July 4, 1845: The Birth of the American Environmental Movement
Text by Andrew Burmon
Photograph by wereldmuis, via Flickr
The Declaration of Independence endowed us with the right to pursue our own happiness. And on July 4th most Americans do exactly that. Barbeques, fireworks, “Stars and Stripes Forever."
July 4th, 1845 was no exception to this rule. In Concord, Massachusetts, men and women were enjoying what Governor Charles Sumner had declared a “national sabbath.” Stores were closed and plows leaned up against white barns. But one citizen was not enjoying the arcadian siesta. Henry David Thoreau, who lived just off Concord’s flag-wrapped main street, had just finished packing.
It was certainly no coincidence that Thoreau chose Independence Day to move to the cabin he had built for himself on the shore of Walden Pond. As he walked the mile from Concord to Walden, an oasis of trees in a sea of neatly mowed fields, he was leaving his neighbors behind to their “lives of quiet desperation” and pursuing a personal independence. He was also taking the first strides towards the creation of an American environmental movement. Writers and environmentalist ever since have been mindful of walking in Thoreau’s footsteps. John Updike called Thoreau “a sage for all seasons” and John Muir carried a copy of his collected works on many of his hikes.
In his book Walden, Thoreau looked at nature as both the sum of its parts and a means towards a spiritual end. He was attempting a (metaphorical) coup. He was every bit the rebel when he wrote:
“I am monarch of all I survey.
My right there is none to dispute.”
- Nat Geo Expeditions
A land surveyor by trade, Thoreau was attempting to break down the property lines he himself had drawn and experience nature in one euphoric inhalation.
Not a bad thing to do.
It has been 232 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence and 173 years since Thoreau moved into his cabin. As we celebrate our nation’s independence this July 4th it is worth remembering Thoreau’s as well.