Happy 200th birthday to Henry David Thoreau, a writer and thinker who fundamentally challenged and forever altered people’s relationship with the natural world. His 1854 work Walden was composed after he spent two years, two months, and two days living in a relatively isolated cabin on Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. He built the cabin himself, in woodlands owned by his friend and fellow transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the book, Thoreau explores the idea of the four seasons as a metaphor for human development. Walden also emphasizes the importance of connecting with nature as a way of transcending the trappings of a busy modern life, an idea that still resonates today.

Not So Simple

Contributed by Susan Tan

“It’s simple, Susan.  Just pick one. Which would you rather be?”

It was my first day of first grade at a new school, and we were playing a getting-to-know-you game that doubled as a class-demographics survey. We had divided ourselves into groups based on favorite ice cream flavor, age, favorite animal, and zip code, laughing over shared interests.

Then came a question on race. I thought seriously for a moment as the other kids sorted themselves into groups. But I quickly found my answer and carefully chose my spot—halfway between the group of students who identified as white and the group who identified as Asian. I was proud of my creativity, and excited to share my answer.  

So I was shocked when my teacher disciplined me in front of the class, first asking why I hadn’t chosen a group, and then, when I explained that I had chosen a group—half one, and half the other—chastising me for choosing two groups when her survey allowed her to tick only one box.  

Which is when she demanded that I choose between the two.

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Herons and Henry David Thoreau

by Patrick McShea

Two hundred years after the birth of naturalist Henry David Thoreau, his writing continues to challenge us to be better observers of animals, plants, weather patterns, sounds, and landscapes.

Although the Concord, Massachusetts native would insist that such emulation occur outdoors, selected quotes from his works can add much to our appreciation of details preserved in museum exhibits.

Consider, for example, Thoreau’s precise word-rendering of a subtle shade of color. He described the plumage of a great blue heron’s wing as “a tempered blue as of the sky and dark water commingled.” In Population Impact, museum visitors can verify the accuracy of the poetic description while viewing the great blue heron taxidermy mount displayed in the third-floor exhibition. 

A more challenging exercise involves viewing the recently restored, century-old diorama of nesting green herons now displayed at the first-floor level of the Grand Staircase.

In an 1840 journal entry about observing a green heron along a New England river, Thoreau expressed envy for the wading bird’s experience of the world:

“It has looked out from its dull eye for so long, standing on one leg, on moon and stars sparkling through silence and dark, and now what a rich experience is its! What says it of stagnant pools, and reeds, and damp night fogs? It would be worth while to look in the eye which has been open and seeing at such hours and in such solitudes. When I behold that dull yellowish green, I wonder if my own soul is not a bright invisible green. I would fain lay my eye side by side with its and learn of it.”

Patrick McShea works in the Education and Visitor Experience department of Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences of working at the museum.

The war had barely begun, the summer of 1846, when a writer, Henry David Thoreau, who lived in Concord, Massachusetts, refused to pay his Massachusetts poll tax, denouncing the Mexican war. He was put in jail and spent one night there. His friends, without his consent, paid his tax, and he was released. Two years later, he gave a lecture, “Resistance to Civil Government,” which was then printed as an essay, “Civil Disobedience”: “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right… . Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is, that you may see a file of soldiers … marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart.” His friend and fellow writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, agreed, but thought it futile to protest. When Emerson visited Thoreau in jail and asked, “What are you doing in there?” it was reported that Thoreau replied, “What are you doing out there?”

Howard Zinn, “A People’s History of The United States of America”

Henry David Thoreau, 7/12/1817 - 5/6/1862

Happy 200th Birthday to writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts. This census record from 1850 shows Thoreau (line 33) living with his parents in Concord. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 44 in 1862.

Entry from 1850 Census Schedule for Henry David Thoreau, 9/17/1850
Series: Population Schedules for the 1850 Census, 1850 - 1850Record Group 29: Records of the Bureau of the Census, 1790 - 2007 

Learn more about research with Census records at the National Archives