The image of Henry David Thoreau with which most Americans leave high school is of a reclusive young man hiking off to Walden Pond to build a cabin, live as a hermit, and commune with nature. In addition to being a nature obsessive, he was a pioneer of civil disobedience, a militant opponent of slavery, and a contrarian who seemed skeptical of whatever the majority believed or practiced.

Thoreau’s contrariness is part of his appeal to contemporary eco-activists and spiritual seekers, who see how his ideas of responsibility toward nature and his religious striving meet in his actions. Others dismiss his contrariness as elitism. If it is elitism, at least it is not an elitism of class. Unlike Emerson and other luminaries of the period, Thoreau was not born to position or riches. Whatever insight Thoreau possessed he gained through careful, immersive study. When he portrayed himself as a champion of individualism, he did so to distinguish himself as one who achieved individuality through renunciation of societal norms and through personal, direct interaction with the natural world.

Thoreau is remembered now primarily for his ecological concerns and for his vigorous protests against slavery and the Mexican War. Recent scholarship has also emphasized his attitude toward work, which, though misunderstood and maligned in his time, came out of his intentional resistance to the encroachments of capitalism and was thus of a piece with his commitments to social justice and to nature.

Isabella Werkhoven, Four Seasons in One Day, acrylic and oil on linden, 2022. Used by permission of the artist.

Is Thoreau a prophet of our present ecological crisis? His experiment at Walden Pond, to “live deliberately” so that onlookers have no alternative but to ask if their own way of life is sensible or satisfactory, suggests he has much to say to us.

Living deliberately meant focusing on “only the essential facts of life” to learn what the animating principles of the natural world have to teach, so that at the end of Thoreau’s life he would not “discover that I had not lived.” There is an existential register to the Walden pilgrimage: “I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

Like his contemporary Søren Kierkegaard, Thoreau sought to awaken dissatisfaction with society’s limited options and to point people toward becoming more responsible toward God and others. His decision to live at Walden was thus a deliberate refusal of easy and ultimately unsatisfying solutions to his, and our, malaise.

Thoreau’s experiment is a judgment upon the ideology of industrial capitalism, which too many Christians of his day and ours presume to be natural and unproblematic. Such an ideology reduces things and even people to an instrumental value in a dehumanizing system. Hope cannot take root and propel virtuous action where this ideology is not challenged. With his life, Thoreau issued a such a challenge, aimed at all people trying to live with ethical integrity, but particularly to Christians, since it was their beliefs and practices that in large part provoked his radicalism.

Thoreau contributed as well to the development of a new sense of nature, which, rather than viewing it as bestial and desolate, or as an assemblage of natural resources ripe for human exploitation, emphasized the beauty and integrity of its otherness. “The earth I tread on,” he asserted, “is not a dead, inert mass; it is a body, has a spirit, is organic and fluid to the influence of its spirit.” Thoreau’s transcendentalist ideals may have guided him toward nature, but he went beyond the detached contemplation and abstractions of other transcendentalists. He endeavored instead to study the particulars of Walden’s animal and plant inhabitants and their virtues in contradistinction to the human inhabitants of Concord and the impediments that kept them from living deliberately.

To see “virtues” manifested in the characteristics of nonhuman creatures could be considered anthropomorphism, but Thoreau identified traits in other species that humans might do well to appropriate. In a journal entry from March 1858, he observes how the fish are returning to the sources of nearby brooks as they thaw, and styles it a “revival.” “All nature revives at this season – with her it is really a new life,” he writes, “but with these churchgoers it is only a revival of religion or hypocrisy. They go downstream to still muddier waters.”

Isabella Werkhoven, Strange Trail, acrylic and oil on panel, 2023. Used by permission of the artist.

This contrast between society and the natural world is typical of Thoreau’s critique of the American status quo. Still, he mostly disciplined himself to accommodate his expectations and desires to the patterns of behavior he witnessed in other creatures. This allowed him to better understand their forms of life and to recognize them as neighbors, rather than as hindrances to human mastery or resources at our disposal. Cooperation with these creatures would contribute to the health of the ecosystem as a whole.

Thoreau’s fellows in Concord had for the most part only a passing awareness of this “other civilization” surrounding them, and accordingly had little estimation of its dignity and integrity or the implicit critique it leveled against their ways of life. Their seeing was hampered, he diagnosed, by the “necessities” of productivity, profit, and submission to other dehumanizing norms. “Many an object is not seen,” he wrote, “though it falls within the range of our visual ray, because it does not come within the range of our intellectual ray … In the largest sense, we find only the world we look for.” His maxim, “We must look for a long time before we can see,” conveys how patiently attending to plants, animals, and even people discloses how they exceed the shallow, cursory impressions to which we are accustomed. The end of such seeing is recognition of what is truly essential – for oneself, for that particular species, and for the world inhabited by all of them.

Right seeing, thought Thoreau, could be made possible and reinforced by willingness to relinquish the goods American society prioritized and elevated to necessities. “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone,” he countered. The solution lay in simplifying one’s life by “distinguishing the necessary and the real.” Thoreau’s renunciations, like the Desert Fathers’ before him, carried a political valence: ascetic practices answer to higher laws than those of the state.

The Walden experiment was a beneficial discipline for Thoreau, but it could not in itself bridge the rupture he perceived between humankind and nature. His departure from Walden was as deliberate as his arrival two years earlier. He left, he claimed, “for as good a reason as I went there.”

It seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. . . . The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!

Life called him to Walden and life called him away from it. At this stage, he could not locate goodness even in a discipline he had devised for adapting himself to nature’s laws. Adhering to a discipline could only result in a kind of conformity, which could only mean surrendering individualist integrity. But to categorically reject tradition is an impossible task, as no one can entirely sever himself from the knowledge that is passed on, both overtly and tacitly, by others. The urge to break away stems from an existential anxiety that allowing oneself to be influenced always amounts to defeat by a stronger personality. The “need” for total autonomy led him to view with contempt even the practices he himself had developed, and nurtured a sterile pessimism that indignantly demanded change while rejecting followers.

It probably could not have been otherwise. However prophetically challenging the experiment may have been, Walden was, to an extent, an escapist fantasy. Thoreau sometimes depicted the lake and its environs as if encroachment and exploitation had not already been taking place for years, and depicted himself as if he had cast off the distortions of civilization in living there. Was this not because he needed an imaginary haven to which he could flee and free himself from the deadening servitude of quiet desperation? A pristine Eden with which to contrast the society he so fiercely criticized and that had produced him? This is not unique to him: all of us turn to fantasy and denial to manage the psychic toll of enduring the world’s pressures. Fantasy and idealization, however, will aid no one in reckoning with actually existing nature and our obligations to it.

The matters of the world, of course, continually interrupted Thoreau’s fantasies and demanded renewed engagement with the real. Though the experiment at Walden had ended, his dedication to understanding the nonhuman world of Concord did not, though it was now necessarily balanced with the more mundane tasks of life within modernity. He maintained his practices of observation and renunciation, rendering his life a challenge to the “quiet desperation” he was convinced characterized most people’s lives.

It is the mature Thoreau, who can dwell both within civic society and in the wild, and whose contempt for tradition softens as he begins to recognize the interconnectivity between nature and human culture, that best models how to orient one’s life toward social and ecological justice under the conditions of modernity. Even the shortcomings of his efforts are instructive, showing ways into thinking about nature and reckoning with our collective responsibility. Reckoning with Thoreau, then, is helpful but not sufficient for reforming our relationship to the natural world.

Thoreau’s mistake was thinking that culture is an arbitrary construction obstructing nature, that some authentic layer of being exists below culture. His criticisms of the culture of which he was a part were more than indignant demands that injustice be recognized and corrected: he seemed to believe that such injustices, and people’s blindness to them, were inevitable due to the corrupting influence of society itself.

But the search for authenticity inevitably uncovers how a human life is shaped not by one person but by many. However much we must resist conventions and norms that degrade and destroy, we cannot abandon our embeddedness within human community.

To orient ourselves more fittingly toward nature we must acknowledge twinned drives within us. Thoreau writes in Walden, “I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good.” Where Nietzsche would later describe two modes of living as Apollonian and Dionysian, Thoreau styles one as “good” and the other as “wild.” He presents the wild and the good as more or less reconcilable, though not, perhaps, synthesizable. He believed there was an aspect of human beings that corresponded to the freedom and guilelessness of the creatures he studied, but that civil society restrained it and that humanity suffered as a result.

The Christian ethics with which Thoreau was familiar denigrated wildness. Forms of this attitude persist to the present, viewing wildness as undignified and correlating it with theological categories like “sin” and “evil.” Thoreau did not understand wildness as being in opposition to good. He viewed it as the energy of life itself, one that in humans could be oriented toward the good. Goodness and wildness were complementary, and necessarily so. A retrieval of this concept could aid contemporary believers who feel internally divided. Wildness cannot be suppressed; it must be acknowledged and directed toward constructive ends.

This does not mean we can simply unleash our primal animal nature; we need to confront impulses that undermine the sort of humanity we are called to be. Humans are more than animals and can transcend our natural state; but we can do this, Thoreau suggests, without renouncing the “wild” nature in us that we share with all living creatures and that ties us to them. 

Ecologically minded Christians can learn from Thoreau but must think past him; we can accept his criticisms even as we subject his thought to critique from the gospel he could never wholly disavow. Thoreau committed the modern blunder of presuming God to be vaster and more mysterious than the God of any single religion. There is a humility to this presumption, as it reckons with humanity’s finitude and predilection for self-deception. But it is no longer humility when it causes one to reject all religion and tradition.

Laura Dassow Walls’s biography treats Thoreau’s resistance to revealed religion as a commendable advancement against the stupor that seized the majority of people. And in many regards, it was. The Christian orthodoxy with which he took issue was guilty of cowardice, complicit in the exploitation of human beings and the abuse of creation, while the goodness it professed insufficiently affected life in the world.

Thoreau strenuously opposed the abstractions of both naturalist and religious writers as inadequately attentive to the particular. Both of them, he felt, reduced the creatures of the world to resources ripe for use by human beings but worthy of nothing more.

The Christianity he disavows breeds submission to the status quo. “A church that can never have done with excommunicating Christ while it exists!” he bellows in “A Plea for Captain John Brown.” “The modern Christian is a man who has consented to say all the prayers in the liturgy, provided you will let him go straight to bed and sleep quietly afterward.” The “virtues” praised by such Christians preserve neither wildness nor goodness, but complacency and inequity, masking disorder with a veneer of piety.

The Walden experiment was a beneficial discipline for Thoreau, but it could not in itself bridge the rupture he perceived between humankind and nature.

But Thoreau, who was right in what he denounced, was wrong in what he suggested to replace it. Nature, as a surrogate religion, can train a man to live differently, if the man is willing. It can train him to relinquish the love of luxuries and to accommodate himself to an ecology that is in many ways beyond his control. But it cannot train him to take up his cross and it cannot raise him from the grave.

Thoreau found the religious faith he rejected inadequate for inhabiting and caring for a real world. But this rejection is inadequate by itself. For the love of wildness, when it is not disciplined by a robust and concrete love of the good, always seems to degenerate into the worship of the will or of power.

The evolution of Thoreau’s thought shows that responsible stewardship of creation will not be accomplished by leaving behind our humanity, as if such a thing were even possible. Rather, God has entrusted humankind with the responsibility of caring for creation precisely because we exist at a remove from instinct and necessity. Humans can think about the world’s conditions and act to change them, not only for the worse but also for the better. Thoreau is right to say that “in wildness is the preservation of the world,” and Wendell Berry is right to supplement this with, “The only thing we have to preserve nature with is culture; the only thing we have to preserve wildness with is domesticity.”

Human beings are inescapably a part of the natural systems of the world. Our uniqueness in bearing the image of God does not negate our belonging to nature. Yet human uniqueness has also made possible the destructiveness that has been unleashed in modernity. The question we face now is: Will we continue to allow the demands of our capitalist and technological systems to override our obligations to one another and to other creatures in our shared world?

If we would live deliberately, we must accept Thoreau’s challenge and think about our obligations to nature differently. We must see our lives as radically dependent upon a world we have learned to disregard. We must renounce the capitalist capture of our moral imaginations and scrutinize what we have assumed was necessary and worthy of our attention. We must learn to see differently to recognize the dignity of the natural world and one another. Technical solutions can never adequately address the problems of the Anthropocene: we must change our lives. And Thoreau can provoke a renewed reckoning with a world made precarious by our irresponsibility.