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


Thoreau's Cartographic Explorations 

Canadian notebook clip     

     It was my reading of Thoreau’s unpublished ‘Canadian Notebook’ that started to provide the answers.  As it sparked my interest in Thoreau the geographer, I could not help but wonder why I had never heard of him. I am not sure when I initially heard about the Notebook but I certainly remember when I first held it in my hands in the reading room of the Morgan Library, whose collections, along with nearly 2000 pages of other unpublished Thoreau manuscripts, of which it is a part.  The Morgan Library, in New York City, is one of the great repositories of manuscripts from all periods of history, and it is a library much in the old-school mode, requiring permission and reference letters, and holding their collections close. Examining anything there gives one's research a particular air of seriousness.

     The Notebook itself, which has never been published in a complete edition, nor been completely transcribed, contains Thoreau’s extensive notes on the early exploration of the Northeastern portion of the United States and provides a detailed record of his reading about the geography, topography, and ethnography of the region. The idea that he would have thought it important enough to write such extensive geographical notes was something new to me, something I had never read about in all of the scholarship and in all of the biographies of Thoreau that I studied over the years, and this lack of notice sent me searching to see what, if anything, remained of the author of Walden’s geographic explorations.     

Thoreau's Canadian Notebook

     Reading the Notebook was the first time that I had approached Thoreau in manuscript form, unmediated by the more polished and published Thoreau that I had come to know so well. For an historian, it is the manuscript that gives access to the past as something seen anew, as something previously unread, and a hopeful sense of discovery anticipates every encounter. When I opened Thoreau’s notebook, it was not the words that I initially noticed but rather the manuscript’s form. A simple notebook, with marbled covers and pages of unremarkable off-white ledger paper, it was the ink and handwriting that dominated my first glance. The paleography was dark and sloppy, more difficult to make out than many of the Medieval and Renaissance cartographic manuscripts of my previous experience. The beginnings of research on any manuscript is always more sensory than intellectual and tends to fill me with a peculiar anxiety. This encounter was no different. Usually, when presented with a manuscript, it takes some time for my emotions to settle, for these pieces of paper were in Thoreau’s hands and are as close as one can get a century and a half later to his actual thoughts. I have had these same feelings many times in working on manuscripts from much earlier periods, but eventually, the feeling passes, and allows my mind to begin to make sense of the writing on the page.

 Thoreau's maps

     It was then that I first saw the list. Written in the back of the Notebook in pencil (most of the notebook being in ink) was Thoreau’s list of the maps that he had copied, maps that I had never seen mentioned, that apparently no one had ever written about, and that are generally regarded as the most important early maps of the northeastern United States. With this list in hand, I have, for the last few years, searched for the copies and sketches of the maps that Thoreau made, and I have tried to determine whether they have survived, what they might have looked like, and how they fit into his larger literary endeavors. Thoreau’s copies that have survived are well-drawn, showing that he was a talented draftsman, and in some cases they are drawn to scale. Thoreau takes extreme care in assembling his sketches, being sure to accurately depict boundaries and coastlines, to locate place names properly, and to draw any animals and plants in the same way as the early mapmakers. Such attention to detail, combined with the critical commentary he composed about each of these maps, suggests that Thoreau was one of the first writers whom we might call an historian of cartography and geography, and that he was at work on some unfinished geographical project that captivated his imagination during these last years of his life.

Thoreau's Geographic Sensibility     

Emerson letter to H.S. Randall     In March of 1858, in a letter to H.S. Randall, Ralph Waldo Emerson inquired about obtaining a documentary history of New York for a friend whom he described as "a very curious & very instructed scholar in early American history, especially in all that concerns the Indians." "He is," Emerson continued, "Henry D. Thoreau, a Land-surveyor in this town, and, though far less well-known than he ought to be, very well-known in this region."  The history that Emerson refers to here is the history of the early exploration and discovery of the North American continent, especially the northeastern coast of New England and Canada.

     Henry Canby, in an early recognition of these geographical tendencies, wrote that if Thoreau "aspired to any science which was more than classification and collecting, it was to geography, a science scarcely adolescent in Thoreau’s day, although with Humboldt and Darwin it had been brought out of its infancy... There could be no better description of hundreds of pages of Thoreau’s later Journal than this."    

     Canby's conclusions are confirmed in the obsessive interrogation of landscape that runs throughout Thoreau's works. It is, after all, obvious that many of Thoreau’s published writings, such as the Maine Woods and Cape Cod, frequently refer to geographical texts and cartography. And although they speak in detail about a particular place, these works contain no maps, and Thoreau’s long comments on maps and exploration are often seen as mere digressions, sometimes passed over by readers. To discover the Thoreau that I aim to portray, Thoreau the geographer, we must turn first to his unpublished manuscripts. It is in these jottings, written in those moments of close interaction with geographical studies and maps, that we see in stark detail how Thoreau’s cartographic explorations helped forge in his mind the geographical link between natural and civil history that was noted by Emerson and later scholars. The search for the roots of what I will call throughout this book Thoreau’s ‘geographical turn,’ and the reasons for his extensive interactions with early American cartography and topography, lead us to consider three separate, but interrelated, aspects of Thoreau’s understudied geographic and cartographic manuscripts:      

Thoreau surveyThe first aspect, and the most significant for his technical understanding of geography and cartography, especially the process of mapmaking, was his work as a land surveyor in and around Concord, Massachusetts, during the 1850’s. Surveying as a profession gave Thoreau the ability to look at maps critically and helped him to understand not only their mathematical limits but also their broader utility for the study of history, culture, geography and natural science. It also allowed him to wander the fields and woodlots of Concord and to observe nature closely in all seasons in a way that his fellow Transcendentalist and early mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson certainly never would have.

ChamplainThe second aspect, and perhaps the driving reason for his engagement with early American cartography, was his interest in the history of the indigenous peoples of the Northeast. Thoreau would take more than 2000 pages of notes on this subject, the vast majority of which have yet to be published, and all of which are mostly unknown even to Thoreau specialists. In the course of this note-taking, he copied and commented on some of the early maps of the northeastern United States and Canada by such seminal figures as Samuel Champlain (1580-1635), Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598), John Smith (1580-1631), John de Verrazano (1485-1527), and Cornelius Wytfliet (d ca. 1597).

acornThe third aspect relates to his critically important and, until quite recently, largely ignored botanical investigations that resulted in his late manuscript the Dispersion of Seeds. This manuscript shows in stark detail the influence of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species on the work Thoreau did in his later years, and it was certainly his reading of that text completed his geographical turn.

Thoreau's true north      

Explore Thoreau's Surveys at the Concord Free Public Library

     Setting himself up as a surveyor in Concord in late 1849, Thoreau was soon recognized as one of best and most accurate operating in the region. He surveyed many places around his hometown, and the list of his clients reads like a library of early American literature including property-owners such as Bronson AlcottNathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The question of exactly how he learned to survey is not entirely settled, but as Patrick Chura recounts in his book on Thoreau's study and practice of the profession, it appears that he was self-taught. A copy of the 1847 edition of Charles Davies' Elements of Surveying and Navigation survives in his library. Davies’ text was one of the most widely used books on surveying during the middle of the nineteenth century and with Galbraith’s Mathematical Tables, a title that Thoreau borrowed from the Harvard Library, represents a solid introduction to the principles of land measurement as practiced at the time. Thoreau annotated his copy of Davies with notes from Galbraith on particular mathematical and trigonometric problems, such as the calculation of areas or the sine of angles.      

Thoreau's field notes

     He took much more from his reading of Galbraith, however, than mere mathematical instruction. In a journal entry dated June 9th, 1850, he lists nine books recommended by Galbraith’s text, several of which concern the esoteric subject of the magnetic variation of compass needles. His interest in magnetic variation was likewise indicated on the advertising broadside he prepared for his surveying services. Later that year, in November of 1850, he made an entry in his journal that marks the beginning of what would become a short obsession with the subject: “When I am considering the way which I walk, my needle is slow to settle, my compass varies by a few degrees and does not always point due southwest; and there is good authority for these variations in the heavens.” His comment here is more than just passing; he delved into the science of magnetic declination in a way that came to characterize his careful approach to cartography and thus provides yet more evidence of his geographical turn.      

     Thoreau’s notebook jottings on the technical aspects of cartography highlight his shift away from the Transcendentalist themes that drove his early works. Among the Transcendentalists' core principles, at least as the philosophy was imagined by Emerson, was their belief in an ideal spiritual state that 'transcends' the physical and empirical and is only realized through the individual's intuition.  This repudiation of mundane information reflects the Transcendentalists' overarching belief in the mind as the locus of knowledge, a perspective they developed in reaction to John Locke’s notion that knowledge can only be gathered though sensual experience.     

Immanuel Kant

     In Nature, the essay that first drew Thoreau into his circle, Emerson rejected the sensual basis of Locke's epistemology, declaring, “Empirical science is apt to cloud the sight, and by the very knowledge of functions and processes to bereave the student of the manly contemplation of nature.” While he described this approach as a departure from European traditions, Emerson generally maintained that he and his circle of Transcendentalists took their main philosophical points of view directly from the work of the German Transcendental philosopher, Immanuel Kant.

     While Kant never displaced Locke as a foundational figure in American political thought, his Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787) profoundly influenced Western philosophy and shaped how the modern world came to see the pursuit of science. Kant argued that humans, in the system of science epitomized by Newtonian physics, had achieved certain knowledge of the phenomenal world that would last through time. From this premise, he developed a synthesis of the two dominant forms of thinking about science in his era, British empiricism, as embodied in the philosophy of John Locke and David Hume, and continental rationalism, as represented by the thought of Rene Descartes. In weaving together these two very different approaches, Kant exposed the flaws in both. His integration of the ideal structures of knowledge with our experience of mundane existence revealed the empirical vacuity of Cartesian philosophy and also overcame the reductive realism found in the philosophy of Locke. 

     Without denying the Kantian aspects of American Transcendentalism, recent scholarship has suggested that Emerson’s debt to Kant is actually based on his misreading of Kant’s philosophy. I will develop this theme in a later chapter, but noting the disconnections between Kant and Emerson helps to distinguish the geographical perspective of Thoreau from the idealist views of his fellow Transcendentalists. In a characteristic passage, Emerson summarized his view of the essential difference between Transcendentalist and Lockean approaches to science: 

RW Emersonthe idealist [which he thought the Transcendentalists were] concedes all that [materialists] affirm, admits the impressions of science, admits their coherency, their use and beauty, and then asks the materialist for his assurance that things are as his senses represent them…but I affirm facts not affected by the illusions of sense.”

     Emerson’s contention that there is knowledge of "facts” not directly related to the senses is a strange interpretation of the Kantian project.  According to Kant, all human perception is tempered by the structure of that perception, and by the a priori concepts of space and time. From this perspective, we can only understand our world and the objects in it through these existential categories and, as a result, knowledge is always informed in some way by subjective experience.  In line with his effort to synthesize idealist and materialist principles, Kant devoted much of his life to examining the formation of scientific knowledge, especially in the field of geography. Thus, in his Lectures on Physical Geography, delivered at the University Of Königsberg over the course of many years, he elaborated a materially grounded approach to science that defined the senses, not as the source of illusions, as Emerson suggested, but as our subjective point of contact with the systems and substance of the objective world.  Given this dual affirmation of both subjective perception and objective reality, it is not surprising that Kant's synthetic epistemology lent itself to the evolution of a more scientific world view or that his work played such a seminal role in the evolution of geography.

Charles DarwinAlexander von HumboldtSituating Thoreau within this evolution, both as a student of Kantian philosophy and as a thinker in his own right, allows us to understand more clearly the philosophical differences that he developed with Emerson, as well as his attraction to the works of geographically oriented writers such as Humboldt and Darwin.  In a journal entry in 1852, Thoreau rejected Emerson's idealist disdain for "mere facts," arguing against his former mentor, that “Mere facts & names & dates communicate to us much more than we suspect.”  Along with many similar statements, this remark exemplifies Thoreau's Kantian approach to the natural world.  Departing from Emerson's unmixed idealism, he  developed a philosophy of science based on Kant’s attempt to unite the mechanistic view of Newtonian physics with the subjective feeling that nature creates in the human spirit.  Since this aspect of Kant's philosophy played a similarly formative role in the emergence of modern geography, it makes sense that Thoreau focused so intently on the works of Humboldt, Darwin, and others who sought to explain geographical and spatial phenomena through methodical observation, and who gathered information, not from books alone, but from direct exploration of natural environments.   

By approaching Thoreau as a geographer in his early writing of Walden, his later travel narratives of Cape Cod and the Maine Woods, his unpublished notes on topography and exploration, and his later empirical and field studies of plant distribution, I hope to show that he was engaged in asking and trying answer what today would be considered deep geographical questions. In fact, his geographical turn helps to explain his continuing relevance today. The whole of his work, especially his lesser known writings, from his notes on early exploration and copies of maps, to his lists of plants and flowering times, all the way to his biological tracts like the Dispersion of Seeds and the "Succession of Forest Trees,"reflect a profound concern, even an obsession, with trying to explain the historical geography of his native Concord and the broader environment of early New England. In our rapidly changing and environmentally challenged world, it remains an obsession from which we can all take lasting lessons.

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About the Author: 

When not climbing in the Alps, mountain biking through some jungle, or looking for Roman ruins in North Africa, John Hessler is a Cartographic and Geospatial Reference Specialist in the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress.


Note: All of the works consulted, quoted, or cited in this essay are linked directly to full-text resources or to sites where readers can obtain access to original documents and additional information.  

1.  Henry Canby notes Thoreau's geographical tendencies in Thoreau (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1939) 334.

2.  For an example of the present-day use of Thoreau's work in biogeography, see  Abraham J. Miller-Rushing and Richard B. Primack, “Global Warming and Flowering Times in Thoreau’s Concord: A Community Perspective” Ecology 89 (2008) 332-341; Charles Willis and Brad Primack, “Phylogenetic Patterns of Species Loss in Thoreau’s woods are driven by climate change” Proceeedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105 (2008) 17029-17003.

3.  On bringinging historical texts into "the sunshine," see Georges Duby, History Continues, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 27-28.

4.  Wallace recounts his encounter with the Ornithopertera Poseidon in Alfred Russel Wallace, The Malay Archipelago, the land of the orang-utan and the bird of paradise (London, 1886), 429.

5.  Several recent studies discuss Thoreau’s surveying activities and use of maps but none talk about his copies of important early American cartography. See Kent C. Ryden, Landscape with Figures: Nature and Culture in New England (University of Iowa Press, 2009) 97-134; Rick Van Noy, Literary Cartographers and the Sense of Place (University of Nevada Press, 2003) 39-72; and Patrick Chura, Thoreau the Land Surveyor (University Press of Florida, 2010).

6.  Canadian Notebook, MA 595 and the eleven Indian Notebooks, MA 596-MA 606 are part of the manuscript collections of the Pierpont Morgan Library.

7.  In his bibliographic study of the Canadian Notebook, Lawrence Willson mentions the list but does not pursue the identification of the maps it contains. See Lawrence Willson, “Thoreau’s Canadian Notebook,” Huntington Library Quarterly (1959): 179-200.

8. Letter from R.W. Emerson to H.S. Randall, March 26, 1858, available at the University of Chicago Library. 

9. John S. Pipkin links Thoreau with modern geopgraphy in “Hiding Places: Thoreau’s Geographies,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers  91: (2001) 527-545.

10. David Livingstone recounts the historical development of geographical inquiry in The Geographical Tradition: Episodes in the History of a Contested Enterprise (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)

11. One need only look at the beginning of the Provincetown chapter of Cape Cod for an example of Thoreau’s writing on the history of cartography. Pages 179-195 are especially focused on early representations of New England. 

12. For insight into Thoreau's reading of Darwin, see Henry David Thoreau, Faith in a Seed: The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings, edited by Bradley P. Dean (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1993).

13. In teaching himself the principles of surveying, Thoreau relied on Charles Davies, Elements of Surveying and Navigation with descriptions of the instruments and the necessary tables (New York: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1847); and William Galbraith, Mathematical and Astronomical Tables for the use of students of mathematics (Edinburgh: Simpson A. Marshall, J.W. Norie and Company, 1843).

14. For more on Thoreau's interest in magnetic variation, Albert F. Mclean, “Thoreau’s True Meridian: Natural Fact and Metaphor” American Quarterly 567-579; Patrick Chura recounts Thoreau's efforts to ascertain true north in Thoreau the Land Surveyor (University Press of Florida, 2010)  

15. The manuscript volume of Field Notes of Surveys is part of the extensive the collections of the Concord Free Public Library.

16. On magnetic variation, Thoreau consulted William Cranch Bond, author with Joseph Lovering of “An Account of the Magnetic Observations made at the Observatory of Harvard University, Cambridge,” Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2 (1846), 1-84.

17. On the influence of Alexander von Humboldt on Thoreau's vision of natural history and science, see Laura Dassow-Walls, The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander Humboldt and the Shaping of America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009);  Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth Century Natural Science (Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995).

18. Kant’s writings on natural history are quite extensive and are beginning to receive more scholarly treatment with the publishing of a newly translated volume of his natural history works by Cambridge University Press. See Immanuel Kant, Natural Science, edited by Eric Watkins (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012)

19. Stanley Cavell suggests that Emerson misread Kant, and that Thoreau developed a more coherent version of Kantian Transcendentalism in Senses of Walden: An Expanded Edition (University of Chicago Press, 1992).