Cover: Thoreau’s Country: Journey through a Transformed Landscape, from Harvard University PressCover: Thoreau’s Country in PAPERBACK

Thoreau’s Country

Journey through a Transformed Landscape

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Product Details


$30.00 • £24.95 • €27.00

ISBN 9780674006683

Publication Date: 12/21/2001


288 pages

6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

19 fine line illustrations


Henry David Thoreau’s lifework was his journals, which were approximately two million words in length, and for years editors have quarried various selections from this mass of prose. Here Foster chooses passages that reveal the actual nature of the terrain he inhabited… What emerges from this compilation is both a fresh awareness of Thoreau as a writer and an account, shaped partly by Foster’s elegant interpretation, of how landscapes change and change again.The New Yorker

Foster’s book, with its mix of Thoreau himself and thoughts about Thoreau, will repay any visitor who has previously walked a mile in Thoreau’s footsteps. Reading it will recall some scenes and it will remind the readers, and perhaps comfort the readers, that we are not alone. We walk behind giants. Not just Henry David, but whoever it was who had the courage even to begin that stone wall that marks the far edge of the field.—M. R. Montgomery, The Boston Globe

There is no shortage of editions of and commentaries on Thoreau but what we have here is an ecologist selecting passages from Thoreau and relating them to ecological history, discussing the effects of forest succession on animal populations, the role of fire in the ecology of New England, the history of abandoned farms and the management of forests then and now. This is not simply a piece of ecological commentary using the journal instead of the satellite image but an outworking of (if he will forgive me) the bog in the brain and bowels of David Foster, the director of Harvard Forest. We have interesting and solidly based ecological information here but suffused with the felt flow of the natural world. As such, it is worth its price for both scientist and humanist; furthermore, it is a lovely book to own.—I. G. Simmons, The Times Higher Education Supplement

Foster—by expertly excerpting from the icon’s two million words of journal entries—shows us a thinker who was a brilliant journalist, observant naturalist and eloquent writer. Thoreau’s observations alternate with Foster’s of the remarkable comeback of the New England forest landscape today. The book’s descriptions of 19th-century life and landscape are fascinating. Here is a slowly industrializing New England of dense, intensively managed farms, frequently clear-cut wood lots and vanished wildlife in which Thoreau the nature lover is an eccentric, a minority of one.—William Dietrich, American Scientist

Mr. Foster took Thoreau’s journals along with him when he went into the Vermont back country to make a home with his own hands. But he wasn’t emulating their author. Thoreau’s Country makes excellent use of quotations from Thoreau, but the remoteness of Thoreau’s world, not its proximity, is what he writes about… Mr. Foster is such a pure and subtle writer that quoting just a few words from his book is not enough to suggest the flavour of his style.—Douglas Fetherling, The Ottawa Citizen

In recent years we have seen a spate of books on Henry David Thoreau—his writings, his life, and the landscape in which he lived. The best of the lot is David Foster’s Thoreau’s Country… He is a clear-eyed interpreter of the so-called hermit of Concord—no rose-colored glasses, no sentimental gush… Foster’s fine book lays the groundwork for a conservation ethic that is realistic, practical and—as it must be—sympathetic to human culture and informed by human history.—Chet Raymo, The Boston Globe

Foster’s abiding love of Thoreau and nature inform this fascinating journal into how we see, take from, and live off the land and what it gives back to us—provided we understand its history and appreciate its treasures. His investigation of American history and its relationship to forests and nature makes for a compelling read. Naturalists, New England history buffs, Thoreau fans and just plain outdoorsy folks will encounter the pleasant surprise of having Foster charm and educate then at the same time.Cambridge Tab

David Foster’s new book exposes some widespread misconceptions about Thoreau and offers fresh insights on the many volumes of journals that this remarkable writer kept from 1837 until his death from tuberculosis in 1862… Thoreau’s Country works simultaneously as a meditation on a natural history of New England and as a polemic addressing our present-day need to reconnect with the New England landscape.—Alden Smith, Choate Rosemary Hall Bulletin

Thoreau’s Country is a wonderfully presented ecological and cultural excursion into Henry David Thoreau’s backyard… What results is a book that can be read as an ecological treatise on nineteenth-century land-use practice or, alternately, savored slowly, topic by topic, for Thoreau’s insightful analyses of such subjects as woodlots, dams, or passenger pigeons. Anyone who has ever encountered a stone wall in the middle of a New England forest will appreciate what Thoreau understood; Foster helps him share with us that understanding.—Joseph S. Wood, Geographical Review

In an ‘in the footsteps of [Henry Thoreau]’ vein, Harvard ecologist David Foster recounts how he built his own cabin in the New England woods (back in 1977) and traces the mostly manmade transformation of the countryside, including the puzzling fact that what were for Thoreau open spaces are often now forests.The Globe and Mail

Foster’s interpretation of Thoreau emphasizes his keen understanding of the interface of human society and the natural environment.—Irmarie Jones, The Greenfield Recorder

This is a remarkable and extremely readable book that discusses how and why the landscape of northern New England has changed since Henry David Thoreau wrote his journals from 1837 until his death in 1862… Foster discusses in an elegant and engaging way the development of the cultural landscape of northern New England and the ecological, social and economic reasons for such marked landscape changes in the last 150 years… It is a most enjoyable, interesting, and thoughtful book. It reads, in part, like an exciting ecological ‘whodunit’ and, in part, like a well-written scientific account for the non-specialist. Foster provides the perspective of an ecologist, palaeoecologist, and landscape historian to help put together the themes of ecological, social, and economic change that Thoreau noted and, in part, interpreted. It shows the remarkably dynamic nature of landscapes and how a contemporary landscape cannot be understood today without considering its history over various time scales… David Foster has produced a truly wonderful book that is a contribution to both landscape ecology and history and to the semi-popular scientific literature… [It is] scientifically excellent, stimulating and thoughtful, and a pleasure to read. Thoreau’s Country should be read by all interested in cultural landscapes, landscape dynamics and conservation, and recent ecological change. Its relevance, interest, and importance spread way beyond the confines of northern New England.—H. J. B. Birks, The Holocene

Foster, a forester from Harvard, skillfully weaves together Thoreau’s observations of the rolling New England farmland and small woodlots around Concord (carved out of primeval wilderness) and his own ecologically informed look at the same land, now largely reverted to forest.Natural Selections

By means of annotated abstracts and commentary, Foster contrasts how Thoreau viewed the past, present, and future of his New England landscape with the way Foster himself and others consider it now. In so doing, he points out a number of misconceptions we may have about Thoreau’s ideas and the cultural conditions of his time… Anyone interested in the interaction between people and nature in changing the landscape—especially those with an ecological bent—will thoroughly enjoy this book.—A. Donald Caven, Science Books & Films

In Thoreau’s Country, ecologist David R. Foster reveals that in limiting our notion of Thoreau by simply associating him with [‘…in wildness is the preservation of the world’], we miss the charm, humor, and observational powers of this deep-thinking man… Foster selected passages from the journals that illustrate landscape scenes, natural history processes, and land-use activities that offer ‘…new and refined insight into the history and ecology of New England.’ He also included entires he found amusing. He couples Thoreau’s passages with his own introductory essays, which are reader-friendly discussions of current issues in ecology… Foster concludes with a rich ‘Bibliographic Essay.’ The essays are accompanied by carefully crafted pen-and-ink drawings based on scenes Thoreau described.—John Seidensticker, Zoogoer

The Thoreau revealed or brought forward here is a creature not of primeval wilderness but of broadly husbanded landscape, a fellow not of frontiersmen but of farmers—and a more respectful such fellow than emerges from the pages of WaldenThoreau’s Country makes for good browsing, rich grazing, appreciative ruminating.—R. W. Butterfield, American Studies

[In Thoreau’s Country] Foster charts the social and ecological histories of New England. Thoreau is Foster’s inspiration, but by the time the philosopher-author of Walden moved to the Massachusetts woods and erected his small cabin, New England had already been transformed into a patchwork of agricultural fields and small woodlots. Indeed, farmers were seen as heroes for taming the land. But with the nineteenth century’s industrial revolution, people deserted the countryside for new jobs in the cities. Over time, much of the land, including that around Foster’s Vermont cabin, reforested itself. With the expanding forests, Foster finds a shift in human perception, too, one that encompasses the land’s ecological importance. Foster uses many excerpts from Thoreau’s journals, which reveal anew a man much in tune with the drastic changes humanity had already wreaked upon the earth.—Brian McCombie, Booklist

This attractively composed and bound book is illustrated with beautiful pen-and-ink drawings that enhance the text… A book to be savored and also used as a guide to alert the walker to the historical hints in the present landscape.—A. B. Stewart, Choice

More than an analysis of Thoreau, this is a commentary on change and the role humans play in shaping the landscape. A thoughtful, very readable volume.—William H. Wiese, Library Journal

In this fascinating book, David Foster offers a striking rereading not just of Thoreau’s journals but of American environmental history in general. He demonstrates that even the New England landscape which Thoreau described so lovingly, and which many Americans today regard as a symbol of now-vanished wilderness, was much shaped by human hands and much altered by human dreams. Anyone who cares about the environment will benefit from this beautiful meditation on the indispensable importance of history to our efforts to protect the natural world.—William Cronon, University of Wisconsin–Madison, editor of Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature

Thoreau is for all time, of course, but the land he walked and loved has changed in fascinating ways. This accessible and engaging book bring Thoreau’s account into the present, and even the future.—Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature

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