Heroes of Sustainability: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo EmersonFamous in life and death, Ralph Waldo Emerson is considered one of American history’s most noted writers, influencing countless people, including Heroes of Sustainability like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir.

The Harvard-educated lecturer, essayist, and poet — who also worked as a pastor in his younger years — had a way of inspiring his readers that was widely admired. As American poet and critic James Russell Lowell wrote in 1871’s My Study Windows: “We look upon him as one of the few men of genius whom our age has produced, and there needs no better proof of it than his masculine faculty of fecundating other minds. Search for eloquence in his books and you will perchance miss it, but meanwhile you will find that it has kindled your thoughts.”

Man and Nature
One of Emerson’s greatest works was Nature, an 1836 essay that delved into his thoughts on transcendentalism, the literary, political, and philosophical movement he was at the center of in New England in the 1830s and ’40s. One of the core ideas was that both people and nature are inherently good, and Emerson was keen on exploring this connection between the two.

To Emerson, nature was as important as it got, as it was tied to God in a way that couldn’t be separated from the deity. “In the woods, we return to reason and faith,” he wrote. “There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, —no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, —my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, —all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

A Far-Reaching Legacy
Many credit Emerson’s writing with influencing the foundation of today’s environmentalist movement and the creation of national parks. By writing so eloquently about the world around us — and showing through vivid description that it’s worthy of being preserved (a sample sentence: “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration”) — Emerson set the stage for others, like Muir, to take steps to protect the environment.

It’s tough to deny the insight in his words. As Emerson astutely wrote: “He who knows what sweets and virtues are in the ground, the waters, the plants, the heavens, and how to come at these enchantments, is the rich and royal man.”

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Heroes of Sustainability: Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau“Thank God men cannot fly, and waste the sky as well as the earth.” — Henry David Thoreau

Today, Henry David Thoreau is remembered best for writing Walden, but he did much more than live in a cabin in the woods alone. Thoreau was a naturalist, abolitionist, pencil maker, teacher, conservationist, philosopher — and that’s just scratching the surface.

Born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau was surrounded by influential thinkers still famous today, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott. As Concord grew, Thoreau worried about its expansion.

“Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of 500 or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation,” he wrote.

Back to Basics
Thoreau believed in simplicity above all, and lived that philosophy throughout his life, particularly as he was working on Walden. Wastefulness was not something he tolerated, as he saw the connection between materialism and the destruction of the environment. “What is the use of a house if you don’t have a decent planet to put it on?” he once said.

At his core, Thoreau loved nature. Indeed, he kept meticulous journals about what he saw outside, from bird migration to plant growth to the water levels in Walden Pond. He advocated for recreational hiking and canoeing before that was popular, and he studied how forests regenerated after fire. Keeping the wilderness wild was something he consistently argued for. “What would human life be without forests, those natural cities?” he wrote.
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More Than a Century Later
An early environmentalist, Thoreau has influenced the modern-day environmental movement with his thoughts on social responsibility, resource efficiency, living as simply as possible, and the impact humans have on nature. He’s also had an influence on how we think about national forest preserves and the destruction from dams. Fellow Heroes of Sustainability Edward Abbey and John Muir have cited Thoreau as an influence, along with dozens of other notable personalities.

Today, The Walden Woods Project carries on his mission, as they work to keep the forest surrounding Walden Pond intact, instead of letting the area turn into an office park or condominiums (as have been proposed). In addition, the Don Henley–founded nonprofit organization works to preserve Thoreau’s literature and legacy, which you can learn more about here.

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