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Following in Thoreau’s Footsteps During the Pandemic: Sauntering in the Time of Social Distance

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least —and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. — HDT, “Walking,” June 1862

Thoreau died from tuberculosis. There was no cure for TB in Henry’s day. It was the leading cause of death in the 1800s. Yet, TB wasn’t the only infectious disease in 19 th century America, there were outbreaks of dysentery, cholera, malaria, pneumonia, and typhoid fever.

So, what did Henry do?

He walked. He spent time — a lot of time— outdoors.

My vicinity affords many good walks; and though for so many years I have walked almost every day, and sometimes for several days together, I have not yet exhausted them. An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see.— HDT, “Walking”

It was thought that Henry developed tuberculosis in 1835 when he was a student at Harvard College. He died nearly three decades later in 1862, a month before “Walking” was published in “The Atlantic.”

His example of living outdoors was heralded by doctors who prescribed the “outdoor cure” for TB patients in the early 1900s. “Thoreau as an Exponent of the Modern Treatment of Tuberculosis,” was the title of a 1908 article in a Boston medical journal, and Henry was featured as a “Hero of Tuberculosis” in a 1908 journal devoted to the “outdoor cure.”

COVID-19 has changed the way we live.

It has led many of us to a “deliberate life” in ways we never thought possible.

Everything from grocery shopping to taking a walk to interacting with others now has to be planned in excruciating detail to avoid crowds and, more importantly, situations where one might get coughed or sneezed upon.

COVID-19 makes us think about life and death, and with limited medical resources, who will live and who will die and who will make these decisions. In a pandemic the world looks to doctors and nurses and scientists to tell the truth.

Blessed were the days before you read a President’s message. Blessed are the young for they do not read the President’s message. Blessed are they who never read a newspaper, for they shall see Nature, and through her, God. — HDT, Letter to Parker Pillsbury, April 10, 1861

Here in Massachusetts, residents are advised by the governor to work from home and to only go outside only for a walk or the weekly shop.

As a result of the modern world coming to a halt, we are now able to hear through the silence — songbirds, peepers, and hikers in the woods — the sounds Thoreau heard in his day, without the hum of cars and planes.

Life as we know it is upended, but nature’s embrace is open.

And, many of us, as Henry David Thoreau did, are heading into the woods.

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