Here’s an interesting article about Thoreau’s early career and the incident that may have been a catalyst for his move out of town into the woods nearby. As it happened a year before the Walden experiment, it may have had some bearing on the idea.
From the Boston Globe:
On April 30, 1844, Thoreau started a blaze in the Concord Woods, scorching a 300-acre swath of earth between Fair Haven Bay and Concord. The fire was an accident, but the destruction of valuable woodland, the loss of firewood and lumber, and the narrowly avoided catastrophe that almost befell Concord itself angered the local residents and nearly ruined Thoreau’s reputation. For years afterward, Thoreau could hardly walk the streets of his hometown without hearing the epithet “woods burner.”
…at the end of April, Thoreau went boating with his friend, Edward Sherman Hoar. They caught a mess of fish and Thoreau built a fire in a tree stump near the water’s edge to cook a chowder. The winds were strong and the woods were exceptionally dry from near-drought conditions. The fire leapt from the stump, into the dry grass, and then rushed toward the trees.
Thoreau and Hoar tried to extinguish the flames on their own, stomping in the burning grass and beating the flames with a board from their boat. But once the fire reached the trees, they knew there was no stopping it without help. Hoar set out for Concord in the boat, and Henry ran through the woods ahead of the flames, seeking help nearby. He encountered one farmer who refused to help him, because he thought the fire was “none of his stuff.” Thoreau ran on, eventually encountering an owner of the woods then ablaze. The man ran to Concord to summon the town, and Thoreau, exhausted, climbed to the top of Fair Haven Hill to wait for help and watch the woods burn.
…A few months after the fire, Emerson purchased a plot of land at Walden Pond in order to protect it from woodcutters. And in March of the following year, Channing wrote to Thoreau, urging him to go to Emerson’s plot at Walden and begin the “grand process of devouring yourself alive.” Thoreau moved to Walden four months later. Perhaps he sought refuge from the angry people of Concord, perhaps he felt compelled to atone, somehow, for his offence, or perhaps the fire awoke him to the fragility of life: nature’s, man’s, his own.
Years before the fire, Thoreau wrote in his journal, “To regret deeply is to live afresh.” And later in “Walden” he wrote that he came to the woods because he did not want to die having never lived. Perhaps this keen sense of urgency – the impulse to live the life he has imagined before it is too late – derives in part from Thoreau’s having witnessed how quickly an unthinking act can turn tragic.
There is some interesting history I was not familiar with until a few years ago. Here’s the link to the full article at the Boston Globe.
A shiftless, bookish fellow, who worked well with his hands but without much career direction or ambition to take the easy path. Sounds like a familiar story.