Cover image for Thoreau's country : journey through a transformed landscape


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PS3053 .F66 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In 1977 David Foster took to the woods of New England to build a cabin with his own hands. Along with a few tools he brought a copy of the journals of Henry David Thoreau. Foster was struck by how different the forested landscape around him was from the one Thoreau described more than a century earlier. The sights and sounds that Thoreau experienced on his daily walks through 19th-century Concord were those of rolling farmland, small woodlands, and farmers endlessly working the land. As Foster explored the New England landscape, he discovered ancient ruins of cellar holes, stone walls, and abandoned cartways - all remnants of this earlier land now largely covered by forest.

Author Notes

In September 1842, Nathaniel Hawthorne noted this social encounter in his journal: "Mr. Thorow dined with us yesterday. He is a singular character---a young man with much of wild original nature still remaining in him; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in a way and method of his own. He is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, although courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty. On the whole, I find him a healthy and wholesome man to know." Most responses to Thoreau are as ambiguously respectful as was Hawthorne's. Thoreau was neither an easy person to like nor an easy writer to read.

Thoreau described himself as a mystic, a Transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher. He is a writer of essays about nature---not of facts about it but of his ideals and emotions in its presence. His wish to understand nature led him to Walden Pond, where he lived from 1845 to 1847 in a cabin that he built. Though he was an educated man with a Harvard degree, fluent in ancient and modern German, he preferred to study nature by living "a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust." Knowing this, we should beware of misreading the book that best reflected this great experience in Thoreau's life: Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854). It is not a handbook of the simple life. Though there are elements in the book of a "whole-earth catalogue" mentality, to focus on the radical "economic" aspects of Thoreau's work is to miss much in the book. Nor is it an autobiography. The right way to read Walden is as a "transcendental" narrative prose poem, whose hero is a man named Henry, a modern Odysseus in search of a "true America."

Thoreau left Walden Pond on September 6, 1846, exactly two years, two months, and two days after he had settled there. As he explained in the pages of Walden: "I left the woods for as good a reason as I went to live there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one." Growth, change, and development were essential to his character. One should not overlook the significance of his selecting July 4 as the day for taking possession of his residence at Walden Pond, a day that celebrates the establishment of a new government whose highest ideal is individual freedom. In terms of Thoreau's redefinition of the nation-idea, "the only true America" is that place where one may grow wild according to one's nature, where one may "enjoy the land, but own it not." Thoreau believed that each person should live according to individual conscience, willing to oppose the majority if necessary. An early proponent of nonviolent resistance, he was jailed briefly for refusing to pay his poll tax to support the Mexican War and the slave system that had promoted that war. His essay "On Civil Disobedience" (1849), which came from this period of passive resistance, was acknowledged by Mahatma Gandhi (who read it in a South African jail) as the basis for his campaign to free India. Martin Luther King, Jr. later attributed to Thoreau and Gandhi the inspiration for his leadership in the civil rights movement in the United States.

Thoreau contracted tuberculosis in 1835 and suffered from it sporadically afterwards. His health declined over three years with brief periods of remission, until he eventually became bedridden. Recognizing the terminal nature of his disease, Thoreau spent his last years revising and editing his unpublished works, particularly The Maine Woods and Excursions, and petitioning publishers to print revised editions of A Week and Walden. He died on May 6, 1862 at age 44.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Foster, an ecology instructor at Harvard University, charts the social and ecological histories of New England. Thoreau is Foster's inspiration, but by the time the philosopher-author of Walden moved to the Massachusetts woods and erected his small cabin, New England had already been transformed into a patchwork of agricultural fields and small woodlots. Indeed, farmers were seen as heroes for taming the land. But with the nineteenth century's industrial revolution, people deserted the countryside for new jobs in the cities. Over time, much of the land, including that around Foster's Vermont cabin, reforested itself. With the expanding forests, Foster finds a shift in human perception, too, one that encompasses the land's ecological importance. Foster uses many excerpts from Thoreau's journals, which reveal anew a man much in tune with the drastic changes humanity had already wreaked upon the earth. --Brian McCombie

Library Journal Review

Foster teaches ecology at Harvard University and is the director of the Harvard Forest. This book results from his 1977 trip to northern Vermont to build a cabin in the woods. He took along assorted reading material, including the journals of Henry David Thoreau, who had constructed his own cabin at Walden Pond well over a century before. As Foster, indicates in his preface, much of the New England landscape that Thoreau knew has since been naturally reclaimed by forest owing to social change and population shifts from country to city as well as changes in agriculture and industry. Foster quotes liberally from Thoreaus original journal entries as he comments on New England and its characteristics before and since Thoreaus day. Foster discusses the regions cultural landscape, woodlands, forests, and wildlife then and now. More than an analysis of Thoreau, this is a commentary on change and the role humans play in shaping the landscape. A thoughtful, very readable volume; recommended for both academic and public libraries.William H. Wiese, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Foster, director of the Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts, has abstracted Thoreau's journals of 1850-60 to give us a detailed history of natural change in the northeastern US. Entries are organized not by date but thematically, with comments by Foster emphasizing their contributions to the ecological and cultural history of eastern Massachusetts. Thoreau's country was far from primitive: much of its "natural" beauty was the result of farming and woodlot practices. Today, following the decline of agriculture, forest-dwelling species--turkey, beaver, forest birds, as well as the "noble" animals deer, bear, and moose--have been reestablished in New England, giving the region a wilder, more natural feeling. "Wildness" is not limited to some fancied nature untouched by humans but can be found and cherished today. This attractively composed and bound book is illustrated with beautiful pen-and-ink drawings that enhance the text. An annotated bibliographic essay describes Thoreau's journals and his Fact Book and discusses the other sources Foster used. Concise list of references; useful index. A book to be savored and also used as a guide to alert the walker to the historical hints in the present landscape. All levels. A. B. Stewart Antioch College

Table of Contents

Prologue: One Man's Journal
Three Landscapes in New England History
The Cultural Landscape of New England
Views of the Nineteenth-Century Countryside
Daily Life
The Farmer as Hero
Meadows and Mowers
Stone Walls and Other Fences
A Natural History of Woodlands
Woodlands and Sproutlands
Forest Land Use and Woodland Practices
Firewood and Other Fuels
Wildfire: A Human and Natural Force
The Coming of the New Forest
Social Change and Farm Abandonment in New England
The Succession of Forest Trees
Losses and Change
Animals: From Bobolinks to Bears
The Passenger Pigeon
The American Chestnut
Stepping Back and Looking Ahead
Reading Forest and Landscape History
Landscape Change
Insights into the Ecology and Conservation of the Land
Bibliographic Essay