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."