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Thoreau and the Language of Trees
By Richard Higgins
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2017 Richard Higgins
All rights reserved.
HENRY THOREAU LOOKED AT TREES EVERY DAY. He observed their shape, color, texture, and stance on his daily walks in Concord's woods and fields. He measured and sketched them, interpreted their expressions and appraised their character. His eye took in all — root, trunk, bark, and branch, crown, leaf, blossom, and cone. Thoreau's lofty thoughts and poetic images of trees grew from these observations and from his intimate knowledge of them as a naturalist, surveyor, and poet. The particular trees he knew made the airy ones he imagined so solid on the page.
Thoreau knew individual trees all over Concord — birches, basswoods, and hornbeams in pastures and on hills, a pine or hemlock that stood "like a pagoda in the woods." In winter, he wrote in Walden, he would tramp through knee-high snow "to keep an appointment with a beech tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines." Semicryptic references to notable trees ("the large white oak by the path north of Sleepy Hollow") are scattered through his journal.
Thoreau loved big, majestic ones — mighty pasture oaks astride Concord's fields, the tall elms in the village whose overlapping crowns enfolded all below in a canopy of calm, and white pines that rose like spires in the forest. The straight, upward thrust of the pines signaled their noble character to Thoreau. "Look up at the tree-tops and see how finely Nature finishes off her work there," he wrote. "See how the pines spire without end higher and higher, and make a graceful fringe to the earth."
The details that made one tree different from another never tired Thoreau's eye. "A tree seen against other trees is a mere dark mass but against the sky it has parts, has symmetry and expression."
No tree was too small or common to admire or inspect. Rotting logs and dead leaves fascinated him. "Pitch pine cones very beautiful," he wrote in his journal on November 9, 1851, "not only the fresh leather-colored ones but especially the dead gray ones." The smallest of the oaks, the shrub oak, was a favorite. It was "rigid as iron, clean as the atmosphere, hardy as virtue, innocent and sweet as a maiden." With its "scanty garment of leaves rising above the snow," he could embrace one — and he may have been as good as his word. The shrub, or bear, oak has bristle-tipped leaves, and Thoreau tells of getting a few "honest scratches and rents" wading in thickets of it.
He inspected lichens for hours on rainy days. The moist air aided him in two ways: the dampness expanded the lichens and brightened their colors, making them stand out against the bark of trees, while the reduced visibility compelled him to look at near objects. "My power of observation and contemplation is much increased. My attention does not wander." Even a knot in an old barn board could catch his eye and remind him of the forest tree from which the board came.
On his daily walks to look at trees, Thoreau was well equipped, his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson recalled. He "wore a straw hat, stout shoes, and strong gray trousers, to brave shrub oaks and smilax, and to a climb a tree for a hawk's nest." He also packed a pencil, diary, knife, and twine and carried an old music book to press plants.
Thoreau examined the seeds of trees, finding the willow's "exceedingly minute, as I measure, from one-twentieth to one-twelfth of an inch." Opening a pine cone scale, he found a membrane as thin as an insect's wing woven around the seed. This "beautiful thin sack" feeds the seed and then becomes a wing to waft it through the air when it is released. Thus the sack extends the range of the species, he wrote, "as effectually as when seeds are sent by mail in a different kind of sack from the Patent Office."
For Thoreau, examining such details was more than mere observation; it was an act of contemplation. The eye, he wrote, "has many qualities which belong to God more than man." Telescopes and microscopes have their uses, but if one is intent on seeing, "the naked eye may easily see farther than the armed."
Thoreau was so meticulous in depicting trees that he can sound like a judge at a forest beauty pageant: "No tree has so fair a bole [trunk] and so handsome an instep as the beech." The sugar maple "is remarkable for its clean ankle." "I am struck and attracted," he wrote, "by the parallelism of the twigs of the hornbeam." Sometimes, he could tell if a tree was a yellow birch only if "a button was off" in its "vest" of curling bark, revealing its yellow wood.
Thoreau's observation took all his senses. He snapped twigs to sniff their bark. In spring, the fragrance of black birch bark and hickory buds "intoxicated" him. He listened to the moan and creak of hardwoods in the winter and to the roar of wind in the woods. He nibbled lichens, opining on which tasted best — he liked rock tripe (Umbilicaria) and Iceland moss (Cetrariaislandica) — and made sugar from maple sap and beer from the bark of four different birches. "I tasted some of the sweet froth which had issued from the sap of a walnut or hickory lately cut," he wrote on February 9, 1852. "So innocent a sweet. It reminded me of the days when I used to scrape this juice off the logs in my father's woodpile."
Thoreau's eye was drawn to the play of light in trees, especially in pine needles. They were his forest sun-catchers. The sun "loves to nestle in the boughs of the pine and pass rays through them," causing each branch to "bear its burden of silvery sunlight." One November, as Thoreau walked through a field at day's end, the slanting rays of the sun fell on a stand of white pine. "That kind of sunset which I witnessed on Saturday and Sunday is perhaps peculiar to the late autumn," he wrote a few days later. "The sun is unseen behind a hill. Only this bright white light like a fire falls on the trembling needles of the pine."
Thoreau watched white pines sway in a March windstorm. A "fine, silvery light" flashed from their waxy needles as they moved in and out of the light. These pulses of light looked like the "play and flashing of electricity," he wrote, as if the wind were magnetizing and electrifying the trees. "Is not this wind an awaking to life and light of the pines after their winter slumber?" he asked. "As if in this wind storm of March a certain electricity were passing from earth to heaven through the pines and calling them to life."
Thoreau was also endlessly intrigued by the form and stance of trees. In the forest are found "all the shapes and hues of the kaleidoscope," and in the outlines of trees all the "designs and ciphers" in books of heraldry. As he paddled a narrow river in a Maine forest, he admired "the small, dark, and sharp tops of tall fir and spruce trees, and pagoda-like arborvitae, crowded together on each side," he wrote in The Maine Woods. "I was struck by this universal spiring upward of the forest evergreens." The spruce, fir, arborvitae, and white pine "all spire upwards, lifting a dense spear-head of cones to the light and air."
In 1857, Thoreau saw a small ash along the Assabet River near Barrett's sawmill. A severe storm had broken it off at two feet, yet seven new branches had shot up around the stump, "forming a perfectly regular oval head about 25 feet high and very beautiful." If any of the branches were cut, he surmised, the remaining ones would eventually "form a head" similar to the one he saw. "With what harmony they work and carry out the idea of the tree, one twig not straying farther on this side than its fellow on that!" he wrote. The tree had "its idea to be lived up to" and thus filled "an invisible mould in the air."
And he deduced why trees were lopsided. If sunlight is diffused evenly around all sides, a tree tends to be balanced. If not, the branches grow toward light and over time pull the tree in that direction. "For there is Cheney's abele," or poplar, "which stands just south of a large elm. It grows wholly southward, and in form is just half a tree. ... In short, trees appear to grow regularly because the sky and diffusion of light are commonly regular."
As the cycle of the year passed, Thoreau tracked the forest's changing hues as if they were comets streaking across the sky. He was especially vigilant in mid-September, hoping to see the first red maple "bearing aloft its scarlet standard for the regiment of green-clad foresters around." He kept watching as the trees advanced through deeper and deeper shades of brown. On October 3, 1858, he looked across Walden Pond at adjacent Pine Hill. The trees and shrubs glowed "green, yellow, and scarlet, like fires just kindled at the base of the trees, a general conflagration just fairly under way, soon to envelop every tree. The hillside forest is all aglow along its edge and in all its cracks and fissures, and soon the flames will leap upward to the tops of the tallest trees."
Thoreau had a painter's love of color. He labored to depict the delicate tints in words and was frustrated by the paucity of terms available to him in English. "It is impossible to describe the infinite variety of tints and shades, for the language affords no names for them," he complained. "I must apply the same term monotonously to 20 different things."
However, one detects no hint of this frustration in his writing about trees. At the height of their fall beauty in October, Concord's elms were "great brownish-yellow masses, warm from their September oven." The trees were "great yellow canopies or parasols held over our heads and houses by the mile together," making the village "all one and compact — an ulmarium," or elm nursery, "which is at the same time a nursery of men!" As fall deepened, the elms dropped their burden of leaves until at last "the village parasol is shut up and put away!"
The brilliant red of scarlet oaks nearly induced chromatic arrest in Thoreau. A stand of brilliant scarlet oaks in the neighboring town of Lincoln mesmerized him as he stood on Fair Haven Hill in October 1858. They were like "huge roses with a myriad of fine petals." As the light waned, each scarlet oak appeared to "borrow" red fire from the setting sun. They glowed so vivaciously, he wrote, "you see a redder tree than exists."
Not even scarlet oaks, however, match the hues broadcast by red maples in the fall. They begin to burn scarlet and crimson by the third week of September. Their first fires, "like those of genius," are the brightest. At the height of its change, a red maple swamp "is the most obviously brilliant of all tangible things where I dwell." At the same time, the trees are "not seen as a simple mass of color," for their hues vary slightly from one red maple to another. Some leaves may still be green, or yellow, or just beginning to flash crimson at their tips, while others are scarlet, or "scarlet deepening into crimson, more red than common," and still others "wholly brilliant scarlet,raying out regularly and finely every way." The outline of each, where one color "laps on to another," is distinct.
Thoreau saw color in the woods right into winter. Shrub oak leaves, he wrote on December 1, 1856, were "well-tanned leather on one side, sun-tanned, color of colors, color of the cow and the deer" and "silver-downy beneath, turned toward the late bleached and russet fields."
Observing a tree was not a chance thing for Thoreau. He had to see it from several sides, or move toward or away from it; "You need to stand where the greatest number of leaves will transmit or reflect to you most favorably." Especially in the fall, a tree that looked comparatively lifeless or drab, if "seen in a more favorable light ... may affect you wonderfully as a warm, glowing drapery."
Ultimately, however, seeing the beauty of a tree was not about optics for Thoreau. Without the soul, the eye cannot see it. What does it matter, he said, "if the outer door," the eye, "is open, if the inner door is shut." Beauty must be on our minds when we go forth, he wrote in "Autumnal Tints": "We cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, take it into our heads." The hunter enters the woods expecting, wanting, to see game, and he must take careful aim when he does. "He would stand a very small chance, if he fired at random into the sky, being told that snipes were flying there. And so it is with him that shoots at beauty." He may wait all day, but "he will not bag any, if he does not already know its seasons and haunts, and the color of its wing — if he has not dreamed of it." When he has, "he flushes it at every step."
Most of us do not see the beauty of trees, even though they may be right in front of us. "A man shall perhaps rush by and trample down plants as high as his head, and cannot be said to know that they exist, though he may have cut many tons of them, littered his stables and fed them to his cattle for years," Thoreau wrote. "Yet if he ever favorably attends to them, he may be overcome by their beauty."
AGAINST THE SKY A TREE HAS PARTS
RELIEVED AGAINST THE SKY
The sun is half an hour high, perhaps. Standing near the outlet of the pond, I look up and down the river with delight, it is so warm and the air is, notwithstanding, so clear. When I invert my head and look at the woods half a mile down the stream, they suddenly sink lower in the horizon and are removed full two miles off; yet the air is so clear that I seem to see every stem and twig with beautiful distinctness. The fine tops of the trees are so relieved against the sky that I never cease to admire the minute subdivisions. It is the same when I look up the stream. A bare hickory under Lee's cliff, seen against the sky, becomes an interesting, even beautiful object to behold. I think where I have been staying all these days. I will surely come here again.
Journal, JANUARY 25, 1852
A PLEASING ARRANGEMENT
I frequently see three or four old white birches standing together on the edge of a pond or meadow, and am struck by the pleasing manner in which they will commonly be grouped, how they spread so as to make room for each other and make an agreeable impression on the eye. Methinks I have seen groups of three in different places arranged almost exactly alike.
Journal, FEBRUARY 12, 1854
BIRCHES FRINGED IN GOLD
On a bitter cold day in January 1853, Thoreau was excited to encounter the largest stand of yellow birch he had ever seen in Concord, in the woods he called Easterbrooks Country. The trees' delicate, gold-colored bark affected him more, he said, than the precious metal then causing a frenzy in California. Like a Coronado of Concord, he planted a verbal flag to name his find.
To what I will call Yellow Birch Swamp, E. Hubbard's, in the north part of town. ... How pleasing to stand beside a new or rare tree! And few are so handsome as this. Singularly allied to the black birch in its sweet checkerberry scent and its form, and to the canoe birch in its peeling or fringed & tasseled bark. The top is brush-like as the black birch; the bark an exquisite fine or delicate gold color, curled off partly from the trunk, with vertical clear or smooth spaces, as if a plane had been passed up the tree. The sight of these trees affects me more than California gold. I measured one 5 feet, 2 inches in circ. at 6 feet from the ground. We have the silver & the golden birch. The yellow birch is like a fair, flaxen-haired sister of the dark complexioned black birch, with golden ringlets. How lustily it takes hold of the swampy soil, and braces itself! And here flows a wine-colored brook over the iron-red sands in the somber swamp. In an undress, this tree. Ah, time will come when these will be all gone. Among the primitive trees. What sort of dryads haunt these? Blond Nymphs.
Journal, JANUARY 4, 1853
HURLING BOLTS AT HEAVEN
Thoreau captured the essence of Concord's famous Pratt Elm, which stood in front of the house of his friend Minot Pratt. One of two elms planted in 1700 as bridal gifts, it was well known in Thoreau's day for its age and striking appearance. Pratt, a farmer, had lived at the Brook Farm experiment in the 1840s and often hosted fellow Transcendentalists at his farm. Louisa May Alcott recalled husking corn at one such gathering beneath the dramatic branches of the old elm, which was 85 feet tall and 161/4 feet in circumference at chest height.
The arborist Lorin Dame wrote about the Pratt Elm in 1890. He noted that it did not have the vase shape and symmetry that was typical of New England village elms. Its massive limbs began lower down the trunk, were more angular and seemingly shot off in all directions. To Dame, it embodied strength as much as the even more famous Boston Elm, on Boston Common, and was "worthy to be reckoned among the historic celebrities even in historic Concord."
Excerpted from Thoreau and the Language of Trees by Richard Higgins. Copyright © 2017 Richard Higgins. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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