Henry David Thoreau was 44 years old when he died of tuberculosis in the early spring of 1862. He had acquired a measure of notoriety in his lifetime largely for his fervent support of abolitionism and his refusal to pay taxes to support the American war of conquest against Mexico, the subject of his widely circulated pamphlet Civil Disobedience
. Closer to his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, he was known as something of an eccentric who kept a home in the woods and took long walks when the citizens of the town were at work or church.
We scarcely know Thoreau better, writes archivist and scholar Bradley Dean: we still remember him today for having spent time in jail and spinning philosophy out of the New England woods. On the strength of this lost, and now published, final manuscript of Thoreau's, Dean would have us think of him as a protoecologist, and for very good reason. In the last years of his life, Thoreau resolved to learn better the science behind nature, and in Wild Fruits he collected the lore and facts surrounding the plants around his home, observing such things as the quantity of chestnuts that local trees were producing, the myriad shapes of pine cones as they unfold, the taste of "fever bush," and the smell of sweet gale.
The unfinished manuscript, cataloging dozens of species, affords a fascinating glimpse into Thoreau's method as an amateur student of nature--a method worthy of close study and imitation. Dean adds greatly to it with his intelligent commentary, which revisits Thoreau's sources, corrects a few of his errors, and emphasizes the writer's importance to natural history and belles-lettres alike. --Gregory McNamee
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From Publishers Weekly
Thoreau's Walden (1854) is regarded both as a masterpiece of American prose and as a forerunner of modern environmentalism. Its author spent much of the 1850s learning what botany could teach him about the New England woods he chronicled. Thoreau brought that knowledge to bear on this sometimes very beautiful essay about plants, fruits and nuts, left incomplete at his death in 1862 and here printed for the first time. Thoreau's brief preface echoes the passions of Walden: "What are all the oranges imported into England to the hips and haws in her hedges?" The rest of the work is arranged fruit by fruit: we begin with elm-fruit ("most mistake the fruit before it falls for leaves, and we owe to it the first deepening of the shadows in our streets"), and proceed through several dozen entries to sassafras, skunk cabbage, strawberries, cranberries, juniper berries and, finally, "winter fruits." Though many plants' entries comprise just a few sentences, some offer plenty of room to meditate. Huckleberries prompt a 20-page essay, and pitch pine leads Thoreau to explain how "the restless pine seeds go dashing over [snow] like an Esquimaux sledge with an invisible team until, losing their wings or meeting with some insuperable obstacle, they lie down once for all, perchance to rise up pines." Though the book as a whole reads like the rough draft it is, plenty of individual essays and sentences retain Thoreau's famous confidence and attention. Editor and Thoreau scholar Dean (Faith in a Seed) appends copious notes, along with passages from Thoreau's still unpublished, unfinished The Dispersion of Seeds. Illustrations by Abigail Rorer. (Nov.)
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