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A Natural History of Nature Writing is a penetrating overview of the origins and development of a uniquely American literature. Essayist and poet Frank Stewart describes in rich and compelling prose the lives and works of the most prominent American nature writers of the19th and 20th centuries, including:
A HOUND, A BAY HORSE, AND A TURTLEDOVE
One of the most famous and most written-about passages in Walden is also one of the most puzzling. It appears in the first chapter, "Economy," where it stumped readers in Thoreau's own time and remains a riddle for many today.
Thoreau wrote: "I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtledove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travelers I have spoken concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves."
Commentators have offered many explanations for the parable of the lost creatures. John Burroughs, at the turn of the century, suggested that Thoreau was talking about some essence of nature that he was reluctant to name. Francis H. Allen, an early editor of Walden and of Thoreau's journals, thought that he was creating a metaphor for the vague desires residing within all of us for the spiritual aspects of nature. Henry Seidel Canby, Thoreau's early biographer, saw the passage as a quest for a spiritual reality behind and beyond nature. William Howarth speculates that the hound, the bay horse, and the dove were metaphors for "the losses all men must endure." He suggests that Thoreau may have been thinking of the Hindu transmigration of souls, about which he had recently been reading. Other writers have interpreted the passage as a coded reference to certain friendships in Thoreau's life, to unrequited love affairs, to his dead older brother, to an alleged homosexual encounter, and to any number of other things.
Although some of these explanations are far-fetched, their authors were right in believing that Thoreau loved metaphors and parables. He enjoyed producing twists upon a subject through analogical reasoning, examining phenomena this way and that, viewing them from every perspective, including linguistic ones. At the same time, much of what he had to say interpreted the materials of his own life. In his journal in May 1853, just before his thirty-sixth birthday, Thoreau wrote, "Some incidents in my life have seemed far more allegorical than actual; they were so significant that they plainly served no other use ... they have been like myths or passages in a myth."
In addition to what the parable of the three lost animals might have meant to him in terms of his own tragedies, hopes, and disappointments—and it clearly refers to some essence that he felt moving through nature—there is another way to understand Thoreau's hound, bay horse, and dove, one that may illuminate the method of his nature writing and the way that nature writers after him have also looked at the world.
In the paragraph before the passage about the three lost animals, Thoreau wrote, "If I should attempt to tell how I have desired to spend my life in years past, it would probably surprise those of my readers who are somewhat acquainted with its actual history; it would certainly astonish those who know nothing about it ... You will pardon some obscurities, for there are more secrets in my trade than in most men's, and yet not voluntarily kept, but inseparable from its very nature. I will gladly tell all that I know about it, and never paint'No Admittance' on my gate."
Taking Thoreau's words literally—something we must do as often as we take them figuratively and playfully—we can infer that his parable refers not only to what he sought in nature and what he might have missed, but also to the methods of his enterprise—how he went about hearing an essence in the vocalizing wind, in snowstorms and torrents, and how he sought discoveries on forest paths and on his saunterings across the woodlots of his neighbors. In writing Walden, and by carefully preserving the forty-seven manuscript volumes of his journal, spanning twenty-four years and comprising two million words, it appears that Thoreau meant to hold back no secrets in the accounts he faithfully kept of the red huckleberry, the sand cherry, the white grape, and the yellow violet. His fellow townspeople may have had no faith in his work, but he would not place a "No Admittance" sign on it—although to pass through his gate requires of the guest more tolerance for surprise than many have been prepared to endure.
Before considering the three parts of his method as revealed in Thoreau's parable, we should note several general aspects of his trade that are also mentioned there. One of these is that the three animals are pursued out of doors, out in the world, "in any weather, at any hour of the day or night," as Thoreau himself put it in Walden, so that he might find them at "the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment." At this meeting point of so many contrary figures, Thoreau spent his life "trying to hear what was in the wind, to hear and carry it express!" And if he missed it on the lower pathways, he was willing to climb, if necessary, so that he might stand "at other times watching from the observatory of some cliff or tree, to telegraph any new arrival; or waiting at evening on the hill-tops for the sky to fall, that I might catch something, though I never caught much, and that, manna-wise, would dissolve again in the sun."
Above all, Thoreau desired to record events as a firsthand witness. This quality alone differentiated him from a good many natural scientists of his age, as much as it set him apart from the dreamers and "sublimo-slipshod" poets, as he called them, who, he felt, had very little real nature in their verse. He did not wish to learn "by inference and deduction and the application of mathematics to philosophy, but by direct intercourse and sympathy" with the facts of the natural world as he found them. By wanting to front nature directly, he separated himself not only from philosophers in their studies but also from literary men in their libraries.
For Thoreau to practice his trade as he wished, being in the field was not only a practical requirement but a moral necessity. He noted in his journal in 1851, "How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live! Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow, as if I had given vent to the stream at the lower end and consequently new fountains flowed into it at the upper." Writing based only on book learning was likely to miss the point, he said. "Only while we are in action is the circulation perfect. The writing which consists with habitual sitting is mechanical, wooden, dull to read."
Another important aspect of this writing enterprise, as revealed in his riddle, was that it somehow involved a commitment to his neighbors, who, although they often misunderstood him, were willing to lead him to his best thoughts, even when they did not know it. This may seem surprising, given Thoreau's reputation as a recluse. But we should remember that according to the narrator himself, Walden, though allegedly composed "alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor," would not have come about at all "if very particular inquiries had not been made by my townsmen concerning my mode of life."
In the first paragraph of the chapter in Walden titled "The Village," Thoreau wrote, "Every day or two I strolled to the village to hear some of the gossip which is incessantly going on there, circulating either from mouth to mouth, or from newspaper to newspaper, and which, taken in homeopathic doses, was really as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs. As I walked to the woods to see the birds and squirrels, so I walked in the village to see the men and boys." Similarly, early in his journal writing, Thoreau wondered, "What if a man were earnestly and wisely to set about recollecting and preserving the thoughts which he has had! How many perchance are now irrecoverable!" But they might not be lost if one might "call in his neighbors to aid him." Two months earlier he had confided to his journal, "I wonder that I ever get five miles on my way, the walk is so crowded with events and phenomena. How many questions there are which I have not put to the inhabitants! "
In his journal Thoreau tells a story of a certain wild azalea bush that he found in the local woods with the help of a reluctant neighbor. Despite his daily wanderings, Thoreau had never seen this conspicuously beautiful flower in Concord until one day his sister, Sophia, brought the blossom home on a single stem. Sophia had got it from Mrs. Brooks, who had got a sprig from her son George, who had got a bunch from Thoreau's neighbor George Melvin. Having traced its source this far, and after inquiring of others who had obtained similar sprigs from Melvin within the past few days, Thoreau went to Melvin's house. He discovered the young man in the early afternoon shade by the backdoor, still nursing a hangover. Wasting no time, he abruptly asked Melvin where he had found the bloom he had given Mrs. Brooks' son.
Perhaps because it was so rare for anyone to find a plant that Thoreau had not seen, Melvin teasingly decided not to tell his naturalist neighbor where he had found the blazing pink flowers he called "red honeysuckle." "Well, you better tell me where it is," Thoreau pressed him. "I'm a botanist and ought to know." When this assertion of authority had no effect, Thoreau tried another ploy. He told Melvin that his nose was as keen as a hound's, and that once he had crossed the river, where he suspected the azalea was, he would be able to smell the flower's sweet fragrance from half a mile away. And so he would find it anyway, and Melvin would get none of the credit for it.
Thus persuaded, Melvin called his dog, and the three crossed the brook, made their way through the woods, and found the beautiful shrub of rosy-pink blooms growing in the shade of a large stand of trees like laurel. As a good botanist, Thoreau described the plant precisely in his journal. But he also noted the implications to the community of what he was seeing. When "a rare and beautiful flower which we never saw, perhaps never heard of, for which therefore there was no place in our thoughts, may at length be found in our immediate neighborhood," he wrote, "the limits of the actual" are proved to be but "a thin and undulating drapery," and "no more fixed and rigid than the elasticity of our imaginations." Thoreau would find other rare plants, creatures, and phenomena, but this one came to him by way of George Melvin, not by his own efforts, and in his journal he gave that neighbor credit—hangover notwithstanding—for his sweet discovery.
What, then, might Thoreau's passage about the hound, bay horse, and dove tell us about his method of seeing and writing about nature—about his trade secrets?
In the chapter "Winter Animals" in Walden, Thoreau tells a story about hounds. A pack of them, hunting on their own for a fox, found his cabin and "would pass my door, and circle round my house, and yelp and hound without regarding me, as if afflicted by a species of madness, so that nothing could divert them from the pursuit ... Thus they circle until they fall upon the recent trail of a fox, for a wise hound will forsake every thing for this." These hounds kept their noses close to the ground, focused on the minute data there, the local details, as had Melvin's dog on the trail of the wild azaleas. Like the best of their kind, they were "empirical" and "objective"; they were in pursuit of facts and would not be turned aside until they had found their fox.
Thoreau admired the hounds' "species of madness" because he could be just as single- minded. In the chapter called "Higher Laws," he wrote that, once or twice when he lived at the pond, "I found myself ranging the woods, like a half-starved hound, with a strange abandonment, seeking some kind of venison which I might devour, and no morsel could have been too savage for me."
But of course there is more than one kind of hound. Before publishing Walden, Thoreau remarked in his journal on a passage from William Gilpin, the English traveler and art theorist, who mentioned the old practice of "lawing" or "expedition." These forest terms referred to cutting out the sole of a dog's foot or removing two of its claws in order to hobble it so that the dog was unable to overtake and kill deer in forests that belonged to the king. Gilpin had written that only greyhounds that had been "lawed" were allowed within ten miles of certain woods. "It reminds me of the majority of human hounds that tread the forest paths of this world," Thoreau commented; "they go slightly limping in their gait, as if disqualified by a cruel fate to overtake the nobler game of the forest, their natural quarry. Most men are such dogs. Ever and anon starting a quarry, with perfect scent, which, from this cruel maiming and disqualification of the fates, he is incapable of coming up with. Does not the noble dog shed tears?"
Thoreau's hounds, his determined pursuers of fact, then, are of several sorts. Besides those whose natures bestow on them a species of madness, with an instinct for savage prey of woodchuck and fox, there is a "noble" hound able to locate a swifter quarry and to overtake it. And he himself, Thoreau noted, had been yet another kind of hound at times for the people of Concord. As he wrote in "Economy," just after presenting the metaphor of the lost hound, bay horse, and dove, "I have looked after the wild stock of the town, which give a faithful herdsman a good deal of trouble by leaping fences; and I have had an eye to the unfrequented nooks and corners of the farm."
Although Thoreau was always preoccupied with being outdoors, with the nourishment of visions that come from traveling abroad and observing closely, he was also concerned with the scale at which he should be observing in order to see most accurately. He was concerned with not being confined by too close an observation, lest he see nothing at all of essence. As Thoreau's biographer Robert Richardson notes of this period in his life, just as he undertook yet another total reshaping of Walden, Thoreau began "growing more afraid of subsiding into trivial detail," of losing himself in close observation. Thoreau saw the necessity for a balance between fact and idea, detail and ideal. "I fear that the character of my knowledge is from year to year becoming more distinct and scientific," Thoreau wrote; "that, in exchange for views as wide as heaven's cope, 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.'"
During these months Thoreau read more and more widely—travel books as well as natural history—looking closely for a way to harmonize the outward movement of the mind with the inward, in order to make what he called the "marriage of the soul with Nature that makes the intellect fruitful, that gives birth to imagination." Richardson notes that Cato's rem tene verba sequentur could well have been Thoreau's motto: Grasp the thing; words will follow. The danger that lay in the method of the hound, it was clear to Thoreau, was that although the hound—like the taxonomist and the species hunter—could grasp a thing well enough, the hound's perspective involved too much concern with detail, and perhaps lost something vital thereby. Thoreau wished to know accurately the close at hand; he was a practical man who could design machines to make pencils, and he made a living as a skilled surveyor. But he wished also to travel beyond and through what was nearby to a more general observation, to relationships, and to synthesis. "My practicalness is not to be trusted to the last," Thoreau said to his journal. "To be sure, I go upon my legs for the most part, but, being hard-pushed and dogged by a superficial common sense which is bound to near objects by beaten paths, I am off the handle, as the phrase is,—I begin to be transcendental and show where my heart is."
Excerpted from A Natural History of Nature Writing by Frank Stewart. Copyright © 1995 Frank Stewart. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Posted November 23, 2011
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