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.
Baton Rouge, La.
The Fourth of July is not only Americaâ€™s birthday, but also the anniversary of one of the boldest experiments in American letters.
Thoreau was many things â€“ naturalist, political dissident, professional crank â€“ but he was also one of our earliest and most memorable media critics.
â€śI am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper,â€ť Thoreau told readers of â€śWalden.â€ť â€śIf 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....
â€śTo a philosopher,â€ť said Thoreau, â€śall news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.â€ť
Thoreau had other ideas about what was newsworthy, as Iâ€™ve been reminded recently while perusing editor Damion Searlsâ€™s masterly abridged new version of Thoreauâ€™s journals. The journals are a sustained record of the natural world â€“ the slant of light in a summer sky, the flow of sap from New England maples, the arrival of spring birds â€śmore sure than the arrival of the sailing and steaming packets.â€ť
In Thoreauâ€™s time, as in ours, nature didnâ€™t usually didnâ€™t make news unless it was touched by obvious trouble.
If war, as one wit famously observed, is â€śGodâ€™s way of teaching Americans geography,â€ť then environmental disasters such as the BP oil spill seem to be the primary way that Americans learn about ecology.
In â€śWaldenâ€ť 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.
Itâ€™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, Thoreauâ€™s timing reminds us that his sense of Americaâ€™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.
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