For Thoreau, trees bear witness to the holy and are images of the divine.
Thoreau and god. For many people, that is an oxymoron, and not without some justification. I think it is better understood, however, as a riddle. Given the head-scratching things Thoreau wrote about religion—as well as the contrast between what he said (whatever that was), and what he did—it seems that a puzzle is what he intended it to be.
The standard view is that he was spiritual but not religious. I don’t fully dispute that viewpoint, but I do wonder if it isn’t a projection of the predominant secularism of our society and of the academic world and Thoreau studies in particular.
I ask because it omits the palpable, undeniable presence of a loving, benign, immanent God in his writing.
I’m not talking about his few overt theological pronouncements about the nature of divinity or the errors of organized religion. I mean his occasional, but not infrequent, affectionate or emotional comments in his journal and letters about God and sometimes to God in the second person voice of the Psalms. These are moments when, despite the poison darts he threw at churches, clerics, and creeds, Thoreau reveals his deep religious instinct.
Emerson said that despite Thoreau’s “petulance” toward churches, he was “a person of a rare, tender and absolute religion.”1
I think that is true, and here I’d like to consider how Thoreau’s response to trees bears that out.
Thoreau wrote about trees for a quarter century. He observed them closely, knew them well, and described them in detail, but he did not presume to fully explain them. He respected a mysterious quality about trees, a way in which they point beyond themselves. For Thoreau, trees bore witness to the holy, and they emerge in his writings as special emblems and images of the divine.
They were spires, he said, that lifted his vision to “heaven.” Just what that word meant to him is unclear—it was, he said, under our feet as well as over our heads—but he used “heaven” often, including, in all its forms, forty-eight times in Walden. Thoreau frequently linked heaven and trees. By fall, an industrious red maple has grown “nearer heaven than it was in the spring.”2 Elms “take a firmer hold on earth that they may rise higher into the heavens.”3 Loggers felled a majestic pine that for two centuries had been “rising by slow stages into the heavens.”4 He writes a prayer on a leaf and “the bough springs up the scrawl to heaven” (Journal 1:207). An oak sapling is “driven back to earth again twenty times, as often as it aspires to the heavens” (Journal 14:121).
When he used that and similar metaphors, Thoreau revealed a part of him that is easily misunderstood. It’s true that he railed at the “bigotry and ignorance” of organized religion. He found its doctrines despairing, its clergy torpid, and its rituals as superstitious as those of the pagan Roman temple. “Men run after the husk”5 of Christianity and forget about the seed. He thought the stern God of the meetinghouse has “perhaps too many of the attributes of a Scandinavian deity” (Writings 1:326).
Despite these views, Thoreau was, in fact, religious to the bone. He had a deeply religious cast of mind and a profound sense of the holy. He rejected the meetinghouse not because it represented religion, but because it profaned it. It killed a true religious impulse. “We check and repress the divinity that stirs within us to fall down and worship the divinity that is dead without” (Writings 3:119). After writing that men seek but the husk of Christianity, he goes on: “The kernel is still the very least and rarest of all things. There is not a single church founded on it.”6
Formal religion, with its doctrines, exclusivist claims, and sectarian squabbling, was peripheral to the religion he sought in nature—a religion by revelation, as Emerson called it, or a newer testament, as Thoreau put it, the Gospel according to this moment.
He was not interested in defining it. Experiencing it was all he cared about, and trees often led him to it. They were his “shrines” and “burning bushes,” the forest his cathedral. Its spires inspired him more than the white-washed village steeple. Alone in a distant wood, he got “what others get from churchgoing” (Journal 9:208). “A forest is in all mythologies a sacred place,” Thoreau wrote, and that would include his own (Writings 1:298).
Before looking at his direct religious experience, I want to briefly mention two other ways trees drew out Thoreau’s religiosity. As a writer, he conveyed the sanctity of trees in emphatically religious terms. He said it was senseless, for example, that Puritan meeting houses had caused the “desecration” of “far grander temples not made with hands.”7
In the fall, Thoreau collected dead branches, logs, and driftwood for his winter fuel, and he saw his act of splitting and burning them as a religious exercise. “These old stumps stand like anchorites and yogees,” he wrote on October, 21, 1857, “putting off their earthly garments, more and more sublimed from year to year, ready to be translated, and then they are ripe for my fire. I administer the last sacrament and purification” (Journal 10:116).
In his essay “Autumnal Tints,” the autumn leaves contentedly “return to dust again and are laid low, resigned to lie and decay at the foot of the tree,”8 echoing both Genesis 3:19, “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” and “the tree,” a traditional Christian cipher for the cross. In Christian typology, “the fall” stands for man’s enslavement to sin and to death. In “Autumnal Tints,” it heralds rebirth—just as spring did in Walden.
One metaphor Thoreau used for trees over and over again was that of the “spire.” A majestic tree that rose like a column and brushed the sky moved him. Unlike a church steeple, which sat on a building, a tree’s roots reached down into the earth, while its crown “pierced the Empyrean,” or highest heaven, connecting both. Spiring upward was deeply meaningful to Thoreau. Aspiration to a higher life was at the core of his being. A man who doesn’t believe “that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour has despaired of life,” he wrote in Walden, adding, “I believe it is my power this very hour to elevate myself above the common level of my life.”9 He asked, in a letter to H. G. O. Blake, “If a man constantly aspires, is he not elevated?”10 And in “Walking”: “My desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant.”11 The spiring of trees symbolized this quality. “See how the pines spire without end higher and higher, and make a graceful fringe to the earth,” he writes in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.12 In Maine, majestic firs, spruce, and pines steepled the forests. “I was struck by this universal spiring upward of the forest evergreens. . . . All spire upwards, lifting a dense spear-head of cones to the light and air.”13
The winter woods held mysteries for him, and he walked in them more as supplicant than naturalist, alert to the mystical.
Trees also symbolized the religious idea of resurrection to Thoreau. His masterpiece, initially Walden; or Life in the Woods, ends with a parable of life in the wood—the bug entombed in “the dry leaf” of a table made from an apple tree. The larva lay dormant sixty years, then, hatched by the heat of an urn, gnawed its way out to enjoy “its perfect summer life.” Whose “faith in a resurrection and immortality,” he asks, “is not strengthened by hearing of this story?”14
Thoreau’s immersion as a naturalist in the dynamics of the forest deepened this association. Leaves die in autumn only to rise again, he wrote. The fallen leaves “still live in the soil, whose fertility and bulk they increase, and in the forests that spring from it. They stoop to rise, to mount higher in coming years, by subtle chemistry, climbing by the sap in the trees.”15
On November 25, 1860, Thoreau saw young pines and birches filling an abandoned pasture that, fifteen years earlier, he personally remembered, had lacked a single tree. “I confess I love to be convinced of this inextinguishable vitality in Nature,” he wrote in his journal. “I would rather that my body be buried in a soil thus wide awake than in a mere inert and dead earth” (Journal 14:268).
And in The Maine Woods, he proclaimed the immortal spirit of the white pine, after first skewering the loggers, tanners, and turpentine makers who see only its lower uses. “It is the living spirit of the tree, not its spirit of turpentine, with which I sympathize. It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.”16
But the most important way trees touched Thoreau’s religiosity was that they renewed his spirit. “When I would recreate myself,” he wrote in “Walking,” “I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable swamp and enter it as a sacred place—a sanctum sanctorum.”17
The forest was a spiritual elixir to him. The penetrating, aromatic smell of the pine restored him. At the sound of the wind in the woods, “my heart leaps into my mouth,” he wrote on August 17, 1851. “I suddenly recover my spirits, my spirituality, through my hearing.” The sight of the pines below Fairhaven Cliffs shining in a clear ethereal light awakened him inwardly. Seeing this, he wrote, “my spirit is like a lit tree” (Journal 10:305).
The winter woods held mysteries for him, and he walked in them more as supplicant than naturalist, alert to the mystical. “Is there no trace of intelligence there, whether in the snow or the earth, or in ourselves? No other trail but such as a dog can smell? Is there none which an angel can detect and follow? None to guide a man on his pilgrimage?” (Journal 6:44).
Thoreau thought that institutional Christianity fostered resignation, despair, and hopelessness. Trees conveyed the opposite to him. They expressed “a naked confidence” and stirred a joy and gratitude that was at the heart of his spirituality. “The spruce, the hemlock and the pine will not countenance despair,” he wrote. “The winter of their discontent never comes.”18 The riotous autumn colors of trees suggested to him that life’s routine should be interrupted “by an analogous expression of joy and hilarity,” that our “spirits should rise as high as Nature’s.”19 Loggers and lawyers with their “saws and laws” do not know how glad a man can be in the woods—glad “with an entire gladness” (Journal 4:445).
The God Thoreau described was not that of the Christianity of his day, swooping down from on high, but a God woven into every twig, trunk, and blade.
“Nature,” Thoreau said, “is full of genius, full of the divinity” (Writings 8:88). Yet how he spoke of that divinity changed with his rhetorical purpose or mood. In his more formal, philosophical view, it was generally an impersonal, ineffable divine principle—and the more polemical and defiant he was, the more it sounds like pantheism. Yet in his more private speech, when writing about his experience of the sacred in letters or his journal, it is surprising how often Thoreau turns to more conventional religious terms and speaks more tenderly, vulnerably, and reverentially.
All the motions of nature—“the running stream, the waving tree, the roving wind”—must be the “circulations of God,” he wrote (Writings 1:302). Exhilarated by a sail, he felt “blown on by God’s breath,” like his very body was fluttering and filling out gently with the breeze (Journal 1:155).
On September 7, 1851, a day on which some scholars believe he crystallized his life’s mission, Thoreau pledged to find God in nature. “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?” he wrote, alluding to the motif in the Psalms of the watchman who calls out the morning light. “To watch for, describe, all the divine features which I detect in Nature. My profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature.”20
Out in the woods after a snowstorm, Thoreau heard the bells of First Parish. “Men obey their call and go to the stove-warmed church, though God exhibits himself to the walker in a frosted bush today, as much as in a burning one to Moses of old” (Writings 4:442).
The God Thoreau described was not that of the Christianity of his day, swooping down from on high, but a God woven into every twig, trunk, and blade. It was a benign, loving, and, above all, familiar presence to Thoreau—a presence like the one that dispelled a moment of loneliness a few weeks after moving to Walden. He suddenly became “aware of the presence of something kindred to me,” an “infinite and unaccountable friendliness” all around him. “Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me.”21
I don’t know if that meets your definition of a spiritual encounter, but it was good enough for William James to cite in The Varieties of Religious Experience.
Thoreau also spoke in Walden of “occasional visits” on long winter evenings “from an old settler and original proprietor who is reported to have dug Walden Pond, and stoned it, and fringed it with pine woods; who tells me stories of old time and of new eternity; and between us we manage to pass a cheerful evening with social mirth and pleasant views of things—a most wise and humorous friend, whom I love much.”22
And at times Thoreau spoke affectionately to God, as he did in that passage I cited from August 17, 1851, about his being renewed by hearing the wind in the trees:
Ah, if I could so live that there should be no desultory moment in all my life! . . . I would walk, I would sit and sleep, with natural piety! . . . I thank you, God. I do not deserve anything, I am unworthy of the least regard; and yet I am made to rejoice. I am impure and worthless, and yet the world is gilded for my delight.
At the same time, Thoreau did not claim to know the exact nature or the source of the divine stirrings he experienced in nature. They were unfathomable. The trees knew things that he did not and would never know. “You are never so far in them as they are far before you,” he wrote. “Their secret is where you are not and where your feet can never carry you” (Writings 1:239).
How to piece together the puzzle? We can look historically and see a number of influences, including: the Huguenots, French Protestants from whom Thoreau descended and who worshipped in the woods to avoid persecution; the Quaker George Fox; the antinomian Puritans like Anne Hutchinson, who prized personal revelation over scripture; Jonathan Edwards, who wrote of finding a divine rapture in nature; and the Hindu texts Thoreau read with such reverence after Harvard.
Thoreau may have been speaking of his cultural identity when he described himself as a Protestant in “A Yankee in Canada,” but I think he spoke a great truth. He was deeply Protestant in his religious worldview—Emerson, in his eulogy, called him both “a born protestant” and “a protestant à outrance,” or in the extreme—and deeply reformist.23
The divine principle for Thoreau was ever new, never finished, always taking new forms, making “a new impression every instant” (Journal 1:260), and thus could not be reduced to one formulation or contained in one religion. “The perfect God,” he wrote (not merely men’s projection of God), “has never got to the length” of one creedal proposition of the church. For every book, no matter how recently printed, there is always a later, newer edition.24
Thoreau asks in A Week: “May we not see God?”25 This is often taken as a rejection of Emersonian idealism. But I think that over the rest of his life he answered, no.
In 1854, he sees a beautiful cardinal and imagines that the deeper woods holds a redder, wilder, truer, more vibrant one. But after looking some time, he concludes that the bird of his imagination cannot be matched, is never to be found. “The redbird which is the last of Nature is but the first of God” (Writings 8:146).
This, too, is a very Protestant notion, the idea that the human imagination and yearning for God stirred by the Bible exceeds whatever can be attained of God through material religion. Sola scriptura, by scripture alone are we saved. Thoreau thought along the same lines but did Calvin one better, omitting not only the priest, but also Christ and the Bible. One could know God, he believed, sola natura, by nature alone.
It must also be said, however, that perhaps no religious frame does justice to Thoreau’s search for a truth beyond all religions.
Thoreau does not help. “What is religion?” he asked. And he answered, “That which is never spoken.”26
When he did speak, he would not toe the line. “I know that some will have hard thoughts of me, when they hear their Christ named beside my Buddha,” he wrote in A Week, “yet I am sure that I am willing they should love their Christ more than my Buddha, for the love is the main thing, and I like him too.”27
Love was indeed the main thing for Thoreau. He made that clear in one of the few times he did offer a definition, in a letter September 8, 1841, to Isaiah Williams, a friend of Emerson’s interested in Transcendentalism. “Our religion is where our love is,” he wrote.28
- Emerson’s eulogy, The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 10, Biographical Sketches (Houghton Mifflin, 1883), 445.
- “Autumnal Tints,” in The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Excursions, ed. Joseph J. Moldenhauer (Princeton University Press, 1975), 233.
- The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Bradford Torrey and F. H. Allen (Houghton Mifflin, 1906), 8:140 (hereafter cited within the text as Journal).
- The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Journal, 8 vols. (Princeton University Press, 1981–2009), 3:164 (hereafter cited within the text as Writings).
- Faith in a Seed: The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings, ed. Bradley Dean (Island Press, 1993), 179.
- Wild Fruits: Thoreau’s Rediscovered Last Manuscript, ed. Bradley Dean (W. W. Norton, 1999), 236.
- “Autumnal Tints,” 241.
- The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Walden, ed. J. Lyndon Shanley (Princeton University Press, 1971), 89, 90.
- Letters to a Spiritual Seeker, ed. Bradley Dean (W. W. Norton, 2004), 37.
- “Walking,” in The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Excursions, 215.
- The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, ed. Carl Hovde, William Howarth, and Elizabeth Witherell (Princeton University Press, 2004), 159.
- The Maine Woods, ed. Joseph J. Moldenhauer (Princeton University Press, 1972), 109.
- Walden, 333.
- “Autumnal Tints,” 241.
- Maine Woods, 121–122.
- “Walking,” 205.
- “Natural History of Mass.,” in The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Excursions, 5, 23.
- “Autumnal Tints,” 246.
- Psalms 119, 127, 129, and 130 all allude to the watchman who waits to call out the morning light.
- Walden, 132.
- Ibid., 137.
- Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 422, 424.
- A Week, 70.
- Ibid., 382.
- Spiritual Seeker, 16.
- A Week, 67.
- The Correspondence of Henry D. Thoreau, Vol. 1: 1834–1848, ed. Robert Hudspath (Princeton University Press, 2013), 89.
Richard Higgins, MTS ’97, is a writer and editor in Concord, Massachusetts, and the author of Thoreau and the Language of Trees (University of California Press, 2017). He was co-editor, with Mary Jo Bane and Brent Coffin, of Taking Faith Seriously (Harvard University Press, 2006). This talk was part of a panel discussion held at Harvard Divinity School on September 14, 2017, to celebrate the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth (July 12, 1817).