I was intrigued to read this week that scientists are using the natural history records of Henry David Thoreau to track the effects of climate change. It prompted a couple of thoughts. First, how fitting it is that the man who was one of the earliest, and most powerful, voices to champion the environment, should be contributing to tackling the greatest environmental challenge we face, even 150 years after his death. Secondly, what the life of this extraordinary man can teach us about effecting change, and leaving a lasting legacy.
Born in 1817 in Massachusetts, Thoreau lived through turbulent times in mid-19th century America. He was a true polymath – a philosopher, author, and poet, but also a political essayist, campaigner, activist and social reformer, a teacher, scientist and naturalist.
His meticulous records for first flowering dates of wildflowers around Concord, Massachusetts between 1851 and 1858 are informing modern research into phenology, the timing of natural events, and their response to climate change. In an article in the journal BioScience, Professor Richard Primack and Abraham Miller-Rushing explain how analysing Thoreau’s records together with other data, historical and recent, shows that 43 common plant species are flowering 10 days earlier than they were in Thoreau’s time. The average temperature in that area has increased by 2.4°C over the last 155 years.
This means that we are in good company – and by “we” I am thinking particularly of all those dedicated volunteers who record phenological events in spring and autumn through our Nature’s Calendar initiative, providing a growing bank of data for scientists trying to assess how nature will respond to climate change, and thus informing conservation initiatives. Research using UK phenological data, shows that species such as oak are coming into leaf earlier, and warning of loss of synchrony between species and their food sources, with ecological implications. Phenology in the UK, too, has its share of committed observers, from Robert Marsham in the 18th century onwards.
But Thoreau did not just observe. He reflected on his observations, and thought deeply about the intimate connection that humanity has with nature. He was fascinated by the concept of wilderness, passionate in his belief that we should live simply alongside nature, and unparalleled in his eloquent articulation of this point of view. He is best known for “Walden”, his account of the two years he spent living in a one-room wooden cabin near Walden Pond. The following quotes from his writing demonstrate how strongly he felt that a life lived without understanding of nature, indeed without an almost spiritual connection with nature, is no life at all:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life…”
“We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks …..”
“I suppose that what in other men is religion is in me love of nature.”
In pursuit of his ideals, Thoreau deliberately restricted himself to a small world, spending his days tramping the countryside, exploring his corner of the Earth in detail and recording it, not just with dry facts, but with vivid and poetic descriptions, and drawing conclusions that have a great deal of resonance for us today. He wrote “Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it…We need the tonic of wildness…”- a sentiment that is supported by the bank of evidence still being gathered for the benefits of greenspace and natural surroundings for mental health.
And then, where we might today talk about biodiversity and ecosystem services, Thoreau says: “In wildness is the preservation of the World”: we understand instinctively what he means by this. In terms of the future, he thought that: “Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of 500 or 1000 acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation”.
Beyond observation and reflection, Thoreau also believed in action, both advocating and practising non-violent civil disobedience – his writings on the subject later influenced Gandhi and others. He was someone who lived out his beliefs, and who rooted those beliefs in both acute observation and profound insight.
What can we take away from all this today? Sadly, the researchers studying his records concluded that 27 per cent of the species recorded by Thoreau and other botanists were no longer present in Concord, and a further 36 per cent of formerly common species were now rare. This trend of biodiversity loss is repeated all over the globe. If he were alive today, I have no doubt Thoreau would be at the forefront of the environmental movement in some way.
As environmentalists and campaigners, we can learn from Thoreau, developing and nurturing the traits that he exemplified: curiosity, understanding, attention to detail, passion, insight, simplicity and humility, a willingness to carry our beliefs through into action when it really counts – but above all, remembering that connection we have with nature.
Sian Atkinson, Conservation Communications & Evidence Adviser