Skip to main content

Walden’s Man of Science

ISSUE:  Winter 1981

When Thoreau in 1853 was asked to join the Association for the Advancement of Science (now the “triple A’s,” or American Association for the Advancement of Science) our country’s most prestigious scientific organization, it took him nine months to even answer their letter, then only to turn them down, and comment privately in his journal, “The fact is I am a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot. Now I think of it, I should have told them at once that I was a transcendentalist. That would have been the shortest way of telling them that they would not understand my explanations.”

“Mystic” and “transcendentalist” are not words in great favor with most of the scientific community, either in Thoreau’s day or in ours, and so scientists have understandably tended to look rather scoffingly at Henry Thoreau. They have delighted in pointing out that he was not always accurate in his natural history observations; that he regularly confused the wood thrush and the hermit thrush, the black-throated blue warbler and the indigo bunting, the red-breasted and the white-breasted nuthatch; and that the mysterious “night warbler” he sought vainly all his life to identify was quite obviously the common oven bird; that he thought he saw a prairie chicken in the woods of Maine a thousand miles outside its range and yet never spotted the common and spectacular rose-breasted grosbeak in his native Concord until he was 36. He mistook the distinctive hole-drilling of the yellow-bellied sapsucker for the work of the downy woodpecker, and he accepted unquestioningly the mistaken folklore that a bittern produced its weird pumping sound by sucking up gallons of water and belching it forth. That seemingly is not a very good record for a man who liked to think of himself as at least an amateur ornithologist, but when we remember that there were no good field guides to American birds in those days— Thoreau at times even had to resort to British ornithologies to try to identify American birds—it is not so surprisingly bad. In a field such as botany (and Thoreau thought of himself as an amateur botanist too), where the excellent field guides of Asa Gray became available just at the time Thoreau needed them (and Thoreau despite his notorious parsimony ended up with three volumes of Gray in his personal library), he made very few mistakes—in fact the only one I know of is a lifelong confusion of the black and white spruces.

But getting back to the scientists and their complaints about Thoreau, they didn’t deny that he could write, but his writing, they insisted, was literature, not science. Whenever he sat down to write, they thought, he dipped his pen in Transcendental ink (as Poe said of Hawthorne); and while what came out might be beautiful, one could not trust it scientifically. They loved to cite as a perfect example of this one of the most beautiful similes in Thoreau’s Journal:

Ever and anon the lightning filled the damp air with light, like some vast glow-worm in the fields of ether opening its wings.

A lovely, a beautiful, a lyrical simile, one difficult to better in the realms of literature until you stop to realize—as the scientists quickly did—that glowworms have no wings.

But the skepticism was not all on one side. Thoreau was equally questioning of the techniques and accomplishments of the scientists as his comment on the Association for the Advancement of Science implies. When an ornithologist friend complained that Thoreau never shot any birds to study them, Thoreau replied aptly, “If I were to study you, should I shoot you?” When another ornithologist friend started to say to him, “Now, if you hold the bird in your hand. . . .” Thoreau interrupted with, “I’d rather hold the bird in my affections.” And when Harvard, Thoreau’s alma mater, opened its Lawrence Scientific School in the 1840’s, the first major breakthrough for modern science into the traditional classical college curriculum, and Emerson (of all people) boasted that Harvard now “teaches all the branches of learning,” Thoreau scoffed, “Yes, but none of the roots.” Thoreau complained in his Journal, “How little I know of that arbor vitae [and he could have substituted any species of the flora and fauna of Concord] when I have learned only what science can tell me.” He lamented the boasted cool objectivity of the scientists, saying, again in his Journal, “I cannot help suspecting that the life of these learned professors has been almost as inhuman and wooden as a rain-gauge or self-registering magnetic machine. They communicate no fact which rises to the temperature of blood-heat. It doesn’t all amount to one rhyme.” If the scientists thought Thoreau too poetic and Transcendental, he in his turn thought them not poetic and Transcendental enough.

The irony of all this, though, is that as Thoreau grew older, he found himself growing more scientific in his methodology. Over and over again, and more frequently with each passing year, he fulminated as he did in 1851 in his Journal, “I fear that the character of my knowledge is from year to year becoming more distinct and scientific; that, in exchange for views as wide as heaven’s scope, I am being narrowed down to the field of the microscope. I see details, not wholes nor the shadow of the whole. I count some parts, and say, “I know.”“

If one examines the daily journal that Thoreau kept for 25 years (a journal more than two million words in extent and that printed fills 14 volumes) he finds Thoreau’s complaint justified. More and more space is devoted to scientific details— lists of flowers he has found, data on the weather, notations on the arrival and departure of migratory birds, etc. Still later he began to make huge charts of such facts completely outside of his Journal. And readers of Walden will remember the pages there he devotes to measurement of the length, the width, the depth, and the temperature of the pond. Facts seemed finally to have run wild with him. The methodology of the scientists of his time—and remember that the science of Thoreau’s lifetime was primarily taxonomy, “the orderly classification of flora and fauna”—proved contagious, and Thoreau was caught up in the very faults he condemned.

But there is an even greater irony than that. Although Thoreau lamented and bewailed that he was impelled willynilly to fill up his pages with trivia at the expense of broader views or, to put it in other words and not exactly to coin a phrase, “to lose sight of the forest for the trees,” ironically it is now proving of great value to our present-day scientists that Thoreau recorded all that trivia. You may recall that in Walden, after listing all those measurements of the pond, Thoreau suddenly saw them fall into place, and realized that from this welter of details he could predict the deepest spot in the pond. Gather enough trivial facts, he discovered, and grand conclusions could be discovered from them. Just so are a few perceptive scientists of our day discovering the value of all this seemingly useless data Thoreau had gathered together.

One of the earliest scientists to realize the value of Thoreau’s collections of facts was the late, great Harvard ornithologist Ludlow Griscom. Griscom had long wondered what had happened and what was happening to the bird populations of this country—how different are the bird populations of today from those of the past? What species are increasing? What species are decreasing? What varieties have disappeared from a locale? What species are new to an area? In order to answer his questions, he had to know what the bird populations had been like some time in the distant past, obviously the more distant the better. Imagine his delight then to discover that probably the oldest extant comprehensive survey of the bird population of a given area was the data given by Thoreau in his journals and charts for Concord, Massachusetts, less than 15 miles from Griscom’s own base in Cambridge. In the journals alone Thoreau had made 8433 ornithological entries over 25 years. With that data at hand, along with similar data compiled by William Brewster, a lesser known Concord ornithologist of the turn of the century, Griscom found that by adding his own personal observations of the 1930’s and 1940’s, he was able to make the first comprehensive study of the changing bird populations of an area over an entire century. His Birds of Concord is now an ornithological classic, and it was made possible only because of Thoreau’s recording of seeming trivia a century before.

Following Griscom’s lead, the Harvard botanist Richard J. Eaton has since then made a similar study of the changing patterns of flora of the Concord area, based on Thoreau’s 19th-century botanical notes in his journals and Baton’s own 20th-century findings. His Flora of Concord from Thoreau’s Time to the Present Day is thus another invaluable scientific tool made possible only because of Thoreau’s record-keeping. (I should also add that because Thoreau also botanized on many of his so-called “excursions” to spots such as the tops of Mount Monadnock and Mount Washington in New Hampshire, the northern Maine woods, the sand dunes of Cape Cod, and even the Minnesota prairie, similar historical botanical studies of these areas have recently been made or are now in process.)

Still another example of Thoreau’s mania for collecting facts about nature has proven useful to modern scientists. Thoreau rarely made entries in his journal without a comment on the weather. Thus we have in his pages rather full weather records for Concord for more than a century ago. These entries have now turned out to have significant use for us. The National Weather Service has incorporated them onto their computerized weather records for the country, and thus they are now regularly being used to help predict the vagaries of American weather. It is interesting to note that when the National Weather Service described the winter of 1976—77 in the East as the “coldest since the Founding of the Republic,” Robert Quayle, its director, specifically cited Thoreau’s notes as part of the basic data used in making that statement.

Incidentally, as scientists pore over Thoreau’s records they are now often finding his independent and prior discovery of species that did not get into scientific literature until years later when rediscovered by more conventional scientists who reported their findings in scientific journals. Thus Eaton discovered that Thoreau had described the witch’s broom, a parasite of spruce trees, in his Journal for Feb. 2, 1858, while it was not until 1871 that botanists rediscovered and named it. (Eaton points out that had Thoreau only reported his discovery, what we now know as Arceuthobium pusillum might be known as Arceuthobium Thoreuii.) And similarly entomologist E. Newton Harvey of Princeton University a few years ago discovered in Thoreau’s journal for Aug. 8, 1857, an unmistakable description of a rare glowworm, the Phengodes, predating any known identification of the species by an entomologist. (So Thoreau did know about glowworms after all!) Or to take one last unusual example, in 1970 Physicist C.W. McCutchen announced in Science the discovery of what he named McCutchen’s D-line which is “an abrupt change in surface curvature near the top of a small ridge raised by viscous shear stress at the edge of the film.” It can be observed when a layer of oil spreads across a water surface. Poor Mr. McCutchen had basked in the glory of his discovery only a few weeks when R.S. McDowell of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory announced, again in Science, that Thoreau had discovered and reported on exactly this same phenomenon in his Journal for June 4, 1854, 116 years earlier. And undoubtedly as Thoreau’s journals continue to be explored and particularly as the expanded journal volumes of the new Princeton edition of Thoreau’s writings start appearing, it will be found that he made other similar discoveries.


I seem to be implying here that all of Thoreau’s contributions to science were accidental and due only to a compulsion he developed in his later years to record facts for fact’s sake alone. If that is the impression I have given, it is a faulty one, for what I have noted so far is only a small part of his contribution to science. Let us turn then to some of his other work.

It is not as widely known as it should be that despite his frequent questioning of the methods and motives of science, Thoreau was not only on friendly terms with a number of the outstanding natural scientists of his day, but he also made direct contributions to their endeavors. Thus he collected specimens of the fauna of the Concord area for Louis Agassiz, eventually supplying him with several hitherto unrecorded species of fresh water fish, a new tortoise, and a new mouse. He corresponded with and visited frequently Thaddeus William Harris, the entomologist, and collected specimens of insects for him. And over the years Thoreau donated so many items to the museum of the Boston Society for Natural History that he was named an honorary member of the society.

It is also comparatively little known that Thoreau wrote one scientific treatise, his “Succession of Forest Trees,” which he gave before the Middlesex Agricultural Society at its annual meeting in Concord in 1860, a year and a half before he died, and which was not only published in the Transactions of that society, but also reprinted in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Agricultural Report for that year and in the pages of the New York Tribune, then the country’s leading newspaper. Some years earlier, in his work as a professional surveyor of woodlots, Thoreau had noticed that when a pine woodlot is cut down, it grows up to oak, and vice versa. When he inquired of the local farmers as to the reason, they laid it to “spontaneous generation” of the new seeds. But Thoreau’s mind was too logical to accept such a farfetched answer, and he began a study of every such woodlot reversal he came across. Gradually he gathered sufficient evidence to prove that squirrels and birds transmitted both acorns and pine cones long distances in their search for food and often dropped them or stored them and then forgot them, and thus were quite inadvertently their planters. He was able to demonstrate that every pine grove was thus literally an oak nursery and vice versa, and that as soon as the large trees were removed, the baby trees of the other specie, hitherto kept diminutive by the shade, were ready to spring up. (I have here somewhat oversimplified Thoreau’s theories.) This was the theory that Thoreau enunciated to the Middlesex Agricultural Society. As one eminent biologist (Deevey) has said, “Though he over-emphasized the reversibility of plant succession . . .his conclusions remain essentially unaltered after . . .[a century] of intensive labor by competent botanists,” and his essay on the subject is still the standard work.

Thoreau’s work on the succession aroused his interest in the related problems of tree growth, dispersal of seeds, and so on. His fatal illness was brought on, in part at least, because he spent a snowy day in early December of 1860 going over a recently cut woodlot on Fair Haven Bay in Concord studying the tree ring patterns on the new stumps and thereby caught the cold that eventually brought about his death by tuberculosis in the spring of 1862. But to go back to the tree rings, he not only discovered independently the principles of tree-ring growth but also the idea of dating pieces of lumber by their tree-ring growth patterns. He was so excited by his growing discoveries in these fields that in late 1860 he started work on a new book, or actually two new books—one on the varying patterns of the dispersion of seeds and the other on native fruits and berries. Unfortunately, even though he compiled more than 600 pages of manuscript on these topics, he died before he was able to bring them to completion; and the manuscript lies now in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, almost completely unpublished. One short portion of it, an essay on “Huckleberries” more nearly completed than the rest, was ingeniously edited by the late Professor Leo Stoller of Wayne State University and published privately a few years ago. It proves to be some of the most charming and rewarding nature writing Thoreau ever did. It and as much of the remainder of the Berg manuscript as can be meaningfully edited will eventually be published in the new Princeton edition of Thoreau’s writings. It makes us realize all the more fully how much we lost by Thoreau’s early death and how preposterous the old theories were that he had written himself out with the publication of Walden in 1854. Let me digress a bit and share with you a few paragraphs from the “Huckleberry” essay I just mentioned:

What sort of a country is that where the huckleberry fields are private property? When I pass such fields on the highway, my heart sinks within me. I see a blight on the land. Nature is under a veil there. I make haste away from the accursed spot. Nothing could deform her fair face more. I cannot think of it ever after but as the place where fair and palatable berries, are converted into money, where the huckleberry is desecrated. It is true, we have as good a right to make berries private property, as to make wild grass and trees such—it is not worse than a thousand other practices which custom has sanctioned—but that is the worst of it, for its suggests how bad the rest are, and to what result our civilization and division of labor naturally tend, to make all things venal.

A., a professional huckleberry picker, has hired B.’s field, and, we will suppose, is now gathering the crop, with a patent huckleberry horse rake.

C., a professed cook, is superintending the boiling of a pudding made of some of the berries.

While Professor D. —for whom the pudding is intended, sits in his library writing a book—a work on the Vaccineae (that is, huckleberries) of course.

And now the result of this downward course will be seen in that work—which should be the ultimate fruit of the huckleberry field. It will be worthless. It will have none of the spirit of the huckleberry in it, and the reading of it will be a weariness of the flesh.

I believe in a different kind of division of labor—that Professor D. should be encouraged to divide himself freely between his library and the huckleberry field.

But, to return to Thoreau as scientist, another remarkable characteristic of his endeavors is his pioneering in fields of science that had not in his own day even been named and/or developed. For example, in the history of science it is usually thought that limnology—”the scientific study of physical, chemical, meteorological and biological conditions in fresh waters” started with the work of Forel in 1868, six years after Thoreau’s death. But as Edmund Deevey, the Yale limnologist, has pointed out, Thoreau anticipated many of the findings of limnologists—perhaps most notably the principles of thermal stratification in bodies of water and its effects on the flora and fauna—and reported on it in 1854 in Walden. Thoreau gathered his data using such homemade devices as a rope tied to a stone for measuring depths and an ordinary household nonlocking thermometer to measure temperature stratification. Deevey and more recently a group of marine biologists chiefly from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have rechecked Thoreau’s data using the most specialized and highly developed of modern instruments, such as radar, and found to their amazement that Thoreau’s findings were virtually as accurate as their own.

Still another comparatively new field is that of phenology, “the study of climate focusing on those events of plant and animal life which are repeated year after year and which taken together make up a calendar of the seasons.” The term “phenology” was coined by a German scientist, D.C. Fritsch, in 1853 but, at least according to the Oxford New English Dictionary, did not reach our language until 1875. Yet Thoreau was constructing a calendar of the seasons as early as 1852. Aldo Leopold, the well-known Wisconsin naturalist, once termed Thoreau “the father of phenology” in America, but that on investigation proves a not particularly accurate term, for other Americans, Thomas Jefferson among them, were gathering such data long before Thoreau, although, like Thoreau, not of course using the term “phenology” itself. But there is no denying that Thoreau did independently gather and correlate data in a manner which we would now describe as “phonological.”

Much more rewarding is a study of Thoreau’s contribution to another and far more significant science—ecology. A new edition of The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau was published in 1959, of which I shared the privilege of being coeditor with Carl Bode. We were fortunate enough to be able to include a number of hitherto unpublished Thoreau letters, among them one which he wrote on Jan. 1, 1858 to his cousin George Thatcher in Bangor, Maine, in which speaking of a mutual friend, Edward Hoar, we reported Thoreau said, “Mr. Hoar is still in Concord, attending to Botany, Ecology, etc.” Our book had been in print only a few weeks when a note by Paul Oehser, then director of publication for the Smithsonian Institution, appeared in Science, the official magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It pointed out that this letter pushed back the known history of the word “ecology” eight years, for up until our edition was published it had been universally assumed that a German Darwinian by the name of Ernst Haeckel coined the word in 1866. Yet from the fact that Thoreau seemed to be using the word almost in passing one could assume that it had achieved general usage at least eight years before the date Haeckel claimed to have coined it. Thus I thought we had accidentally corrected the history of an important and significant word. I thought that until several years later I received a letter from Richard Eaton of Harvard (the same Richard Eaton whom I have already mentioned as the author of the Flora of Concord) asking if by any chance the 1858 letter was a forgery. Not only had he been completely unable to discover any other usage of the word previous to Haeckel’s claimed coinage of it in 1866, but he had also learned that Haeckel had spelled it “oecology”, a spelling that prevailed until the international Madison Botanical Congress on Aug. 23, 1893 adopted the simpler “ecology” spelling. So here was Thoreau using a word eight years before it had been invented and a spelling 35 years before it had been developed. While in all the years I have handled Thoreau manuscript letters I have never seen a letter that I even suspected of being forged, I was and am perfectly aware of the fact that Thoreau manuscripts today bring such a fabulous price on the market—the going price at the moment being a thousand dollars or more a page—that it is going to be only a matter of time before some clever and unscrupulous individual is going to start forging them. With the 1858 letter, however, I was able to prove conclusively that it was not a forgery. It is now in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, and they have documentary evidence (that is, bills of sale) for every transaction in its journey from George Thatcher, who originally received the letter from Thoreau, to its present resting place at Berg.

How then do we explain the use of the word “ecology” in that letter? In Thoreau’s handwriting it had certainly seemed to read “E-c-o-l-o-g-y.” But when, in the light of Mr. Baton’s inquiry, I checked other examples of Thoreau’s handwriting at that point in his life, I discovered that Thoreau’s capital E’s looked nothing like that. They were very rounded, and this was angular. What was this mysterious word then? By the process of further examination of his handwriting I finally deduced that the initial letters were not “Ec” but “Ge,” and the word was not “Ecology” but “Geology.” And I confirmed that fact when I examined Thoreau’s Journal for the preceding day, Dec. 31, 1857, and discovered he records there Hoar’s having visited quarries in the area. Thus the word was a product of my imagination rather than of Thoreau’s usage. With a decidedly red face, I wrote up an account of the whole incident, and it was published in Science in at attempt to correct my error. Imagine then my further embarrassment when the first supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary appeared in 1972 to discover that they there listed Thoreau’s letter of Jan. 1, 1858 as the earliest known use of the word and the New York Times, in reviewing the supplement burbled, “How much of the history of feeling lies in the simple fact that the first citation for ecology derives from Thoreau.” I have written again in embarrassment, this time to the editors of the O.E.D., sending all the evidence, and its editor, R.W. Burchfield has kindly replied, “I can quite easily see, from the reproduction of the handwritten work, how the error arose.” But I fear I am to go down in history, if at all, as the man who corrupted the O.E.D. And I am sure that stories of Thoreau’s supposed use of the word “ecology” will continue to pop up.

Nevertheless, even if he did not actually coin the word, I doubt if anyone will challenge the fact that Thoreau was our first major American ecologist and was so before the word entered our vocabulary. It is interesting to note how he first happened to wander into that branch of science all by himself. As I have already indicated, one of Thoreau’s chief sources of income was surveying. (His writings never provided him with enough to live on, even though he could honestly boast he lived on 27 cents a week). He was a very careful and accurate surveyor.

Indeed, he could easily have worked full time as a surveyor if he had wished, but he preferred working just enough to pay for his few daily necessities and spending the remainder of his time observing the world of nature, and writing. Now one of the reasons surveying was so popular in Concord in his day was because in 1844 the railroad from Boston first reached Concord, and all at once the woodlots of Concord were a valuable source of fuel for the metropolis. Farmers, who for generations had not cared whether their property lines were here or there, suddenly wanted to know exactly which trees were theirs and which were their neighbors. And so Thoreau found a booming market as a surveyor. But ironically, in acting as a surveyor, he was bringing about the doom of the Concord woods he loved so much. No sooner did he survey woodlots than they were cut down. Realizing the demand for fuel was inevitable, Thoreau began casting about for more efficient use and replacement of the woods. That is why he pondered on “The Succession of Forest Trees,” why he studied tree ring growth, and how he even developed theories on the most propitious time for maximum yield to harvest a woodlot. He studied tree growth patterns until he was able to demonstrate that trees (at least those common in the Concord area) grow most swiftly in their first 50 years; but despite their slowing of growth in the second 50 years, they actually produce more wood because of the greater diameter of the tree; while in the third 50-year period the advantage of greater diameter is outweighed by the even slower growth. Thus for efficiency’s sake, the trees of Concord, he concluded, should be harvested towards the end of their second 50-year period. He also pointed out that the Concord farmers’ constant shifting from woodlot to pasture and back for a piece of land was probably the most inefficient method of tree-growth developed. One ordinarily does not think of Henry Thoreau as an efficiency expert; but when it was a question of preserving his beloved woods of Concord, we find him using the techniques of the profit-makers, though he found his profits in beauty rather than in coins. And as he saw Concord’s forests go, he began to realize more and more that we were gradually losing all of our greatest natural resources. In a day when his countrymen thought our resources inexhaustible, he realized, a century ahead of his time, just how exhaustible they were and are. And so he pondered the problem of how to save our resources. Using more efficient methods of harvesting timber was one way. But that was not enough. So he pondered and pondered further and eventually came up with an idea quite amazing for the rugged individualist Yankee that we know Thoreau to have been. He was the first American in this entire country to call for the establishment of public parks and forests—local, state, and national—to preserve our national resources. All this a quarter century before we got around to establishing our first national park at Yellowstone in the 1870’s. Let me quote another passage from that “Huckleberry” essay:

Among the Indians, the earth and its productions generally were common and free to all the tribe, like the air and water—but among us who have supplanted the Indians, the public retain only a small yard or common in the middle of the village, with perhaps a graveyard beside it, and the right of way, by sufferance, by a particular narrow route, which is annually becoming narrower, from one such yard to another . . . .

I am not overflowing with respect and gratitude to the fathers who thus laid out our New England villages . . . . At the same time that they built meeting-houses why did they not preserve from desecration and destruction far grander temples not made with hands?

What are the natural features which make a township handsome—and worth going far to dwell in? A river with its water-falls—meadows, lakes—hills, cliffs or individual rocks, a forest and single ancient trees—such things are beautiful. They have high use which dollars and cents never represent. If the inhabitants of a town were wise they would seek to preserve these things though at a considerable expense. For such things educate far more than any hired teachers or preachers, or any at present recognized system of school education . . . .

It would be worth the while if in each town there were a committee appointed, to see that the beauty of the town received no detriment. If here is the largest boulder in the country, then it should not belong to an individual nor be made into door-steps. In some countries precious metals belong to the crown—so here more precious objects of great natural beauty should belong to the public.

Let us try to keep the new world new, and while we make a wary use of the city, preserve as far as possible the advantages of living in the country . . . .

Most men, it appears to me, do not care for Nature, and would sell their share in all her beauty, for as long as they may live, for a stated and not very large sum. Thank God they cannot yet fly and lay waste the sky as well as the earth. We are safe on that side for the present. It is for the very reason that some do no care for these things that we need to combine to protect all from the vandalism of a few.

So much for Thoreau and ecology.

Now let me raise one final question—how did Thoreau the writer accomplish so much in the field of science, a field he professed to care little about? I believe it is because great scientists and great writers possess two important characteristics in common—they are unusually observant, seeing what others do not see, and they are able to perceive relationships between their observations that others do not perceive. I do not think I need demonstrate that these are characteristics of all great scientists, but I would like to show briefly that they are characteristics of Thoreau.

Studying the great mass of criticism that has gathered around Thoreau’s literary works, one finds the critics of his works frequently commenting on his wonderfully observant eye. Yet they should not confine themselves to his observant eye, for Thoreau was wonderfully observant with all his senses. And as a result he has written some of the most sensuous prose in our language. We can not only see what he writes about, but we can almost literally smell it, taste it, hear it, and feel it. In a passage from his Journal for Aug. 4, 1851, a fairly typical passage, for example, note how he uses every sense:

As my eye rested on the blossom of the meadowsweet in a hedge, I heard the note of an autumnal cricket, and was penetrated with the sense of autumn. Was it sound? or was it form? or was it scent? or was it flavor? It is now the royal month of August. When I hear this sound, I am as dry as the rye which is everywhere cut and housed, though I am drunk with the season’s wine.

Because Thoreau did thus use every sense he became one of our most powerful writers. But, as I have said, one cannot simply revel in one’s senses. He must make something of his observations. Some years ago when I was working on my biography of Thoreau and was reading his massive journals through for the umpteenth time, it suddenly struck me how often Thoreau had that additional ability of “putting things together.” As I have said in my book, Days of Henry Thoreau:

“[Thoreau] could never take anything for granted, and looking at the world about him with a questioning mind, he was constantly discovering things that others had not noticed. When from the top of a mountain he noticed the shadows of clouds in a valley, he quickly figured how to calculate their height accurately. When he noticed the pattern with which star fungi split, he puzzled out the reason. When he observed water squirting through leaks in a dam, he noticed their varying jets and reasoned that it was related to the varying heads of water above the leaks. When he discovered that turtles tended to bury their eggs three inches beneath the soil, he tested with thermometers and proved that the overall day and night temperature was greatest at this depth. And when he noticed that some of the shingles on his neighbor’s roof were blacker than others, he figured out that those were the poorer or sappy shingles which absorbed the most water in a rainstorm. As his friend and first biographer Ellery Channing said of him, “He was alive from top to toe with curiosity.”

It is indeed appropriate that the very final entry in that 14-volume, 25-five year Journal that Thoreau kept, a notation made after what was probably the last walk he ever took, for he soon after relapsed to bed with tuberculosis and died the next spring, reads

After a violent easterly storm in the night, which clears up at noon (Nov. 3, 1861), I notice that the surface of the railroad causeway, composed of gravel, is singularly marked, as if stratified like some slate rocks, on their edges, so that I can tell within a small fraction of a degree from what quarter the rain came . . . . Behind each little pebble, . . .extends northwest a ridge of sand an inch or more, which it has protected from being washed away . . . .

All this is perfectly distinct to an observant eye, and yet could easily pass unnoticed by most.

Yes, Thoreau had that “observant eye” and saw much that “could easily pass unnoticed by most.” It was what would have made him a great scientist “had Emerson not spoiled him,” as one of Thoreau’s contemporaries put it. But I personally am grateful that Emerson did spoil him, for he made an even greater writer.


By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading