Thursday, December 6, 2012

Thoreau and a common soil mite

Main theme of my City Creatures essay:

From Thoreau environmentalists have inherited an inclination to inspect matters from the periphery — the perspective of cordial criticism — as Thoreau did from the vantage of Walden Pond on the outskirts of Concord. The environmental tradition has also inherited a regard for inquiring into necessities, now translated arguably into sustainability studies, a disposition toward minute inspections of the workings of nature, and an amplified sense of the affiliation between people and the wild, even if Thoreau had, at times, a tendency to view his neighbors with a jaundiced eye. In other ways, though, the environmental tradition has veered from Thoreau’s path. Though it is true that Thoreau famously walked out of town, finding, he declared, little of interest in that direction, nevertheless, Walden Pond is no glacial wilderness, it was merely a walk away from home, from town, and from the neighbors. An ecology of the urban environment had to wait for well over a century to emerge, even though in some respects Thoreau’s Walden is the first volume of suburban ecology. He provided, by way of illustration, detailed notes on the domestic cat who appeared quite at home in the woods. Perhaps the most significant departure from Thoreau’s legacy, however, is the bewitchment, in the modern times, with the ecologically exotic, the cultivation of uncommon experience and the infatuation with the rare. Rarity, of course, is the appropriate focus for conservation biology, since rarity is an excellent predictor of vulnerability to extinction. That being said, Thoreau’s genius for the ordinary may be worth emulating. In the “Brute Neighbors” chapter in Walden, he described a relentless battle between two species of ants, the sort of violent encounter that is infrequently observed and almost never recorded though, presumably, occurs all the time. What Thoreau’s account suggests is that if we look closely enough we find that the rich dramas of nature are right at our feet, even if this place is not very ecologically distinguished. One does not need to peregrinate in remote parts to give witness to the marvelous.

I am not especially concerned in what follows with reinvigorating a Thoreauvian approach to ecology. I simply want to suggest that right here, under our noses in the towns and cities where most of us live these days, there exist ordinary marvels if we only know where and how to look for them. There is, let me suggest, another form of rarity - rarity of experience, and a poverty in our attention, that may not be fatal but that is unfortunate and consequential. O nova can serve as a mascot for this different form of rarity: it is common but unfamiliar. That most have not seen it is by virtue of its cryptic nature forgivable, but that despite its ubiquity most, I suspect, know little about this species, needs rectification.

Outline of the full essay is here.


  1. Thanks for this. When I teach Thoreau, I like to give my students a map of Walden, to show them how close the cabin was to Concord, to the railroad, and to the highway. And I love having my environmental philosophy students do simple and sustained observations, not for the sake of necessity-studies, but simply in order to see. I always require them to draw pictures of what they see, too, to help them to see. I love your line about not needing to peregrinate. Well said.