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An Early Naturalist Burns Down a Concord Forest
By R. Todd Felton, excerpted from his new book A Journey Into the Transcendentalists' New England, 2006, Roaring Forties Press, and used with permission.
it started out smallWhile living at Walden Pond, Henry Thoreau had an ambivalent relationship with the nearby town of Concord. On one hand, it represented food, comfort, and friendship. But it also represented criticism, gossip, and a government connected to the distant Mexican-American War. So, although Thoreau walked into town most days or at least every other day, he also found that "to be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating...We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers."

Thoreau may have disparaged the town's criticisms of him, but some of that censure was warranted. One event that lowered the town's estimation of Thoreau was his burning of nearly three hundred acres of woods at Fair Haven Bay a little over a year before moving to Walden. Thoreau and his friend Edward Hoar had lit a fire in a tree stump to cook a fish chowder made from the fish they had caught that day. Unfortunately, a spark lit the dry grass near the stump, and the fire quickly spread out of control. By the time it was put out some hours later, it had caused more than $2,000 damage. The May 3 article in the Concord Freeman did little to help Thoreau's reputation:

The fire, we understand, was communicated to the woods through the thoughtlessness of two of our citizens who kindled it in a pine stump, near the Pond, for the purpose of making a chowder. As every thing around them was as combustible almost as a fire-ship, the flames spread with rapidity and hours elapsed before it could be subdued. It is to be hoped that this unfortunate result of sheer carelessness, will be borne in mind by those who may wish to visit the woods in future for recreation.
then theh fire spread to the grassFor years, Thoreau had to deal with people calling him "woods burner" -- a harsh moniker for a budding naturalist. At first he made little comment, nor did he offer to pay the farmer for the woods destroyed. By 1950, however, Thoreau had gained enough distance to offer his perspective on the event -- if only in his journal:

I once set fire to the woods. Having set out, one April day, to go to the sources of Concord River in a boat with a single companion, meaning to camp on the bank at night or seek a lodging in some neighboring country inn or farmhouse, we took fishing tackle with us that we might fitly procure our food from the stream, Indian-like.

At the shoemaker's near the river, we obtained a match, which we had forgotten. Though it was thus early in the spring the river was low, for there had not been much rain, and we succeeded in catching a mess of fish sufficient for our dinner before we had left the town, and by the shores of Fair Haven Pond we proceeded to cook them.

The earth was uncommonly dry, and our fire, kindled far from the woods in a sunny recess in a hillside on the east of the pond, suddenly caught the dry grass of the previous year which grew about the stump on which it was kindled. We sprang to extinguish it at first with our hands and feet, and then we fought it with a board obtained from the boat, but in a few minutes it was beyond our reach; being on the side of a hill, it spread rapidly upward, through the long, dry, grass interspersed with bushes....

and then all was ablaze!I walked slowly through the wood to Fair Haven Cliff, climbed to the highest rock, and sat down upon it to observe the progress of the flames, which were rapidly approaching me, now about a mile distant from the spot where the fire was kindled. Presently, I heard the sound of the distant bell giving the alarm, and I knew that the town was on its way to the scene.

Hitherto I had felt like a guilty person, -- nothing but shame and regret. But now I settled the matter with myself shortly. I said to myself: "Who are these men who are said to be the owners of these woods, and how am I related to them? 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. These flames are but consuming their natural food." (It had never troubled me from that day to this more than if the lightning had done it. The trivial fishing was all that disturbed me and disturbs me still.)

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