Wednesday, December 9, 2009

I was determined to know beans – and maples, and apples, and squirrels

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.


  1. I've been contemplating an "American" project for some time now, which I sort of accidentally got ahead of myself on reading all this Melville. Anyway, I've never read Walden either, and feel really inspired by the new NYRB abridgement of the journals. Not to say that I have it or have started it or anything, but look at the cover. Mostly I was intrigued by the comments of the editor of the edition.

  2. As much as those 14 volumes tempt me, I believe I will make some concession to common sense and restrict myself to the NYRB edition. For now. The pieces at the NYRB blog have been quite good.

    Based on some other things you have written, I know you will find parts of Walden, at least, very interesting. He's an interesting companion to Melville, too. Thoreau was narrowly but deeply influenced by Typee.

  3. I know you will find parts of Walden, at least, very interesting.

    I thought as much. Awesome.

  4. I'm missing the connection between Thoreau being a great naturalist and casting doubts that knowing when writers wrote what is useful.
    Surely it can be both useful to observe the maples carefully every year and graph Poe's output.

  5. All knowledge is of equal value? I don't believe that. Thoreau makes the case for a particular kind of knowledge. The case is well-argued.

    It might be that literary knowledge is as valuable as scientific knowledge. Should I just assume that's true, or should I think about it?

  6. Great stuff lately. As you get into walking and the Cornhill (in the next), you're a bit closer to my own neck of the woods. You'll remember that Thackeray was the editor/creator of the Cornhill, succeeded by my man Leslie Stephen, intellectual walker (and mountaineer) extraordinaire.

    But my note here, aside from mentioning how much I'm enjoying the ramble through Thoreau, is to ask about how you like Richardson's biography. As far as I can tell (without really looking into it), he's the prime biographical mover of our day on Emerson and Thoreau and others, with a new little book on Emerson I just read about. So I'm just idly wondering if you like his book and approach.

  7. I didn't suggest that all knowledge is of equal value, nor did I intend to suggest that you or Thoreau suggested it and of course you should think, (Thoreau and I both think so).
    Still, I'm still missing a logical connection in the original post.
    -Thoreau knew lots of stuff.
    -Thoreau knew his surroundings particularly well.
    -Thoreau wrote about his surroundings in a way that demonstrated his knowledge and that such knowledge is important.
    -Thoreau is causing doubts as to whether or not my knowledge of famous writers is useful.

    Why would his convincing you that plant knowledge is useful (and it is!) have any bearing on your literature knowledge?

    Maybe Thoreau does compare academic knowledge to knowledge of one's environment. Maybe there is an implied "and since I only have limited time, maybe I should learn about beans the way that Thoreau did instead of authors" Whatever it is, without more information I don't see the link that something being important neccesarily makes other things unimportant.

    Oh no! I've been critical. That must mean I dislike you! Or perhaps that I like you well enough to read your blog daily.

  8. SpSq - that's part of it - the limited time argument. Combined with Thoreau's convincing demonstration of the meaning he receives not just from this experience of the natural world, but his knowledge of it. It's understandable how certain people read Walden and run off into the woods - mistaken, but understandable. It's the next step that does it for me.

    That step missing, from your otherwise perfectly accurate list, is where Thoreau turns to the reader and asks, Now, could this be you? Yes, I say yes. Wait, no, upon reflection, probably not. But the idea is seductive. I might note that for me, it's the late naturalist essays like "Wild Apples" that really exert this pull, far more than Walden.

    Also, combine all this with some really brutal pieces of the Thoreau's "Reading" chapter which I probably should have mentioned here. They were in my head, but unfortunately not in what I wrote. Oops. Criticism is good for me, by the way.

    zhiv - I basically love the Richardson bio. It's the biography of a writer, basically the only kind of bio I'm interested in reading. Meaning Thoreau's books, ideas, and style are more important than trivia about his life. I'm going to write about the little Emerson book tomorrow, actually. Man, has it put the fear in me. This whole week has given me the jitters.

    Stevenson, by the way, gives specific credit to William Hazlitt for the interest in writing about walking.