Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Thoreau at 200

Thoreau would have celebrated -- though in a subdued fashion to be sure -- his 200th birthday if he were still alive this week. He could have shared a cake with another great champion of justice 180 years his junior, as Malala Yousafzai ceased being a teenager and turned 20 on July 12.

Thoreau is one of those great figures whose work I came to know only gradually and a bit belatedly. I somehow earned all of my geography degrees -- with an emphasis on environmental geography -- without having any of his work assigned for my classes.

I have been mindful of that gap as I work with my own geography students -- particularly those who intend to pursue environmental professions. In an upper-level course on land protection, I introduce or reintroduce him through a children's book entitled Henry Hikes to Fitchburg. This does not include Thoreau's own writing, but it is a pleasant way to consider the importance Thoreau placed on slowing down and observing the landscape around him.

We then move into something a bit weightier, David Foster's book Thoreau's Country: Journey Through a Transformed Landscape, which was introduced just as I was preparing to teach a course on land protection for the first time. Foster manages one of the oldest research forests in the world -- Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts. Foster has curated some of Thoreau's writings that were never intended to be published. They are the journal entries based on his daily walks, and because they were based on close, regular observation sustained over many years, they are rich with details about forests, farmland, and the relationships between the two at a time of rapid landscape change. When combined with the insights of a modern forest ecologist, they allow my students and me to think deeply about the implications of change as we seek to set aside land for long-term protection. The most essential lesson is that we cannot freeze landscapes in time.

On the occasion of Thoreau's bicentennial, I was pleased to find some thoughtful discussions of his life and his contributions. Writing for the New York Times, John Kaag and Clancy Martin remind us that despite his reputation as a hermit in the wilderness, at his cabin in Concord he was not really alone with nature. Present-day visitors are sometimes surprised that authorities allowed a train track to be built so close to his famous retreat, when in fact it was he who built his cabin in the woods just a short walk from the tracks. In fact, his careful observations of the interactions between train-engine sparks and flammable materials in the forest provide some of the fire-ecology lessons for my students.
Thanks to Thoreau, biologist Primack knows
that this blueberry is flowering early.

WBUR journalists Bob Oakes and Yasmin Amir used the occasion of Thoreau's birthday to have an important discussion about climate change with Boston University biologist Richard Primack. Thoreau's careful notes provide direct evidence of climate change in Concord, just west of Boston -- from thinning ice to shifts in the timing of events related to the arrival of seasons for plants and animals. As difficult as these shifts might be for humans to notice otherwise, they can be critical to the integrity of food webs.

Learn more from the Thoreau Society.

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