Henry Thoreau as a
Model for Nature Writing

Thoreau’s journal became his most
important tool and technique for writing

By Ron Harton of Naturewriting.com

Thoreau Reader:  Home - Journal Writing


Ron Harton is a nature writer in Fresno, California, who has gone backpacking, skiing and snowshoeing in the Sierra Nevadas, is interested in cactus, birds and wildflowers, leads trail crews for Wilderness Volunteers, and teaches English at Dos Palos High School. He is also the creator of the Naturewriting.com website.

Nature writing is born out of love, respect, and awe. It finds its subject during days of close observation of the natural world. It finds its voice in the relationship with nature developed during those days. Henry David Thoreau is considered by many people to be the first nature writer, and Thoreau provides a wonderful model to us today for our own nature writing.

[2]     Nature writing begins with observation, and records what the writer has seen and seen again. It may begin with a casual, serendipitous occurrence, but it moves far beyond the casual to record details noticeable only by those who have looked deeply. Nature writing is concerned with what scientists have discovered, but the focus always returns to the personal observations of the writer. The writer is part of the natural world and draws the reader into that world, too.

[3]     Nature writing is about the writer as well as about nature. Nature writing is exploratory and reflective. The nature writer probes deep within and discovers how nature affects personal life. Nature writing seeks to learn not just about nature; it seeks to learn from nature. The nature writer approaches nature as a student approaches a respected and admired teacher, in order to learn and communicate the wisdom of life found in nature.

[4]     Nature writing is relational. It is about the connections and relationships that form our world. Nature writing binds people to the natural world with words of understanding, respect, admiration, and love. These words may be formed in any literary type or style. The languages and forms of nature writing are many and varied, but each seeks to share what the writer has felt and known in times of living with nature.
 

Nature Writing Essential: Keep a Journal

[5]     The journal was Thoreau’s basic tool and technique for nature writing. It is the single most important element in Thoreau’s life as a writer. Thoreau’s published writing grew out of the direct observations of nature that he recorded in his journal. He made his first journal entry in 1837 and continued until just two months before his death in May of 1862. In his journal, which now fills fourteen printed volumes, he wrote descriptions of the plants and animals he saw everyday around his home and in his travels.

In the Journal: Observations of Nature

[6]     For example, here’s part of Thoreau’s journal entry for June 2, 1860:

"A catbird has her nest in our grove. We cast out strips of white cotton cloth all of which she picked up and used. I saw a bird flying across the street with so long a strip of cloth, or the like, the other day, and so slowly that at first I thought it was a little boy’s kite with a long tail."
[7]     In his journal Thoreau writes about all aspects of nature—the blazing colors of the fall leaves and the dead, dry grass by the side of the road; cliffs that he climbed while hiking and fungus in front of his cabin; a river flowing under a bridge to the sea, and brooks draining into a meadow. He brought all of nature into his awareness through his writing in his journal. As he writes on March 13, 1842:
"For seen with the eye of the poet, as God sees them, all things are alive and beautiful."
In the Journal: Personal Thoughts

[8]     Thoreau’s journals are not just observations. In his journal he also includes his own hopes, emotions, and beliefs. On December 21, 1841, three and a half years before he went to live at Walden Pond on Independence Day of 1845, he wrote,

"I want to go soon and live away by the pond, where I shall hear only the wind whispering among the reeds."
[9]     He writes of politics, and God, and social customs. He has strong opinions about how life should be lived—simply and close to the earth—and he states them strongly. Thoreau is most famous for combining human life and the natural world in his journals. This is the essence of his nature writing. The style he created as he expressed the interrelationships of all things is probably why scholars call him the "first nature writer." He reflects on what he has observed and draws out the interdependence—the interbeing—inherent in the experience. He adds to the observations his own philosophical ideas.

In the Journal: Articulate Relationships

[10]     Listen to his words written on June 6, 1857:

"This is June, the month of grass and leaves…Already the Aspens are trembling again, and a new summer is offered me. I feel a little fluttered in my thoughts, as if I might be too late. Each season is but an infinitesimal point. It no sooner comes than it is gone…We are conversant with only one point of contact at a time, from which we receive a prompting and impulse and instantly pass to a new season or point of contact. A year is made up of a certain series and number of sensations and thoughts which have their language in nature. Now I am ice, now I am sorrel. Each experience reduces itself to a mood of the mind."


Nature Writing Essential: A Positive Spirit

[11]     Thoreau was not considered a successful man by society during his own lifetime. His published writings had few readers and little impact in his life. But even if he had published nothing, his journals reveal the richness of his deep down personal success in life. His writings bloom with a positive spirit toward life. That’s another important element in nature writing. Thoreau’s writing in both his journal and his published work has the three basic elements of nature writing: insightful personal observation, philosophical reflection, and warm, positive spirit. In his journal of March 18, 1858, Thoreau writes:

"Each new year is a surprise to us. We find that we had virtually forgotten the note of each bird, and when we hear it again it is remembered like a dream, reminding us of a previous state of existence. How happens it that the associations it awakens are always pleasing, never saddening; reminiscences of our sanest hours? The voice of nature is always encouraging."
[12]     What becomes obvious in the Thoreau’s Journals is that he is writing unselfconsciously. He’s not writing with an eye to being accepted by others whom he must impress in order to be published. He writes for himself, out of the fullness of the spirit of nature that he feels within himself. He writes not to be accepted, but because he is in the center of the acceptance of nature and his interbeing in it.. That is the spirit of nature writing.
 

Nature Writing Essential: Begin Now

[13]     The first journal entry Thoreau made seems to have been written in response to Emerson’s question about what Thoreau was doing now. And Thoreau began writing down what he was seeing, and hearing, feeling, and thinking about the world around him. And his life work as a writer began with this first entry:

Oct 22nd. "What are you doing now?" he asked, "Do you keep a journal?"— So I make my first entry to-day.
[14]     Emerson’s question comes down through the years to us, too. "What are we doing now?" What we can do now is record the observations of the nature we see around us now in a journal. I love the title of the book on journal writing by Christina Baldwin: Life’s Companion. A journal really is a close companion. Out of it may come source material for published writing, or maybe not. Thoreau’s journal obviously became his life’s companion. It is his path to awareness of nature and of his own self-realization.
 

Thoreau's model of nature writing for today:

  • Keep a journal.
  • Record personal observations of nature.
  • Express personal thoughts, feelings, and ideas.
  • Show how all of life is connected and interdependent.
  • Be positive, warm and open to all life.
  • Begin now.

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