Kant in the Wilderness: Thoreau's Geographical Turn, by John Hessler

John Hessler

     I first started seriously reading the works of Henry David Thoreau almost twenty years ago when I was researching the biogeography of a particularly rare group of alpine butterflies. Back then I used to spend my time during the early summer hiking and wandering through the French Alps searching for species of the genus Erebia. Biogeography is the study of the distribution of plants and animals across the globe and is interested in answering the seemingly straightforward yet highly complex question of why some species are in found particular places and not in others.

     Erebia are a particularly difficult group of butterflies to study, as they live at high-altitudes, with many mountaintops and valleys having their own particular and isolated species. The mystery of their evolution and distribution since the last Ice Age is still an open problem in the biological sciences and in trying to solve questions like this about plant and animal distribution the practitioners of biogeography, whether they be trained scientists, or amateur collectors and observers like Thoreau, tend to develop a deep relationship with the place they are studying and spend year after year in the same location working out the details of its diversity and ecology. 

     Early summer is a beautiful time in the French Alps, especially just after the snow melts, as the white blanket that covers the high valleys in winter slowly dissolves, revealing beds of wild flowers and giving birth to hoards of butterflies. The plants and insects in these high fields arrive very quickly and the surprise one feels at the changing diversity of these high and remote environments has echoed over the years for me in the writings of many naturalists, but reverberated most clearly in the journals of the iconic American writer, Henry David Thoreau. 

Grunewald, Bierstadt     Thoreau’s journals are filled with his impressions of the changing of the seasons and environment around Concord, Massachusetts, and show an observational acumen much more in line with that of a trained field biologist and biogeographer than with an important literary figure. Passages like, “It is astonishing how soon and unexpectedly flowers appear, when the fields are scarcely tinged with green. Yesterday for instance, you observed only the radical leaves on some plants; today you pick a flower,” show an observational, geographical and scientific sensibility rarely seen in a nineteenth-century American writer or naturalist. It is because of his intimacy with the landscape on an empirical and descriptive level that I came understand that my own work as an alpine biogeographer had something in common with that of Thoreau, a writer and naturalist who spent most of his short life around Concord, year after year walking through the same fields and forests and recording in his journals and notebooks what he saw.

     Erebia tyndarusMost of my time during these years of collecting and observation, and at least part of my summers even today, are spent in the high alpine valleys of France hiking just above and below the now quickly changing glacier lines, looking for very rare and small golden brown eye-spotted lepidoptera, recording their locations, the plants they alight on, and photographing their behavior. It was here, amidst this open and mostly deserted landscape of rock and ice, that during my evening hours of reading and writing up the day’s field notes, at a time when the hot alpine sun gave way to chilly night air, that I began to understand what it was that it was that inspired Thoreau to write, what he took from all his detailed field and historical observations, and why I have come to consider him one of the first modern American geographical writers.

     As I read through Thoreau’s voluminous journals and his published travel books such as Cape Cod and the Maine Woods, I could not help but think of him as a kind of early American geographer, as his descriptions of plants, birds, insects and the topography of the landscape he walked, appeared much the same to me as my own modern attempts to describe and understand the environment of these alpine valleys. It was not only in his published writings that I found this geographical sensibility in Thoreau, but also in the many notebooks that he kept, and into which he jotted reflections on his reading of travel narratives, his notes on historic and modern maps, and in which he also recorded his observations of locations and flowering times of the flora around Concord. My early opinion of his writing and of his observations of natural phenomena has been born out recently in the use of Thoreau’s botanical lists and his cataloging of flowering times in many modern biogeographical studies of Concord's increasingly challenged ecosystems.

From Natural History to Modern Geography

     There is more to be found in Thoreau, however, than merely the kind of data points that historical geographers and biogeographers need in order to study changing environments. In his writings we can see the influence of the earliest practitioners of geography as a science, written at a time when the discipline as we have come to know it today was still forming its subject and developing its methodologies. The fact that Thoreau took in much of this development and also wrote so much on a single ecosystem places him in a unique position among nineteenth-century American writers.

Alexander von Humboldt     Thoreau’s observations of the landscape are, therefore, not strictly natural history in its purest and scientific guise. In his descriptions of the places he walked, collected specimens, and observed various phenomena, he gives us more than species lists and taxonomy, but rather combines an amazing talent for the close observation of nature with historical insights lifted from his reading of topographical histories and the accounts of early explorers of the Northeastern United States and Canada. This combination of history and fieldwork was very much the form and style taken by the writers of the foundational works of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century geography and biogeography, and it is this approach that gave both his and other writers of the period their vast popular reach and appeal.

     My own reading through the years of these early foundational works not only inspired me to observe and research the wider landscape and history of the alpine meadows that I explored, but also pushed me to think about the landscape in a more complex way, not considering the natural history of plants and animals in isolation, but also taking seriously how humans historically interacted and dynamically altered the landscape's form. Most of these texts were read by Thoreau as he began to think through the changes he perceived in his native Concord and in wider New England. For just as in the Alps that I studied, scarcely a patch of ground that Thoreau walked had escaped the effects brought about either by Native American settlement or by colonists who farmed, hunted and harvested from the local environment. Thoreau recognized this fact quite explicitly and treated his native landscapes not as wilderness but as cultural palimpsests whose history could be read by any keen observer.

     The descriptions of the flora and fauna that he provides are some of the most detailed and accurate found in the writings of any American author. His journals and many of his manuscripts seem, at least in my mind, to be a kind of spatial laboratory, using and transforming the techniques and methodologies of European explorers and scientists into a truly American form of geographical writing. The body of work that he composed over his short lifetime when looked at this way is, in a very real sense, a series of experiments in geographical exposition; studies of the physical and cultural space that was produced as much by the humans who lived there as by its physical and natural existence. Thoreau accomplished this distinctly modern and, unfortunately, unfinished project with an eye toward understanding many of the ecological and spatial processes that shape the modern study of both ecology and geography.

Guyot Teaching Map     Foundational works such as Alexander von Humboldt’s Essay on the Geography of Plants (1805), Carl von Ritter’s, The Science of the Earth in Relation to the History of Nature and Mankind (1817), Arnold Henry Guyot’s, The Earth and Man: Lectures on Comparative Physical Geography in its Relation to the History of Mankind (1849) and Alfred Russell Wallace’s Malay Archipelago (1869) have much in common with Thoreau's writings, and all of them resonate with the same questions that he pondered throughout a lifetime of looking closely at nature and trying to describe the places where he traveled. Each of these titles, along with books like Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle (1839) and The Origin of Species (1859), opened up new pathways of geographic thought in the nineteenth century and tried to ground the many new developments in natural science and anthropology in a spatial and earth-bound empirical framework.  Besides this very pragmatic purpose, however, all of these works are also all filled with the personal interactions and reflections of their authors on the landscape, and thus they echo a very modern notion of geography and natural science, one that combines the subjective and the aesthetic with the factual.

A Geographer to Boot 

     Thoreau appears to defy modern categorization and has been described by scholars and readers as a philosopher, a poet, a civic reformer, an environmentalist, and a scientist.  It is, however, his integration of the empirical tendencies of natural science with the subjective insights that attach these tendencies to a real human life that explain why I have never conceived of him as anything else but a geographer, a discipline that still allows all of these labels to coexist in the same person and in the same body of work.  Geography is all about space, particularly the lived space of human beings and how they interact and modify their environments. It wonders about what was in a place before, and ponders, using the facts it collects, the possibilities of a place’s future history. 

     Thoreau's Field NotesFor Thoreau, as for modern geographers, observation, comparison, and perception are the keys to understanding both the natural and historical aspects of a landscape. He tried, especially in his journals, to provide examples of how the use of these skills can lead to discoveries, not only in far-flung places like the Malay Archipelago, but also well-known areas such as his native and, even during his time, well-explored town of Concord.  Thoreau, seen in this local and deeply geographic light, appears to combine in all his writings an empirical power of observation, as well as an ability to perceive changes and nuances in the landscape, with textual and historical readings taken from traveler’s tales, journals, field notebooks, natural history guides, and the maps and narratives of the earliest explorers of the New World.  Because of this comprehensive ecological and geographical sensibility, we find in Thoreau’s writings and notes a modern historical geographer, one who is trying to describe in detail a place (all his writings are about a place) using not only historical, topographic and geographic literature, but also sources based on direct experience, the kind of evidence that the historian Georges Duby once described as, “preserved not in the darkness of the archive, but open to the sunlight and life itself, namely to the landscape. ”

     This sense of empirical discovery based on his field observations, combined with his reading of textual sources, is the feature that truly makes all of his writings, from The Maine Woods to Cape Cod, comparable to the foundational geographical literature mentioned above. For example, note Thoreau’s reflections on coming upon a butterfly unexpectedly early in the spring, 


On a warm dry cliff looking S over Beaver Pond I was surprised to see a large black butterfly with buff edged wings, so tender a creature to be out so early, & when alighted opening and shutting its wings. What does it do these frosty nights. Its chrysalis must have hung in some sunny nook-of-the-rocks-born to be food for some early bird.

     Even though this may seem to be a simple observation, it contains information on where Thoreau saw the butterfly and when, and also on how it was behaving.  In many instances such as these Thoreau’s speculations on natural history are later clarified after he researches his observations further.  In the case of the black butterfly, he re-visits it later when speaking with Thaddeus William Harris (1795-1856), who was an entomologist and for a time the librarian at Harvard University. Thoreau writes in his Journal on April 11th about this same butterfly that, “Dr. Harris says that that the early black-winged butterfly is the Vanessa Antiopa-& is introduced from Europe-& is sometimes found in this state alive in winter. ”

Butterfly from the Wallace Collection

     Thoreau’s first description and later follow-up investigation not only tells something us about the natural history of the butterflies inhabiting Walden Woods, but also gives us a sense of his satisfaction and curiosity in coming upon such a sight. 

     These kinds of investigations, although often presented in his journals and without context, immediately bring to mind episodes found in the published writings of other contemporary naturalists. For example, Alfred Russell Wallace, the man credited along with Darwin with developing the theory of natural selection, was astonished on finding a specimen of the giant bird wing butterfly Ornithopertera Poseidon on the island of Aru in 1857 just around the same time that Thoreau was wandering the fields of Concord, “I could hardly believe that I had really succeeded…till I had taken it out of the net and was gazing lost in admiration, at the velvet black and brilliant green of its wings.” Wallace goes on to say that it is one thing to see a butterfly in the drawers of a collection or in a book but quite another, “to gaze upon its fresh and living beauty, a bright gem shining out amid the silent gloom of a dark and tangled forest.”  Wallace’s astonishment is certainly something Thoreau would have fully agreed with and wrote about with as much enthusiasm.

     While this kind of firsthand observation is critical to understanding Thoreau’s geographical thought, it is only one dimension. The strength of much of Thoreau’s writing also comes from his spending a great deal of time pouring over historical accounts and combining them with his empirical field observations. Historical references abound in Thoreau’s works, and his talent for integrating them with observation comes out most clearly in his notebooks and journals.  However, this skill also makes its way into his published writings. In Cape Cod he writes,Thoreau's Cape map

We were now fairly on the Cape...according to Hitchcock, the geologist of the state, it is composed almost entirely of sand…I at once got out my book, the eighth volume of the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, printed in 1802 which contains some short notices of the Cape towns and began to read up to where I was. 

     Thoreau walked the landscapes of most of the places that he read about, and although we tend to think of him as geographically tied to his native Concord, he actually traveled quite far for his time, observing the landscape and environment of wilder places like Cape Cod and the mountains and forests of Maine, Canada, and Minnesota.  These journeys are the existential and experiential substratum for both his writing and his geographical investigations, and they allowed him to open up his work “to the sunshine.” 

     Of course, for those who know something of his works and their scholarly interpretation, geographer is a title that is not normally associated with the great American writer Henry David Thoreau, nor is something as esoteric as the practice of cartography or topography a field in which he is generally known to have achieved any notoriety. But during the last twelve years of his life, from 1850 to 1862, this icon of American letters and environmentalism spent considerable time, not only working as a land surveyor, but also reading the earliest exploration and topographical narratives of the New World, taking detailed notes on the names of places and the plants and animals mentioned in them, while also making scaled copies and sketches of some of the earliest maps of North America that they contained.  There are many places in his works where Thoreau exclaims his interest in these topics quite clearly, for example, once again in Cape Cod he writes,

As we thus skirted the backside of the towns, for we did not enter any village, till we got to Provincetown, we read their histories under our umbrellas, rarely meeting anybody. The old accounts are the richest in topography, which is what we wanted most… 

     Although it is no coincidence that much of Thoreau’s writing can be shown to have certain theoretical and structural commonalities with the classic works of natural history that he read, the principle sources for his geographic and cartographic studies are the more detailed local topographies and landscape descriptions found in authors like William Wood, Samuel Champlain, Marc Lescarbot, Richard Biddle, and many other early describers of the Northeastern United States and Canada. It is in these works and in the detailed unpublished notes that he took while reading them that we truly find Thoreau the geographer, and thus begin to realize that all of his writing, whether published or unpublished, is best seen and understood through a geographic lens.New England's Prospect, William Wood 

     Examples of this reliance of local topographies, garnered not only from scientific writings, but also from obscure government reports, loom large in Thoreau’s writings and stand out as one of his primary methodological tools. On January 24, 1855, for example, at the time when he was reading many of the earliest accounts of the New World, he mused in his journal about the ways in which the plants and animals around Concord had changed in the last 200 years. He first mentions that he had been reading New England’s Prospect written by the English traveler William Wood, who had journeyed to New England in 1633 and described what he saw in voluminous detail, especially in relation to the natural world. Thoreau’s reading of Wood gave him a shock that reverberates through much of his later writing. The environment that Wood described in his narrative was radically different from the one experienced by the people of Concord in Thoreau’s time. Reflecting on this transformation, Thoreau lamented the degradation in everything from wild meadow grasses to the size of the trees and even the taste of the strawberries. He compiled a long list of changes, mourning the loss of eagles, turkeys, bear, moose, deer, wolfs, beavers and martens. Just over a year later, when thinking back on Wood’s descriptions, he would write that he could not help but feel a true sense of loss with the realization that he ”lived in a tamed and, as it were, emasculated country.” 

     As an avid reader of Thoreau, I have often wondered about the long passages concerning topography and maps in his published works like Cape Cod and the Maine Woods.  As a geographer and historian of cartography, I have found myself pondering what it was that compelled Thoreau to make the extensive glosses on the local environment and on early maps that are part of these works.  I questioned as I read what it was that he took from all this detailed information on early American cartography and geographical literature and what it was that he expected his readers to take away from all the details. 

Thoreau on Champlain