Magazine article American Forests

A Tree of Literary Genius

Magazine article American Forests

A Tree of Literary Genius

Article excerpt


In the mid-1800s Henry David Thoreau wasn't exactly a revered celebrity among the good folks of Concord, Massachusetts. He was a local fellow who couldn't cut it as a teacher, thought of himself as a writer, occasionally ran his dad's pencil factory, and had modest success with a book he wrote about spending a couple of years at a nearby pond living by himself.

Thoreau himself knew that to all outward appearances, his life was a failure. "If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is esteemed as an industrious and enterprising citizen," he wrote.

Fortunately, Thoreau found a mentor in Ralph Waldo Emerson, a leading writer, lecturer, and leader of the Transcendentalist movement. When Emerson gave Thoreau permission to stay at a pond on a piece of his property outside town, Thoreau leaped at the chance. He set about building himself a small cabin on Waiden Pond and moved there on Independence Day in 1845 to write, reflect, and meditate. He stayed for two years.

In the second chapter of Waiden: or, Life in the Woods, he explains, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when 1 came to die, discover that I had not lived."

Of all the wonders of Waiden Woods, one tree in particular enchanted him: the red maple. Time and again, he pondered the species' glory, especially as its leaves turned in autumn. Quoting from Waiden:

"How beautiful, when a whole [red maple] tree is like one great scarlet fruit full of ripe juices, every leaf, from the lowest limb to the topmost spire, all aglow, especially if you look toward the sun! What more remarkable object can there be in the landscape? Visible for miles, too fair too be believed. If such a phenomenon occurred but once, it would be handed down by tradition to posterity, and get into the mythology at last."

Fast forward to 1990, when two proposed commercial development projects threatened the very existence of key historic and ecologically sensitive sites near Waiden Pond. Many folks who had read and been inspired by Thoreau's "modestly successful" book felt that if any place should be preserved for posterity, it was Waiden Woods. …

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