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Opinion

Fourth of July and Thoreau remind us that US progress is linked with its ecology

If war is a way of teaching Americans geography, then environmental disasters such as the BP oil spill seem to be the primary way that Americans learn about ecology.

By / July 2, 2010



Baton Rouge, La.

The Fourth of July is not only America’s birthday, but also the anniversary of one of the boldest experiments in American letters.

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On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved into a small cabin near Walden Pond in Massachusetts and began writing “Walden,” the autobiographical book that would define his legacy.

Thoreau was many things – naturalist, political dissident, professional crank – but he was also one of our earliest and most memorable media critics.

His reservations about the limits of journalism resonate with particular urgency today, as a massive oil spill near my home state of Louisiana underscores what Thoreau found lacking in media culture.

“I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper,” Thoreau told readers of “Walden.” “If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed ... we never need read of another....

“To a philosopher,” said Thoreau, “all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.”

Thoreau had other ideas about what was newsworthy, as I’ve been reminded recently while perusing editor Damion Searls’s masterly abridged new version of Thoreau’s journals. The journals are a sustained record of the natural world – the slant of light in a summer sky, the flow of sap from New England maples, the arrival of spring birds “more sure than the arrival of the sailing and steaming packets.”

In Thoreau’s time, as in ours, nature didn’t usually didn’t make news unless it was touched by obvious trouble.

If war, as one wit famously observed, is “God’s way of teaching Americans geography,” then environmental disasters such as the BP oil spill seem to be the primary way that Americans learn about ecology.

In “Walden” and his other writings, Thoreau argued for a less fragmentary understanding of land and water, one based on a daily intimacy with the realities of how man and nature interact.

It’s a grasp of the natural world that the news cycle, with its emphasis on crisis and conflict, seems ill-suited to sustain.

Thoreau said that his decision to move to the woods of Walden on Independence Day was merely an accident of the calendar. Coincidental or not, Thoreau’s timing reminds us that his sense of America’s possibility was inextricably linked with the wonder of its landscape.

That connection is worth remembering on this Independence Day, as an ongoing oil spill places our natural bounty at risk.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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