Teaming up with Thoreau | Science | Smithsonian
(Cheryl Carlin)

Teaming up with Thoreau

One hundred fifty years after the publication of Walden, Henry David Thoreau is helping scientists monitor global warming

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The upright citizens of Concord, Massachusetts, didn't think much of young Henry David Thoreau. The cabin on Walden Pond, the night in jail for tax evasion, the constant scribbling in journals—it all seemed like a waste of a perfectly good Harvard education. Even more mysterious was his passion for flowers. "I soon found myself observing when plants first blossomed and leafed," Thoreau confided to his journal in 1856, "and I followed it up early and late, far and near, several years in succession, running to different sides of the town and into the neighboring towns, often between twenty and thirty miles in a day."

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Thoreau planned to turn his vast botanical records into a book, but he died of tuberculosis in his mid-40s, the project undone. Walden and his handful of other published writings languished in near obscurity, and even his close friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said that Thoreau had squandered his talents on the woods. "I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. ...Instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party," Emerson lamented in his eulogy of Thoreau.

Walden, of course, is now a classic of American literature, and Thoreau is considered a secular prophet. In Concord, tourists buy T-shirts printed with Thoreau's best-known sayings, including "beware of all enterprises that require new clothes." Much has changed in Concord. On the shore of Walden Pond in summer, warblers and blueberry bushes are still commonplace, but so are teenagers in shocking-pink bikinis.

Thoreau's unassuming gravestone, marked simply "HENRY," rests on a mossy ridge not far from the center of town and is decorated with pine boughs and pebbles left by admirers. On a sunny slope nearby, two botanists crouch in the grass, paying a different sort of tribute to Concord's famous son.

"We've got bluets. First time this year," Abe Miller-Rushing says.

"Are you sure you didn't see some yesterday?" teases his mentor, Richard Primack of Boston University.

"First time," Miller-Rushing says with a grin.

The late April afternoon is clear and warm, and the slope at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is dotted with the pale, four-petal blooms of the native plant. Were Thoreau here to marvel at the changes in Concord, these delicate flowers might surprise him most of all.

"How sweet is the perception of a new natural fact!" Thoreau remarked in his journal in 1852. Throughout the 1850s, while his neighbors toiled in their fields and offices, Thoreau spent hours each day walking Concord's woods and meadows, contemplating nature. His outings, he insisted, were anything but leisurely: "I have the habit of attention to such excess," he wrote, "that my senses get no rest—but suffer from a constant strain."

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