Robert D. Richardson is describing Thoreau’s Apollonian spirituality:
Where the Christian yearns to be redeemed, and the Dionysian to be possessed, the Apollonian yearns to know, to see clearly, to perceive. (Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, 194)
Thoreau is in some ways hard for me to approach, but here I find a sympathetic connection. Although I would hardly attach much spiritual meaning to it, my own approach to the world is Apollonian. In a famous joke in “The Bean-Field” chapter of Walden, Thoreau says that he “was determined to know beans.” He is joking, and he is speaking metaphorically, yes, but he also means exactly what he says. Among the aspects of the world he wanted to know about were beans. He planted beans beside Walden Pond less to sell or eat them as to understand them.
Here’s one way Thoreau really impresses me. He knew things. About literature, about languages (he studied six languages at Harvard), and about nature, especially, nature. Animals, weather, birds, and, overwhelmingly, plants.
Reading Thoreau tempts me (Anecdotal Kurp also tempts me) to plow through the two million words of Thoreau’s journals. I have been leafing through a 1984 paperback reprint (Gibbs M. Smith, Inc.) of the 1906 edition, complete in fourteen volumes, averaging 460 pages each. Most remarkable is the slighter fifteenth volume, The Journal of Henry David Thoreau: Botanical Index. What could that be?
Buckthorn (Common) = Rhamnus cathartica (COMMON BUCKTHORN)
Buckwheat = Fagopyrum sagittatum (BUCKWHEAT)
BUGLEWEED = Lycopus spp.
Bulbostylis capillaries (HAIR-LIKE BULBOSTYLIS) – see Fimbristylis capillaries, Scirpus capillaris
Bulrush = Cyperus papyrus (PAPYRUS)
I’ve omitted the page references, the point of the index. Capital letters signify the modern common name, lower-case Thoreau’s name. The index includes 135 pages like this. References to maples alone take up a page and a half.
By the twenty-fifth of September, the Red Maples generally are beginning to be ripe. Some large ones have been conspicuously changing for a week, and some single trees are now very brilliant. I notice a small one, half a mile off across a meadow, against the green wood-side there, a far brighter red than the blossoms of any tree in summer, and more conspicuous. I have observed this tree for several autumns invariably changing earlier than its fellows, just as one tree ripens its fruit earlier than another. It might serve to mark the season, perhaps. (“Autumnal Tints”)
Thoreau here reveals one of his tricks, the source of his uncanny ability to predict a few days in advance the flowering of trees in the spring. He paid profound attention to the actual world around him. Thus the precise ordering of the fall colors, by species, in “Autumnal Tints,” or the discussion of to distinguish the flavors of wild apples by season or his genuine excitement when, on a trip through Michigan, he finally sees the legendary crab-apple tree (“Wild Apples”), or his (to us banal) lecture “The Succession of Trees,” in which he observes that squirrels and jays transport the seeds of trees long distances.
I suppose it is not just the knowing of things that I appreciate in Thoreau, but the way he demonstrates the worth of knowing these particular things. That’s Thoreau the writer at work, not the naturalist. I know a lot about famous writers, and which books they wrote when, and what relation those books might have with each other. Other good writers have apparently convinced me that this knowledge is valuable. I should read one of them again. Thoreau is causing doubts. Which is, of course, his job.