Posts Tagged 'Thoreau'

Thoreau’s Birthday

Turdus migratorius

“I saw Brooks Clark, who is now about eighty and bent like a bow, hastening along the road, barefooted, as usual, with an axe in his hand; was in haste perhaps on account of the cold wind on his bare feet. When he got up to me, I saw that besides the axe in one hand, he had his shoes in the other, filled with knurly apples and a dead robin. He stopped and talked with me a few moments; said that we had had a noble autumn and might now expect some cold weather. I asked if he had found the robin dead. No, he said, he found it with its wing broken and killed it. He also added that he had found some apples in the woods, and as he hadn’t anything to carry them in, he put ’em in his shoes. They were queer-looking trays to carry fruit in. How many he got in along toward the toes, I don’t know. I noticed, too, that his pockets were stuffed with them. His old tattered frock coat was hanging in strips about the skirts, as were his pantaloons about his naked feet. He appeared to have been out on a scout this gusty afternoon, to see what he could find, as the youngest boy might. It pleased me to see this cheery old man, with such a feeble hold on life, bent almost double, thus enjoying the evening of his days. Far be it from me to call it avarice or penury, this childlike delight in finding something in the woods or fields and carrying it home in the October evening, as a trophy to be added to his winter’s store. Oh, no; he was happy to be Nature’s pensioner still, and birdlike to pick up his living. Better his robin than your turkey, his shoes full of apples than your barrels full; they will be sweeter and suggest a better tale.” ~ HDT journal entry, 10-20-1857

(Robins, like many other birds no longer considered game, were eaten then.)

Cold Tree

“A beautiful form has as much life at one season as another.” ~ Henry David Thoreau.

The distinctive cone shape of the Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) is actually kind of similar to the distinctive cone shape of the Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum). Both species grace Brooklyn Bridge Park and both appear “bald” this time of year. And, in the cold, battened down — or maybe that was just me, being iced in the cheek by the wind off the water.

Happy Birthday, Henry

To my mind, the exemplar of America is Henry David Thoreau, who was born on this day in 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts.

Christened “David Henry,” he changed the order of his given names when he was twenty. He was closely associated with Concord and didn’t sell many books in his lifetime, but his influence as an environmentalist and a political thinker has branched and blossomed widely since. Natural history and moral history were intertwined in his mind, the observations inseparable from the politics; his last two published essays were “The Succession of Forest Trees,” written under the influence of Charles Darwin, and “The Last Days of John Brown,” in which he states: “I commonly attend more to nature than to man, but any affecting human event may blind our eyes to natural objects. I was so absorbed in him as to be surprised whenever I detected the routine of the natural world surviving still, or met persons going about their affairs indifferent.” (The mass of men, and women, are still blockheads.) Indeed, the central question of philosophy from the beginning, and really, the only one of interest, pardon all the academics delving in abstractions — how does one live in the world? (or, conversely, how does one die?) — might be said to be his whole topic. As a young Harvard graduate, he quit the school he was working in because he thought the floggings he was supposed to administer were cruel and unusual. He was a lifelong Abolitionist, in thought and, crucially, deed. His essay “Civil Disobedience,” originally called “Resistance to Civil Government,” influenced Gandhi and King and countless others peacefully battling the illegitimate and immoral within states. His detailed notes on local natural history have been used to compare his Concord’s species and blooming times to today’s.

He died on May 6, 1862 of the tuberculosis that haunted his entire adulthood. There are some wonderful deathbed scenes recorded, sounding like pure encapsulations of his spirit. When asked how he was preparing for a supposed afterlife, he shot back, “One world at a time.” When asked by a relative if he had made his peace with God, he said “I did not know that we had ever quarreled.” In a culture positively swimming in opiates, he refused the wistful embrace of Morpheus’s draughts of laudanum in his final hours. His last intelligible words are said to have been “moose” and “Indian.”

Reading Thoreau, one needs a commonplace book at hand to capture all his sly wisdom.

“What journal do the persimmon and the buckeye keep, and the sharp-shinned hawk?”

“Nature will bear the closest inspection; she invites us to lay our eye level with the smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.” “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

“I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”

“A grain of gold will gild a great surface, but not so much as a grain of wisdom.”

(More about Thoreau here at Backyard and Beyond.)

A Wider View

“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.

A scant note on abundance

Extinction is forever. The Anthropocene Extinction we are living through is much discussed, but in this discussion something gets lost as we attempt to save the last hundred or thousand members of a particular species of charismatic megafauna.

That something is the antithesis of extinction. It is the incredible abundance of animals and plants that once filled the ocean, air, land. Especially in the Americas, which half a millennium ago were saturated, ripe, with animal and plant life. But already by the middle 19th century, Henry David Thoreau could rightly ask amid the farms and woodlots of eastern Massachusetts, “Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature that I am conversant with?” Two centuries earlier, William Wood, in his New England’s Prospect of 1633, a book Thoreau read, detailed the abundance like a catalogue of wonders Thoreau could only marvel at.

The salmon, eels, green turtles, Eskimo curlew, Carolina parakeets, and all the seals and whales, the oysters…. We remember the history of the herds of buffalo, the clouds of passenger pigeons, but these were only the beginning of that vanquished richness. (Buffalo and pigeons, btw, are thought by some to have been so numerous because the Native Americans who had hunted/managed them were decimated.)

These thoughts were conjured by Steve Nicholls’ Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery, a heartbreaking record of slaughter upon slaughter, echoing Peter Matthiessen’s earlier Wildlife in America (1959). Nicholls’ central point is that each generation only knows what it sees itself; this becomes a shifting baseline for comparison; the sense of abundance is lost, even incomprehensible.

My Thoreau

Reading Henry David Thoreau’s Journal is one of my regular practices. The NYRB condensation of the massive work is my go-to edition: I’ve written about it previously. I find something of value on every page. And, as a whole, this blog, in case you haven’t noticed, has pretensions towards emulating Thoreau’s observations of the world, day by day, season by season.

And like Thoreau, I too am a political animal (as you may notice from my id twitter feed), so I was struck by this journal passage from June 16, 1854:

“But what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them. We are not serene, we go not to them. Who can be serene in a country where both rulers and ruled are without principle? The remembrance of the baseness of politicians spoils my walks. My thoughts are murder to the State; I endeavor in vain to observe nature; my thoughts involuntarily go plotting against the State. I trust that all just men will conspire.”

The background: in late May, 1854, the State of Massachusetts decided to return escaped slave Anthony Burns to Virginia under color of the federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. This part of the Compromise of 1850 had set up federal commissions which could issue warrants, form posses, and force citizens to help catch runaway slaves (and fine and imprison them if they didn’t); it also denied jury trial and the right to testify to those accused of being runaways; they could be sent South on the basis of a mere affidavit. Long-free blacks as well as the more recently liberated were in effect re-enslaved by the law.

Burns had made it to Massachusetts on his freedom run only to be arrested in Boston, that beacon of liberty. The case radicalized many in the state, which was already a capital of Abolition: the perversion of slavery, thought by some to be contained south of the Mason-Dixon (although northern states had only outlawed the practice within the span of a generation or two), was quite clearly spreading across the nation. (Indeed, for the Slave Power to maintain its wealth and power, it had to spread, which was why the western territories were so contested.) On May 26th, abolitionists stormed the Boston courthouse where Burns was held in an unsuccessful attempt to free him. Thirteen ware arrested and one marshal was killed.

It has been fashionable to denigrate Thoreau – for he was made of the same contradictions, compromises, and hypocrisies as the rest of us, only more so because he made them manifest by writing for posterity and the little courts of opinion – but he fought the good and great fight of his time. His night in jail in 1846 wasn’t only for protesting the Mexican War, it was also to protest slavery. He defended John Brown. He, and his family, ran a waystation on the northward course of the Underground Railroad. He gave a fiery speech called “Slavery in Massachusetts” at a July 4th, 1854, anti-slavery rally in Framingham where William Lloyd Garrison burned a copy of the Slave Power’s charter, better known as the U.S. Constitution. Slavery was making anarchists of them all, and why not, since the State’s usual function is to protect the property of its masters.

The passions of the day would soon lead to the Civil War. Tragically, the unfinished Reconstruction failed to break the Slave Power completely, and a century of Jim Crow apartheid and Southern warping of the U.S. Senate followed. The struggle for liberation took many routes, via the great migration of blacks out of the South’s terrorist-based racial feudalism, and the Civil Rights movement in the South itself. But the blowback has never ended: the majority of poor people in this country are white, but it is poor blacks who are perennially stigmatized. Glenn Beck’s fantasy of a white Christian republic and the Mad Tea Party’s middle class white rage over other people’s entitlements (but never their own, of course) are only the great reaction’s most recent manifestations. Their vision of “restoring America” has a ghastly smell to it, like one of those special social events where a whole town would picnic with fried chicken and potato salad and sweet tea and the burnt body of a black man hanging from a nearby tree.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” wrote Thoreau, perhaps too kindly. For the majority usually don’t act at all, they follow with their heads low to the ground. Most Americans quietly sat out the Civil Rights struggle, just as a majority of northerners were not Abolitionists 150 years ago.

Rearguard actions are usually ugly; what was once called the “lunatic fringe” of the American Right is now its malignant center. When the Republican Party tied its destiny to the deep well of Southern hate in the late 1960s, it set the stage for today’s shitstorm.

It is educational to be reminded that Massachusetts elected a Know-Nothing – the nativist, anti-immigrant, anti-alien-religion bigots of the day – as governor in 1854. Now our Election Day is coming and the worst are full of passionate intensity, while most of the rest will probably stay at home. Anger is legitimate; we do suffer from a corrupted, corporate-controlled, and radically unequal society, but the rage of the right will not lead to justice. Far from it. The Tea Party movement is a stalking horse for oligarchy and plutocracy: it just puts a nastier face to the one percent that already owns most of the nation.

But Thoreau walked in fair weather and foul, and I follow him that way, too.

Review: The Journal

The Journal: 1837-1861
By Henry David Thoreau
Edited by Damion Searls
Preface by John R. Stilgoe
New York Review Books. 677 pp. $22.95

“‘What are you doing now?’ he asked. ‘Do you keep a journal?’ So I make my first entry to-day.”

So it began, October 22, 1837. Twenty-year-old David Henry Thoreau, who would never legally change his name to the “Henry David” he preferred, opened his journal with a question thought by most to come from his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. For the next twenty-four years, Thoreau kept at it, until just a few months before the tuberculosis he caught as a young man finally claimed him. He kept at it for over two million words, across 47 messy manuscript volumes, in-between writing and publishing the books and essays; while working as a surveyor, Emerson-family babysitter, and innovator at the family pencil factory; while losing his brother (who died of lockjaw) and one of his two sisters (who died of TB, the family plague); while experimenting at Emerson’s woodlot on Walden Pond for two years, two months, and two days and producing a radical manifesto of how to live in America; while helping runaway slaves for the Underground Railroad; while taking long walks through the fields and woods he seems to have become as intimate with as any human animal can. And while accidentally burning down 100 acres of those same local woods.

The standard 14-volume unabridged version of the journal is now more than a century old; a door-stopping Dover reprint of this presents four pages of journal to each modern page. Princeton University, meanwhile, is half-way through publishing a sixteen-volume definitive edition, under the rubric of the series The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau; each of these volumes retails for nearly $100, generally putting them out of the reach of those of us who are not research libraries. There are a good number of published selections from the journal, but until now no single volume has attempted to distill the work into something you can go camping with. The heroic Damion Searls has now done so in a New York Review Book Classics Original. There will be quibbles, inevitably, but for the non-specialist, this one-handed 667-page abridgment is as close to a canonical window into the Journal most of us are likely to get.

So why should we care? Hopefully, Thoreau needs no introduction as one of the giants of radical America. But usually reduced to handy epigrams today (he was a blogger  avant la lettre), he is often more honored in the abstract than as a still-relevant forbearer. Anti-celebrity, he often comes across as misanthropic, prickly, and eccentric. He’s even been accused of being a fraud because while living at Walden he would join his family for dinner. To those who hold these sophomoric views, I recommend Robert Sullivan, who in the recent The Thoreau You Don’t Know, more than rehabilitates him, he reminds us just how vital Thoreau remains. The Journal does the same thing, in Thoreau’s own words.

In a time of radical climate disruption and mass anthropogenic extinction, Thoreau, as one of the founders of both environmentalism and political dissent, makes brand new sense. We must all be naturalists now, radical naturalists – observers and admirers, yes, but also defenders and activists. Even those of us who live in cities - the majority of humans on the earth - are surrounded by wildlife, but we must learn to see it. Thoreau above all teaches us to see.

The Journal starts out conventionally enough, a place for ideas, commonplaces, and drafts of published work; it’s a young writer’s notebook, a little experimental, a little vainglorious. In 1841, he writes, “My Journal is that of me which would else spill over and run to waste, gleanings from the field which in action I reap. I must not live for it, but in it for the gods.” By 1850, it is on the road to being an extraordinary record of a life on Earth, a life in the economy of nature. That life was relatively uneventful in world historical terms, but it was deeply, profoundly active. Searls calls the mature journal “an investigation of dailyness, seasons, and the relationship between self and nature.” As such, it is an admixture of the mundane and the philosophical, the wild animal and the human animal. Here Thoreau observes turtles, here he defends John Brown. Here he describes the coming of spring, “The bluebird carries the sky on his back,” here he takes a sartorial hint from a haymaker who crosses his suspenders both fore and aft, for “I am much troubled by mine slipping off my shoulders.”

His usual method is to make an observation a stepping-stone to a thought, no great leap there in terms of methodology, but ah, those leaps! Almost ever page provides a lovely example. Here is one at random:

“If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year.[…] See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.” (Oct 31, 1857)

But he is not without snark. “Dr. Bartlett handed me a paper to-day, desiring me to subscribe for a statue to Horace Mann. I declined, and said that I thought a man ought not any more to take up room in the world after he was dead. We shall lose one advantage of a man’s dying if we are to have a stature of him forthwith.” (Sept. 18, 1859)

As an ecologist, Thoreau connected the natural systems he knew so well with the political, poetical, and philosophical currents of his day. The Journal is a record of those connections, connections we would do well to update and continue. Reading it is akin to visiting with an extraordinary mind.

I’ll let the better man have the last word: “A truly good book is something as wildly natural and primitive, mysterious and marvelous, ambrosial and fertile, as a lichen or a fungus.”

Oak gall


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