ON A pleasant spring day 167 years ago, two young men enjoyed some fishing near Concord and cooked up some chowder in a nearby pine stump. The wind spread their fire to the nearby dry grass, and the Concord Freeman reported that “as every thing around them was as combustible almost as a fireship, the flames spread with rapidity, and hours elapsed before it could be subdued.’’ By the time the sylvan inferno ended, more than 300 prime acres of Concord woodland had been destroyed.
The inadvertent tree-burner was Henry David Thoreau. Today, he is a secular saint of environmentalism, but his contemporaries understandably saw the forest destroyer as a “damned rascal’’ and “flibbertigibbet.’’ It is hard to imagine any Bostonian shopkeeper or merchant who harmed the environment as much as Thoreau.
Thoreau’s story contains a moral that remains relevant today. We are a destructive species, and if you love nature, stay away from it. The best means of protecting the environment is to live in the heart of a city.