the year, the spring migration of birds from one hemisphere to another. Suddenly my yard was filed with bluebirds, Carolina wrens, titmice, and the occasional osprey. I didn’t leave the house much but at the secret spot where I began to walk at a nearby beach, I was daily greeted by those world travelers, terns and black skimmers, which reinforced the Thoreauvian idea that going inward and going outward are not incompatible.
As the year turned toward summer, I noticed that Henry’s hairstyle had come back into vogue. Men looking vaguely Quaker and wearing beards. It seemed as if we had all begun to focus more on our internal worlds, but then, having spent so much time in our homes, we began to pour out of them. In June 2020 the streets of our country overflowed with protesters. My 17-year-old daughter and I were among them, marching and chanting downtown in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
What we and the rest of the protesters were practicing, whether we called it that or not, was civil disobedience. In his essay “Resistance to Civil Government,” better known as “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau writes: “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” And: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
Thoreau didn’t just say this but acted upon it, spending a night in a Concord jail cell in July 1846, after refusing to pay his poll tax, a tax which would support a war he deemed unjust. A small event, but like many other events Thoreau witnessed or was part of, one he made large through his writing. This was the seed of the idea, nonviolent resistance, that was so instrumental in helping develop Gandhi’s philosophy and Martin Luther King Jr.’s, who said of the essay: “I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau.”
Thoreau, unlike King, didn’t truly suffer and certainly didn’t make the ultimate sacrifice for his cause. He spent just that one night in jail, an act more symbol than hardship. But symbols matter. That night was also an embodiment of his ideas. He was laying himself on the line.
Henry’s life pulsed between the inward and outward. We can see the two Thoreaus on two different July Fourths. On July 4, 1845, Thoreau celebrated his independence by moving to his cabin on Walden Pond. On the same day, nine years later, Thoreau joined abolitionists Sojourner Truth and William Lloyd Garrison in Framingham for a rally to protest slavery. Thoreau stood under a black-draped American flag hung upside down and Garrison burned copies of the Fugitive Slave Act and the US Constitution.
In a similar manner, for many of us the pandemic year was both an intensely private and an intensely political year. As summer became fall and the presidential election grew more fraught, I divided my time between watching CNN and studying the terns and black skimmers as they began their journey back to South America. I felt, if I looked close enough, I could see the whole world in the one patch of beach I walked every day. Thoreau was fascinated by phenology, the study of the way the year turns, when things bloom and birds migrate and animals hibernate or wake, and his notes on these phenomena are now used by scientists to record the changing climate. Thinking about climate change, it occurred to me, as it had to others, that what we were undergoing last year was really just a practice run for a larger crisis to come. That the way many of us lived early in the pandemic will give us hints about how we will need to live in the future. That, like Thoreau, we will need to shelter in place, do with less, rein ourselves in.
But can we really do that? That is what I wonder now, a year later. Can we temper our insatiable hunger? Thoreau could, but most of don’t have his natural ability to resist the temptation of more.
As for me, I’m still not sure. I still drink too much beer and watch too much TV. But I do believe Thoreau can act as a model of possibility, of how we might be. He can still point in the direction we can walk, a direction different from that which most of us are walking. I like what I see in that direction. I see green and I see wild diversity. I see black skimmers and terns but also a flock of passenger pigeons and an ivory-billed woodpecker or two. Thoreau walked boldly in that direction. My own steps are more tentative, and I have doubts about my ability to curb my hunger and focus on things beyond myself. But I will keep trying to move toward that place, and will keep hoping, futilely perhaps, that others will also keep moving in the direction where Henry points. ª
David Gessner is the author of 12 books and a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His newest book is “Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight: Sheltering with Thoreau in the Age of Crisis.” Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.