Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Trees Are Behind Everything: Thoreau the Naturalist

    A very long time ago, when Anne and I were deciding to move to the "country" -- the Pioneer Valley region in western Massachusetts in our case -- one of our Cambridge friends demanded to know how we could consider leaving the wonders of Boston-Cambridge behind. 
             I said something like "we like trees."
            "But why would you give up people for trees?" he asked. "All people are different, and trees are all the same."
            That was too simplistic for me. 
            I replied -- flippantly -- "But I think trees are all different, and people are all the same."
            I don't really think (and didn't then) that people are all the same. Far from it.  
            But I would defend a different sort of comparison in defense of trees and other green plants: 
            People are more important to other people, especially to those who care about him. But the well-being of trees is much more important than people are to the health and survival of Planet Earth.
            Back in the days when we were making that logistical remove to the Pioneer Valley -- and a few years later would move back to Greater Boston for the same reason (so someone could go to graduate school) -- I had not read much written by Henry David Thoreau.
            Of course I knew him by reputation. Everybody did. We had all seen the popular poster with the quote: "In Wildness is the preservation of the world."
            I thought this was a metaphysical assertion. It's not. It's a scientific one.          
            The world is still trying to catch up with the thought of Thoreau. Relatively little of his writing was published during his lifetime, or until well into 20th century.
            There was the famous essay on "Civil Disobedience," often read in schools and college courses -- I had a high school teacher who summed its message up for us -- defending the moral right of conscience to disobey immoral laws. The same kind of thinking would later guide Martin Luther King's adoption of nonviolent civil disobedience to drive what we now celebrate as the Civil Rights Movement.
            And Thoreau he wrote "Walden," a book that expresses his love of and devotion to nature, but employs it in service of a sweeping critique of the settled norms of civilized society. Human beings should try to live their lives in close contact, and harmony, with the natural world, instead of working hard to shut it out, conquer it, master it, and cut it down.
            Particularly when that 'it' is trees.
            While "Walden" is now regarded as a classic -- though more celebrated than actually read: Thoreau's elaborate Victorian prose can be hard sledding at times for contemporary quick-cut sensibilities -- it was almost entirely ignored by 19th century America.
            Thoreau also published a few essays that ran in the mainstream press or magazines, and remain highly readable today. But scholars and students of his work now regard Thoreau's journal, accounts of his daily forays into the woods around Concord, his record about what he found there, and his thinking about 'life' -- human as well as natural -- prompted by those countless hours spent out of doors.
            Reading sample passages from of these, excerpted in the recent book "Thoreau and the Language of Trees" by Richard Higgins, convinces me that Thought is that rarity of any time and place: an original thinker.
            His journals -- running many manuscript volumes and something like a million words -- only began to began to be published in recent decades. And editorial preparation of a complete editions of his journals -- in 16 volumes, a massive project -- is still going on today.  
            For most of us, a book of excerpts and editorial comment such as "Thoreau and the Language of Trees" makes Thoreau the thinker-naturalist accessible and rewarding as well as providing a good opening into the inveterate walker, naturalist, and writer's marvelous vision.
             Here are some high points I've skimmed from this book.  
             A passionate lover of autumn, Thoreau mined his journal for material for an essay titled "Autumn Tints" published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862, and widely praised at a time when Americans were looking for something to feel good about. Autumn to Thoreau was a freely offered annual festival that should be celebrated as a national holiday. That the tinting and then release of these beautifully colored leaves ultimately leave the forests bare for winter is part of the beauty and meaning of the natural display:
            "How beautifully they go to their graves! how gently lay themselves down and turn to mould! ...They that soared so loftily, how contentedly they turned to dust again, and are laid low, resigned to lie and decay at the foot of the tree and afford nourishment to new generations of their kind, as well as to flutter on high! They teach us how to die. One wonders if the time will come when men... will lie down so gracefully and as ripe..."
            Now that's something to holds onto: "They teach us how to die."
            In his editorial introduction of a particularly interesting group of excerpts, Higgins tells us that Thoreau discovered the scientific study of plants in the latter half of his short life. Botany was an emerging science then, and Thoreau consumed books by its leading figures. He sent specimens to Louis Agassiz, the famous Swiss-born naturalist who studied earth's natural history at Harvard. Thoreau's daily walks became field work. He identified all the species he countered, and theorized on their structure, growth pattern, annual phases, and stages of life.
            Observing that pines replace oaks that die (or more likely are cut for timber), and that oaks replace pines (same reason), he hypothesized that trees' seed covers were designed to ride on the wind for long distances, and was able to prove his theory. He theorized that the fruits of trees that humans today grow for consumption were developed to tempt animals to spread their seeds.
            Thoreau applied Darwin's new theory of evolution to his own field work observations. He studied forest regeneration, documented it, and invented the widely adopted term "succession" for the stages of a forest's lifetime. His essay "The Succession of Forest Trees" was published in the New York Tribune and widely read.
            He also noted how late maturing (and long-lived) trees typically were. While foresters 'harvested' trees when their trunk diameters stopped growing, Thoreau noted the trunks were still growing tall and adding more wood.
            He used the term "mythology" to describe his detailed interpretation of the stages of life in the lifetime of trees -- a tale, that is, rich with meaning meaning about life's fundamentals. He saw trees as the templates of creation. Models for other creatures, among them human beings.
            "There are flowers of thought," he wrote, "and there are leaves of thought."
            In "Walden," he wrote, "the Maker of this earth but patented a leaf." A new idea, he stated, "is like a bud on a branch."
            Elaborating the comparison of trees and humans, he saw an analogy between the structure of a tree, from root through trunk to crown, and the skeleton of the human being and the higher vertebrates.
            These comparisons were called "correspondences," Higgins tells us. Trees, he noted, grow both in spring and in fall. All humans grow in the springtime of their lives, Thoreau pointed out, but some also enjoy the autumnal second growth of maturity.  
            Many humans, however, "never recover form the first check to their hopes."
            Judging from the excerpts in this book, and Higgins's commentaries, it appears that Thoreau thought that he was recovering from his own 'first check' -- the failure of his first books to win the favor of an audience -- and enjoying a rich personal growth through his study of nature.
            In his late essay "Wild Apples" he compared himself to the wild tree that after being "mauled" by animals that consumed its fruit and damaged its limbs, "grows back" to produce a perfect, tangy fruit.
            Like the wild tree, Thoreau continued to do his best work, though his first fruits, his first two books ("Walden" and "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers"), had been harmed by a neglectful publishing world and by an unready audience.
            It seems that this writer and thinker who flourished and produced masterworks ahead of his time in the middle of the nineteenth century, and was rediscovered in the next century and christened as a founding prophet of the environmental movement, may prove even more important in the 21st century as humanity, the dominant species in an age rife with species extinctions, poses an increasingly dire threat to the future of life on Planet Earth.