Wednesday, June 1, 2016


Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

By villy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I didn't read Henry David Thoreau's Walden; Or Life in the Woods until long after the time I "should" have, i.e., in college. My guess is that it had something to do with course selection, interests or it could have been before the book became a standard assignment for seminars/introductory courses.

When I did read it, I was sorry it had taken me so long although I found Thoreau to be exactly whom Edward Abbey so aptly characterized as the "village crank." But, man, could Thoreau see the natural world and also approach it in a systematic, evidence-based way.

A Critique of Thoreau 
By Splitwoman (Michael Polito)
[CC BY-SA 3.0
( or
GFDL (],
via Wikimedia Commons

Kathryn Schulz has written a provocative critique--this is being kind; it is a to-the-mat-take down--of the author of the book for a recent issue of the New Yorker. The title is a two-word abstract of what is ahead: Pond Scum. I suspect it has led to some sharp rejoinders, correctives and advice to Ms. Schultz.

Still, read it, especially if you use the book in your teaching or if you just want to think about Thoreau or if you like good writing. As a counterpoint to Schulz's critique is this long essay by Edward Abbey. It is loving, perceptive, less pointedly critical and in Abbey's iconoclastic tradition, funny.

Image from
Walden through Haikus
Ian Marshall, following Basho's lead decided to experiment with Thoreau's prose. The result is found in Walden by Haiku. The book consists of 293 haiku derived from Walden. In the introduction, Marshall draws attention to a poet standing by a pond, noting that this poet is two poets--Thoreau and Basho--standing by two ponds--Walden Pond and Basho's "old pond." Marshall's purposes are "to offer a primer on haiku, to provide fresh insights into Walden, and to demonstrate the pertinence of haiku aesthetics as a theoretical basis for understanding the nature writing tradition in English." It is a wonderful, slanted way of reading Thoreau's classic book and not to be missed.

Thoreau as a systematic Ecologist
Schulz does tell us that Thoreau was "wonderful at actually seeing" but says nothing about his contributions to our understanding of how the natural world works. He was often very systematic about collecting data. Frank N. Edgerton who writes wonderful columns about the history of ecology for the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, describes Thoreau's contributions to ecological science in Henry David Thoreau, Ecologist.

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