Henry David Thoreau is known for living in the woods on the shore of Walden Pond, in self-sufficient isolation. Less known, however, is that a year before building his cabin in Concord, Massachusetts, the famous American author and environmentalist accidentally started a forest fire that nearly burned the Concord woods to the ground.
Seven years after graduating from Harvard, Henry David Thoreau was drifting through life. Having failed to support himself as a writer, the 26-year-old had bounced from job to job, working as a tutor, a teacher and even as a handyman for poet and fellow Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1844, he was working at his father’s pencil-making business.
That year, Thoreau spent the last day of April fishing in his hometown of Concord with his friend Edward Sherman Hoar. After weeks of abnormally dry weather, the Sudbury River was shallower than normal, which eased the task of finding a catch. By mid-morning, the pair had already harvested a bounty of fish, and went ashore to cook a chowder. Using matches borrowed from a shoemaker who lived along the river, the friends lit a fire in a tree stump.
Thoreau had kindled campfires numerous times without incident, but this time strong spring winds whipped the flames, and cascading sparks set ablaze the long, wiry grasses around the stump. Thoreau and Hoar furiously stomped the burning grass and beat the fire with a board they hauled from the boat. In spite of their efforts, the fire tore through the dry grass and in the direction of one of the last pristine patches of woodlands remaining in Concord.
The fire “went leaping and crackling wildly and irreclaimably toward the wood,” Thoreau recounted in his journal in 1850. Flames shot up to the tops of pine trees “as if they were powder,” and squirrels and pigeons fled the forest as dense clouds of smoke billowed into the skies. “We felt that we had no control over the demonic creature to which we had given birth,” Thoreau wrote.
Fearing the conflagration could threaten their historic town, Hoar set off in the boat to warn his neighbors while Thoreau ran for help. After alerting nearby property owners, an exhausted Thoreau rested on a rock on a cliff and watched the Concord woods burn.
As he listened to the alarm bells ring, Thoreau wrote that he initially “felt like a guilty person—nothing but shame and regret.” However, any feelings of remorse quickly passed, he recalled, as he told himself that he had done nothing different than nature itself does on a regular basis. “I have set fire to the forest, but I have done no wrong therein, and now it is as if the lightning had done it,” he wrote. “These flames are but consuming their natural food.”
The citizens of Concord responded to the alarm bells. Wielding hoes and shovels, they beat the fire with pine branches, lit backfires and dug firebreaks to prevent it from spreading any further. By late afternoon, the blaze had finally been tamed, but not before it had torched more than 300 acres, according to The Concord Freeman. Around midnight, as small segments of the fire continued to smolder, Thoreau wandered through the wasteland to the tree stump where he had started the blaze 14 hours earlier and discovered his “now broiled fish—which had been dressed.” His meal had been cooked, just not in the way he had intended.
The Concord Freeman reported the fire set “through the thoughtlessness of two of our citizens” destroyed considerable property of three landowners and caused approximately $2,000 in damages. While Thoreau emerged from the inferno unscathed physically, for years to come he was scalded by the comments from his fellow townsfolk who called him a “damned rascal” and “a flibbertigibbet.” “For years Thoreau had to endure the whispers of ‘woods-burner’ behind his back,” wrote Walter Harding in his biography “The Days of Henry Thoreau.”
A little more than a year later, in the summer of 1845, Thoreau built a cabin on the shores of Walden Pond in the woods that he had nearly reduced to ash. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Thoreau wrote. Some scholars have speculated, however, that he also decided to make his new address amid the solitude of Walden Pond to retreat from the sharp tongues and critical eyes of his neighbors.
In his journal, Thoreau compared a forest fire to a broom that “sweeps and ventilates the forest floor, and makes it clear and clean.” His time at Walden following the mantra “simplify, simplify,” had much the same effect. The previously aimless Thoreau found his purpose during the two years he spent in his 10-by-15-foot shack. His immersion in nature provided the fodder for his 1854 memoir, “Walden; or, Life in the Woods,” a seminal text in the American environmental movement that inspired conservationists from John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt to Rachel Carson.