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Henry David Thoreau’s writing is sprinkled with positive references toward cows. These ideas and many others were probably inspired by his rural roots. By Barney Nelson, Ph.D.
was a cow-boy

Henry David Thoreau is best known as the old bachelor who built a shack and lived alone at Walden Pond. The book he wrote about that experience is credited with inspiring the modern environmental movement. However, in 1877, Thoreau told his publisher that he had once been a cow-boy. He said that he had once been “tossed” by a cow, but he also had a favorite during the days when he drove them barefooted to a pasture near Walden Pond. He said he could not have felt more affection toward that favorite cow if she had been his own grandmother. These youthful cow-boy experiences probably sparked his keen observational skills and his appreciation for nature. In fact, almost all of Thoreau’s philosophy can be traced to his rural roots: his hardheaded individuality, his brutal honesty, his belief in civil disobedience, his desire to live a frugal life, his belief in self-education, and his obsession with the natural world.

However, Thoreau does not romanticize the rural life. In the “Economy” chapter of Walden, he obviously understands fully that rural prosperity is “measured by the degree to which the barn overshadows the house,” and that “men are not so much the keepers of herds as herds are the keepers of men.”

He sympathizes with those who inherit agricultural property and realizes its burden of responsibility: “I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of.”

He has seen “many a poor immortal soul...well nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty.” He explains that “Ancient poetry and mythology suggest, at least, that husbandry was once a sacred art; but [today] it is pursued with irreverent haste and heedlessness by us, our object being to have large farms and large crops merely.” This emphasis on production, he says, has been the ruination of the agricultural life, as well as the nation, and he calls his own “ability to want but little” his greatest skill.

Although Thoreau was extremely well-read, graduated from Harvard, and grew up in Concord, Mass., in his day Concord was actually a small rural community supported by agriculture. Throughout his life, Thoreau was highly critical of traditional forms of education and embraced the rural methods of gaining wisdom. Even Harvard then, according to Thoreau, granted master’s degrees to anyone who was still alive two years after receiving their bachelor’s.

Thoreau declined his own master’s degree when it was offered by Harvard. Instead of valuing classroom and book learning, Thoreau believed in the power and truth of one’s own careful observations and deductions: “I notice in the excrement of cattle, kernels of grain on which the crows and doves feed, and which probably preserve their vitality and help to disseminate their food.” Long before such sciences were invented, he believed that a person could predict the weather by watching cloud patterns or understand the laws of religion by studying nature.

One of his most surprising ideas, and one that has been quite overlooked by Thoreau scholars, is his affection and respect for the wisdom of cows. In his essay “Wild Apples,” Thoreau credits the cow with inventing numerous new varieties of apples. “We have all heard of the numerous varieties of fruit invented by Van Mons and Knight,” he says. “This is the system of Van Cow, and she has invented far more memorable varieties than both of them.”

After eating domestic varieties of apples under the cultivated tree, the cow, explains Thoreau, proceeds to “plant” the seeds in wild corners of the pastures. For several seasons the cow will graze the little apple sprouts off into bushes, until the knarled bush becomes so impenetrable that one central branch is finally able to shoot up out of the cow’s reach. In this way, he says, the cow produces a more “independent” and “hardy” tree. The cow or ox also keeps the trees pruned up to “about the right height” and thus produces “their own shade and food,” farther and farther out on the fringes of civilization. This partnership between the cow and the apple tree, allowing them both to become gradually wilder, produces fruit and meat far more flavorful and hardy than the cultivated varities from which they both sprang.

Obviously, Thoreau is also using this story as an allegory for the way good people can be produced. He says in the same essay that “Poets and philosophers and statesmen thus spring up in the country pastures, and outlast the hosts of unoriginal men.” He often compares himself to the wild apple and says that “our wild apple is wild perchance like myself who belong not to the aboriginal race here–but have strayed into the woods from the cultivated stock.” Although today Thoreau is credited with originating the idea to preserve wilderness, he actually believed that wilderness was in a constant state of re-creation aided by cows.

Throughout his life, Thoreau’s journals are sprinkled with nostalgic memories of his days as a cow-boy. In 1851 he writes, “Methinks my present experience is nothing, my past experience is all in all. I think that no experience which I have today comes up to or is comparable with the experiences of my boyhood.” In 1953 he writes, “There is something in the music of the cow-bell, something sweeter and more nutritious, than the milk which the farmers drink.... I would go after the cows...forever, only for my board and clothes.”

Six years before his death he said, “I think I would rather watch the motions of these cows in their pasture for a day, which I now see all headed one way and slowly advancing–watch them and project their course carefully on a chart, and report all their behavior faithfully–than wander to Europe or Asia and watch their notions there.” Three years before his death, when he knew he was dying of tuberculosis, and near the end of his journal-keeping years, he warned, “If we do not look out we shall find our fine schoolhouse standing in a cowyard at last.” There in the cowyard, Thoreau believed true education could begin once again.

Dr. Barney Nelson, writer, photographer and teacher, lives in Alpine, Texas. For "More ruminations on the bovine from H.D.T.," pick up the Summer 2001 issue of RANGE.

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