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On April 23, 1851, Henry David Thoreau spoke at the Concord Lyceum about the interrelationship of God, man and nature.It was the opening salvo of the modern American conservation movement.Just as Muir’s book “Our National Parks” had helped save the High Sierras of California, “Cape Cod” served as an important catalyst for protecting what Thoreau called “the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts.” In a 1959 New York Times article titled “Walking in Thoreau’s Footsteps on Cape Cod,” Caroline Bates enthusiastically embraced the national seashore effort. (The Trump administration, in an unprecedented act, has suspended the local commission that regulates Cape Cod N. in possible preparation for gutting environmental protections there.)Thoreau became the all-seasons environmental guru of the Long Sixties (1960–74).
Often borrowing from his literary hero’s dictum, Muir harnessed Thoreau’s statement to promote his drive to save California wilderness from ruin.
“Civilization,” Muir wrote, “needs pure wildness.”Theodore Roosevelt, who saved over 234 million acres of wild America as president from 1901 to 1909, was so taken with “The Maine Woods” and “Walking” that as a Harvard undergraduate he climbed Mount Katahdin to follow in Thoreau’s footsteps.
Equating sauntering with absolute freedom, Thoreau, whose “Walden” would be published three years later, ended his oration with eight words that in coming decades helped save the Maine woods, Cape Cod, Yosemite and other treasured American landscapes: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” The sentiment became popularized when The Atlantic published Thoreau’s essay “Walking” in May 1862, with the line as the centerpiece, a month after his death. Lovers of his back-to-nature musings will flock to the shores of Walden Pond to celebrate his literary greatness. But our pilgrimages to honor Thoreau shouldn’t be confined to wood-fringed Concord.
Thoreau, toward the end of his life, famously called for townships to have “a park, or rather a primitive forest, of 500 or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation.” A full 14 years before Congress established Yellowstone National Park (America’s first) in 1872, Thoreau, courtesy of this visionary preservationist offering, helped inspire our magnificent National Parks system.
Just as Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government” nourished the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., his kinetic “in wildness” precept has electrified the literary imaginations of Barry Lopez, T. Boyle, Terry Tempest Williams, Bill Mc Kibben, Wendell Berry, David Quammen, Edward Hoagland, Carl Hiaasen, Rick Bass, Gary Snyder, Louise Erdrich and other wilderness warriors safeguarding our cherished public lands.
The environmental activist John Muir, who worshiped Thoreau — particularly the passage in “The Maine Woods” (1864) that called for “national preserves” — acknowledged that the Concord sage spurred his Yosemite protection advocacy.
)Rose Kennedy, the mother of the 35th president, spent much of her childhood in Concord, and she treasured both the book “Walden” and the pond.
When her husband, Joseph Kennedy, bought a home in Hyannis Port in 1928, she read Thoreau’s less well-known “Cape Cod” (1865) and was awe-struck.
Around 2000, a modern-day Thoreauvian, Roxanne Quimby, co-founder of Burt’s Bees, started buying up the Maine acreage her literary hero often tramped.
Once Quimby acquired Thoreau’s North Woods stamping grounds she donated 87,563 acres to the Interior Department.