Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Classic Corner: Thoreau Burnin' Down the Woods

By JccKeith

Burn Baby Burn
Almost all of you are familiar with Henry David Thoreau – probably because he was best buds with Ralph Waldo Emerson and had a thing for Emerson’s wife.  Okay so most of you maybe didn’t know that little tid bit.  I would guess most are familiar with his works Walden and Civil Disobedience
He wrote some pretty profound stuff in Walden that many have heard at one time or another.  You probably heard it in an English or Literature class in school.  You know, all that jazz about going to the woods because he wanted to live deliberately… sounding familiar now? 

Famous Words
Before you tune out because you think he is some stodgy old guy who wrote some classic works of literature, pay attention.  Thoreau was just a guy, he had friends and he had a lot of people who didn’t like him.  He was an awkward kid and a somewhat awkward adult who preferred spending time alone.  As a kid, he was so somber and withdrawn he was given the nickname, “The Judge.”  As an adult, he chose to live his life contrary to how society thought he should live.  He was a rebel and he bucked the system.  He wrote extensively about several different things like nature, travel and fighting the system.

Thoreau was thrown in jail once for refusing to pay a tax which supported the church.  A friend paid the tax for him and he was released but not before making an official declaration:

“Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be regarded as a member of any incorporated society which I have not joined.”

The guy was odd and not without his mistakes.  So rather than go on and on about how brilliant he was and give you several example of his amazing writing, I’ll focus on his flaws.  Everyone likes a good scandal, so here it is.  Thoreau set fire to a woods near his home Concord and didn’t offer to pay for the damages and it seems, ultimately, didn’t feel all that bad about it. The fire destroyed nearly 300 acres. But you decide for yourself:
  • Thoreau and his friend Edward Hoar had lit a fire in a tree stump to cook a fish chowder made from the fish they had caught that day.  Unfortunately, a spark lit the dry grass nearby and a fire quickly spread and was not contained for several hours, costing more than $2,000 dollars in damage.  That may not sound like a lot now but this was in the 1800s. 

The people of Concord were of course, not happy about it.  An article appeared in the Concord Freeman paper on May 3 and went as follows:

“The fire, we understand, was communicated to the woods through the thoughtlessness of two of our citizens who kindled it in a pine stump, near the Pond, for the purpose of making a chowder.  As every thing around them was as combustible almost as a fireship, the flames spread with rapidity and hours elapsed before it could be subdued.  It is to be hoped that this unfortunate result of sheer carelessness, will be borne in mind by those who may wish to visit the woods in future for recreation.”

Now, in fairness, I will give the words written by Thoreau himself some time later about the event:

That's the Guy
“I once set fire to the woods.  Having set out, one April day, to go to the sources of Concord River in a boat with a single companion, meaning to camp on the bank at night or seek a lodging in some neighboring country inn or farmhouse, we took fishing tackle with us that we might fitly procure our food from the stream, Indian-like.
At the shoemaker’s near the river, we obtained a match, which we had forgotten.  Though it was thus early in the spring the river was low, for there had not been much rain, and we succeeded in catching a mess of fish sufficient for our dinner before we had left the town, and by the shores of Fair Haven Pond we proceeded to cook them.
The earth was uncommonly dry, and our fire, kindled far from the woods in a sunny recess in a hillside on the east of the pond, suddenly caught the dry grass of the previous year which grew about the stump on which it was kindled.  We sprang to extinguish it at first with our hands and feet, and then we fought it with a board obtained from the boat, but in a few minutes it was beyond our reach; being on the side of a hill, it spread rapidly upward, through the long, dry, grass interspersed with bushes…
I walked slowly through the wood to Fair Haven Cliff, climbed to the highest rock, and sat down upon it to observe the progress of the flames, which were rapidly approaching me, now about a mile distant from the spot where the fire was kindled.  Presently, I heard the sound of the distant bell giving the alarm, and I knew that the town was on its way to the scene.
Hitherto I had felt like a guilty person, nothing but shame and regret.  But now I settled the matter with myself shortly.  I said to myself, “Who are these men who are said to be the owners of these woods, and how am I related to them? I have set fire to the forest, but I have done no wrong therein, and now it is as if the lightning had done it.  These flames are but consuming their natural food.” (It had never troubled me from that day to this more than if the lightning had done it.  The trivial fishing was all that disturbed me and disturbs me still.)” 

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