Long ago, Brister and Fenda Freeman lived in the woods in Walden. Across the pond was their famous neighbour Henry D. Thoreau (1817-1862). The trio met many times probably on their walks along the trail and into town. Brister went there to sell the apples from his orchard. As a fortune teller, Fenda most likely had regular customers at the town’s Saturday market.
The Freemans are just two of the Black people Thoreau mentions in his book Walden, Or Life in the Woods. I was inspired to read it by the chats and beer around the campfire, where Thoreau is often touted as a founding father of the conservation movement.
No one mentioned that he also wrote about the slaves living in the woods.
Most likely because they did not know – Thoreau is one of those writers outdoors people talk about but rarely read. On my part, I assumed that as Thoreau was white and he wrote the book to promote conservation to his kind of people, he had little to say about race. In conventional terms most white people see themselves as race-less. It is the people of colour who are raced. As my outdoors recreation group is mostly white…
In Walden, Thoreau popularised and romanticised the idea of living in a log cabin in the forest. This simple life gave one time to think, to observe and reconnect to nature. Thoreau was conscious that the wildlands were under attack from farmers, wood-choppers and turf-cutters. The wilderness was shrinking as cities grew, land was privatised and the railway expanded bringing more settlers into the forests. Thoreau argued that conservation was needed to save the wilderness both for its own sake and as spiritual refuge for humanity.
Slavery was part of the life in the woods in Walden. Thoreau describes his Black neighbours as individuals and noted how much of their lives was circumscribed by race. Cato Ingraham lived east of Thoreau’s bean field. Cato was enslaved and rumoured to be directly from Guinea. He planted walnut trees, planning that in years to come, the crop would sustain him in his old age.
Zilpha was a coloured woman who spun linen for the people in town. Living alone with her chickens and a dog, her life was hard in the woods. Zilpha’s life became tougher after her cottage was burnt to the ground by retreating soldiers. Thoreau does not mention her as a slave, implying that she was probably a free woman of colour.
Thoreau frequently mentioned Indigenous people in Walden. He noted that native crops such as corn thrived best in the soil, he admired the skills of Indigenous hunters and the grace of their canoes. Thoreau visited Canada in 1850. On his trip to Montreal, he was astonished at the extent to which French Canadians had adopted elements of Indigenous lifestyle, such as their food and clothing.
Thoreau wrote that he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay the pole tax to a government that supported the buying and selling of people. The tax was paid anonymously, probably by a relative. Thoreau was an ardent abolitionist, delivering tons of lectures on the anti-slavery circuit. He was active in the Underground Railroad.
If the founding father of conservation talked so openly about race and racism, why is the modern movement is so quiet about these issues?
Is it because not much has changed in the last two centuries when it comes to social justice in the outdoors? For white people the woods are still a refuge from the stress of city life. For Black people the woods have become a place of fear. Fear of white violence against them.
Brister and Fenda, Cato and Zilpha would have understood that fear. But, they too claimed the woods as their own. It was their home.