“The poet says the proper study of mankind is man. I say, study to forget all that; take wider views of the universe.” – Henry David Thoreau, Journal, April 2, 1852
This blog was begun nearly two years ago under the influence of Thoreau and remains so. Going with a tweeted recommendation from Geoff Wisner, I recently read A Wider View of the Universe: Henry Thoreau’s Study of Nature by Robert Kuhn McGregor. The book details Thoreau’s transition from Transcendentalist to ecologist, to, indeed, becoming our foundering environmentalist.
It all began with Thoreau’s increasing attention to the world around him, instead of that in books, or, for that matter, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ego. Emerson was Thoreau’s mentor initially, but the distance ultimately traveled by the two of them resulted in very different destinations. Nature for Emerson was a philosophical construct, most worthy of contemplation, but preeminently for human needs. Transcendental thought, centered around individualism, easily leached into the mythology and practice of American capitalism, which means the world we live in is very much Emerson’s. But the world we — or at least I — dream of is Thoreau’s. (Thoreau is one of the roots of the alternative America.)
Not that Transcendentalists weren’t necessary to clear out the cobwebs of Unitarian orthodoxy, as the Unitarians usurped Puritanism (but not enough of it) in their day. Sometimes, you need a machete to slog through the lianas of Protestantism. But I digress.
Back to roots. And seeds. Thoreau’s nature writings were largely ignored by the literary clan, and biologists had no time for them. Uncompleted drafts, some only saw publication long after his premature death in 1862 at the age of 44 — for instance The Dispersion of Seeds (1993) and Wild Fruits (2000). His epic “Kalendar” of the seasons of life around Concord went unfinished.
Yet Thoreau was one of the earliest Darwinians in the U.S., while the nation’s foremost scientist of his day, Louis Agassiz, stalwartly defended the theologically-based notion of the immutability of species from his seat at Harvard. Indeed, in the last few years of his life — Origin was published in London in 1859, HDT was reading a copy early the next year — Thoreau began to examine Concord from a Darwinian perspective, one of the first field naturalists to do so.
I was surprised to read in Faith in a Seed that many in his time still thought that trees were spontaneously generated. You see what you want to, I guess, especially if you’re aren’t looking. Or to put it like the master, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”
“I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador any greater wildness than in some recess of Concord.”
Thoreau kept records of around 500 species of plants, nothing their flowering times through the 1850s. Using this as a baseline, along with records from other local naturalists, modern researchers have compared today’s Concord flora to the past. Thoreau lived at the dawn of the Age of Carbon; his descriptions of winter, deep New England winter, already sound like another world (mean annual temp in Concord has risen 2.4C in the last century; spring comes a week earlier). Climate change and habitat destruction and massive amounts of toxins have followed since his passing. A re-survey in 2006-08 found that 27% of the species he originally recorded are gone; another 36% are extremely rare and endangered.
Thoreau’s handwriting is notoriously hard to decipher and his drawing skills were rudimentary. But his description, and drawing, of a luna moth, dated July 8, 1852, are unmistakable.