When Henry David Thoreau wrote about living in a small cabin in the woods with intention, did he not imagine that readers would find out he went to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house for dinner? Never mind that he had a support system, the truths that Thoreau articulated in his cabin in the woods across the tracks from Emerson’s house are no less true. As famous naturalist and author Bernd Heinrich says in this profile, you can’t “put a fence around nature” if you intend to be a part of it, just as you can’t shut out the modern world as you try to reconnect with nature.
For Outside, journalist Bill Donahue spends time in the snowy woods with the 77-year old Heinrich, to see what a naturalist does at the end of their career, and what it means to connect with nature in the 21st century. Even in retirement, while living in a cabin in the backwoods of Maine, Heinrich’s biological research and observational work hasn’t ended, and he’s slowed down enough to appreciate the small beauties of nature.
A special place can contain all stories—all of the past and all of the future, all the beginnings and endings. In 2016, the summer before my mom died, I drove her up to New Hampshire for a final visit. By then she was heavily medicated, but when we crested the final hilltop, with its stunning view of the local pond, her eyes glimmered with delight.
Her reaction was rooted in long memory, and also in nature. She was a naturalist. So many of us are, in our way, and as Bernd sees it, this is a fine thing. Indeed, it could save us. “A naturalist,” he e-mailed me, “is one who still has the habit of trying to see the connections of how the world works. She does not go by say-so, by faith, or by theory. So we don’t get lost in harebrained dreams or computer programs taken for reality. We all want to be associated with something greater and more beautiful than ourselves, and nature is the ultimate. I just think it is the one thing we can all agree on.”