Thoreau: Out of the Woods and Onto the River

The photo shows a replica of Thoreau’s best-known boat, Musketaquid, named for the Algonquian word for 'grassy plain,' used to describe the area that became the town of Concord. (Photo by Juliet Wheeler)
UConn geology professor Robert Thorson says Henry David Thoreau was so much more than just an essayist and a philosopher, redefining the well-known author as a scientist and boatman as well. The photo shows a replica of Thoreau’s best-known boat, Musketaquid, named for the Algonquian word for 'grassy plain,' used to describe the area that became the town of Concord. (Photo by Juliet Wheeler)

Robert M. Thorson is a professor of geology and columnist for the Hartford Courant. His second book on Henry David Thoreau, The Boatman: Henry David Thoreau’s River Years, will be published next month by Harvard University Press, coinciding with the year-long bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth. He spoke with UConn Today about Thoreau’s life in the Concord River Valley after the writer left his house in the woods, which inspired his best-known work, Walden, or Life in the Woods.

Q. Thoreau’s reputation is as a literary writer and not a scientist. How have you found the science in his work and focused on that where most others have not?

A. When I read Walden for the first time, I heard the limnology, the hydrology, the physicality, and the micrometeorology, all of that. Yet you don’t find it in the text of Walden. If you go below it into his journal and correspondence, however, you find there is a lot he is understanding but is threshing away. Thoreau writes more after 1854 [when Walden was published] than he did before that, but it went into his journal, which didn’t get published until 1906. When scholars edited his journal, they left out the highly technical parts that wouldn’t have interested the literati, who were all English literature people. They were the ones who founded the Thoreau Society, the oldest and largest organization devoted to an American author. But when I searched the full transcripts of his original journal, the quantitative, physical content was there. It turns out that the journal before and after Walden was mostly about the river. When I went back and re-read the early journals, they were infused with nautical language from the Greeks, Shakespeare, and from the Norse. When you take the last 10 years of his mature life, he went to the river two and a half times more often than he went anywhere else, based on tallies of 7,000 passages. It was more important [to him] than any other place to go. He was a boatman more than he was a woodsman.

Q. You draw a comparison between Thoreau and Charles Darwin, who is known as an evolutionist rather than for his previous work in geology.

A. Darwin was a geologist for 30 years; hardly anyone knows that. He published on coral reefs, uplifted mountains, glaciation, and all kinds of things. He gets the Wollaston Medal [awarded by the Geological Society of London], which is the highest medal in his country for being a geologist in 1859. He’s recognized for a lifetime of doing geology. Eight months later, he publishes the Origin of the Species, which was informed by geology, his interest in deep time. You can’t think about evolution without thinking about unfathomable time. He was this geologist who writes this book on the origin of species by means of natural selection, and he leaves out the geology because it’s so controversial in his era. Instantly, he’s an evolutionist and he’s claimed by the biologists. That book eclipsed his career. Something similar happened to Henry Thoreau. He writes this masterpiece, Walden, and people just obsess on it and they can’t see what he did to create it underneath or what he did afterwards.

Q. If Thoreau spent so much time on the rivers of the Concord River Valley, why did it take so long for him to understand the changes in his world?

A. The easiest way to explain that is that he has the familiar naivete of any teenager, except he’s got it delayed in his 20s. He’s really fairly naive about the environment. He’s thinking there’s pristine nature and everything is wonderful. The older he gets, the more he realizes that the environment he is boating in, living in, and depending on, is changing in lots of ways, ways that make his boating better. There was a major pulse of sediment erosion and bank change in his favorite river that made it more interesting not just for him but for everybody. It was a landslide caused by bank undercutting, caused by channel spasm, caused by putting in a bridge that’s too narrow. Thoreau figures out all of this. He knows he’s living in a system that’s enlivened and more wild by the dramatic changes that have taken place. His view in his mature years, the post-Walden years, is the real Thoreau, the scientific expert, the more reasonable person.

Q. Thoreau has a role in the nation’s first legal battle between farmers and industrialists over removal of the Billerica Dam in Massachusetts, when the River Meadow Association hired him as a consultant just before the start of the Civil War. What was its significance?

A. I’ve asked a number of historians, who say it’s the first serious, big-time legal case for dam removal in this country. This is a precedent for a very important environmental issue today. They’re pulling the same arguments that we heard in the last election – we can’t take down the dams because they provide jobs for the millworkers. There were a set of dramatic changes taking place in America’s rivers in the 19th century. Between 1802 and 1850, there were changes all over the place. It’s a river system with a lot of power going through it. When you start poking it here and there, it becomes more volatile; it becomes a little bit wilder. So the channels, the banks, the flood regime, and then, of course, the ecology is all responding to these changes. It’s when the Anthropocene comes in – the idea that human beings are the dominant geologic agencies on the planet. Human beings with their exponentially rising population and insatiable demand for energy and materials are not being bad, they’re just being normal. The Anthropocene is simply a way of putting a line on history and saying from this point on, we’re in a new geologic epoch. Thoreau lived amidst and appreciated the many changes to his river system that were caused by the human makeover of the 19th century. Dams, canals, bridges, and near-complete deforestation improved his sailing, rowing, and skating, botanizing, and work as a naturalist. Thoreau should be credited for his leadership on dam removal, the restoring of rivers to their natural flow conditions.

Q. What surprised you about focusing so much on Thoreau?

A. I expected a lot more push back on my first book, Walden’s Shore. The reviews were more favorable than I thought they would be in the leading literary journals. That totally surprised me. I thought they would see me as an outsider entering their turf. Walden’s Shore is the creation story of Walden Pond told from Thoreau’s point of view. It’s just very satisfying to be able to show that this literary masterpiece is underlain by really good attention to the physical details of place. That was a big surprise to me. The second thing that surprised me was – call them moments of satisfaction; how when you have a hypothesis or idea – Thoreau is a boatman – you realize how consistently your hypothesis frames your observation. I was able to write Thoreau as Rat in Wind of the Willows [by Kenneth Grahame] and back it up with everything he ever said. That was equally satisfying – to start with a premise, interpret something from that, and have it make sense.