top of page

Thoreau, a Poet and a Hawk walk into a Bar

Have you heard this opening to an old joke? 'Thoreau, a poet and a Hawk walk into a bar....' The format is timeless but the joke holds no humor.

This week, ConocoPhillips, the powerhouse fossil fuel company received approval from the Biden Administration to move forward with the Willow Project. This project will lock the USA into oil drilling for the next 30 years on public lands in Alaska, emitting carbon pollution equivalent to 78 coal plants. In the midst of an escalating climate crisis this decision is profoundly consequential for generations to come.

I absorbed this news as my newsfeed brought extreme images attributed to climate change. Which brought to mind this question: How will your and my moral compass inform what we will each say and do?

My answer is shaped, in part by three influences: Henry David Thoreau, Mary Oliver and a Red Tail Hawk. Let me explain.

For the past few months I've been reading a biography entitled" 'Thoreau: A Life' by Laura Dassow Walls. Thoreau's (1817-1862) seminal works included 'Civil Disobedience' and 'Walden'. In Civil Disobedience he spoke of the necessity to non violently oppose injustice, when the State had lost its moral footing. For Thoreau his conscience as an abolitionist was stirred by opposition to the Mexican American War and in particular its implications for Texas becoming a slave holding state. For example, his family home in Concord, MA was an active stop on the Underground Railroad, which was illegal under the Alien Sedition Act, which ruled that all escaped slaves from the south to the north must, under penalty of law, be extradited to their slave holders. Thoreau's moral compass compelled him to resist.

Skunk Cabbage by Walden Pond

Thoreau is also remembered for his book 'Walden' which reflects on lessons learned from two years of living off the land in a small cottage he built, overlooking Walden Pond. There he observed the passing of the seasons closely. The pond and surrounding woods became a place to notice the intricacy and beauty of the natural world. Walden was a sacred place where he felt deeply connected to the natural world.

I can well imagine what Henry would be saying and doing in response to the climate crisis, fueled by human denial and/or greed. He would not be silent.

Red Tail Hawk at Harvard Yard

I'm thinking too of a photo my daughter, Katelyn, sent me this morning. Photo is of a Red Tail Hawk resting at Harvard Yard in Cambridge. Red Tail Hawks are an adaptable species finding roosting space often on office window ledges while below enjoying a diet of rats and mice. Seeing this majestic bird in the midst of a busy, urban setting is a reminder of what Thoreau knew to be true, that all ground and all beings are sacred.

I'm thinking too, of the poet and prophet Mary Oliver (1935-2017). She like Thoreau spent time noticing. Her sacred ground consisted of the meadows, beach and ponds of Provincetown, MA. In one of her poems, 'The Messenger', she offers this line: 'My work consists, mostly, of standing still and learning to be astonished.' I think, if the poet were alive today, she might choose her poem 'The Empire' as a response to the approval by the Biden Administration to green light the pumping of oil out from the Alaska wilderness. I think too, her poem would be directed to those Republicans who for decades denied the very existence of climate change.


I close with a question. What are the voices, the sources of wisdom that help shape your moral compass? And, how will your moral compass inform what you say and do? Thoreau, Mary Oliver and the Red Tail Hawk tell us, that in the face of an existential crisis, silence is not an option.

With you on the journey ~ Kent Harrop

22 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page