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The Philosophy Behind the Thoreau Outing


     Henry David Thoreau felt the need to get away from society and the routines of “modern” life, with its materialistic goals and unexamined assumptions, in order to confront life and learn what it truly had to offer. Thoreau was deeply bothered by the federal government’s tolerance of slavery in Southern states and the rapid pace of technological “advancements” like the railroad. Disillusioned with society, he believed that the majority of people live a life of “quiet desperation.”

      Thoreau’s solution was to live in a cabin at Walden Pond for two years growing his own food, observing nature closely, and writing notes in his journal that was published in 1854 as Walden  .  At Wardlaw-Hartridge all the juniors read part of Walden  in the first semester, but in order to grasp the spirit of the book, the students must escape from the boxes that they live and study in and go to the woods as Thoreau did, at least for one day, to make close observations of nature, consider the technology and economy of the mid-nineteenth century, and write notes in their journals.

     The physical exercise of canoeing will carry increased oxygen to their brains, the escape from the classroom will free their thoughts, and the warning call of the belted kingfisher will prick their curiosity.  The canal will carry the students back to the 1850’s when Thoreau lived and wrote.


An interdisciplinary, educational experience involving the fields of history, physical education, science, art, and English.


U. S. HISTORY – Students would see how locks work on a nineteenth-century canal, see the bridgetender’s house and millstones, and explain in a three-hundred-word paper how the location of this canal was a benefit to the economy of nineteenth-century America. Also, they should tell why  the canals became obsolete.

ENGLISH – Students will write the paper described above. In addition, they should get a better sense of how Henry David Thoreau spent his days. Before the trip, students will read the pages on “Why I Went To The Woods” in Walden.

SCIENCE – The juniors will have various assignments: chemistry -  test the acid level in the canal water and compare it to the acid level in the river water and try to explain why these levels might be different; test soil sample near river with a sample in the woods; biology - compare the number of turtles in the canal with the number in the river and draw conclusions (identify the species); collect three different kinds of leaves and identify them; physics – make some observations about the propulsion of a canoe – why can’t one person make it travel straight? Make some observations about ruddering a canoe.

ART – complete one pencil sketch of anything : acorn, leaf, canal lock, turtle, millstone, front doorway of an eighteenth-century house.

PHYSICAL EDUCATION – Juniors would enjoy some physical exercise. Most do not know how to paddle correctly in tandem, so this will be a challenge.