Seeing Beyond the Verge of Sight:
Thoreau's Nature as Incessant Miracle

By Victor Carl Friesen

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Presented at the Symposium on Science, Spirituality, and the Environment, held at Brock University, St.Catharines, Ontario, January 21-23, 1999.

Victor Carl Friesen lives in Rosthern, Saskatchewan. He is the author of six books, including two about Thoreau, The Spirit of the Huckleberry, and The Year in a Circle, and is a contributor to the Thoreau Society's Concord Saunterer.

Ellery Channing, Thoreau's friend and sometime walking companion (and first biographer) called him a "poet-naturalist."(1) Nowadays, he is often called a philosopher-naturalist and even social critic-naturalist. (It seems we need at least a hyphenated noun to describe this multifaceted person.) Note that naturalist is the common denominator. He is a fit subject for a discussion of "Science, Spirituality, and the Environment."

[2]    I would like to provide my own hyphenated description of Thoreau (and be alliterative at the same time) and call him a saunterer-scientist, or, perhaps, scientist-saunterer, although the two parts of the description seem contradictory. Saunterer connotes someone casual, easeful, outdoorsy; scientist, someone disciplined, demanding, "laboratorical" (I seem to be coining another word here). Bearing these seeming contradictions in mind, we can the better see just what kind of naturalist Thoreau was.

[3]    But before we do that, we need to look briefly at the scientific world of Thoreau's day. In the first half of the nineteenth century, America was largely an unexplored land so that many scientists were engaged in discovering and classifying new species of plants and animals. Thoreau did a bit of this and sent his specimens to his acquaintance, Louis Agassiz, who was teaching zoology and geology at Harvard. Once, when asked what he had done on his holidays, Agassiz replied that he had got halfway across his backyard there was so much to see.(2) (Thoreau made a similar statement about himself in Walden, 1854, saying that he had "travelled a good deal in Concord" [2:4]).

[4]    Agassiz was also one to see beyond the verge of sight and could envision the larger picture. It was he who showed that continental glaciation had occurred in North America, and the largest of our glacial lakes is named for him. (It covered much of Manitoba, extended into Ontario and Saskatchewan and a few of the bordering states.)

[5]    But there were others in Thoreau's lifetime who, we gather, merely scurried about this land, attaching labels, as it were, to newly discovered species without really relating them to their environment. These people were caricatured in the fictional Dr. Obed Bat of James Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie, 1827. Bat, as his name suggests, has an intellectual blindness, never seeing the prairies for the individual plants (the forest for the trees), his labelled collections becoming an end in themselves.

[6]    As a complete human being, Thoreau wanted to see more life in scientific descriptions. He spoke of a botany text having much detail about flowers but little of the flowers' flower-like properties: "Not how good they are to wear on the bosom, or [to] smell[;] how much they are to the eye and the sentiments, or how much to the palate and the sensations" (9:252). Thus he praised Renaissance botanist John Gerard of Britain,(3) who had not only "seen and raised a plant but felt and smelled and tasted it, applying all his senses to it" (20:119).

[7]    Thoreau wanted to see the "means" of science (its accumulation of hard facts and measurements) not become its "end." Therefore he admired Isaac Newton, his end having been the discovery of universal laws. Such discovery to Thoreau was a kind of knowledge of the grand rhythm of the universe with which he wished to keep pace, his different drummer. He liked Newton's concept of himself as a rapt child wandering along the beach, picking up a pebble or a shell, while the vast ocean of truth lay undiscovered before him. Thoreau said that some of his own contemporaries might "be seen wandering along the shore of the ocean of truth, with their backs to that ocean" (17:359-60) [my italics].

[8]    So what kind of "scientist" was Thoreau himself? (4) He wrote one essay which he said was on a "purely scientific subject" (5:185) "The Succession of Forest Trees." It explains why pines spring up when an oak wood is cut down and why the process would be reversed should a stand of pines be chopped down, provided both trees are common. (Pine seedlings, being more abundant, have the advantage, but oak seedlings are better nurtured in an old pine woods because of the shade than the little pines themselves.) The work was listed in E.N. Munn's Selected Bibliography of North American Forestry as late as 1940, that is, in our own lifetime.

[9]    Thoreau also said some significant things about bird identification. His remarks are about recognizing birds at a distance by their color pattern and outlines. These he detailed in his Journal in 1853 (11:188-89) and again in 1860 (19:194), thus anticipating by some eighty years the system of identification made internationally famous by the field guides of Roger Tory Peterson.

[10]    Thoreau, however, made a better botanist than an ornithologist. He had trouble identifying some birds himself,(5) but plants he could see regularly up close. He often "visited" them half a dozen times in a space of two weeks,(6) walking four or five miles on each occasion in order to catch them at the height of bloom. He once said that if he woke up from a trance in a particular swamp, he could tell the date within two days simply by noting what plants were blooming. And at his death he left more than a thousand specimens of pressed plants to the Boston Society of Natural History.

[11]    As a scientist, too, Thoreau was an endless note-taker (his Journal is a mine of scientific data on weather patterns and changing bird populations) and a constant measurer. For instance, he marked out the side of his walking stick in inches so that he could measure some phenomenon of nature when he sauntered out each day. His doing so can be taken in two ways the scientist-saunterer contradiction again. Either he was so much a scientist that even on a stroll he had to measure things precisely, or, his measuring was merely a by-product of his essential sauntering. Take your pick.

[12]    His attempts to measure a dead moose on one of his excursions to the Maine woods (1853) is rather amusing. He had neglected to take along his walking stick, let alone a real ruler or tape, so he measured the animal's length and height with a canoe's painter or leading rope. So that the cord could be used again on the canoe, he changed the measurements to lengths and fractions of his umbrella, and on a following day obtained a ruler and converted the "umbrella" readings to feet and inches. He took all these pains, he said, "because [he] did not wish to be obliged to say merely that the moose was very large" (3:126).

[13]    Thoreau measured and recorded water depths and temperatures at various levels, pointing out the relationship to fish distribution. His work here earned him the accolade of "first American limnologist" (this in Quarterly Review of Biology, 1942).(7) He also measured tree rings, to find the peak years in rate of growth, and this information, we know, would have had ramifications for harvesting of the trees. But when an old town elm was felled, his measurements were more a kind of praise, an affectionate touch. "I have taken the measure of his grandeur," he wrote (14:130).

[14]    Thoreau would have liked, somehow, to measure the "beauty" of phenomena. He referred to government reports outlining the "uses" of birds, beneficial or harmful, by measuring the contents of bird crops to check on the value of each species to man. He termed this a concern with the "low uses." What about the "high uses," he wondered--the beauty of their plumage, the sweetness of their song (18:124).

[15]    He was really trying to add a spiritual dimension to science, a further seeing beyond the verge of sight. So let us focus on the sauntering aspect of Thoreau as scientist-saunterer. He himself, as he said in "Walking," preferred to derive the word "saunterer" from Saint-Terrer, a Holylander, a kind of pilgrim, wandering with always a sense of wonder (5:205) enjoying, in Emerson's terms, an original relation to the universe,(8) the most intense moments of which would amount to a kind of mysticism.(9)

[16]    John Macy's definition of mystic (1913) is still useful here. He listed two types: "One shrouds himself in his cloudy dreams, mistaking his murky vision for fact. The other, open-eyed and cheerful amid the sunlit world, feels himself near the heart of living things."(10) Thoreau was this second type. He wanted to inspect, yes, but also to behold the "revelations of nature," he said, being "infinitely glorious and cheering, hinting...of possibilities untold" (8:207).

[17]    This belief is similar to Wordsworth's position. In The Excursion, 1814, the poet pictured a boy holding a seashell to his ear (cf. Newton on the beach). By listening "intensely," he gained "authentic tidings of invisible things," and was "brightened with joy."(11) Thoreau, meanwhile, stated that knowledge amounts to nothing more than "an indefinite sense of the grandeur and glory of the universe," of its miraculous nature (8:168).

[18]    Thoreau described his most intense moments of seeing beyond the verge of sight in this fashion:

I had seen into paradisaic regions....Yet had I hardly a foothold there. I was only sure that I was charmed and no mistake. It is only necessary to behold thus the least fact or phenomenon, however familiar, from a point a hair's breadth aside from the habitual path or routine, to be overcome, enchanted by its beauty and significance. (14:44)
[19]    Wordsworth, again, spoke of "the meanest flower that blows" giving "Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears" ("Ode: Intimations of Immortality").(12) How different, really, is this approach from that of any scientist making a discovery, seeing some old phenomenon in a new way, the whole experience charged with revelation?

[20]    Thoreau himself discovered a species of fish new to science in Walden Pond, a striped bream. He wrote: "I can only think of precious jewels, of music, poetry, beauty, and the mystery of life" (17:359). It was his way of running down the street and shouting "Eureka!" In another instance he so closely observed a fish that, he said, he almost felt one with it another example of his seeing beyond the verge. He began to feel, in his terms, "amphibious" (7:120). I think it is significant that he did not begin to feel "piscine." That is, in his, call it, "mystic" state, he still retained his terrestrial characteristics. As a nature mystic, approaching other realms, he always kept one foot on the solid earth.

[21]    His particular nature mysticism as opposed to traditional religious mysticism, whereby a person is "wholly absorbed into the Deity Who is being something totally distinct"(13) does not so submerge identity. It is what I have elsewhere termed a super-sensuousness (14) a state in which an intense steeping in sensations, visual or otherwise, gives way to visionary perceptions. The problem with Thoreau, the scientist-saunterer-Holylander, is that the perceptions, for the most part, remained admittedly vague. He would have enjoyed punning that they were in fact "solutions," that is, "dissolved" ungraspable phantoms in the ocean of truth Newton's "ocean of truth," if you like. Catching a bit of stardust or clutching a segment of rainbow were his images in Walden (2:239). What he was left with was a feeling of having been lifted above himself (15:222), of his being more "expanded and immortal" (15:46), and of the universe becoming "living and divine" (8:471).

[22]    Thoreau's nature mysticism led invariably to an "acquaintance with the All," as he put it (15:246). In his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 1849, he spoke of a "Universal Soul" (1:131), an everlasting "Something" apprehended through the "divine germs called the senses" (1:408). "May we not see God?" he asked (1:408): God "exhibits a frosted bush today, as much as in a burning one to Moses of old" (10:443).

[23]    That Thoreau described God as "Something" suggests a rather indefinite concept of deity. But when he asked, "Is not Nature rightly read, that of which she is commonly taken to be the symbol merely?" (1:408) that is, is not nature God? he seemed to be a pantheist in (literally) sensing a spiritual presence or deity within nature (the notion of immanence). He did in one place say that he was "born to be a pantheist" but then added "if that be the name of me."(15)

[24]    Thoreau in A Week spoke also of a nature "behind" the natural world (1:409). This presence would then be something distinct and apart, a "Benefactor and Intelligence that stands over [him]," as he said in Walden (2:365) (now, the notion of transcendence). "There is suggested," he wrote, "something superior to any particle of matter, in the idea or mind which uses and arranges the particles" (17:204). Perhaps, Thoreau could rightly be termed a panentheist in entertaining a two-faceted view of God (both immanent and transcendent), but he would likely again attach the proviso "if that be the name of me."

[25]    He simply was not interested in theologizing about this deity but in experiencing him. "What is religion?" he once asked, and then answered "That which is never spoken" (17:113). Quarrelling about God was no more his propensity than quarrelling with God. When dying, he was asked if he had made his peace with God; his reply was that they had never quarrelled. When someone else asked him about the next world, he said: "One world at a time."(16) His prime concern ever was to experience nature and the spiritual presence, however manifested.

[26]    His senses told him, it seems, that deity was everywhere apparent in an otter's tracks across a snowy landscape and the snowy landscape itself. He stood in wonder before it:

Why do the vast snow plains give us pleasure, the twilight of the bent and half-buried woods?...Are we not cheered by the sight? And does not all this amount to the track of a higher life than the otter's, a life which has not gone by and left a footprint merely, but is there with its beauty, its music, its perfume, its sweetness, to exhilarate and recreate us? (12:43)
[27]    Then man has a responsibility to preserve and to use wisely this environment which surrounds him so that nature can continue to be "an incessant miracle" and thus we come to the final consideration of our conference theme. Thoreau recognized this responsibility, for he saw the relationship and interdependence of things, including man.

[28]    Edward S. Deevey in the Quarterly Review of Biology, 1942, referred to Thoreau as an ecologist, and Philip and Kathryn Whitford (Scientific Monthly, 1951) called him a pioneer in the field.(17) Certainly he was an ecologist before the word was even coined.(18) In the appendix to The Maine Woods, 1864, he listed plants in habitat groups, showing his interest in the relationship among various phenomena of nature among plants and animals and the earth and climate in which they live. His own typical approach to scientific study was to give himself over to the study of one phenomenon for a certain time and so gain knowledge of it in all its aspects. (For example, April, 1858, could be termed his frog month.) He filled his journal with data on climatic influences on annual phenomena such as bird migrations and budding; in consequence, Aldo Leopold (Ecological Monographs, 1947) gave him yet another title American "father of phenology."(19)

[29]    Some of his descriptions talk of a food chain and a struggle for survival, which he considered with a scientific objectivity. "In Nature," he wrote, "nothing is wasted. Every decayed leaf and twig is only better fitted to serve in some other department" (14:110). This he said in 1856. Then in 1859 Darwin's Origin of Species was published. Thoreau read the book and spoke favorably of it.(20) He had already said in A Week that "Nature has perfected herself by an eternity of practice" (1:340). This statement (although evolutionists would modify it to read nature is perfecting itself...), along with his concept of nature as "gardener" (8:265), appears to harmonize with Darwin's conviction concerning natural selection. (We should note that even Thoreau's acquaintance, well-respected scientist Louis Agassiz, did not accept the notion of evolution.)

[30]    So here we have Thoreau, ahead of his time in so many ways, casting his ideas in the framework of a comprehensive ecological overview. It pays, therefore, to heed what he had to say specifically on the environment, where he always sensed the unity of things. His writings contain many metaphors, which make us sense this unity. For example, he described the heavens and earth as one complete flower the earth the calyx, the skies the corolla (11:225). A plainer statement from A Week, again, is simply: "Nature is one and continuous everywhere" (1:372). Science can only agree, as in Alan Devoe's remark in This Fascinating Animal World, 1951: "The web of being is a universal seamlessness."(21)

[31]    Man, Thoreau affirmed again and again, is part of that seamlessness. And because he is a conscious, thinking part, he must do his part in maintaining it. I want to close by quoting a half dozen short passages from Thoreau regarding the environment:

If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizens As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down! - "Life Without Principle," 1854, 1863 (4:457).

What are the natural features which make a township handsome? A river, with its waterfall and meadows, a lake, a bill, a cliff or individual rocks, a forest, and ancient trees standing singly. Such things are beautiful. - Journal, January 3, 1861 (20:304)

Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest,...a common possession forever, for instruction and  recreation. - Journal, October 15, 1859 (18:387)

New Hampshire courts have lately been deciding as if it was for them to decide whether the top of Mt. Washington belonged to A or B .... But I think the top of Mt. Washington should not be-private property; it should be left unappropriated for modesty and reverence's sake, or if only to suggest that earth has higher uses than we put her to. - Journal, January 3, 1861 (20:305)

If some are prosecuted for abusing children, others deserve to be prosecuted for maltreating the face of nature committed to their care. -Journal, September 28, 1857 (16:51)

What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on? - Familiar Letters, May 20, 1860 (6:360)

[32]    And with that environmental statement, Thoreau's concern is not just local or national, but global!


1. William Ellery Channing, Thoreau: The Poet-Naturalist (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1873). - back
2. See John Compton, Ways of the Ant, with introduction by Paul Schullery (New York: Nick Lyon Books, 1988), v-vi. - back
3.Gerard's The Herball, 1597, carried descriptions of more than a thousand plant species. - back
4. See my study The Spirit of the Huckleberry, (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1984), 84-105, for additional discussion on Thoreau and science. I have freely adopted material from it for this paper. - back
5. See, however, Henry David Thoreau, Thoreau on Birds, ed. Helen Cruickshank (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964). Cruickshank is surprised that Thoreau was able to identify as many birds as he did, considering the reference books available to him. - back
6. He said he wished to know them as neighbors (15:157). - back
7. See Edward S. Deevey, Jr., "A re-examination of Thoreau's Walden," Quarterly Review of Biology, 17 (1942): 1, 8. - back
8. The expression is from Emerson's "Introduction" to his essay on Nature, 1836. See The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Centenary Ed. 12 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903), 1:3. - back
9. The Spirit of the Huckleberry provides a fuller treatment of Thoreau's mysticism in chapter 7. - back
10.  John Macy, The Spirit of American Literature (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1913), 185-86. - back
11. The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, ed. E. de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire. 5 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940-49), 5:145, Bk. 4, 11. 1137-44. - back
12. Ibid., 4:285, 11. 203-4.) - back
13. See R.C. Zaehner, Mysticism Sacred and Profane (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957), 22. - back
14. Friesen, The Spirit of the Huckleberry, 107. - back
15. The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, eds. Walter Harding and Carl Bode (New York: New York University Press, 1958), 294. - back
16. See Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), 465. - back
17. See Deevey, "A Re-examination," 8; and Philip and Kathryn Whitford, "Thoreau: Pioneer Ecologist and Conservationist," in Walter Harding, ed., Thoreau: A Century of Criticism (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1954), 192. - back
18. The term was coined by the German Darwinian Ernst Haeckel in 1866 (and originally spelled "oecology"). - back
19. See Aldo Leopold and Sara Elizabeth Jones, "A Phenological Record for Sauk and Dane Counties," Ecological  Monographs, 17 (1947): 83. Leopold wrote Sand County Almanac, 1949, long considered a classic statement of ecology. - back
20. Thoreau had previously read Darwin's account of his voyage on the Beagle, the journey which gave rise to his evolutionary beliefs. - back
21. Alan Devoe, This Fascinating Animal World, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1951), 122. - back

Copyright © 1999 Victor Carl Friesen. Used with permission.

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