The bodies are strewn everywhere along the beach. Burials are complicated because nobody knows the names of the dead—mostly women and children fleeing famine and poverty, trying to reach the land of plenty that has been promised to them but finding, instead, an early end in turbulent waters. Spectators gape at the debris from the recent shipwreck “cracked up like an eggshell on the rocks,” while others go about their business.
“In the very midst of the crowd about this wreck,” writes an eyewitness to the aftermath of the disaster, “there were men with carts busily collecting seaweed which the storm had cast up, and conveying it beyond the reach of the tide, though they were often obliged to separate fragments of clothing from it.”
This scene of devastation and indifference seems torn from the latest headlines or photos from around the world, just one more group of refugees appearing fleetingly on our screens and in our consideration. In fact, the victims of this particular wreckage were 140 Irish immigrants who perished when the St. John, the ship upon which they had sailed to “the New World, as Columbus and the Pilgrims did,” crashed on the shores of Cape Cod during a huge storm in October 1849. The eyewitness referred to above, without whom we might not remember the incident at all, was none other than Henry David Thoreau.
It is not that story of bereavement on the shore that first comes to mind when thinking about Thoreau today. This year’s articles, exhibits, commemorative stamps and the like to mark the bicentennial of his birth have focused, rightly, on a life dedicated to nature in its multiple and luminous forms, and his ground-breaking call to civil disobedience. But it is worth turning our attention as well to that lesser known experience of his on Cape Cod, the calamity he witnessed such a long time ago that nevertheless feels so sadly contemporary. Thoreau issues a challenge to us over the chasm of time and we would do well to listen to him.
What strikes me most today is how Thoreau understood and demarcated the moral dilemma posed by anyone confronting a catastrophe such as the sinking of the St. John. He contemplates the workers who, with “no human interest in the matter,” go on with their everyday lives: “Drown who might, they did not forget that this weed was a valuable manure. This shipwreck had not produced a visible vibration in the fabric of society.” And he notes that, for an old man who, along with his son, was carting “the wrecked weed” to his barnyard, “those bodies were… but other weeds which the tide cast up, but which were of no use to him.”
Thoreau is not judgmental about this attitude, perhaps because it strangely mirrors his own dispassionate detachment. With the eloquence typical of his discussions of his own mental meanderings and contradictions, Thoreau explains the reason for his emotional distance: “If I had found one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place, it would have affected me more,” adding that rather than “all the graveyards together… it is the individual and private that demands our sympathy.”
It is an uncomfortable observation, all the more so for being undeniable. In this year alone, the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth, innumerable migrants continue to die without most of us in the West having any idea about the contours of those lives, their identities, dreams, faces. Who knows anything about the hundreds of unheralded Mexican and Central American migrants who have died anonymously this year trying to cross the desert which, like a vast dry perilous ocean, separates Mexico from the United States? Or about the Rohingya who have recently been consumed by the Bay of Bengal as they attempted to escape the massacres in Myanmar? Are we in the privileged West not equally ignorant of the lives and deaths of almost three thousand migrants from Africa and the Middle East who have perished at sea in search of sanctuary in Europe, one hundred of them in the last few days alone, including twenty-six Nigerian women, most of them underage, who may have been raped before they drowned?
Could it not be said of them, as Thoreau wrote of the Irish corpses he contemplated, “Why care for these dead bodies? They really have no friends but the worms or fishes.”
We are faced today, as we will unfortunately be tomorrow, with the same ethical quandary that Thoreau formulated so elegantly but was unable to resolve: How can we breach the gap in empathy that resurfaces every time we are bombarded with news and images of corpses on the shore or in the desert or under the ruins of a city, so many bodies blurring into one another that we cannot meaningfully process the fact of their deaths?
One way of counteracting that “collapse of compassion,” as psychologists call it, is to take a route that Thoreau did not follow. He ascribed the fate of those corpses to the workings of Nature, avoiding any mention of the “visible vibration in the fabric of society” that led those families to flee their homeland. He does not address (either here or elsewhere in his work) the famine that drove so many starving inhabitants of Ireland to emigrate, a famine that was man-made and not at all due to “the law of Nature.” The potato blight that compelled those Irish families to mount perilous boats was exacerbated by social and economic afflictions: exploitation by absentee landlords; land tenancy that favored grazing over crops and made farmers dependent on one vulnerable strain of potatoes; the export, by Ireland’s colonial government, of enormous amounts of food at the very moment when the people of that island were starving.
Today, if each of us cannot fully bring into our hearts all the faraway fatalities we see on the news, we can at least try to acknowledge and understand the causes of such cataclysms, a necessary step toward preventing further carnage. Civil wars, poverty, political repression, droughts, and pollution are ordained not by Nature but by Man. In fact, it is our human ravaging of Nature, the very depredations that Thoreau most dreaded—“Thank God men cannot fly, and lay waste to the sky as well as the earth”—that is so often the source of the conflicts and scarcity that have pushed many millions to search for salvation in foreign lands. A desperate quest destined only to get worse: the International Organization for Migration reports estimates of between 25 million and 1 billion additional refugees created by man-made climate change by 2050.
If Thoreau did not analyze the storm of social ills behind the tragic shipwreck he was witnessing with the perceptiveness and patience he lent to his descriptions of trees and flowers and streams, he does provide a model of what needs to be done when we feel helpless and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the horrors that assail us daily. He would urge us, in these times when the Earth he venerated is so assaulted and pillaged, when communities have been destroyed and their residents forced to flee, that we heed his call, in “Civil Disobedience” (1849), or nonviolent resistance to oppression. He might say to us now, as he said to his fellow citizens then, that it is “not too soon for honest men to rebel.”
Thoreau practiced what he preached. Opposing what he deemed the two evils of his day, slavery and the Mexican-American War (waged, he believed, as an imperial project to expand the territory for slavery), he refused to pay his taxes, preferring to be jailed. It was this stance that prompted him to write the essay “Civil Disobedience,” which was to inspire Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. The latter echoed Thoreau in his 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail”: “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law.”
It is true that most of us possess neither the courage nor the stamina to undergo such drastic penalties. That does not mean, however, that we are condemned to lead “lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Thoreau does not demand that everyone display a taste for martyrdom. On the contrary, two hundred years after his birth, he has gentle advice for his readers, suggesting how each of us might build a legacy of creative protest: “For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once done well is done forever.”
Thoreau believed that we, like Nature itself, can renew ourselves “completely each day.” If we listen to his voice intensely and deliberately, perhaps we can be encouraged, each of us on our own terms, to discover that small way to contribute to a different sort of society. Because those bodies scattered upon the sand and the sea that Thoreau saw—a vista obscenely repeated in our time—are, if we dare to look deep into the canvas of our imagination, harbingers of the communal fate that is in store for the ship of humanity as it heads toward the rocks. They are a warning to us to act now, to sing the song that is still in us, before it is too late to prevent the wreck that awaits us all on this damaged planet. And with no Thoreau left on the beach to tell our tale.
This essay originally appeared in the New York Review of Books.