When he died of tuberculosis in his mother’s home, in 1862, 44-year-old Henry David Thoreau had already made his mark on the world with the publication of several books and numerous essays, including Civil Disobedience, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, The Maine Woods, A Yankee in Canada, and his classic, Walden, or Life in the Woods.
I trust we’re all familiar with Thoreau’s major works, at least their titles, particularly Walden (first published in 1854). Thoreau — or at least some of his writing — is required reading in any educational institution worthy of its name; you cannot be conversant with today’s environmental or sustainability movements without having read at least some Thoreau. For an environmentalist not to be familiar with Thoreau is akin to not being cognizant of trees or rivers.*
In the very first chapter of Walden, Thoreau wrote the oft-quoted, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” but it’s worth quoting the entire paragraph (emphasis added) in light of recent news stories:
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.
And in the second chapter, he wrote (emphasis added),
The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
Most of his works are like that: a mix of observation, philosophy, science, poetry, musings, lists, and classical references. For example, he wrote in his essay, Walking:
When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall? Even some sects of philosophers have felt the necessity of importing the woods to themselves, since they did not go to the woods. “They planted groves and walks of Platanes,” where they took subdiales ambulationes in porticos open to the air. Of course it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods, if they do not carry us thither. I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to Society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is–I am out of my senses.
In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods? I suspect myself, and cannot help a shudder when I find myself so implicated even in what are called good works–for this may sometimes happen.
I think a lot about modern America (and possibly Canada, too) would change if we taught more Thoreau in the schools. Change for the better, of course.
But beyond the major works, the man was a veritable machine for pumping out copy. Thoreau wrote dozens of essays, articles, poems, lectures, and many more letters, often rich with his comments on life, the natural world, and society. Today he would likely be a globally-popular blogger or podcaster (although not, one hopes, a TikToker, reducing everything to micro-videos). Sometimes his works were even humorous, like his essay Cape Cod — if not a gut-buster, it is somewhat wry, as in this selection:
“In 1667 the town [of Eastham] voted that every housekeeper should kill twelve blackbirds or three crows, which did great damage to the corn; and this vote was repeated for many years.” In 1695 an additional order was passed, namely, that “every unmarried man in the township shall kill six blackbirds, or three crows, while he remains single; as a penalty for not doing it, shall not be married until he obey this order.” The blackbirds, however, still molest the corn. I saw them at it the next summer, and there were many scarecrows, if not scare-blackbirds, in the fields, which I often mistook for men. From which I concluded that either many men were not married, or many blackbirds were.
Surprisingly, despite his iconic status not all of his writing was published in the years after his death; some waited more than a century: in 1993 and 2000, two unpublished works were finally put into print (Faith in Seed, and Wild Fruits, respectively). I’ll get to the latter, shortly.
Thoreau was one of the best spokespersons for the American transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century, which also explored what we think of today as Oriental philosophy, especially Buddhist ethics. While not a Buddhist per se, his philosophy finds a comfortable fit with today’s new, Western Buddhism.
Like his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau was an environmentalist, although that term wasn’t in use in his day.** He is often remembered for his 1851 lecture in which he said, “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Thoreau also wrote in favour of civil rights, vegetarianism, compassion, the natural world, and social conscience. He ranks as one of America’s premier philosophers. His work continues to inspire people. The Thoreau Society, for example, continues to hold events, and educates people about Thoreau’s work via their online presence.
Although I have long had some familiarity with the man and his major works (my first encounter with his writing dates from the late 1960s), I was surprised a few years back to discover Wild Fruits, his ‘lost’ manuscript. Lost in the sense that Thoreau was working on it when he died, conflating his journal and lecture notes with new pieces, but he never saw his project published.
The current book of that name was put together from Thoreau’s manuscript pages and notes, and published in 2000. As Bradley Dean, both the editor of Thoreau’s book and of the Thoreau Society’s Bulletin, wrote in his introduction to the book,
Thoreau has been one of the most insufficiently understood men in American letters, partly because he was so good at what he did best. For many years the popular mind has known him as a querulous hermit who lived half his life in a cabin on the shore of a pond, and who spent the other half of his life in jail to protest injustice. Recently the popular mind has had to expand itself to include, as it were, a third half of his life: the one spent closely observing and eloquently reporting on natural phenomena; Thoreau the proto-ecologist.
You can read the entire introduction here. You can read Thoreau’s earlier essay, Wild Apples, here. This essay has some of the flavour of Wild Fruits, combining observation and education with opinion:
There is thus about all natural products a certain volatile and ethereal quality which represents their highest value, and which cannot be vulgarized, or bought and sold. No mortal has ever enjoyed the perfect flavor of any fruit, and only the god-like among men begin to taste its ambrosial qualities. For nectar and ambrosia are only those fine flavors of every earthly fruit which our coarse palates fail to perceive,—just as we occupy the heaven of the gods without knowing, it.
Fortuitously, a few years back I found a copy of Wild Fruits on a sale rack at a nearby Chapters, buried in the fiction section. My first urge was to pick the pile up and move it to the appropriate non-fiction category (I am like that in bookstores), but then I realized it was a work wholly unfamiliar to me. Intrigued, I started to browse the pages to learn what new material it might contain. After all, it’s not often one finds a new book by a long-dead author. Obviously, I had to buy the new title (a bargain, on sale in the bargain section for only $4.99). I read parts of it back then, but only recently returned to read it all (hence this post).
…in Wild Fruits his brand of prophesy manifests itself in a unique manner: by bringing wildness out of the wilderness; or, more properly, by locating wildness within civilization, in “little oases,” as he terms them in the book’s “European Cranberry” section. In these holy places, these natural temples, each of us is able to implement the Transcendentalist’s Imperative by learning life’s great lessons ourselves, becoming our own prophet, and not having to rely on the mediated testimony of prophets from preceding generations.
When I opened the book, I read this in the fourth paragraph:
We do not think much of table fruits. They are especially for aldermen and epicures. They do not feed the imagination as these wild fruits do, but it would starve on them. The bitter-sweet of a white-oak acorn which you nibble in a bleak November walk over the tawny earth is more to me than a slice of imported pine-apple. The South may keep her pine-apples, and we will be content with our strawberries, which are, as it were, a pine-apple with “going-a-strawberrying” stirred into them, infinitely enhancing their flavor. What are all the oranges imported into England to the hips and haws in her hedges? She could easily spare the one, but not the other. Ask Wordsworth, or any of her poets who knows, which is the most to him.
Thoreau continues to astound and delight me. Aldermen and epicures. Hips and haws in her hedges. A November walk over the tawny earth. Wonderful stuff. He surprises me with his own reading, too: he quotes many authors including the classics and a host of earlier naturalists, and provides the correct scientific name of each plant.
Frances Richard, writing in Cabinet Magazine in 2005, said Thoreau envisioned Wild Fruits to be,
…nothing less than a handbook of practical woodcraft seamlessly woven into an ars poetica of New England nature—at once a scientifically accurate study of fruiting and forestry in the North Atlantic states, and a soaring though acerbic celebration of the ecological interdependences that link plants to humans, animals, weather patterns, and topography.
The book clearly shows Thoreau’s well-honed skills as a naturalist and observant botanist. But it’s not all dry observation. It has his signature philosophy and his views on society. often stinging and acidic, but sometimes wistful. Thoreau frequently tosses in delightful passages with both wit and insight, like this one (p5; paragraph breaks added for clarity):
The mass of men are very easily imposed on. They have their runways in which they always travel and are sure to fall into any pit or trap which is set there. Whatever business a great many grown-up boys are seriously engaged in is considered respectable, and great even, and as such is sure of the recognition of the churchman and statesman.
What, for instance, are the blue juniper berries in the pasture, considered as mere objects of beauty, to church or state? Some cow-boy may appreciate them—indeed, all who really live in the country do—but they do not receive the protection of any community; anybody may grab up all that exist; but as an article of commerce, they command the attention of the civilized world.
Go to the English government, which of course represents the people, and ask, “What is the use of juniper berries?”—and it will answer, “To flavor gin with.”
I read that “several hundred tons of them are imported annually from the Continent” into England for this purpose; “but even this quantity,” says my author, “is quite insufficient to meet the enormous consumption of the fiery liquid, and the deficiency is made up by spirits of turpentine.”
This is not the use, but the gross abuse, of juniper berries, with which an enlightened government, if ever there shall be one, will have nothing to do. The cow-boy is better informed than the government. Let us make distinctions and call things by their right names.
I am also impressed by his observations about the plants he catalogues. He was a keen naturalist who paid close attention to the world around him, right down to petty details that would escape most of us. His writing about those plants puts him alongside other 19th century naturalists like Fabre and Darwin. Some of his entries are short, but others extend many pages, gathering in them not only his observations, but also his thoughts on the wilderness, on civilization, on the soul, on railways, food — on whatever happened to come to him as he contemplated the particular plant or its fruits. In that way, he reminds me of Michel de Montaigne, another of my favourite writers.
Here’s a short paragraph from his description of wild apples:
“To appreciate the wild and sharp flavors of these October fruits, it is necessary that you be breathing the sharp October or November air. The outdoor air and exercise which the walker gets give a different tone to his palate, and he craves a fruit which the sedentary would call harsh and crabbed. …What is sour in the house a bracing walk makes sweet. Some of these apples might be labeled “To be eaten in the wind”.”
And he clearly delights in many of the fruits he encounters, as he says of strawberries:
What flavor can be more agreeable to our palates than that of this little fruit, which thus, as it were, exudes from the earth at the very beginning of the summer, without any care of ours? What beautiful and palatable bread! I make haste to pluck and eat this first fruit of the year, though they are green on the underside, somewhat acid as yet, and a little gritty from lying so low. I taste a little strawberry-flavored earth with them. I get enough to redden my fingers and lips at least.
Kirkus Reviews said this about Wild Fruits:
A mix of empirical science, philosophical speculation, and occasionally tart wit, they are wonderfully pleasing for the knowledge they evince and for their calm, melodious cadences. Fortunately, too, Thoreau the keen and distinctive thinker is ever-present. Indignant, for example, at his contemporaries’ failure to appreciate the huckleberry, he likens their obtuseness to the loss of “natural rights,” thus giving fresh meaning to an ancient term.
Written towards the end of his short life, Wild Fruits may be Thoreau’s crowning achievement and shows him as a multi-faceted and complex man. While it may never surpass Walden as the work that defines Thoreau and his thoughts, it is his most mature writing; wide-ranging, introspective and analytical, amusing, philosophic and the vision of a great naturalist.
* I often feel that people know something of him, perhaps through memes or quotations, or from outside references, but not by actually reading him. This is, however, true of many authors and, thanks to social media, they are often reduced to a few lines worthy of no more than a meme or bumper sticker (and equally often mis-quoted or mis-attributed).
** While the adjective ‘environmental’ was in use as early as 1887, it didn’t become used in the ecological sense until 1967 and really came into force in 1972.