Henry David Thoreau

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Henry David Thoreau, 1961

This March at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center, we are focusing on phenology and all the spring changes happening on our trails. So, while not strictly a scientist, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) is our March feature because of his famous record-keeping and interest in natural history. After graduating from Harvard, traveling, and working a series of jobs, Thoreau settled at small house he had built in a second-growth forest around the shores of Walden Pond in Massachusetts.

Over a 10-year period, he created a detailed journal of events for the natural history of Concord, Massachusetts. He wrote about the progress of fruit ripening, the fluctuating depths of the pond, when birds returned in the springtime, when insects hatched, and when flowers bloomed and leaf buds unfurled. Information on natural history has helped current naturalists and climate change scientists track the health of ecosystems, changes in populations, and the distribution patterns of plants and animals. Even today, knowledge of the timing of natural events is crucial for nursery growers, farmers, gardeners, and others who rely on seasonal events for maple sugaring, leaf peeping, or skiing. Information about insect hatches can help experts monitor and predict threats to public health such as West Nile virus from mosquitoes and Lyme disease from deer ticks. Like Aldo Leopold, Walden observed the world around him and kept detailed records of what he saw. (Read here how scientists from Wisconsin and Massachusetts recently compared data from Leopold’s and Walden’s observations to predict flowering dates of spring wildflowers!)
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Walden Pond

Thoreau’s observations from his time at Walden pond were published in the 1854 book, Walden, in which he encourages the reader to be “forever on the alert” and “looking always at what is to be seen.” He tells stories of 100 laborers coming to cut ice from Walden pond in the winter (to be shipped to the Carolinas). He put corn out to better observe the owls, hares, red squirrels, mice, and various birds as they hunt, sing, and eat. All of these sounds and sights were precious to Thoreau and become a great source of amusement and lifelong learning.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

— Henry David Thoreau, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”, in Walden

You can do this too! Remember that Thoreau had little formal training in ecology or natural history. He may not have known which species of squirrel or bird he was looking at, but he wrote it down none the less and simply paid attention to changes through the seasons. Grab some paper or a sketchbook, make a nature journal, and give this a try in your own backyard or right here at ALNC.

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