By Gerald Walton Paul

Nature is another name for health

Nature is another name for health

Street names in Concord, Massachusetts named after Thoreau


Thoreau's healthy lifestyle

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was born in Concord, Massachusetts, and except for a few trips, lived there all his life. Well known for his account of his simple, healthy life described in his book Walden or Life in the Woods, both the way he lived and what he taught have much to teach us about the health elements he practiced as a naturalist, poet and philosopher.

His concept of health may strike us as somewhat idealistic: None of us have full use and command of all our faculties. The swift of foot may be slow in thought. The muscle-bound superwoman may be crippled by an unawakened imagination. The mature thinker may be controlled by infantile feelings. The emotional dynamo may be empty-headed.

Because we get old too soon, we are destined to fall short of Thoreau’s ideal. But striving to approach his health ideal will motivate us to reach for the best possible health prescription, rather than settling to being only half-alive.

Among the categories of having, doing, thinking, being, feeling, imagining, He put a high premium on being and a low value on having. I believe he would have liked a saying I’m fond of: “Be where you are or you’re nowhere.” While those who are caught up in a rush for more things diminish their health and belittle their lives, those who stress being, through contemplation reap benefits of health and meaning.

To achieve a good measure of wellness, Thoreau insists on the importance of being in touch with the natural world. Our relationship with nature will avoid the dichotomy of subject vs. object. He goes so far as to say “Nature [is] but another name for health.”

As a regular walker, Henry was constantly close to nature.

For him, all seasons are healing seasons. Dismal swamps generate health as much as merry meadows do. Rain, sleet and snow, as well as sunshine followed by starlight, are just what the doctor/practitioner ordered. Biting north winds, brisk west winds, brackish east winds and balmy south winds—all bear healing in their wings.

So certain is Thoreau of nature’s predisposition for health that he insists “all nature is doing her best every moment to make us well.” All we have to do is accept nature’s medicinal gifts: “Do not resist her. With the least inclination to be well, we should not be sick.”

Religionists often speak of how God heals the sick body and restores the sick soul. Our naturalist plays down the role of divinity in keeping us healthy and in healing. He points to the visible creation and testifies that the whole earth—animals and plants, sun and wind, sightings and scenery—are health workers set at large to benefit our personal and corporate health.

He makes a cosmic claim: Health resides in nature. We are advised to “court the present”—avoid both regretting past health losses and worrying about growing old.

Nature provides healing gifts such as serenity, vigor, positive perception and refreshment: “If the prospect of an early morning walk does not banish sleep, if the warble of the first bluebird does not thrill you—know that the morning and spring of your life are past. Thus may you feel your pulse.”

While Thoreau seldom tires of extolling nature as the beast physician of all, he acknowledges that in his own life, disease exacted a toll. He suffered frequent respiratory attacks leading to his death at the age of 44. Although holding fast to his health ideal, he accepted disease as “one of the permanent conditions of life.”

He held a sort of dualism: Nature works for our health and wholeness; disease works for our sickening and fragmenting. But, when disease strikes, we should never despair. Instead, linger with nature and receive inspiration sufficient to rise above our condition, and make the most of our precious lives.

With the health of our environment steadily worsening, because of our interrelation with nature, our own health is also endangered. An early environmentalist, Thoreau discerned the importance of “constant intercourse with nature” for the conservation and perhaps preservation of the health of individuals and of planet Earth.


  • Thoreau quotes are from his Journals Volumes 1&2, Walden, Cape Cod and from my notes quoting him.
  • An introduction to his thought and life is a book edited by Eliot Perry: “In Wilderness Is the Preservation of the World.”
  • A good biography: Henry David Thoreau by Joseph Wood Krutch. p_E.pdf

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