Magazine article American Forests

Thoreau & Trees: A Visceral Connection

Magazine article American Forests

Thoreau & Trees: A Visceral Connection

Article excerpt

HENRY DAVID THOREAU WAS CAPTIVATED BY TREES, and they played a significant role in his artistic creativity, philosophical thought and even his inner life. He responded emotionally to trees, but he also understood them scientifically as a naturalist. As a writer, Thoreau portrayed them so perfectly that it was as if he could see the sap flowing beneath their bark. When he wrote in The Maine Woods that the poet loves the pine tree as his own shadow in the air, he was speaking about his connection to trees. In short, he spoke their language.

What drew him to trees? Their beauty and form delighted his eye. Their wildness struck a chord in him. Their patience reminded him that we will sooner overtake the dawn by remaining here, where we are, than by chasing the sun across the western hills. By spending his life rooted in Concord, Thoreau emulated trees' tenacious hold on earth.

If Thoreau thought human nature was bent, he saw trees as upright and virtuous, as the nobility of the vegetable kingdom. Their very stance spoke of the "ancient rectitude and vigor of nature." Nothing, he said, "stands up more free from blame than a pine tree."

Old trees connected Thoreau to a realm of time not counted on the town clock, an endless moment of fable and possibility. Such trees reminded him "that I, too, am a remote descendent of the heroic race of men of whom there is tradition."

And, they were his teachers. Although he called the shedding of leaves in fall a "sylvan tragedy," he knew that the fallen leaves would enrich the soil and, in time, "stoop to rise" in new trees. By falling so airily, so contentedly, he wrote, they teach us how to die.


Thoreau wrote prolifically about trees from 1836 to 1861. Although he observed them closely and described them in detail, he did not presume to fully explain them. He respected a mysterious quality about trees, a way in which they point beyond themselves. They bore witness to the holy for him. Trees emerge in his writings as special emblems and images of the divine.

During Thoreau's lifetime, New England was all but deforested. While he hated the loss of familiar trees or woods - "Thank God, they cannot cut down the clouds!" - he was all the more aggrieved for knowing the ecological and psychological value of trees. "A town is saved," he wrote, "not more by the righteous men in it, than by the woods and swamps that surround it." Every tree "sends its fibers forth in search of the Wild" - and in the latter, he famously wrote, is the preservation of the world. Today's recognition of trees as "carbon sinks" that reduce global warming makes his vision of their value seem clairvoyant.

Thoreau was ahead of his time about trees in other ways. A century before nurse logs became a popular term in forest ecology, he called pines "nurses" to the oak saplings that take root around them. He did not use the word ecology, but he saw forests as whole landscapes that ignored public and private boundaries and urged that they be preserved as such. He depicted forest trees as "communities" and villages, anticipating, if only through metaphor, our discovery of trees' "social networks." And, despite the cutting of woods all around him, Thoreau, nevertheless, foresaw that "one day they will be planted and nature reinstated to some extent."

Loggers had the upper hand, however, in his own day. Thoreau's response was to use his gifts as a writer to challenge the petty calculus that reduced forests to so many board feet of lumber. He knew that without trees, nature would wither, and, thus, human life would as well. Trees, he said with customary frugal eloquence, "are good for other things than boards and shingles." They should be allowed to "stand and decay for higher uses."

Thoreau responded to trees on multiple levels. Five characteristic ways he did so were with his eye, his heart, his muse, his mind and his soul.


Thoreau delighted in observing the shape, color, texture and stance of trees. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.