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A Brief Review of
Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods
Hardback: The University of Chicago Press, 2014
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Reviewed by Alicia Smock
This new book by Richard Primack reaches out to readers who are familiar with Henry David Thoreau’s Walden essay, as well as to those who are concerned about climate change. Being one who began college majoring in meteorology and having recently graduated from college in the field of literature, I was all too intrigued by Walden Warming and was very excited to read the book in its entirety.
Of course, some people out there believe the idea of climate change to be a complete joke. Some may ask: “If global warming was such a big deal, why can we not see the changes in the atmosphere around us?” Others may ponder: “The weather is not going crazy like in Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow. Why should I worry?” And then there are the ones who state sarcastically: “Oh, no! The ocean’s temperature has increased a whopping one degree Fahrenheit! We’re doomed!”
Suffice it to say that a temperature increase of one degree is a very big deal! The slightest heating of our oceans’ temperature means the polar ice caps melt which means these giant blocks of ice fall into the ocean and cause the levels to rise. How does the rising ocean affect humanity? Well, let us ask the coastal cities of the world’s continents in a few years and see how they enjoy living like the lost city of Atlantis.
Of course, the continents will not be completely underwater, that is an exaggeration, but the fact remains that the oceans will rise. It may not be noticeable for a few decades or more, but people may begin to notice the water is not as far from the shore as it used to be. Scientist Richard B. Primack focused on the aspects of climate change; however, he approached the phenomena in a way that could interest even the most skeptical believer. As the book’s title declares, he studied the effects of global warming in the small area of Concord, Massachusetts. More specifically, Primack continues to study (11 years and counting) climate change in Walden woods where Henry David Thoreau lived and recorded different aspects of nature.
As a whole, this book was well-written and Primack brought up some very good points and suggestions throughout; however, there were certain parts that seemed out of place and could have been omitted or moved to another book. We shall get to this later, but for now, let us focus on the good.
Many books on scientific phenomena can be dull and/ or hard-to-follow because sometimes scientists drone on about their area of expertise; not keeping in mind that their audience may or may not be understanding the concept. Walden Warming is not one of those books, focusing on Primack’s research on climate change by studying one small area of the globe: Concord, Massachusetts. By studying today what Thoreau studied in the mid-19th century (times flowers bloomed in the spring, times birds migrated back to Concord, etc.), Primack has seen changes in the past century that point to climate change. “We knew that the landscape of Concord had changed greatly in the 160 years between Thoreau’s observations and ours,” he says, “but we also recognized that Concord, more than most suburban areas, was extremely well-protected by government agencies and private land trusts. We would have the opportunity to study the same species that Thoreau had observed in some of the same woodlands, pond edges, and river meadows, following in his footsteps” (6).
Primack split each of his chapters into subsections for a more pleasant experience for the reader who may or may not be deeply interested in global warming and climate change. At the beginning of each chapter, Primack placed a picture (landscape, a flower, an insect, etc.) as well as an entry from Thoreau’s personal journal or from Walden that foreshadowed what the reader was to read next.
Primack’s voice in his writing was pleasant to read compared to other scientists I have read. He gives detailed descriptions of settings and even memories of his own past that give his research a fiction-like story telling aspect that captures the reader’s attention. His descriptions of scientific facts, whether these facts are about plants or about climate change, are short, sweet, and to the point. No drawn-out scientific explanations to confuse readers who are unfamiliar with this field of work. And when he does come to unusual scientific terms, he describes what the term means in a brief sentence or two.
His research was very informative, beginning his book with big weather phenomena in the past decade (i.e., the flooding of 2010 in the U.S.) and then going on to discuss his research on the change in blooming times of flowers and migration times of birds which were captivating and flowed well together. After talking about flowers and birds, Primack then went on to discuss insects, though these chapters were not nearly as interesting, as he even admitted that he did not have as much research on how climate change is affecting where insects travel and live. His final chapters consisted of the affect climate change has on amphibians as well as on humans which I believe could have been omitted from this book (along with the insect chapters) and perhaps could have been put into another book. Primack just had so much information on plants and birds alone that this book could have stood on its own with just this information.
I would recommend Walden Warming to anyone interested in nature, Henry David Thoreau, climate change, or all of the above. It’s a quick, informative read and Richard Primack offers suggestions (as all scientists do in this scientific area) on how we, as individuals or as a whole, can help save our planet and slow the progress of global warming, for it is indeed too late to stop it completely.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com