Henry David Thoreau went to the woods because, he wrote in Walden, he wanted to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Yet in the book Thoreau didn’t mention the fact that a year earlier, he had accidentally set the woods near his home town of Concord on fire, causing a 300-acre blaze, a near disaster, and costing the town  $2,000, at the time a considerable sum.

In Walden he famously scorned those who would live “lives of quiet desperation,” but he didn’t mention after the fire that he himself was scorned in Concord as a “woodsburner.”

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!

Is it possible he went to the woods to redeem himself? To become something besides a town pariah?

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

That’s the suggestion of a first novel coming out next week by John Pipkin, called — yes — Woodsburner. In a column for the Boston Globe, Pipkin writes: 

That the father of American environmentalism could have been the scourge of the Concord Woods may seem too ironic to be true. Yet, not only did this unlikely event actually occur, but it seems quite possible that, given Thoreau’s general lack of direction at the time, as well as his growing interest in pursuing a career as a civil engineer, America’s first great naturalist might not have undertaken his Walden experiment at all, had it not been for the forest fire he sparked a year earlier.

In Walden, Thoreau wrote that “To regret deeply is to life afresh.” Could regret over an inadvertent act of destruction have led to a new life for Thoreau, and the first great work of environmentalism? 

(h/t: Jacket Copy)

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.