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It is hard for the least philosophic intellect to conceive of a value in science which is not potentially a human value also…. Yet the researcher knows that the end must never overshadow the means. The goal may be the subjective wish, but the research must be conducted as if it were an end in itself, otherwise we get no science but the results of wish psychology. This was Thoreau's weakness as a scientist. Fearing that he would lose his sense of the living reality behind the appearance, he never gave his whole mind to the discipline of observation.

Canby [1939] 1958, pp. 329–30

In the context of American science's exponential growth during the nineteenth century, its rapid and effective application to technology with its attendant mechanization of a pastoral world (Marx 1965), and its implicit assault on subjectivity, Thoreau's consistently focused and clear conviction about his own mission is indeed remarkable in light of his own ambivalence toward scientific inquiry. On the one hand, he held fast to his own naturalist tradition; on the other, he remained intellectually engaged with and receptive to new scientific discoveries. In short, despite competing interests, Thoreau was able to follow his own path in studying nature, guided by the same fierce independence that marked both his experimentation in personal economy and his political advocacy.

An important example of Thoreau's relationship to science is offered by the case of the bream.[4] At Walden Pond in late November 1858, Thoreau discovered frozen fish previously unencountered, which were “shaped like bream, but had the transverse bars of perch” (November 25, 1858,Journal, [1906] 1962, 11:345). He made meticulous notes of their appearance, took careful measurements (ibid., pp. 346–47, 348–49, 363–64, 368), drew a profile of his discovery, and exclaimed in obvious excitement, “Are they not a new species?” (ibid., p. 347). Thoreau presented the fish at the Boston Society of Natural History, and several members concurred that he had indeed made a discovery. The Boston newspapers reported the findings and the expert disagreements, and upon further study announced that the putative new species had been previously identified (notes to November 27, 1858, entry, ibid., pp. 348–49). Irrespective of the final adjudication, his Journal records Thoreau's extraordinary exhilaration as a result of this scientific adventure. Dominant is the metaphysical import of his relation to the fish. I quote a large portion of his reflection, because perhaps more clearly than any other evidence, it reveals Thoreau's enthusiastic appreciation of the

organism's part in the cosmic whole, as opposed to the meager meaning permitted by the isolated scientific fact:

[I]n my account of this bream I cannot go a hair's breadth beyond the mere statement that it exists,—the miracle of its existence, my contemporary and neighbor, yet so different from me! I can only poise my thought there by its side and try to think like a bream for a moment. I can only think of precious jewels, of music, poetry, beauty, and the mystery of life. I only see the bream in its orbit, as I see a star, but I care not to measure its distance or weight. The bream, appreciated, floats in the pond as the centre of the system, another image of God. Its life no man can explain more than he can his own. I want you to perceive the mystery of the bream. I have a contemporary in Walden. It has fins where I have legs and arms. I have a friend among fishes, at least a new acquaintance. Its character will interest me, I trust, not its clothes and anatomy. I do not want it to eat. Acquaintance with it is to make my life more rich and eventful. It is as if a poet or an anchorite had moved into the town, whom I can see from time to time and think of yet oftener. Perhaps there are a thousand of these striped bream which no one had thought of in that pond,—not their mere impressions in stone, but in the full tide of the bream life. (November 30, 1858,Journal, [1906] 1962, 11:358–59)

Thoreau goes on to decry scientific knowledge as prideful and mortiferous:

Though science may sometimes compare herself to a child picking up pebbles on the seashore, that is a rare mood with her; ordinarily her practical belief is that it is only a few pebbles which are not known, weighed and measured. A new species of fish signifies hardly more than a new name. See what is contributed in the scientific reports. One counts the finrays, another measures the intestines, a third daguerreotypes a scale, etc., etc.; otherwise there's nothing to be said. As if all but this were done, and these were very rich and generous contributions to science. Her votaries may be seen wandering along the shore of the ocean of truth, with their backs to the ocean, ready to seize on the shells which are cast up. You would say that the scientific bodies were terribly put to it for objects and subjects. A dead specimen of an animal, if it is only well preserved in alcohol, is just as good for science as a living one preserved in its native element. (Ibid., pp. 359–60)

Thoreau is most critical of a science that cannot, because of its very method, examine the specimen in its living context, a part of the greater whole. This is the early ecologic sensitivity that such critics as Buell (1995) have emphasized. But I suspect that Thoreau is at least equally, probably more, concerned by the necessary distortion demanded by the reductive methodology

of science. Only by inference could a scientific assessment be related to the world of the living—for Thoreau, the only true frame of relevance. The dead specimen is as worthy and useful to Thoreau's scientistpeer as the living animal, and the process of accruing tiny bits of information is deadening to both object and subject, who each suffer death throes in the alcohol of preservation.

Thoreau, rather, explores the metaphysical wonder of the natural world as the source of scientific inquiry. He sees science itself as achieving its motive power from this sense of awe:

What is the amount of my discovery to me? It is not that I have got one in a bottle, that it has got a name in a book, but that I have a little fishy friend in the pond. How was it when the youth first discovered fishes? Was it the number of their finrays or their arrangement, or the place of the fish in some system that made the boy dream of them? Is it these things that interest mankind in the fish, the inhabitant of the water? No, but a faint recognition of a living contemporary, a provoking mystery. One boy thinks of fishes and goes afishing from the same motive that his brother searches the poets for rare lines. It is the poetry of the fishes which is their chief use; their flesh is their lowest use. The beauty of the fish, that is what it is best worth the while to measure. Its place in our systems is of comparatively little importance. Generally the boy loses some of his perception and his interest in the fish; he degenerates into a fisherman or an ichthyologist. (Ibid., p. 360)

Particularly interesting in this entry is Thoreau's juxtaposition of his metaphysical musings with the scientific knowledge that triggered his excitement. The contrast is stark and absolute: the fish as a living creature is a microcosm of an entire cosmos; the scientific appreciation of that organism is essentially devoid of human meaning and significance. The image of the scientist standing at the ocean's edge—with his back to the water and picking up mere scraps of the sea's bounty—stands in contradistinction to Newton's peering at the horizon in realization of how little he knew or understood. The majesty of nature's beauty and its beguiling mystery are lost to the ichthyologist, while Thoreau exuberantly regards the bream as “another image of God.”

We might well regard Thoreau's excitement as an expression of what may be called his pastoral sensibility. That Romantic view of harmony and beauty was, of course, balanced by the awesome and terrifying power of nature that he experienced on Mount Ktaadn (1846) or at Margaret Fuller's shipwreck death (1850).[5] Within that complex continuum, Thoreau would gather facts, sometimes with the view toward aesthetic construction, at other

times toward a more formal description of nature, one tinged less with emotion and directed toward a particular scientific description—that is, the soundings of Walden Pond, the dating of the appearance of flora, the meteorological descriptions. As attested by his Journal entries, the listing of “facts” in his later years became more of a preoccupation (Foerster 1923, pp. 92–93), which reflects a changed character in his scientific work (Walls 1995). But Thoreau's personalized musings on nature would never be eclipsed, and his basic assessment of science and its relationship to other modes of knowing did not significantly change during his adulthood.

What unsettled Thoreau's relationship to science was fundamentally his need to find value. His last systematic investigations well illustrate this point. Concurrent with his “discovery” of the bream, Thoreau worked on two comprehensive studies which have been regarded as the most systematic, if not the most scientific, of his nature observations: the dispersion of seeds to uncover the mechanisms of forest succession and a thorough compendium of wild fruits in the Concord environs. Both projects represented compilations from observations begun in the early 1850s and, while incomplete, offer a unique amalgam of science and Romantic interpretation.

Wild Fruits (2000) is basically a complex catalogue, whose descriptions of various botanical details of the fruit and their supporting plants is supplemented with discussions of nomenclature and listing of phenological data, geographical range, local growth characteristics, and history of use and discovery. Interspersed with these more orthodox descriptions are heavy doses of Thoreauvian commentary about personal encounters with the vegetation, most often aesthetic descriptions and reflections on the respect these plants command for their contribution both to natural order and to human wellbeing. The catalogue is obviously incomplete and erratic: some plants are extensively discussed (e.g., the black huckleberry receives twentythree pages [pp. 37–59]), whereas others, like the black ash, are cited with one line (p. 175). While the text has bountiful scientific data, it is clear from Thoreau's introductory remarks that Wild Fruits was intended to sensitize the reader to the natural world, specifically the ready opportunity to become intimate with an aspect of the wild:

The value of these wild fruits is not in the mere possession or eating of them, but in the sight and enjoyment of them…. Of course, it is the spirit in which you do a thing which makes it interesting, whether it is sweeping a room or pulling turnips. Peaches are unquestionably a very beautiful and palatable fruit, but the gathering of them for the market is not so interesting to the imagination of men as the gathering of huckleberries for your own use….


It is a grand fact that you cannot make the fairer fruits or parts of fruits matter of commerce; that is, you cannot buy the highest use and enjoyment of them. You cannot buy that pleasure which it yields to him who truly plucks it. You cannot buy a good appetite, even. In short, you may buy a servant or slave, but you cannot buy a friend. (Pp. 4–5)

Wild Fruits then would serve both as a contribution to the ambitious Kalendar project and as a userfriendly field guide. The text ends with a plea for the establishment of natural parks or primitive forests for “instruction and recreation” (p. 238).[6] And then in the closing paragraph, Thoreau draws a direct correspondence between human health and receptivity to nature, so that the wild fruit becomes the elixir of civilization's discontent:

Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of each. Let those be your only dietdrink and botanical medicines…. Open all your pores and bathe in all the tides of Nature, in all her streams and oceans, at all seasons. Miasma and infection are from within, not without…. For all Nature is doing her best each moment to make us well. She exists for no other end. Do not resist her. With the least inclination to be well, we should not be sick. Men have discovered, or think that they have discovered, the salutariness of a few wild things only, and not of all Nature. Why, Nature is but another name for health. (Pp. 238–39)

A similar fusion of personal sensibility and scientific discourse marks Thoreau's other major project of his last years. Although he pursued studies of plant propagation in the late 1850s, Thoreau actually first noted seeming anomalies concerning the growth of trees and the possible role of animals and wind in dispersing seeds in 1850. Concentrating on the growth of oaks on land cleared of pine trees, Thoreau, by 1856, was meticulously noting forest succession. Stimulated by reading On the Origin of Species in early 1860, he modeled his research on the full character of a scientific study. His work on seeds is fairly accounted as scientific not only because of its careful observations but also because of the structure of his inquiry that tested a hypothesis framed by Darwin's theory. The bulk of the manuscript has only recently been published (1993), but a portion of this larger work, “The Succession of Forest Trees” (1980f), was delivered in 1860 at the annual Concord Middlesex County Cattle Show and published soon after in the New York Weekly Tribune.

“The Succession of Forest Trees” is Thoreau's only published scientific account and was part of a larger project (The Dispersion of Seeds [1993]), a treatise concerning the propagation of plants written very much as Darwin would write The Fertilization of Orchids (1862),Climbing Plants (1875), or

Insectivorous Plants (1875). Thoreau, of course, had long been committed to documenting the distribution of wildlife around Concord, but in this book he explicitly extended his observations to promote the Darwinian argument against spontaneous generation of plants and animals and to show how plants were propagated by seeds and sought their appropriate ecological niche. The power of Thoreau's observations, careful measurement, and meticulous notekeeping afforded him the tools to now turn his naturalist descriptions from a catalogue project to one brought into service to promote a biological theory. Indeed, he selfconsciously observed, “my theory was confirmed by observation” (Thoreau 1993, p. 29).

On the Origin of Species presented nature's evolution as a materialistic, blind process governed by a force Darwin saw as analogous to a Newtonian cause, natural selection (Depew and Weber 1995). While this theory presented a challenge to theology, Thoreau's enthusiastic reception suggests that he understood it to be conducive to his own view of nature.[7] In many respects Thoreau had anticipated the Darwinian paradigm (Harding 1965; Richardson 1985) in the sense that he regarded all of nature as integrated and of a whole, so descent by differentiation from a common ancestor was readily accepted. Darwin's theory offered Thoreau a grand foundation upon which he might finally have rested not only his scientific endeavors but also the metaphysical queries which dominated his concerns.[8] Thoreau was attracted to those elements which addressed the organic world as a vastly intricate unit, one that beautifully intertwined each element in the most complex, yet harmonious, order. Adaptation to ecological opportunity explored the constructive expansiveness of life. Presented in terms of adaptation, this vision of the natural world posed a naturalistic response to the metaphysical quandary that framed Thoreau's own pursuits, namely, how to situate himself within nature. By deliberate choice and selfwilled direction, man might not only find his place but work to create it.

Thus even in Thoreau's most scientific endeavors, he continued to celebrate the integration and order of nature, which in turn reflected both aesthetic splendor and transcendental higher laws. Man must be included in that divine structure. In this sense he was most taken by nature as community, and at times he had expressed an almost pantheist euphoria (“Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?” [Walden, 1971, p. 138]). This is not to say that Thoreau did not recognize his own savagery (“We have a wild savage in us” [“Walking,” 1980b, p. 125]), but “the Wild” Thoreau celebrated was the natural, the appreciation of man in nature, indeed, integral to nature. Thoreau sought both to know nature (a cognitive enterprise) and to be one with it (a mystical aspiration). This was, in

fact, a single enterprise, for these two faculties—epistemological and metaphysical—were joined by the desire both to understand and to be existentially part of nature's flux—life in its ceaseless movement.

Critics usually designate the seed study the most “scientific” of Thoreau's research, and it represents the best effort he made to synthesize science with his own more idiosyncratic naturalist style. In coining the term “succession,” Thoreau was the first to emphasize the importance of seed dispersal in plant succession. This contribution is of scientific significance, not withstanding that twentieth-century ecologists might regard his focus as too narrow (studying only a few tree species as opposed to the full botanic context) and his description oversimplified (Caswell 1974; history of the idea and significance for modern ecologists reviewed by Foster 1999, pp. 134 ff., 186–91, 244–46). But whatever its shortcomings, this work was Thoreau's most systematic and conventional effort.

The paper's presentation is respectably scientific, its ethos not. Even in this most “respectable” scientific essay, Thoreau begins with an ironic identification: “Every man is entitled to come to Cattle-Show, even a transcendentalist; and for my part I am more interested in the men than in the cattle” (1980f, p. 72). He might just as easily have said, “than in the trees,” for even though he gives an eloquent account of how animals disperse seeds and the natural succession of hardwoods and pines, he ends the introductory portion of the essay with a most Thoreauvian invitation, “Let me lead you back into your woodlots again” (ibid., p. 74). Even in this ostensibly scientific report, what Walter Harding has called “Thoreau's major contribution to scientific knowledge” (1965, p. 439), he could not resist the opportunity to sensitize his audience to the wonders of nature and the pleasure of an intimate knowledge of its workings. Thoreau in his full maturity has finally forged an alliance between scientific and moral discourses: science, like all knowledge, must be in the employ of human—that is, humane—sensibility. There were economic benefits to Thoreau's observation (the rational cultivation of the woodlands), but the principal issue is the metaphorical meaning offered by his studies: “I have great faith in a seed,—a, to me, equally mysterious origin for it. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders” (Thoreau 1980f, p. 91). Just as with the bream, paramount for Thoreau is life's mystery and the meaning of that mystery for knowledge.

Ultimately, Thoreau explored nature for the spiritual treasures it held. Science was simply another way to dig for bounty, as he ends this essay with the admonition of the seer:

Perfect alchemists I keep who can transmute substances without end, and thus the corner of my garden is an inexhaustible treasurechest.


Here you can dig, not gold, but the value which gold merely represents…. Yet farmers' sons will stare by the hour to see a juggler draw ribbons from his throat, though he tells them it is all deception. Surely, men love darkness rather than light. (Ibid., p. 92)

Thoreau might dress his message in different guises—categorical scientific description, poetic revelry, self-contemplation, aesthetic portrait—but the essential lesson was the same: nature and man are of a single piece, and one must seek their essential nexus.[9] His quest led him to formulate a new genre of nature writing. Indeed, natural history as a scientific discipline was passing him by.

Walter Harding and others have attempted to salvage Thoreau's scientific standing by invoking him as a founding father of ecology:

Nearly a century ahead of his time, he was fundamentally an ecologist. He would have had fewer complaints about the narrowness of the scientific view if he could have read some of our twentieth-century ecological studies. And, reciprocally, twentieth-century scientists have begun to realize the values of his broader approach. (1959, p. 138)

This is not a unique view (Buell 1995, pp. 362–64), and recent biographies have emphasized Thoreau's late naturalhistory investigations (e.g., Howarth 1982; Richardson 1993; Rossi 1993; McGregor 1997) and his scientific sophistication and interactions with other scientists (Richardson 1986).[10] Indeed, Walls (1995) would like to assign Thoreau a role as a scientist, albeit with a unique identity.[11] I am not sanguine about any such attempt. We need not legitimate Thoreau's efforts by calling them “scientific.” Clearly, Thoreau was breaking a new path. “Natural history, as Thoreau found it in Gilbert White's letters and in Darwin's journal, was an open form, what Emerson called an ‘unclosed genre’” (Paul 1992, p. 24), and Thoreau made that genre his own. While Thoreau followed a literary tradition of naturalist history (Hicks 1926, pp. 81–99), he stamped this literary form with his unique vision, establishing a literary genre that grew in influence and became the foundation of twentieth-century environmentalism (Buell 1995, n. 19, pp. 429–30).[12] Indeed, Thoreau's first biographer, his friend William Ellery Channing, entitled his work Thoreau: The Poet-Naturalist (1873) in an attempt to place him in a singular category, and literary critics have refined the point. Thoreau's place in the American pantheon is not as a scientist.

He is better placed with the naturalists if we accept that “The true naturalist … is interested in explaining the marvelous; Thoreau's concern is to make the ordinary marvelous” (Hildebidle 1983, p. 25). Unlike even those

naturalists doing lifehistory studies (which might be construed as also including Thoreau's own endeavor), Thoreau sought parables, selfmade myths, mystical insights, which strove not so much for clarity as for an evocative obscurity (ibid., p. 47). Thoreau's oeuvre is not necessarily consonant with that of other practitioners of the naturalist's art, but he shares with them the broad commitment to encompass greater wholes to allow the observer to extract personal meaning from his scrutiny. And here is where the great divide with science occurs:

The danger of solipsism is clear; the reading of nature as a reflection of the self can easily be a misreading. But to the natural historian— Romantic or pre-Romantic—there is really no choice but to risk the danger. The only alternative would be as pointless as observing stuffed birds in order to understand the migration of the sparrow…. Rather than abandon this principle, the naturalist usually abandons the name of scientist, and along with it the respect which is more and more commonly accorded that name. (Hildebidle 1983, pp. 58–59)

But Thoreau cannot rest easily in the world of naturalists, either. His practice of natural history has been attacked on the basis of its own professional standards, so that those who would place him within the naturalist tradition do so at the risk of exposing him to charges of being secondrate. For instance, John Burroughs, demonstrating the numerous ornithological mistakes in Thoreau's Journal, comments:

What he saw in this field everybody may see who looks; it is patent. He had not the detective eye of the great naturalist; he did not catch the clews and hints dropped here and there, the quick, flashing movements, the shy but significant gestures by which new facts are disclosed, mainly because he was not looking for them…. He was more intent on the natural history of his own thought than on that of the bird. To the last, his ornithology was not quite sure, not quite trustworthy. (Burroughs 1904, pp. 38–39; quoted by Hildebidle 1983, p. 53)

This opinion is hardly unique,[13] but to argue the “professionalism” of Thoreau's naturalist observations is only to move him from the stocks of science critics to those of the naturalists. With due respect to those who would credit or discredit Thoreau's scientific sensibility or his naturalist skills, I do not believe his importance rests on his observational abilities. We forgive his lapses—perhaps we are oblivious to them—because, his flaws notwithstanding, we understand that he was writing for purposes other than scientific accuracy alone. While he respected the objective frame of mind, individual vision was paramount.


Thoreau, beholden to Kant, found Reality in the interplay of mind and world. On this view, the world is known only insofar as our mental faculties allow, so that perception depends on the particular character of the mind. Objectivity universalizes many minds into a single, universalized vision, so that individual perceptions are made uniform. The Romantic attempted to hold objectivity at bay, arguing instead that there is no single, objective Reality we all share. That is not to say that if confronted with an object or a panorama, we might not all agree on its basic characteristics and share a common, general description. But at the next level of cognition, the bestowing of significance on that object, each of us has a deeper or more superficial “understanding,” placing that object in a constellation of knowledge and experience that must differ from individual to individual.Meaning in this sense is singular. Unique vision—the opportunity of discovering and creating a world of individual standing—was Thoreau's key insight and moral claim. His was no fantasy, for he probed in order to see what others had missed or ignored. To see is to see dialectically, where the mind actively selects and orders the world according to prior values of signification. This is the moral attitude at work—the valuing of experience. As important as objectifying nature might have been, it would be subordinated to Thoreau's greater purpose. Thus naturalist observations were in service to intimate experience. Observing nature—qua scientist, qua naturalist—was only a tool in that personal project.

For Thoreau, objectification captured only a part of nature, serving certain ends but ultimately requiring a second arm upon which to lean to present some semblance of reality. He records this early lesson in his Journal:

I learned today that my ornithology had done me no service–The birds I heard, which fortunately did not come within the scope of my science—sung as freshly as if it had been the first morning of creation, and had for background to their song an untrodden wilderness—stretching through many a Carolina and Mexico of the soul. (March 4, 1840, Journal 1, 1981, p. 115)

Not only would Thoreau be unable to capture the birds' song; science (he seems to stress here) in some insidious manner would have interfered with his appreciation. To hear melody required a listening soul, as fresh as the wilderness from which the music emanated. As he wrote in A Week, “A true account of the actual is the rarest poetry” (1980a, p. 325), which means, plainly, to know nature requires both observation (science) and sympathy (poesis). This sentiment appears again and again in Thoreau's musings on the relationship of “knowing” to “Knowing” aesthetically, morally, spiritually.

The visual nature of Thoreau's work, the “aesthetic of nature” which he sought (Peck 1990, pp. 49 ff.), dominated his epistemology. He did, after all, write that “the humblest weed is indescribably beautiful” (January 11, 1854,Journal, [1906] 1962, 6:63); and as he fervently attempted to live deliberately—which entails this aesthetic and spiritual embrace of nature— Thoreau was ever vigilant in order to be true to his project. His just standing as a seer of our contemporary ecological self-consciousness was achieved by this aesthetic sensitivity to nature and, more profoundly through this recognition, by his understanding that human relationship to the earth and all therein was essentially an ethical relationship. Seeking the real—aesthetically and spiritually—was Thoreau's life's work, and as his Journal attests, he proceeded tirelessly. I will argue that, ultimately, Thoreau's nature writing was motivated by his acceptance of an overarching mission to integrate the scientific, aesthetic, and spiritual components of his appreciation of nature. So let us now turn to the aesthetic dimension of this enterprise and to how such poesis expressed Thoreau's deepest concerns.

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