Henry David Thoreau liked to walk, and in 1851 he wrote an essay called Walking, which he would read to his lecture audiences and rework for the next 10 years. He based his essay on his journal entries about his rambles in the woods near his home in Concord, Mass. The journal included close observations of nature and imaginative descriptions — like “breezy, washing day.”
Thoreau advised the walker to leave his life behind in the “spirit of undying adventure, never to return.”
He finished the essay as he was dying in 1861. The Atlantic Monthly published it posthumously.
Walking is considered one of the most important essays in the environmental movement, along with George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature. It is the source of the quote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
On May 30, 1852, Henry David Thoreau was 34 years old. He had spent his two years in the woods at Walden, but he hadn’t had it published yet. He had published another book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, but it didn’t sell and he had to buy back 700 copies.
Three years earlier he had spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his poll taxes because of the government’s tolerance of slavery and the Mexican War.
Breezy, Washing Day
On that May day in 1852 he wrote in his journal:
May 30. Sunday. Now is the summer come. A breezy, washing day. A day for shadows, even of moving clouds, over fields in which the grass is beginning to wave. Senecio in bloom. A bird’s nest in grass, with coffee-colored eggs. Cinquefoil and houstonia cover the ground, mixed with the grass and contrasting with each other. Strong lights and shades now.
Thoreau noticed wild cherry on the low shrubs, violets everywhere, abundant lilies, a blackberry in Hubbard’s swamp. He passed a cow that had just dropped her calf, young robins in nests. He heard that the lupine, which he’d seen almost blooming in Plymouth a week earlier, was in blossom in Concord. And then he noted,
The river is my own highway, the only wild and unfenced part of the world hereabouts.
This story updated in 2022.