Henry David Thoreau (1817-1872) has been called "America's first environmentalist." He was a lover of nature and a defender of the wilderness — a position that put him at odds with many of his contemporaries who saw the great outdoors as a scary and worthless place that needed to be tamed and subdued.

Thoreau was an eclectic reader and writer who explored the Bhagavad Gita, civil disobedience, walking, ecstatic visions, and solitude. So we remember him on his birthday by reflecting on his words.

To Name This Day:


  • "My profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature, to know his lurking places, to attend all the oratorios."
  • "I seek acquaintance with nature, to know her moods and manners."
  • "Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after."
  • "In wilderness is the preservation of the world."
  • "Goodness is the only investment that never fails."

Spiritual Practice

Henry David Thoreau advised that as often as possible we spend a day in nature, paying attention, watching, and praying. As soon as possible, follow his example. You may want to take this passage along with you for inspiration. It's from a journal entry dated September 7, 1851, reprinted in Henry David Thoreau: Spiritual and Prophetic Writings by Henry David Thoreau and Tim Flinders.

"[Natural] scenery, when it is truly seen, reacts on the life of the seer. How to live. How to get the most life ... how to extract its honey from the flower of the world. That is my everyday business. I am as busy as a bee about it. I ramble over all fields on that errand, and am never so happy as when I feel myself heavy with honey and wax. I am like a bee searching the livelong day for the sweets of nature. ...

"The art of spending a day. If it is possible that we may be addressed, it behooves us to be attentive. If by watching all day and all night, I may detect some trace of the ineffable, then will it not be worth the while to watch? Watch and pray without ceasing, but not necessarily in sadness. Be of good cheer. ...

"I am convinced that men are not well employed, that this is not the way to spend a day. If by patience, if by watching, I can secure one new ray of light, can feel myself elevated for an instant, ... the world which was dead prose to me become living and divine, shall I not watch ever? ... We are surrounded by a rich and fertile mystery. May we not probe it, pry into it, employ ourselves about it, a little? To devote your life to the discovery of the divinity in nature, or to the eating of oysters, would they not be attended with very different results?"