#ClassicLitSeries: For The Outdoorsy Kids In Search Of 'Walden'
"I seek acquaintance with nature, to know her moods and manners" and a tale on hiking snobbery
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Today I bring to you a post on one of the most admired naturalists in American history: Henry David Thoreau and his work. He loved losing himself in nature and found himself there too. He would go on long hikes, disappearing for days. It would seem, as a result of my authoring this post, I am an outdoors person who loves hiking and has a deep appreciation for Thoreau’s transcendental connection to Nature. Sorry to burst your bubble but I most definitely am not a hiker although I do have deep appreciation for Thoreau.
I did think I was a hiker once upon a (naive) time. But that was until I started hiking in Southern California with someone who loved hiking. That’s when it became apparent I am not a hiker. In my defense, I thought hikes were usually paved pathways on well-traveled—sorry, Frost, no paths less traveled for me, thanks—trails. Additionally, I thought hikes were for ambling along aimlessly, talking, and stopping every once in a while to admire the view from various vantage points. So it was a rude awakening to learn that I would have been laughed at by the hiking crowd.
I learned this after two canyon hikes under the blazing California sun. The hikes blurred together in my sweating-all-my-cells-out brain; all I can recall is yellow dirt, dried-out wisps of grass, and tediously avoiding questionable, potential snake holes. The view had been nice but not nice enough to warrant trekking through suffocating heat and the future promise of melanoma.
My hiking companion grew exasperated with me when I meticulously pointed out all the reasons I wasn’t enjoying myself until finally, they stopped and demanded to know why I had said I enjoyed hiking in the first place?! I gaped, paused, and then finally retorted with an inane comment that while I enjoyed hiking, he was an extreme hiker. A look of incredulity washed over his face and he pointed out, laughing at me, that this was how most people hike and what I liked to do was stroll.
Continued at the end of this newsletter…
For the babies and toddlers …
Henry David Thoreau In The Woods
Written by Kate Coombs | Illustrated by Seth Lucas
Recommended Ages: 0-3 years
This rhyming board book is perfect for a baby or toddler who enjoys going on hikes or has an older sibling reading about Thoreau. The language rhymes its way through Henry’s adventures by Walden Pond. It’s a straightforward book but the bright, autumnal-colored illustrations are appealing and serve as a simple introduction to the great outdoors.
To Know Thoreau And His Work …
Walking With Henry
Written and Illustrated by Thomas Locker
Recommended Ages: 5-8 years
This is perfect for kids who are just beginning to venture outdoors on hikes or enjoy camping. The intent of the book is to encourage readers to see nature through Thoreau’s eyes. The lush descriptions evoke the sights, smells, and sounds Henry must have experienced:
When he awoke, the grass was covered with
Morning dew. It looked like a mirror
Broken into a thousand fragments.
What makes this book really shine though are the incredible illustrations. Soft, romantic light in the artwork lovingly renders Walden Pond and the surrounding areas that Thoreau so adored. It’s reminiscent of the great 19th-century Hudson River School landscape artists that were Thoreau’s contemporaries. Pairing that style of artwork with Thoreau’s experience truly captures the zeitgeist of that time. I’d recommend using this book as a way to excite kids about your next hike or outdoor adventure and inspire them to take a closer look to see if they can see the same magic Thoreau saw.
I Begin With Spring: The Life And Seasons Of Henry David Thoreau
Written by Julie Dunlap | Illustrated by Megan Elizabeth Baratta
Recommended Ages: 9-12 years
I Begin With Spring is in that grey area between a book about Thoreau and one written by him. It has the feel of a journal capturing Thoreau’s observations—complete with beautiful watercolor drawings of different types of wildlife and flora he found—and also details Thoreau’s early life and what made him one of the most famed American naturalists in history. The book approaches his story through seasons. It recounts his experience of each season in the physical world and uses that to detail the seasons of his life as well. Certainly geared for older kids, the illustrations are a balance of watercolor artwork, photography, and clippings of articles all interspersed around the text. This book is perfect for kids who enjoy reading non-fiction (in a non-boring way!) or for school projects.
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For Interesting Stories About Thoreau…
Henry Climbs A Mountain
Written and Illustrated by D. B. Johnson
Recommended Ages: 4-8 years
This recommendation is a little bit of a love letter to both Thoreau and D.B. Johnson (author and illustrator of this book). One of the things I most admire about Thoreau was his wholehearted commitment to abolitionism. His essay, Civil Disobedience, would go on to inspire the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. This picture book, in all of its abstract art glory, captures that pivotal moment in Thoreau’s life that would inspire Civil Disobedience. After refusing to pay taxes to a government that endorses slavery, Thoreau goes to jail. He goes willingly and the next day, to his disappointment, he’s released when someone pays his bail. The book adapts this experience in a child-friendly way emphasizing Thoreau’s commitment to his principles. D.B. Johnson goes on to envision that during the night he spent in jail, Thoreau must have used his imagination to frolic in his beloved outdoors. D.B. Johnson’s artwork is so unique and singular, it glues your eyes to the page as you take it all in. Angles are funky and slanted, perception is distorted; the abstract artwork is heavily influenced by cubism and it’s just incredibly cool to take it all in. This is one of my favorite books on this list and, fortunately, is part of a series, so if you like this one, I highly recommend checking out the others!
Of Walden Pond
Written by Lesa Cline-Ransome | Illustrated by Ashley Benham-Yazdani
Recommended Ages: 6-9 years
A study in opposites, Thoreau is as different from Frederic Tudor as day and night. Not nearly as well known as Thoreau, Tudor was distinctive in his own right. He had a string of business failures and it showed in the mocking he endured from society. Attempting once more, Tudor used innovative ways to harvest ice blocks and transported them all the way to India with much of his inventory still intact! His methods would prove to lay the groundwork for refrigeration as we know it. So where do Tudor’s world and Thoreau’s collide? At Walden Pond! It was Walden Pond’s ice that turned around Tudor’s fortune. And it was Walden Pond where Thoreau communed with nature. From his cabin in the wood, Thoreau would observe Tudor’s men harvesting ice from Walden Pond marveling at how it would connect his corner of the world to India, a land that completely enthralled him. The story is written in a beautifully lyrical way demonstrating the differences and similarities of the two men. Cline-Ransome describes just enough to keep you wanting to read more. The text relies on cozy, romantic, soft pencil and watercolor artwork to illustrate the connections between the two. One of my favorite pages shows the ship carrying off the ice and in its wake, the ripples reflect the magic of Thoreau’s Walden Pond.
Continued from above…
Fast forward a few years (and a handful more tortuous hikes) and needless to say, pulling into one of the parking lots for campgrounds at Yosemite National Park left me feeling nervous. My same hiking companion (by then also husband… proof you don’t need to be a hiker to marry an avid one) reassured me how lucky I was to be visiting after an unseasonable amount of rainfall had painted the valley a lush, vivid green and where you could hear the distant hum of overflowing waterfalls.
My excitement was tepid at best and even that was mostly because this was one of the prettiest areas I had seen. Just as we finished lunch, ominous clouds rolled overhead and condensation materialized out of nowhere in a mist that clung to every frizzy curl on my head. Instead of dampening (ha!) my bottom-of-the-barrel excitement, it actually bolstered it. Unlike my hiking companion, I love nothing better than being outdoors in precipitating weather. Where he hesitated, I enthusiastically wanted to get cracking.
We ended up accidentally getting lost on a trail (I’m rolling my eyes here because this would NOT have happened had the path been paved) and I walked alone—being significantly behind—and practically rehydrating myself as I heaved and gulped down the mist in frantic pants. As I struggled to keep up, I paused and took stock of my surroundings. Above me, Sequoia trees towered overhead forming a canopy. The sharp scent of wet dirt mingled with the fragrance of fresh fallen leaves. There was a peaceful silence broken only by birdsong and scuffles of other animals. It was one of those pristine moments that makes you question your priorities in life. I was awestruck. At that moment, I was transported to a high school classroom where we were learning about Henry David Thoreau. At the time I couldn’t figure out how someone could love Nature the way he did. But now I sort of understood.
We found a clearing on our hike and got treated to a beautiful view of Half Dome. My husband elbowed me and teasingly asked if I was ready for a climb up Half Dome. I snorted with disbelief. The chances of me ever doing that are always going to be slim to none. I am NOT a hiker. Doubt I’ll ever go on a hike with my husband unbegrudgingly. But, even when you’re not a hiker, turns out you can still be humbled by your own smallness in a way only Nature can. This post is my way of letting Thoreau know that I get it now.
On a completely separate note, I wanted to take a moment to remind you that there is more to Henry David Thoreau than just his musings and observations on communing with nature. Here’s a Walden quote that I think about a lot when the good times are really good and when the bad times feel really bad:
“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”
-Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Are you a hiker or, like me, has the hiking gene passed you by? Is this an activity you love to do with kids? Hit the button below and share!
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