Walking it back

What would Thoreau think of life today?


David Henry Thoreau was born more than 200 years ago, on July 12, 1817.

No, that’s right. He was born “David Henry,” but he switched the names around, an arrangement that evidently suited him better. So we know him as Henry David Thoreau.

We all know some things about Thoreau, but it’s likely that most of us don’t understand the scope of this tangle of a man who lived only 44 years. He was a rebel, a writer, at times a strident polemicist, and at others an awed micro-observer of the natural world. He was an abolitionist and a recluse who sometimes stood screaming on the ramparts for social justice. A lot of the time he just walked in the woods or along the shoreline of Cape Cod, watching.

What we’ve got now, courtesy of a new book titled “What Would Henry Do?,” is an opportunity to see how he ticked and what it means for us today. The Thoreau Farm Trust takes care of Thoreau’s birthplace in Concord, Mass. The trust asked 42 people who know the essence of the man to answer that question, and their responses became the book.

Evidently, the essayists were obliged to answer in three pages or less — a good decision because we need to read them all to learn that the power of Thoreau lay in his ability to become an icon for a variety of seemingly unrelated topics.

The contributors are a disparate bunch. But they are honest-to-God Thoreau scholars and activists, whose passions embrace the environment, our American lifestyle, civil rights, and political action.

Essayists include former President Jimmy Carter, hero NYPD cop Frank Serpico, actor Ed Begley Jr., and the Island’s own Holly Nadler (a contributor to this newspaper). We’ll have an opportunity to learn more from Ms. Nadler and Margaret Carroll-Bergman, executive director of the Thoreau Farm Trust, who will lead a discussion on Thoreau and this book on Tuesday, Oct. 24, at 7 pm at the Vineyard Haven library. The panelists will be joined by internationally known naturalist and author Peter Alden. Mr. Alden is the author of 15 books on North American and African wildlife, which have sold more than two million copies.

The reason Thoreau comes up now is that we are scratching our heads about politics, terrorism, the environment, and a host of issues du jour pell-melling into our lives, as author Ken Lizotte reminds us in his introduction to the book.

The contributors searched in various ways for the answers Thoreau might have provided if he were around today. They time-traveled back to Thoreau’s 1830s world to chat with him; they time-traveled Thoreau into our world (he loved TV but hated the ads), and they drew on a lifetime of studying Thoreau for answers. Several wrote him poems.

Out of all this, some verities emerge about him.

Number one is that he was a do-er, an action taker. Remember, the book’s title asks what Henry would do, not what he would think, believe, or feel about things. He had zero time for politicians, preached civil disobedience, and went to jail briefly for his convictions. He is credited as a source for Gandhi and Martin Luther King’s credo of nonviolence.

Number two is that Thoreau believed we are required to right wrongs not just because of moral responsibility, but because a dedication to responsibility is required to create complete and healthy people and societies. And that belief extends to stuff we may not want to do. Rightful action isn’t a choice, it’s a necessity, he concluded.

Number three is that for a guy who spent a lot of time looking at birds and flowers and whatnot — or maybe because of it — he had a prescience that applies today. Here’s what he wrote to a pal in 1860: “What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” He’s not espousing going back to two-holers and chopping our firewood. He’s just sayin’, you know?

My favorite essay in “What Would Henry Do?” comes from Thoreau-ist Anna West Winter who traveled back to Walden Pond to interview Thoreau, asking him questions about how to handle today’s issues.

Ms. Winter uses Thoreau’s words, written more than 150 years ago, as the answers to her questions. Ladies and gentleman, they are as spot-on today as they were in the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and the American Civil War.

Number four is that taken as a whole, there is a lot to be said for a balanced life.

“What Would Henry Do?: Essays for the 21st Century” discussion with Holly Nadler and Margaret Carroll-Bergman, executive director of the Thoreau Farm Trust, at the Vineyard Haven library on Tuesday, Oct. 24, at 7 pm.