Magazine article American Scientist


Magazine article American Scientist


Article excerpt

The Scientists' Nightstand, American Scientist's books section, offers reviews, review essays, brief excerpts, and more. For additional books coverage, please see our Science Culture blog channel, which explores how science intersects with other areas of knowledge, entertainment, and society: /scienceculture.

In this edition of Scientists' Nightstand, we celebrate the bicentennial of Henry David Thoreau's birth, on July 12,1817. Asan intellect, he was a serious multihyphenate, a wrlter-philosopher-naturalist-ethicist-surveyor-poet for the ages. His most celebrated works, namely Walden and "Civil Disobedience," are rightly remembered for the independent-mlndedness they reveal as well as for their rhetorical strength. Nonetheless, amid the beauty and power of Thoreau's prose, It is vital to remember him also as a student of and evangelist for the natural world. Today, well Into the 21st century-as we deepen our understanding of nature, grapple with climate change, and consider the cultural role of science-his work remains essential.

Thoreau as Naturalist: A Conversation with Four Authors

Dianne Timblin

To mark Thoreau's bicentennial, we spoke with four authors who have spent countless hours studying his work as a naturalist. Richard Higgins is the author of Thoreau and the Language of Trees, which draws on 100 excerpts from Thoreau's writings to explore and discuss his knowledge of and connection to trees. Conservation biologist Richard B. Primack's Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau's Woods has become a touchstone for ecologists, climate scientists, and environmental historians. Geologist Robert M. Thorson's latest book on Thoreau, The Boatman, examines the Concord River's vital influence on Thoreau, with a particular emphasis on how the encroachment of industrialization spurred an evolution in his thinking. Laura Dassow Walls has spent decades excavating details of Thoreau's life from libraries and archives; she offers them to readers, alongside her formidable analysis and insight, in her forthcoming biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life, available in July. (You can find a list of these books, along with other recent works on Thoreau, online.) Go online also for an extended version of our discussion about Thoreau as a scientist and thinker: article/thoreau-as-naturalist.

Although each of you has written about Thoreau's work as a naturalist, you've all approached the topic from different perspectives. I'm interested in hearing what you each set out to do in writing about Thoreau. Let's start with you, Dr. Primack. The environmental data Thoreau recorded has been vital to your ecological studies of the Concord, Massachusetts, area-something you discuss in your book Walden Warming.

Richard B. Primack: I wanted to demonstrate how Thoreau's observations from the 1850s, when linked to modern observations, provide powerful evidence for the effects of climate change on plants and animals. For eight years Thoreau kept such detailed daily observations that we were able to clearly demonstrate the shift: Plants are now flowering and leafing out about two weeks earlier than they were 160 years ago. We could also discern that rising spring temperatures were driving these changes in timing; it was not another factor, such as changes in rainfall or land use. Thoreau's observations also helped us determine that birds are not responding as dynamically to warming temperatures; that is, their arrival dates each spring are not changing much. In Walden Warming, I explore the implications of these changes, especially the possibility of seasonal ecological mismatches between plants and birds, as well as the insects that birds eat.

I also wanted to convey that many of Thoreau's key themes in Walden- such as the value of living simply, the importance of carefully observing nature, and the moral reasons for taking political stands-are still very relevant. …

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