Walden’s Shore: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Science by Robert M. Thorson (review)
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Henry David Thoreau, Walden, Walden Pond, Geology, Kettle lakes

Walden’s Shore: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Science. By Robert M. Thorson. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. Pp. 421. Cloth, $29.95.)

With the rise of ecocriticism, many recent studies of Thoreau’s writings have favorably reconsidered the author’s strong relationship with science; this trend received much of its impetus from Laura Dassow Walls’s [End Page 701] Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science (Madison, WI, 1995). Similarly subtitled, Walden’s Shore begins by explaining that such scholarship still lacks an engagement with hard science and that a solid understanding of Thoreau’s work, and especially of Walden (1854), requires more intimate knowledge of geological phenomena. Robert Thorson is a professor of geology at the University of Connecticut whose last book, Beyond Walden: The Hidden History of America’s Kettle Lakes and Ponds (New York, 2009), was a general account of small lakes in the Midwest and Northeast; he now restricts his view to Walden’s immediate environs in order to establish Thoreau’s reputation as a ‘‘pioneering geoscientist’’ (16). While countless books and articles have promoted Thoreau’s love of nature, this ‘‘nature’’ is often characterized as organic: flowers, trees, birds, fish, etc. Many overlook the fact that Thoreau, as Thorson insists, was just as strongly attuned to the inorganic: minerals, mountains, rivers, and lakes.

Walden’s Shore begins by describing the physical history of Walden Pond (or ‘‘Lake Walden,’’ which Thorson explains is a more accurate name), a kettle lake formed by deglaciation. Thorson carefully guides the reader through a detailed description informed by modern geological data and theory—a story of tectonic plate movement, erosion, glaciation, and hydrological processes—while also explaining the scientific accounts prevalent in America during Thoreau’s lifetime. Against this background, he presents Thoreau as a meticulous observer whose precise descriptions of the environment often seem to anticipate the discoveries of twentieth-century geologists.

Thorson’s literary interest lies not in the entirety of Walden but only in ‘‘that part of Walden dealing with material Nature’’ (15), a selection of text sometimes referred to as ‘‘geo-Walden.’’ Claims regarding this text are substantially buttressed by citations of the massive Journal from which Thoreau culled material for Walden and other publications. Regarding the choice to emphasize only the scientific elements, Thorson baldly admits that this is ‘‘not a fair and balanced treatment’’ (16). Thus while Walden’s Shore has much to say about one aspect of Thoreau’s masterpiece, it does not attempt to offer a new reading of the text as a whole. Nevertheless, the perspective offered is useful. As Thorson explains, Thoreau scholars have erred in stressing his biophilia at the expense of his geophilia. The very shape and texture of the land, he argues, is the heart of Walden, and this simple substitution—geocritical [End Page 702] for ecocritical—deserves the serious attention of those interested in literature and science.

Thorson’s focus on geology is serious, and at times his prose features daunting professional jargon. Readers should be prepared for explanations such as the following: ‘‘Stratigraphically, the eastern edge of the paleo-valley below Smith’s Hill and Pine Hill would have shunted meltwater sediment above the block, speeding up the rate at which the kame delta would have advanced’’ (154). But these scientific details regarding the physical context of Thoreau’s work occasionally prove revelatory. For example, in his essay ‘‘Walking’’ Thoreau mysteriously declared that his inner compass often directed him toward the southwest, an inclination Thorson explains as possibly due to the ‘‘tectonic grain of the Nashoba Terrane’’ (53), a piece of the Earth’s crust shaped to steer pedestrians in that very direction.

Walden’s Shore’s most significant claim regards not Walden’s text but Thoreau’s biography. Thorson aims to dismantle Thoreau’s reputation as a transcendentalist philosopher by insisting that in 1851 he underwent a significant personal transformation. His Journal entries from this period reveal that Thoreau read with great interest Charles Darwin’s Journal of Researches (1839), began obsessively measuring natural phenomena, and distanced himself from...