American Transcendentalism Web
Authors & Texts Roots & Influences Ideas & Thought Criticism
Resources Search Communication Center
Default text size Big text size Bigger text size Biggest text size

Henry David Thoreau

Introduction to Wild Fruits: Thoreau's Rediscovered Last Manuscript [W. W. Norton, 2000]

Bradley Dean

Henry David Thoreau died peacefully in the front parlor of his mother's home on Main Street in Concord, Massachusetts, on the morning of May 6, 1862. Tuberculosis, a common killer of the time, took him at just forty-four years of age. Among the mass of papers he left behind was the manuscript of Wild Fruits, published here for the first time. The final harvest of a great writer's last years, Wild Fruits presents Thoreau's sacramental vision of nature—a vision compelling in part because it grew out of an approach to the natural world at once scientific and mystical.

Although Thoreau began writing Wild Fruits in the autumn of 1859, the manuscript was part of a much larger project begun early in that decade. In the summer of 1850, he moved into the third-floor attic of the newly remodeled house in Concord that he shared with his parents and younger sister. There he established a productive daily routine of morning and evening study separated by a long afternoon walk. He found himself at loose ends because he had completed the two books he had been working on for the preceding five years. (He had published his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, at his own expense in May 1849, and had announced in that book the forthcoming publication of his second book, Walden; or, Life in the Woods.) On November 16, 1850, he remarked in his journal, "I feel ripe for something, yet do nothing, can't discover what that thing is."

Also during this period, at least in part because his book was not selling, he started a surveying business. Most importantly, though, he began cultivating an interest in science, particularly botany. He built a "scaffold" inside the crown of his hat to hold plant specimens and started carrying a botanical guide with him on his afternoon walks. By mid November 1850 he was regularly dating his journal entries and had stopped culling pages from his journal notebooks—both changes that ensured a complete and accurate record of his field observations. Prior to that time he had dated his entries very sporadically and had cut pages out of the notebooks to save himself the labor of copying passages into literary drafts. The following month he was elected a corresponding member to the Boston Society of Natural History, an honor that included lending privileges at that organization's impressive library. Six years later Thoreau himself reflected back on this period when his interests had taken such a dramatic shift toward scientific concerns:

I remember gazing with interest at the swamps about those days and wondering if I could ever attain to such familiarity with plants that I should know the species of every twig and leaf in them. . . . Though I knew most of the flowers, and there were not in any particular swamp more than half a dozen shrubs that I did not know, yet these made it seem like a maze to me, of a thousand strange species, and I even thought of commencing at one end and looking it faithfully and laboriously through till I knew it all. I little thought that in a year or two I should have attained to that knowledge without all that labor. . . . I soon found myself observing when plants first blossomed and leafed, and I followed it up early and late, far and near, several years in succession, running to different sides of the town and into the neighboring towns, often between twenty and thirty miles in a day. I often visited a particular plant four or five miles distant, half a dozen times within a fortnight, that I might know exactly when it opened, beside attending to a great many others in different directions and some of them equally distant, at the same time.

The spring of 1851 marks the middle of this important transitional period for Thoreau. He began reading books on natural history and purchased a blank book, which he called his "Common Place Book," for recording passages from his natural history readings. Although he still had not settled on a large literary project, he did assemble from passages in his journal a lecture titled "Walking, or the Wild," which he delivered before a hometown audience on April 23. Within the next couple of months he compiled the first of what would become many hundreds of phenological lists and charts on every conceivable seasonal phenomenon, such as the migration cycles of birds or the leafing, flowering, fruiting, and seeding of plants. Interestingly, that same spring the Smithsonian Institute sent to scientists across the country a circular titled "Registry of Periodical Phenomena," which invited "all persons who may have it in their power, to record their observations [of "periodical phenomema of Animal and Vegetable life"], and to transmit them to the Institution." The circular lists 127 species of plants, using in most cases both common and Latin names, and asks observers to mark opposite each species its date of flowering.

The Smithsonian list bears a striking resemblance to the phenological lists Thoreau began assembling at that time. Although his lists and charts have never been studied carefully, they are almost certainly the foundation for the large project that eventually included Wild Fruits. After reading John Evelyn's Kalendarium Hortense, or Gardener's Almanack (1664) in the spring of 1852, Thoreau occasionally referred to this large project as his "Kalendar." Apparently he intended to write a comprehensive history of the natural phenomena that took place in his hometown each year. Although he planned to base his natural history of Concord upon field observations recorded in his journal over a period of several years, he would synthesize those observations so that he could construct a single "archetypal" year, a technique he had used to wonderful effect in Walden. The observations he recorded in his journal ranged from the most purely objective and scientific to the aesthetic and highly subjective. He would supplement his own wide-ranging observations in his "Kalendar" project, as he does in Wild Fruits, with extracts from his extensive reading.

This important period in Thoreau's life culminates in a long and quite remarkable journal entry written September 7, 1851. He began the entry with the same complaint he had voiced in his journal almost a year earlier: "I feel myself uncommonly prepared for some literary work, but I can select no work." He continued writing for another sixteen pages, alternately criticizing the way most people misspend their lives on trivial employments and envisioning how he might best spend his life. As the following brief selection makes clear, while writing the entry he formulates a resolve to pursue what he realizes is his life's work:

The art of spending a day! If it is possible that we may be addressed, it behooves us to be attentive. If by watching all day and all night, I may detect some trace of the Ineffable, then will it not be worth the while to watch? Watch and pray without ceasing? . . .

I am convinced that men are not well employed—that this is not the way to spend a day. If by patience, if by watching I can secure one new ray of light, can feel myself elevated for an instant upon Pisgah, the world which was dead prose to me become living and divine, shall I not watch ever—shall I not be a watchman henceforth? If by watching a whole year on the city's walls I may obtain a communication from heaven, shall I not do well to shut up my shop and turn a watchman? Can a youth, a man, do more wisely than to go where his life is to be found? As if I had suffered that to be rumor which may be verified. We are surrounded by a rich and fertile mystery. May we not probe it, pry into it, employ ourselves about it—a little? To devote your life to the discovery of the divinity in Nature or to the eating of oysters: would they not be attended with very different results? . . .

To watch for, describe, all the divine features which I detect in Nature.

My profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature—to know his lurking places.

With the realization that his remaining life's work was to probe the "rich and fertile mystery" of nature and describe the "divine features" he discovered, Thoreau's great period of transition came to an end. Prior to that period he had written several works relating to natural history, but in each of them he was himself invariably center stage, with nature serving as a backdrop, albeit often an important one. He wrote in those earlier works of his excursions into nature, but commencing with "Walking, or the Wild" in 1851 his natural history writings were about nature itself: moonlight, seeds, autumn leaves, and of course wild fruits. Henceforth he would write a "literature which gives expression to Nature," as he put it in the 1851 lecture, and he would do so by impressing "the winds and streams into his service, to speak for him." This important shift of perspective is what he had in mind when he wrote on the title page of his 1852 draft of "Walking, or the Wild," "I regard this [lecture] as a sort of introduction to all that I may write hereafter."

Thoreau has been one of the most insufficiently understood men in American letters, partly because he was so good at what he did best. For many years the popular mind has known him as a querulous hermit who lived half his life in a cabin on the shore of a pond, and who spent the other half of his life in jail to protest injustice. Recently the popular mind has had to expand itself to include, as it were, a third half of his life: the one spent closely observing and eloquently reporting on natural phenomena—Thoreau the proto-ecologist.

The common denominator in all three of these popular perspectives on Thoreau is his writing. We read him because he is a great writer, indisputably one of America's best prose stylists. But we also read him because he has much to say on an astonishingly diverse range of topics of particular interest to many different people. A student of belles lettres might study the intricate interplay of metaphors in one of his essays, a historian might examine his attitude toward the fiery abolitionist John Brown, a philosopher might try to ascertain the basis for his insights on the reformist impulse, and a botanist might shed light on global warming by comparing his data with current data.

Thoreau would certainly have encouraged us to read Wild Fruits with an appreciation of its many dimensions—for instance, as an ecological declaration and a useful compendium of New England fruits. But he would have been most interested in our reading the work as a uniquely American scripture. On October 16, 1859, while assembling the first draft of Wild Fruits, he wrote in his journal of seeing a muskrat house on the river, an "annual phenomenon" that he said would have "an important place in my Kalendar." He continues, "There will be some reference to it, by way of parable or otherwise, in my New Testament. Surely, it is a defect in our Bible that it is not truly ours, but a Hebrew Bible. The most pertinent illustrations for us are to be drawn, not from Egypt or Babylonia, but from New England."

Although Thoreau's claim to be writing scripture in mid-nineteenth century New England may seem surprising, such an activity was in fact the natural consequence of his vocation as a transcendentalist author. Emerson had published the transcendentalist credo, Nature, in the fall of 1836 when Thoreau was just a few months short of his graduation from Harvard University. At the beginning of the book Emerson claims that "foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we through their eyes." He then articulates in the form of a question the Transcendentalist Imperative: "Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?" As though to reinforce this simple but profoundly revolutionary idea, he immediately paraphrases: "Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?" Rather than experiencing God at secondhand, in the usual fashion, by reading about Him in scriptures written long ago by unknown prophets in far-away places, a transcendentalist must behold God directly, here and now, without intermediaries of any kind. Likewise, a transcendentalist must resist the tendency to filter his or her perceptions of the natural world through one or another preconceptual lens, must strive for a wholly unmediated experience of nature.

The effect on Thoreau of reading Nature was profound and immediate. Phrases and images Emerson used in the book began appearing throughout Thoreau's college essays and continued to appear in his writings for several years. He remained something of an apprentice of Emerson's, a sort of transcendentalist poet-critic in training, until the mid 1840s, when he decided to clear a space for himself and truly settle in the world. The Walden period (1845–47) was for him a time of testing the limits of personal freedom and rethinking old assumptions. While at Walden Pond he also assessed the Transcendentalist Imperative. Was it possible, really, to practice what Emerson had preached in Nature? It is fine and well and even fairly easy to say that we should "have a poetry and philosophy of insight . . . and a religion by revelation to us," but how does one live in a manner that will generate insight and revelation? And once one enjoys "an original relation to the universe," how ought one to communicate that experience? How might a transcendentalist write scripture?

Thoreau addressed this crucial constellation of questions in the wonderful book that grew out of his experiment at Walden Pond, but indirectly, metaphorically, almost mythologically. In one of the most famous paragraphs in Walden he provides a hint of where we can locate his "true account" of life:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and . . . if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

The "next excursion" he refers to was his essay "Ktaadn," a straightforward account of a two-week trip to the wilderness of Maine taken in the fall of 1846, exactly halfway through his twenty-six month sojourn at the pond. While there he climbed Mount Ktaadn (now spelled "Katahdin"), the state's highest peak, and encountered a landscape so strange to him, so otherworldly, that he lost himself in beholding it:

I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one,—that my body might,—but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries!—Think of our life in nature,—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?

Some readers might mistake the frenzied prose of this passage for Thoreau's trauma after experiencing an alien, hostile world. But Thoreau did not write this passage extemporaneously, while reeling atop Mount Katahdin; instead, he wrote it later, while comfortably and deliberatively ensconced in his one-room house on the shore of Walden Pond. The carefully crafted prose of the "Contact!" passage reflects not emotional turmoil but the finer frenzy of Thoreau the transcendentalist prophet straining the capabilities of language to describe the "original relation to the universe" he experienced atop the mountain. This important passage is his attempt to articulate the ineffable, for Thoreau on Mount Katahdin, like Moses on Mount Sinai, had beheld God (spirit) and nature (matter) face to face.

The revelation Thoreau achieved on Mount Katahdin, a revelation he clearly believed was one of life's "essential facts," stemmed from his acute sense of the inherent strangeness, the fundamental "otherworldliness" of matter. A seemingly paradoxical sentence in Walden precisely explains his experience on the mountain: "Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations" (my emphases). The mountain taught him what he clearly believed all of nature teaches if properly perceived: that each of us is a spirit in a world of matter that we have contact with through the agency of a body. This trinity of spirit, matter, and body—and "the infinite extent" of the relations between them—comprises for Thoreau the Great Mystery that he expounds in his scriptures, including Wild Fruits.

If you would be a great prophet, history suggests that your first act should be to journey into a remote wilderness, where you must subsist for a goodly time (say, forty days and forty nights) on the fruits of the land (locusts and honey, say). While there you must achieve insights into the great mysteries of life, and then you are obliged to return to civilization and teach the import of those mysteries to others. Thoreau felt the prophetic impulse very keenly, as we have seen. But in Wild Fruits his brand of prophesy manifests itself in a unique manner: by bringing wildness out of the wilderness; or, more properly, by locating wildness within civilization, in "little oases," as he terms them in the book's "European Cranberry" section. In these holy places, these natural temples, each of us is able to implement the Transcendentalist's Imperative by learning life's great lessons ourselves, becoming our own prophet, and not having to rely on the mediated testimony of prophets from preceding generations.

When Thoreau introduced the concept of wildness in his lecture of 1851, he simply asserted that "in Wildness is the preservation of the world." But it is clear from his development of the concept in Wild Fruits that wildness preserves the world by prompting us to alter our perspective of who and where we are. Like Elizabeth Bishop's "grand, otherworldly" moose, which steps out of "the impenetrable wood / and stands there, looms, rather, / in the middle of the road," wildness can prompt us to a self-recognition that invariably results in a "sweet / Sensation of joy." If we can realize that we are mysteriously related to matter, we will act to preserve the world because human beings protect what we love or feel related to. Thus, a proper perception of wildness can lift us "out of the slime and film of our habitual life," as Thoreau suggests in the "European Cranberry" section, and enable us to "see the whole globe to be anærolite" that we can "reverence" and "make pilgrimages to. . . ." Wildness helps us to understand that heaven is in fact "under our feet as well as over our heads," as he expressed the idea in Walden. In short, wildness for Thoreau is the key to unlocking the miraculous in the commonplace. His perspective on the redemptive potential of wildness explains the enormous importance he places near the end of Wild Fruits on the need to set aside "primitive forest" and wild spaces generally "for instruction and recreation."

Despite its long period of gestation, Wild Fruits remained unfinished at Thoreau's death. I have edited the manuscript as he left it, making no effort whatever to complete what he began. Even so, the intended form and scope of Wild Fruits, as well as at least some of Thoreau's ambitions for the work, are apparent enough to inspire admiration, and perhaps even awe. We may never know his plans for the large "Kalendar" project that Wild Fruits is part of, but with the publication of this important manuscript we know enough to appreciate what Emerson meant when speaking at Thoreau's funeral of his friend's "broken task":

The scale on which his studies proceeded was so large as to require longevity, and we were the less prepared for his sudden disappearance. The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. It seems an injury that he should leave in the midst of his broken task which none else can finish, a kind of indignity to so noble a soul that he should depart out of Nature before yet he has been really shown to his peers for what he is.

Posted by permission of Bradley P. Dean

Home: Authors & Texts: Thoreau:
American Transcendentalism Web
Authors & Texts Roots & Influences Ideas & Thought Criticism
Resources Search Communication Center