Sunday, July 4, 2010

July 4, 1845 – Dying Alone in the Woods

A twenty-eight-year-old man named Henry David Thoreau began an experiment in solitude, simple living, and a return to nature by living in a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond outside of Concord, Massachusetts. A teacher and holder of several patents on pencil design, Thoreau had attended Harvard and now sought to write his first book while exploring the ideas of the new philosophy of Transcendentalism. Seeking solitary existence to ponder, he would reflect on whether the spirit of man may transcend its natural bounds. Rather than total seclusion, his cabin was just over a mile from town, and he planned to walk there daily, even having dinner with his parents on most nights.

While approaching his cabin, he struck his leg on a splintered branch. His journal indicates no worry; in fact, he seems to marvel at the simple power of nature. The scratch would prove infectious, and Thoreau would die of tetanus as his brother John did in 1842. He is nothing more than a footnote in Concord lore as yet another eccentric in a time of eccentricity, much less fascinating than its essayist Emerson or author Louisa May Alcott.

The world would continue without him. Wars would rage, such as the United States being torn only fifteen years later by the Civil War that ended slavery (a notion Thoreau much abhorred) and again in the 1950s with the bloody Race Revolution that killed over a million Americans, many civilians. Of course, every nation has wars, such as the War of Independence in India that erupted in 1939, indirectly allying itself with Germany and Japan to throw off the chains of British imperialism.

In reality, Thoreau survived and thrived in his cabin on the edge of the lake, later writing Walden as a reflection on his experiences and journals as well as his most influential work, Resistance to Civil Government. By demonstrating civil disobedience (here, in respect to paying taxes to a government that supported slavery and the Mexican-American War), he would lay the groundwork for great leaders such as Mahatma Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., enabling peaceful revolutions. Though many may disagree with his methods, Thoreau's legacy has spared thousands, if not millions, of lives worldwide.

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