America’s First Limnologist

America’s First Limnologist

“A lake is the landscapes most beautiful and expressive feature.  It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”

That quote has become the lake-lovers icon among lake protection advocates across the country.  The words were penned over a century and a half ago by an iconoclastic nature lover from Concord, Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau.

I typically open my PowerPoint talks to groups with a picture of Henry David Thoreau, often to the surprise of my audience.  Today, the man is judged America’s first limnologist.  (Limnology is the study of lakes.)  Though he had no formal training in science, he saw a lake through the window of reason, of science. 

Intensely curious, he was an acute observer and recorded in his journals much of what he saw.  When people of his town concluded that their lake, Walden Pond, was bottomless, Thoreau rejected the notion as pure nonsense.  He tied a rope to a rock, lowered it into the lake and discovered its depth to be 102 feet.

He went on to discover:

  • Lake temperatures change with depth,
  • The distinction between lakes rich in nutrients (eutrophic) and nutrient poor lakes (oligotrophic),
  • The increase in water temperature that occurs over sand bars beneath ice is due to sunlight reflecting off the bottom,
  • First to record the streaks of foam that develop in strong wind across a lake.

He also recorded observations on a wide variety of plant and animal life.

Thoreau, however, never got beyond seeing a lake as a collection of objects, not the inter-related systems we understand today.

Twenty five years after Thoreau’s death another man, Stephen Forbes from Illinois, made the next step up in understanding lakes.

After telling my audiences about Thoreau’s pioneering observations of lakes, all agree this passionate lover of lakes truly deserves to be called America’s first limnologist.

Darby Nelson

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