Mapping Thoreau’s Bioregionalism

Mapping Thoreau’s Bioregionalism

Among the many occupations that Henry Thoreau plied throughout his life—school teacher, essayist, lecturer, pencil maker, and occasional helping hand in a myriad of day jobs in Concord—his career as a land surveyor, perhaps, is one of the most curious. As Patrick Chura has pointedly observed, in colonial North America, “the multiple purposes of establishing individual ownership, taxable value and legal jurisdiction were embodied in the person of the land surveyor.”1  While Thoreau “enjoyed surveying, for no other job gave him the same freedom to set his own hours and places of business,” he often feared that men who employed him “misused his skills,” and “the task often left him bitter and depressed.”2

Nevertheless, land surveying serves as an apt metaphor to describe the life-long career of Henry Thoreau. Throughout his books, essays, and journal entries, Thoreau incessantly records his investigation of the flora and fauna, topographic details, natural history, and phenological phenomena of a local ecology. Furthermore, he draws the maps of Concord, Maine, Canada, Cape Cod, and Minnesota while carrying out his duties as a land surveyor and traveling in various parts of North America. Noticeably, most if not all of Thoreau’s works are situated in the Northeastern Coastal Forests bioregion that encompasses such areas as southern New York, the New England Mixed Forests, and the Maine North Woods. This bioregion is characterized by a humid continental climate and such biota as oak forests and coastal pines, while offering good pasture land for grain and timber.

What is significant about Thoreau’s survey of the Northeastern Costal Bioregion and his mapping of it throughout his works is the way that it complicates and even subverts the conventional land-surveying of his time that espouses the sovereign power of national states and consolidates the private wealth and land property rights of owners. One of his earliest essays, “The Natural History of Massachusetts,” published in The Dial in July 1842, is precisely a case in point. In this piece, Thoreau states that the “merely political aspect of the land is never very cheering.”3 This is an ironic statement, for the essay is supposed to be “a review of a series of government-sponsored reports surveying the plants and animals of the state,” as Laura Dassow Walls aptly points out.4  Thoreau’s review, instead, performs an intervention into the state-initiated efforts to survey and classify the zoological and botanical orders of Massachusetts. Thoreau, for instance, mocks such a misconception as “the crow was brought to this country by the white man” by stating that “I shall as soon believe that the white man planted these pines and hemlocks. . . . there is the rook in England, and the crow in New England” (12). Sometimes he even corrects the information provided by the State Report, drawing on his daily observations: “The fishes commonly taken in this way are pickerel, suckers, perch, eels, pouts, breams, and shiners. . . . The number of these transverse bands, which the Report states to be seven, is, however, very variable, for in some of our ponds they have nine and ten even” (21). 

Thoreau’s works are clearly influenced by his career as a land surveyor. Instead of a conventional state map, however, Thoreau draws a bioregional map that charts and delineates a local ecology and its natural history as well as its intersection with a human community. Rick Van Noy has defined literary cartographers as those who explore “how maps function in literary texts . . . or how maps in themselves can tell a story . . . [and] how literature can be used for cartographic means: to control, order, or limn a place.”5 Following Van Noy, I would say that Thoreau’s works embody the literary bioregional cartography of the Northeastern Coastal Forests. What underlies his bioregional works is his deep-sense of place and environmental ethics. By applying a framework of bioregionalism to understanding Thoreau’s career, one could better appreciate Thoreau’s life work and his environmental praxis deeply rooted in the bioregional ground of Northeastern coastal forests.

A bioregion generally refers to an ecologically and geographically defined life-place, regardless of politically designated borders or regions that would subsequently merge into larger sovereign national states. When the school of bioregionalism began to emerge in the 1970s, it was hailed as an ecologically derived political or cultural practice that would most likely complement the national and even global politics of environmentalism. While bioregionalism as such may be a fairly new field of study, throughout the history of the US from the colonial period to the present, the exploitation of natural resources and the subsequent environmental degradations have prompted many ecologically conscious writers to forcefully address their concerns about the environmental issues of a bioregion. Among nineteenth-century American writers, Thoreau best exemplifies the workings of a bioregional consciousness or a bioregional imagination, because he offers a deep-map narrative of a bioregion against the state-initiated efforts of land surveying and the US Coast Survey bent upon imposing a sovereign national border onto nature. His endeavors, instead, divest a region of its political markers and return it to a bioregion, or a life-place.


Thoreau’s bioregional works bear on his typical textual move that juxtaposes the present with the remote past. In so doing, he highlights the morphological changes of a landscape, such as the disappearance of certain species from Northeastern forests, the dispersion and demographic changes of native flora, and the growing human intervention into a bioregion. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, for instance, meandering down the stream of the Concord River under the North Bridge, Thoreau embarks on an extended passage that describes the native flora of Concord, including the narrow-leaved willow, the polygonum, the arrow-head, the pickerel-weed, the snakehead, and the trumpet-weed. The native flora scattered throughout the Northeastern Costal Forests epitomizes for Thoreau “a historical remoteness” that floats from the past to the future along the river.6 Cape Cod is another instance of Thoreau’s signature mapping strategy that juxtaposes a present map that he draws from his excursions into the sandy shores and cliffs of the Northeastern beach with earlier maps, including those by French, Dutch and English navigators during the seventeenth century.7 As always, Thoreau attends to the natural history of plants growing in the region, including corn, fruit trees, and lichen.

The Maine Woods, particularly, evokes nostalgia toward “America’s native past [that] became the primitive ground against which the new nation defined itself,” thereby arousing an ethos of preservation among its readers.8 Describing the Penobscot River basin, for instance, Thoreau highlights the morphological change of landscape by noting the disappearance of the white pine. He now finds sawmills where the white pine used to thrive. In this piece, Thoreau most forcefully articulates his preservationist ethics toward the Northeastern Coastal Forests, the white pine being the keystone species of the bioregion. In one of his last essays, “An Address on the Succession of Forest Trees,” Thoreau offers a hopeful vision of the perennial existence of pine trees: “Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”9

Thoreau’s later works, including the manuscripts of "The Dispersion of Seeds," "Wild Fruits," and Indian Notebooks, delve deeper into various factors that contribute to the mutation of a bioregional border by delineating the dispersion of biota by animal activities, wind and water, and even human migration. As Tom Lynch emphasizes, a bioregional border is characterized by “blending and intergrading rather than being rigidly bounded.”10 Thoreau captures the main causes that contribute to the dispersion of certain flora in such passages as the one following, where he underscores the agency of the crow in the dispersion of apple trees:

Consider how the apple trees has spread over the country, through the agency of cows and other quadrupeds, making almost impenetrable thickets in many places and yielding many new and superior varieties for the orchard. . . . One winter, observing under an oak on the snow and ice by the riverside some fragments of frozen-thawed apples, I looked further and detected two or three tracks of a crow and the droppings of several that must have been perched on the oak, but there were no tracks of squirrels or other animals there. . . . The nearest apples trees were thirty rods off across the river. The crows had evidently brought the frozen-thawed apples to this oak for security, and here eaten what they did not let fall on the snow.11 

Thoreau orchestrates his bioregional works around a seasonal cycle, or his “Kalendar.” As Kristen Case explains, “[i]n the final years of his life, Thoreau attempted to collect his observations of seasonal change over the years in a variety of lists and charts” that constitute “a project he sometimes referred to as his ‘Kalendar.’”12 This project, then, completes the bioregional map of Northeastern Coastal Forests that he endeavored to construct throughout his life by adding a third dimension to the temporal and spatial axes of the map: the axis of a circle, or the eternal return of a life-cycle.13 

It is ironic that Thoreau began his paid surveying job after the publication, at his own expense, of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which left him with a pile of unsold copies sitting in his attic and debts still to pay. Nevertheless, the land surveying of the Northeastern Coastal Forests bioregion was his lifetime career, which began much earlier, during his sojourn at Walden, while surveying the pond. His bioregional praxis embodied in his works points us towards a true preservationist ethics of environmentalism. By learning from Thoreau’s literary bioregional cartography, we could also gradually dissociate ourselves from an anthropocentric framework of viewing the non-human nature and, instead, appreciate the innate aesthetic, ecological, and spiritual values of a life place in which a biotic community abides writing and re-writing a bioregional border.


Yeojin Kim is a doctoral candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her dissertation explores the ways in which literary works could offer counter-narratives to the discourse of environmental imperialism.

(Photographs of the Walden Woods by Todd Truby.)




1. Patrick Chura, Thoreau the Land Surveyor (Tallahassee, FL: University Press of Florida, 2010): 3.

2. Robert F. Stowell, A Thoreau Gazetteer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970): ix.

3. Henry David Thoreau, “Natural History of Massachusetts,” Excursions, ed. Joseph J. Moldenhauer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007): 4; hereafter cited parenthetically.

4. Laura Dassow Walls, Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-century Natural Science (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995): 37.

5. Rick Van Noy, Surveying the Interior: Literary Cartographers and the Sense of Place (Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press, 2003): 3.

6. Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, ed. Carl F. Hovde, William L. Howarth, and Elizabeth Hall Witherell (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980): 20, 17.

7. See Thoreau, “Provincetown,” Cape Cod, ed. Joseph J. Moldenauer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).

8. John Kucich, “Lost in the Maine Woods: Henry David Thoreau, Joseph Nicolar, and the Penobscot World,” The Concord Saunterer 19/20 (2011-12): 27.

9. Thoreau, “An Address on the Succession of Forest Tress,” Excursions, ed. Joseph J. Moldenhauer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007): 181-82.

10. Tom Lynch, Xerophilia: Ecocritical Explorations in Southwestern Literature (Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 2008): 23-24.

11. Thoreau, Faith in a Seed (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1993): 79.

12. Kristen Case, “Thoreau’s Radical Empiricism: The Kalendar, Pragmatism, and Science,” Thoreauvian Modernities (Athens, GA:University of Georgia Press, 2013): 188.

13. The legacy of Thoreau’s Kalendar has been taken up by the Primack lab at Boston University, a team of researchers who work on the climate change in Massachusetts, primarily tapping into Thoreau’s work on phenology. See Richard Primack, Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau's Woods (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).