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Wild Apples and Other Natural History Essays
Henry D. Thoreau
University of Georgia Press, 2002
240 pp., $69.95
Walden Pond: A History
W. Barksdale Maynard
Oxford University Press, 2004
416 pp., $99.00
Thoreau's Ecstatic Witness
Alan D. Hodder
Yale University Press, 2001
320 pp., $65.00
by Lauren F. Winner
The Sage of Walden Pond
This year, Walden turns 150, and the sesquicentenary of Henry David Thoreau's chronicle of two years spent living "alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts" has inspired a flurry of commemorations. The Concord Museum is hosting an anniversary lecture series; several new editions of Walden will be published this year, introduced by the likes of John Updike and Bill McKibben; and in the course of the year a host of commentators will be weighing in.
Thoreau's legacy is two-pronged. First, he is remembered as a political prophet, advocating nonviolent resistance to civil government. He cut his political teeth opposing slavery, and in Walden he tells the tale of spending a night in jail after refusing to "pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the state which buys and sells men, women, and children, like chattel." (2004, incidentally, also marks the 150th anniversary of Thoreau's essay "Slavery in Massachusetts.") If his masterful treatise "Civil Disobedience" didn't galvanize the abolitionist movement, it did find ready readers in ensuing generations; it inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and was even occasionally quoted by those who protested the 2003 war in Iraq.
At the same time, Thoreau is heralded as a great nature writer and an environmentalist avant le lettre, a reputation resting not only on Walden but also on his many writings about the natural world. Several of his less-famous nature pieces have been recently collected in Wild Apples and Other Natural History Essays. But "natural history" perhaps does not do these essays justice, for Thoreau goes beyond the painstaking observation and vivid description that is the skeleton of great nature writing. In the title essay, for example, Thoreau not only traces the history of the apple tree, he also wrings lessons about good living from "hardships" the crab apple must endure to "bear a sweet fruit." And the ...