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COLLECTED ESSAYS AND POEMS By Henry David Thoreau; Library of America: 704 pp., $35

WILD FRUITS Thoreau's Rediscovered Last Manuscript By Henry David Thoreau Edited by Bradley P. Dean Illustrated by Abigail Rorer; W.W. Norton: 412 pp., $17.95 paper

FAITH IN A SEED The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings By Henry David Thoreau Edited by Bradley P. Dean Illustrated by Abigail Rorer; Island Press: 250 pp., $16.95 paper

July 08, 2001|BERND HEINRICH | Bernd Heinrich is the author of numerous books, including "Mind of the Raven" and, most recently, "Racing the Antelope: What Animals Can Teach Us About Running and Life."

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?"

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