I was halfway through Laura Dassow Walls’s new biography of Henry David Thoreau when my partner and I celebrated his birthday on our favorite stretch of Northern California coast. I woke early on our first morning, and while sipping coffee and looking out over the Pacific I saw what looked like a whale’s spout. And another. And then another. By the time I shook my partner awake, dozens of spouts stretched north and south as far as the eye could see. We had arrived at the peak of the gray-whale migration from their birthing waters off Mexico to the chilly North Pacific. We’d never seen so many whales in our lives, and hurried to a nearby bluff for a closer look.
On the bluff, we met a couple laden with binoculars, field guides, and clipboards, debating the finer distinctions between the spouts of grays and humpbacks. While the man located and identified whales with his binoculars, the woman made notes on a clipboard. These were serious whale watchers. They introduced themselves as “volunteer employees” of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), part of a corps of trained volunteers sent out two-by-two to count whales, sea lions, and shorebirds. They explained that NOAA collects and archives the data so that future generations can measure the effects of climate change on coastal wildlife.
“Sounds like Thoreau,” I shared. While Thoreau never visited the California coast, he roamed the fields, streams, and forests of his native Massachusetts with pencil and notebook nearly every day of his adult life, recording the precise date when wildflowers bloomed, the waters of Walden Pond melted, or a species of migratory bird returned in spring. He left records so accurate and detailed that today scientists use them to measure climate change’s toll on the flora and fauna of eastern Massachusetts.
For Thoreau, the detailed observation of nature was both a scientific and a religious practice. His interest in nature was rooted in his love of the natural world and his faith in its redemptive power: “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” This was Thoreau’s credo, and at the outset of Henry David Thoreau: A Life, Walls poses a critical challenge for her book and for Thoreau’s relevance today: “Can his faith live on after nature, at least nature as he knew it, has ended?” Walls argues that it can, and after meeting the NOAA volunteers I believe her.
The whale counters took a Thoreauvian delight in the natural world—the man let out an involuntary “Hyah” every time a whale spouted—and shared his zeal for detailed observation. The woman appeared to relish every hash mark she added to her tally of species: black oystercatcher, red-breasted merganser, gray whale, humpback, blue. But what struck me most about them was their faith that human beings in some distant future would care enough about cormorants and humpbacks to consult these hash marks. Walls writes, “Exactly insofar as we, today, share [Thoreau’s] belief in the future of life and act on it, will he continue to speak to us.” The whale counters not only shared Thoreau’s faith in the future of life and acted on it, they did so the very week President Trump proposed cutting NOAA’s budget by 17 percent. And that’s the other way they were like Thoreau: not only were they enthusiastic and meticulous observers of nature, but they were quietly at odds with the political state.
Thoreau paid a price for this, at least in terms of his literary reputation. As Walls reminds us, few figures in American literary history have been as frequently caricatured as he has: prickly nonconformist, reclusive misanthrope, dreamy idealist, or spoiled mama’s boy who returned home from Walden every Sunday for a hot meal and clean laundry. She argues that these caricatures are not only unfaithful to Thoreau, they do not serve us well. Only from the fullness of his life can Thoreau speak meaningfully to the conditions and challenges of our generation. The greatest gift of her biography is to introduce us to the whole Thoreau.
Walls locates Thoreau in the natural history of Musketaquid (the Algonquin name for Concord), the economic history of early industrial New England, and the intellectual history of New England from the Puritans on down. She embeds him in networks of resistance like the Underground Railroad, and in the heterodox foment of transcendentalist circles. She fleshes out the web of relationships in which Thoreau lived his entire life: his devotion to his beloved brother, John, who died in his arms; his challenging but devoted relationship to his friend and mentor Emerson; his extended spiritual correspondence with a young Harrison Blake; and his failed courtship of Ellen Sewall, after which Thoreau wrote in his journal, “There is no remedy for love but to love more.”
At the heart of Walls’s argument for Thoreau’s ongoing significance is his commitment to the earth and to conscientious resistance. Above all, her Thoreau is a herald and prophet of the Anthropocene. In 1843, as he scouted the woods around Walden for a cabin site, Irish immigrants were cutting a wide swath through the forest a mere stone’s throw from Walden’s shore, laying tracks for a railroad that would connect the riches of America’s interior with the port of Boston and the world. By the time Thoreau left his cabin in 1847, approximately 20 passenger and freight trains passed by daily, their whistles sounding the onset of industrialization. Nearby, free blacks, poor whites, and Native Americans squatted in the shanties left by the railroad workers. Only after Thoreau’s death did Walden become the protected park it is today. Thoreau’s cabin wasn’t a primitive retreat, Walls argues, but a front row seat to the ravages and displacements that would become the Anthropocene.
Why did Thoreau go to Walden? On one level, of course, he went to write—to complete the manuscript of his philosophical travelogue A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. But Thoreau didn’t set out only to write but also to “live deliberately.” On his second day at Walden, Thoreau wrote: “I wish to meet the facts of life—the vital facts … face to face, and so I came down here. Life! Who knows what it is—what it does?” Walls suggests that Thoreau’s pledge to “live deliberately” and confront life’s “vital facts” amounts to a consecration, a taking of vows. More than a writer’s retreat, then, Walden was a spiritual retreat.
Yet if Thoreau sought only a retreat, then he chose his site poorly, for his cabin was plainly visible from the road into town. Passersby often stopped to ask him what he was doing, and friends paid visits. Thoreau quickly became a town “celebrity,” notes Walls, his life at Walden a public “spectacle.” To visit Thoreau at his cabin was an “Event,” something to be talked about.
Thoreau went to Walden not only to retreat but also to make a point. His move on July 4, 1845, was a declaration of independence, an argument that the future of American freedom depended on those who live by conscience rather than convention, and who confront life—its beauty and its injustice—“face to face.” Whether or not Thoreau initially intended to cause a scene, he quickly discovered the public dimensions of his time at Walden. Realizing this, says Walls, “His two years, two months, and two days living on Walden Pond became and would forever remain an iconic work of performance art.”
Thoreau’s cabin was a front row seat to the ravages and displacements that would become the Anthropocene.
Just one year later, in July 1846, Thoreau performed another act of protest that would shape his life and legacy. Strolling into town from Walden to pick up a repaired shoe, Thoreau ran into his old friend Sam Staples, the tax collector. Staples was looking for Thoreau, who had refused to pay his taxes because earlier that year, the United States had declared war on Mexico, an act Thoreau saw as an imperialist expansion of slave power. Refusing to support such a war with his money, Thoreau was escorted by his friend to the Concord jail.
Much has been written about Thoreau’s night in jail, not least the oft-repeated legend that when Emerson saw his friend behind bars, he asked him: “Henry, why are you here!” To which Thoreau replied, “Mr. Emerson, why are you not here?” He would later elaborate in writing: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
Once again news spread quickly of Thoreau’s protest, and in the middle of the night a veiled woman came to the jail and paid his debt. Much to Thoreau’s chagrin, Staples released him the next morning. Such is the humble origin of Thoreau’s landmark essay, “Civil Disobedience,” his great call to conscientious resistance.
Thoreau believed that the conscience is essentially the voice of God speaking to and through a human being, and that its moral and ethical authority deserves our highest allegiance. When the laws of government are contrary to the law of our conscience, then we have a duty, argued Thoreau in “Civil Disobedience,” to resist them. “Must the citizen ever for a moment … resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” Gandhi, inspired by Thoreau, put it more succinctly: “The only tyrant I accept in this world is the ‘still small voice’ within me.”
A year earlier Thoreau had made a declaration of independence by setting out for Walden, committing to “live deliberately” and confront the “vital facts” of life. Now the political dimensions of that declaration were becoming apparent. One of the “vital facts” Thoreau confronted at Walden was the injustice of slavery; to conscientiously resist such injustice was central to what Thoreau meant by living “deliberately.” And so a year after his first declaration he made another: “Action from principle,” he wrote, “the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary.”
The brevity and mildness of Thoreau’s jail stint notwithstanding, it would be a mistake to view him as a political dilettante. “Civil Disobedience” is grounded in Thoreau’s prophetic commitments as a radical abolitionist, an Underground Railroad host, and a war tax resistor. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act compelled Northerners to aid federal marshals trying to capture and return those who had fled slavery. “Unjust laws exist,” Thoreau wrote in “Civil Disobedience”: “shall we be content to obey them … or shall we transgress them at once?”
Thoreau chose transgression. The Thoreau family home was a frequent stop on the Underground Railroad, and Henry regularly escorted persons fleeing slavery from his home to the (literal) railroad station in Concord, bought them a ticket to Canada, and accompanied them on the train as far as Fitchburg, to make sure nobody was following.
The young Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway writes in his journal of a time he visited Thoreau while the family was harboring a fugitive:
Thoreau took me to a room where his excellent sister, Sophia, was ministering to the fugitive. … I observed the tender and lowly devotion of Thoreau to [him]. He now and then drew near to the trembling man, and with a cheerful voice bade him feel at home … The whole day he mounted guard over the fugitive, for it was a slave-hunting time. But the guard had no weapon, and probably there was no such thing in the house. The next day the fugitive was got to Canada …
By the time he wrote “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau saw that the federal government was committed not only to slavery’s existence, but its expansion. He believed that the government had become a terrible machine, built to destroy human freedom, rather than protect it. His advice, in “Civil Disobedience,” to any who find themselves confronting such a machine is this: “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”
Thoreau knew something about machines. Walls explains that he invented and built much of the equipment used at his family’s pencil factory. He knew how to build machines, and he knew how to break them. He understood that even a small object thrown into its gears could grind a machine to a halt. With this knowledge in mind, he advised: “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”
Thoreau truly believed that one life was powerful enough to break a machine. Therein lies both the power and the limitations of “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau’s faith in individual acts of resistance inspired both Gandhi and King at critical points in their struggles. When Gandhi was imprisoned in South Africa for refusing to register and be fingerprinted as an Indian, he read “Civil Disobedience” in his prison cell. It helped him develop his doctrine of satyagraha, or soul force: soul force that resists unjust state force. When Martin Luther King Jr. launched the Montgomery bus boycott, he returned to the essay that had inspired him as a college student, and used it to shape his own philosophy of nonviolent resistance. While these leaders credit Thoreau’s philosophy of conscientious resistance, they also complete it. “Civil Disobedience” is a necessary but not sufficient theory of resistance. If Thoreau saw clearly that one life could be a counter friction to the machine, Gandhi and King showed us that five or five hundred or five hundred thousand lives could create that much more friction. And they showed us how.
In the Age of Trump, Thoreau’s life and witness might be more important and relevant than even Walls could have imagined when she finished her biography last year. History suggests that “Civil Disobedience” speaks most powerfully under regimes (antebellum America, the Jim Crow South, Apartheid South Africa) whose abuse of freedom is most egregious and avenues for the redress of that abuse are most limited. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, to hear the Rev. William Barber of North Carolina (arguably our generation’s Dr. King) regularly tell the story of Thoreau’s night in jail to encourage conscientious resistance to the machines of voter suppression and transgender oppression in North Carolina. Racially motivated gerrymandering and restrictive voter identification laws have rendered the state’s extremist legislature virtually undefeatable and unpetitionable.
In sanctuary cities across the country, civil and religious leaders are confronting our nation’s unjust immigration laws by asking Thoreau’s question: shall we obey unjust laws, or shall we transgress them at once? Like Thoreau, they are choosing to transgress by refusing to cooperate with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, and by building networks of sanctuary congregations—not unlike the Underground Railroad—to accompany, defend, and host undocumented immigrants.
Facing the prospect that the agencies they serve are being turned into machines to destroy the very values they were created to protect, thousands of federal workers are examining their conscience, asking whether they can continue to work “at the service of some unscrupulous man in power” (Thoreau’s words, not mine, from “Civil Disobedience”), and how their lives can become counter friction to stop the machine.
Last month, President Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Treaty. He is attempting to roll back many Obama-era environmental protections, to decimate the agencies created to steward and protect our natural resources, and to suppress climate science. In such a political environment, even counting whales on the California coast can be understood as counter friction to a machine hell-bent on destroying our planet.
Not long after we said goodbye to the whale counters, we spotted and followed a northbound gray whale swimming and spouting close to shore. Suddenly it breached. In one exuberant burst of energy, the whale threw almost its entire body—all its tonnage—out of the water. Seconds later it breached again, and then again. The whale was so close we could see with our naked eye the barnacles attached to its flesh. The ocean air was so thick with brine, it was as if we breathed the stuff of its spout. I wanted to fall down on my knees.
While climbing Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, Thoreau had his own ecstatic experience of intimacy with the natural world. An experience that forced him to reconsider his place in the order of things:
Think of our life in nature,—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?
From Walden’s shores to Katahdin’s shoulder, Thoreau never stopped asking these questions: Who are we? And what is our place in and responsibility to the natural world?
After we could follow the whale no longer, we headed back home along the bluff and ran into the whale counters again. “Did you see the breaching whale?” they asked excitedly.
“We did! We did!”
“Hyah!” exclaimed the man.
“Why?” I asked. “Why do they breach?”
“Scientists aren’t certain,” he said. “It may be to orient themselves to objects above the water.
The woman added, “Or it may be that they breach for joy.”