- Thoreau the Land Surveyor
In this brave and gracefully written book, Patrick Chura does something that most other Thoreau scholars would blanch at attempting; he poses and answers the question, how could Henry David Thoreau, the father of American environmentalism, have been so deeply engaged in land surveying, a trade that led directly to the degradation of the environment in the Concord area? Using Thoreau's journals and field notes, Chura convincingly shows us how Thoreau's thinking about the environment changed over the course of about twenty years and how Thoreau resolved the tensions that he felt between his ideals and the surveying work he did in order to earn a living. Touching as it does on a variety of topics—American literature, slavery, Manifest Destiny, nineteenth-century attitudes toward Native Americans, and the rise of American science in the mid-nineteenth century, to name a few—this volume should be of interest to anyone interested in the Civil War era. But the book's real strength is the story Chura tells of Thoreau's concern about his environmental legacy and his growing determination to educate people about nature in order to outweigh any temporary damage he may have inflicted upon it.
Most literature on Thoreau as a land surveyor has appeared in engineering journals, where science writers have shown that Thoreau was a remarkably accurate surveyor, despite his lack of formal training and in the absence of sophisticated surveying tools. Studying Thoreau's journals, field notes, and surveying maps, Chura shows how we can appreciate more fully how Thoreau's surveying affected his literary imagination and how his occupation as a writer and a thinker informed his surveying methods. Chura's experience as a surveyor's assistant comes in handy in a charming chapter on Thoreau's mapping of Walden Pond, where Chura retraces [End Page 84] Thoreau's accounting in Walden of how he built his cabin and how much he paid for it, reminding readers again of Thoreau's observation that one can house himself or herself quite comfortably at little expense. Here Chura leads us to a clear, even stunning, realization about Thoreau's map of Walden Pond—it was drawn from the perspective of the front door of Thoreau's cabin. As Chura reminds us, "For Thoreau, to know the self was to study nature. Since self-analysis and environmental observation were the same thing, finding the bearings directly from one's front door to significant landscape features was a logical and perhaps crucial endeavor" (32).
Chura places Thoreau's map of Walden Pond and his book Cape Cod into the historical context of nineteenth-century American science and its new fascination with measurement and tracks Americans' growing interest in the U.S. Coast Survey, which had been established in 1807 but did not earn public notice or enthusiasm until the mid-1840s. As he follows the evolution of Thoreau's surveying career in the 1850s, Chura pays particular attention to Thoreau's evolving skills and the increasing number of surveying jobs that he accepted. But as the decade progressed, Thoreau became increasingly uncomfortable with how his surveying work was leading to the destruction of the local ecosystem. Inspired by John Brown, who enlisted his surveying skills for a higher purpose—namely constructing an integrated farming community in North Elba, New York—Thoreau became convinced that he, too, could use discoveries he made while he was surveying to help future generations make wiser decisions about the use of the land. Thoreau the Land Surveyor is painstakingly researched and wonderfully written and deserves to be widely read.
Mark W. Sullivan directs the Art History Program at Villanova University and is the author of numerous books and articles on transcendentalists and the paintings of the Hudson River School.