In a famous essay titled "Walking," Henry David Thoreau makes his ambition clear: "I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil, ... to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society." And he continues, "The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world," and "I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows," and "A town is saved, not more by the righteous men in it than by the woods and swamps that surround it."
Maybe these were novel ideas then, but there is nothing revolutionary here to our modern ears because all cultures ultimately have their roots in the wilderness. We Americans are close to those roots in heart and mind and spirit. The prairies, the western mountains, the endless northern forests ring to us of freedom. So he was a cut ahead of his time, and his ageless words touch our collective memory and our conscience.
Thoreau has published at least three new books with natural history and science content in the last eight years. Not bad for a man who died 139 years ago near the beginning of his career. Amazing, really, when you consider that at that time he was thought of mainly as a cranky Transcendentalist philosopher and mystic poet.
Prior to reading his most recent work, I knew little more than that he lived in a cabin at Walden Pond for a couple of years (1845-47), grew beans, took three trips to Maine and spent time (a day) in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax. He explored widely in Concord, Mass. Nothing remarkable. Would not the journals of Audubon, Lewis and Clark, Von Humboldt and Peter Kalm depict more of America's wilderness without the clutter of that "transcendentalist" stuff he was famous for?
I was wrong, of course. I'd been caught up in superficialities. Thoreau cannot be defined, pigeonholed and typecast. One can see in him almost what one wants to see. As a result, there is a cottage industry of scholars who will continue to interpret him for some time to come, each from a different perspective, even as ambient viewpoints ever change. I think now that he may have been ahead of his time, being interested in the habits and behavior of hawks--all of the things that help to make a hawk. The guts are indeed not the hawk. To see the real hawk, you have to look far beyond the guts, which few professional biologists would do for more than a century.
Thoreau had, of course, always been a prolific writer and an impressively influential one. But his new resurrection in a different guise is astounding. At times some of his rambling essays seem boring, but then suddenly he shocks you down to the marrow with timeless words. Here are some of them appearing in one of his most recent publications, "Collected Essays and Poems."
In "Slavery in Massachusetts," he declared: "I would remind my countrymen, that they are to be men first, and Americans only at a late and convenient hour." "They [judges and lawyers] consider, not whether the Fugitive Slave Law is right, but whether it is what they call constitutional." " ... [I]t has been left to the courts of justice--to the Supreme Court of the land--and, as you all know, recognizing no authority but the Constitution, it has decided that the three million [slaves] are, and shall continue to be, slaves. Such judges as these are merely inspectors of pick-locks and murderer's tools, to tell him whether they are working or not, and there they think their responsibility ends."
In "Life Without Principle": "I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of trivial things.... Read not the Times. Read the Eternities." I think of this not so much when reading The Times, but when contemplating our popular addictions to "action" films, pulp fiction and the like. We edit and regulate what we put into our mouths but not the diet of our collective mind. "America is said to be the arena on which the battle of freedom is to be fought; but surely it cannot be freedom in merely political sense that is meant. Even if we grant that the American who freed himself from a political tyrant, he is still slave of an economical and moral tyrant."
In "Natural History of Massachusetts": "We fancy that this din of religion, literature, and philosophy, which is heard in pulpits, lyceums, and parlors, vibrates through the universe, and is as catholic a sound as the creaking of the earth's axle; but if a man sleep soundly, he will forget it all between sunset and sundown." "I am singularly refreshed in winter when I hear of service berries, poke-weed, juniper. Is not heaven made up of these cheap summer glories?"
How many of us are deprived of that heaven and don't even know if or where it exists? He goes on and, as an entomologist, I can only assent: "Entomology extends the limits of my being in a new direction, so that I walk in nature with a sense of great space and freedom." "[T]he myriad sounds which crowd the summer noon ... [are] the very grain and stuff of which eternity is made." "We do not learn by inference and deduction ... but by direct intercourse and sympathy." "What an admirable training is science for the more active warfare of life. Indeed, the unchallenged bravery, which those studies imply, is far more impressive than the trumpeted valor of the warrior." "... to know, is to know good." "Let us not underrate the value of a fact; it will one day flower into a truth." Sounds like a pitch for the funding of basic research by the National Science Foundation. But his essay intertwines poetry, data on the number and kinds of fish, descriptions of how the Penobscot Indians wear muskrat skins and comments how in early spring one can hear "the slight grating sound of small cakes of ice, floating at various speed, full of content and promise ...."
"Wildness," "heaven," a town "Saved": At one level I sometimes wonder, what is he talking about? To me, at least, it is not always crystal clear just what he means. There is often ambiguity if not contradiction from one quote to another, maybe because he searches for something beyond the facts that cannot be easily captured.
He is, ultimately, searching for "Truth," in the same way that some of his predecessors and contemporaries sought the face of God, by looking at Nature, God's works. That made nature study holy. Thoreau, however, did not subscribe to conventional religious ideas. He did not want to see God through the eyes of any church but rather as revealed through his own eyes and experience and by living according to his conscience. When asked on his deathbed if he had made his peace with God, he confidently quipped, "I didn't know we'd quarreled."
A glimmer of an empirical and logical yet mystical worldview came to him or was reinforced on reading Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species," which he read shortly after it was published in November 1859. The "Tangled Bank" analogy at the end of that book exposes nature's grandeur to the mind, and it must have rung true with what he had so closely observed and seen. It is a story of creation of matter that transcends matter. Yet the world of operational science, at that time especially, could deal with only one small part at a time, which necessarily wrings the mystery out of the whole and leaves it creaking dry. That is too bad, because we need mystery and wonder. We do not worship what we understand.
In the course of scientific studies over a century and a half, it became ever more apparent that the world is made up and governed by matter and natural laws. Nature study lost its holy appeal because there was no longer a necessity to invoke God in ecology or even in entomology. Consequently the mystical that Thoreau alludes to became an impediment to the modern mind and tarnished his reputation as a scientist. Scholars, trying to uphold his virtue, pointed instead to other aspects of his persona, and his scientific efforts languished.
His two early books give little hint as to how modern his views are. To delve into that new visage of Thoreau, the scientist, I start with "Wild Fruits," subtitled "Thoreau's Rediscovered Last Manuscript," that appeared last year. The core of the manuscript consists of 230 pages of a somewhat prosaic listing of about 200 plant species, each with separate annotation. The list does not follow any taxonomic order but proceeds in the sequence in which the fruits or seeds ripen in the field near Concord. It begins with elm ("Before the tenth of May") and ends with juniper, on which he found both ripe and purple berries on Oct. 19. The entries for different fruits vary enormously, ranging from as few as two words ("Black Ash") to 19 pages ("Wild Apples") and up to 23 pages ("Black Huckleberry"). The listing by specific fruit through the seasons is followed by a four-page essay titled "Winter Fruit." As is typical of his longer essays, this one contains quotable lines that are typical Thoreau: practical, prophetic and insightful. "I think that each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres, either in one body or several, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, nor for the navy, nor to make wagons, but stand and decay for higher uses ... a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation."
The book ends with 30 pages of related passages that are all from Thoreau's original unfinished manuscript, titled "The Dispersion of Seeds," a book that he began by expanding his essay on the succession of forest trees that he worked on until he died in 1862. Emerson called it his "broken task." The content of that work in progress first appeared seven years ago in a volume titled "Faith in a Seed," and both are edited by Bradley P. Dean. Because it is hardly justifiable to separate fruits from seeds, the coverage of both fruits and seeds in this volume is understandable. It is not clear what Thoreau meant to do with this work because his efforts were cut short by his death, the result of tuberculosis. One cannot judge the writing now. It would be a disservice to Thoreau to serve up the just-published "Wild Fruits" manuscript as an example of his scientific work or thinking. (Thoreau probably would not have wanted his notes published, and if the manuscript author were anonymous, it would not have been published now.)
The earlier book, "Faith in a Seed" (which also contains much on fruits), is quite another matter. It is touted as "contain[ing] the hitherto unpublished work, 'The Dispersion of Seeds."' However, it essentially is that work, with a foreword by Gary Paul Nabhan and an introduction by Thoreau scholar Robert D. Richardson Jr. "The Dispersion of Seeds" (or "Faith in a Seed") is indeed a significant scientific and literary work, even given the fact that the author had not completed it. It gives a new dimension of Thoreau that had not been evident before. Although the foreword and introduction contribute enormously, giving background and perspective, the new title is both unwarranted and misleading. I had put off reading this book because of my preconceptions of Thoreau as some sort of mystic. The word "Faith" in reference to seeds would surely never have been chosen by him for a title.
Although Thoreau himself used the phrase "faith in a seed," his treatment of fruits and seeds is thoroughly empirical, rational, scientific and grand. Indeed, one gains the impression that the material published in "Wild Fruits" could have been, and probably was, the raw data that he was collecting for the "Seed" manuscript. Obviously most of this information may not have had direct relevance at the time he took notes, but an all-seeing eye is required when exploring new ground when one has no idea what may or may not be relevant. Ultimately, in "Seeds" he unfolds a novel and interesting "story" of symbiosis, forest succession and ecology. It is fully constrained by the facts and expanded by them, and he clearly disentangles his speculations and questions. Those facts are not just any facts. They were gleaned from his daily walks around Concord. Such an unbiased approach motivated by love, or "sympathy" as he would say, can reveal truths that may not even be apparent to the author but that can emerge at a much later time, to be seen by anyone. It is this reliance on his own empirical data that explains why we now remember Thoreau much more than his mentor, Emerson, who relied more on thoughts than on concrete data.
Thoreau's science will be the big issue well into the current century. It has relevance not just for answering specific questions. It provides a general approach to solving problems for which you start by collecting all the facts and not just the few facts preconceived to be most relevant. The decisions then are revealed on their own merits.
His precise dating of when the butternuts ripen, drop and crack their shells soothes my soul. I intuitively trust him for taking great pains to learn about the real world, the ageless one. There is grandeur in his willingness to learn that the elm produces seed very early in the spring, from the 7th to the 9th of May, and in his chronicling of when the red oak acorns fall and by what agency they disperse and are planted. His observations invite general interest when accompanied by thoughts, such as "[t]hough inedible they are more wholesome to my nobler part, and stand by me longer than the fruits which I eat. If they had been plums or chestnuts I should have eaten them on the spot and probably forgotten them; they would have afforded me only a momentary gratification, but being acorns, I remember and as it were, feed on them still." Substitute Arctic wilderness for acorns and oil for plums and one observes the same timeless concept that is now of relevance; what is practical now is almost by definition shortsighted in the long run.
His detailed studies of squirrels extracting seeds from pine cones, the distances they carry the cones and the places of seedlings' sprouting are valuable now less because they reveal new truths to science but because they exemplify a way of thinking. He tried to put his finger on the pulse of life, to feel it from up close to attend to the details. That's content. It's relevant now. It's ageless. And it's not practiced enough.
The editor of "Faith in a Seed" may have overworked the idea that Thoreau single-handedly trounced the idea of spontaneous generation. Thoreau may not have been a farmer, but he did not expect to eat beans unless he planted the seeds first. Any schoolboy pulling up an oak seedling would have seen it sprouting from an acorn, the seed. Thoreau may have been a Transcendentalist philosopher, but he was in contact with practical farmer-folk who planted, who reaped and who put their faith in seeds each spring. Of course, there are always flat-earthers who "don't believe" because they don't "see." But no one is obliged to entertain ignorance, even if it is common ignorance.
In these two of his most recent books, "Faith in a Seed" and "Wild Fruits," Thoreau makes a debut not only as a naturalist and forester but also as an ecologist, long before there were such labels. His ideas of forest succession and timber management would apply today. His treatment of wind, water and animals in the dispersal of seeds could be required reading in any college-level ecology course. Except for jargon, little has been added to some of the concepts he advances from his careful seed-counting and distance-measuring.
Thoreau was generally thought of at the time as a lazy ne'er-do-well. He quit his teaching job and accidentally set the woods on fire on a fishing trip. He was considered a Transcendental philosopher. It was enough so that the father of Ellen Sewall, the woman he proposed to, forbade the marriage. It is perhaps therefore ironic that he could hold ideas far ahead of his contemporaries and his time. Louis Aggassiz, a leading professor at Harvard College when Thoreau was a student there, did not "believe" in the theories of evolution that Thoreau thought to be self-evident after reading Darwin. Emerson, believed that deductive reasoning is the more practical method of unraveling the mysteries of nature than empiricism, yet we know of no truths that he alone uncovered, while Thoreau discovered a good many new things in his woods. They are as true now as they will ever be. Thoreau was the practical practitioner who preached "contact, contact...." He sought pieces of the puzzle, to see what fits rather than proclaiming what ought to fit. Solid facts accumulate like mutations that eventually build the organism. They have lasting value.
Thoreau took daily walks with botanical field guides, trying to identify as many plants as possible and keeping a calendar of the events of nature around Concord. Emerson had important things to say. Thoreau had important things to see. If Thoreau had faith in a seed, it came from the realization that little facts will eventually add up to big truths, the nature of which is usually unseen and unforeseeable.
Thoreau's insights resulted from his seemingly random observations. Ultimately they had practical relevance to the environment to which he has become what Einstein is to physics. Each man thought in terms of the physical reality of the world, yet each saw truths beyond it. Einstein perceived his world through the formula E=MC2. Thoreau saw it through "Wildness." We need him because he speaks for us all, and so he will live on as never before.