E. O. Wilson on Thoreau

“Henry David Thoreau . . . was thought by many in his own time to be an eccentric who escaped from the mainstream of real life in order to dream. He was the opposite of that. He understood intuitively what we now know in more concrete and objective terms, that humanity is a biological species and thus exquisitely adapted to the natural world that cradled us. Thoreau was the scientific observer and lyrical expositor who hit upon the power of this conjunction between science and the humanities. He was the first great nature writer, whose knowledge of the living world, based on experience, was refined and projected as poetry. Nature writing, one of the major innovations of American literature, also includes in its pantheon John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson. Together these writers say to us that humanity coevolved with the rest of life on this particular planet; other worlds are not in our genes. It is a delusion that people can flourish apart from the living world. We might do so physically, like animals in a feed lot, but not spiritually, not to the full extent for which our brains are designed.

People travel into nature in search of new life and wonder, and from nature they return to the parts of the earth that have been humanized and made physically secure. Nature, and especially that part saved as wilderness, settles peace on the soul because it needs no help; it is beyond human contrivance. It is also a metaphor of unlimited opportunity, rising from the tribal memory of a time in which humanity spread across the world, valley to valley, island to island, godstruck, firm in the belief that virgin land went on forever beyond the horizon. That is very much an American dream, and one we will be wise to keep alive by the preservation of our wild heritage.

Excerpt From “Material Faith.” 1999