Rochelle L. Johnson’s “Grieving with the Kingfisher: Thoreau’s Mourning Work in an Age of Political and Environmental Violence” asks what use we might make of Thoreau in a time of geopolitical strife and climate crisis. Challenging Emerson’s 1862 contention that “the meaning of Nature was never attempted to be defined” by Thoreau, Johnson points to Thoreau’s receptivity as itself part of an attempt to make meaning. In exploring how Thoreau’s receptivity enables meaning, Johnson mines his published books and essays, substantial Journal, and manuscript materials, tracing Thoreau’s apprehension of a single bird—the kingfisher. As Johnson reveals, Thoreau remains alert to kingfishers even as he encounters scenes of destruction in Cape Cod; rages over repressions in “Slavery in Massachusetts”; and mourns the human developments destroying habitats along his local Concord River. She also uncovers Thoreau’s interest in the mythology associated with the kingfisher, whose Latin name of Alcedo recalls halcyon days. Johnson’s reading reveals how the kingfisher’s ancient connotation of nurturing presence informs Thoreau’s multifaceted concepts of both “the West” and “the Wild,” as well as the need for conditions and spaces of restoration and resilience that our age, no less than his, requires.
Thoreau in an Age of Crisis reconsiders the relevance of 19th-century American naturalist, philosopher, and social reformer Henry David Thoreau to our troubled present. This new anthology collects the work of fourteen leading scholars from various disciplines. They consider Thoreau’s life and work in light of contemporary concerns regarding racism, climate change, environmental policy, and political strife. They review Thoreau’s trajectory as a scientist and literary artist, as well as his evolving attitudes toward Native American cultures. The essaysists also consider Thoreau’s acoustics, concepts of play, and impact on later writers. Most provocatively, they reveal a vulnerable and empathetic Thoreau, a far cry from the distanced and misanthropic critic often portrayed in popular culture.