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Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition
Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition
Henry D. Thoreau
Yale University Press, 2013
480 pp., $40.00

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Science in Focus: Jeff Hardin


Walking the Walk

Thoreau and the art of seeing nature.

A key conundrum of our modern, heavily technological Western society is how to stay afloat amid a dizzying array of technical information without being crushed by it. How does one walk amid the trees of technology without missing the forest of the world that technology conveys to us at an ever-increasing pace? This question is especially pressing in the natural sciences. It is an era in which technology has spawned journals—at a seemingly exponential rate—that are dedicated purely to method. In many ways, the technologies that permit us to peer ever more deeply into the physical nature of things threaten to drown inspired science in mere technique.

What antidotes exist for this modern malady? How can a scientist in training develop sensitivities that help her to recall why she became a scientist in the first place? And, for the Christian who is a scientist, how can the sense that the practice of science ought to be an exercise in doxology not be lost?

One place to look for inspiration is back to an earlier era. The latest installment of an annotated set of volumes of the works of Transcendentalist essayist, naturalist, and political provocateur, Henry David Thoreau, is just such an opportunity. Thoreau's musings on nature come primarily through the activity of what might be called attentive walking. Make no mistake: Thoreau knows his flora and fauna down to genus and species, and easily digests technical catalogues by professionals (see especially his essay "Natural History of Massachusetts"). In this sense, Thoreau has impressive scientific acumen. Even the most serious taxonomist has to smile when he makes Carl Linnaeus into an intrepid hero. Thoreau also marvelously anticipates modern studies of ecological succession in forest communities, including the role of herbivores in seed dispersal. Thoreau even performed field experiments; in this sense he was a harbinger of modern experimental field ecology. (His "Address on the Succession of Forest Trees" should be required reading for all students in ecology in my department's PhD program!)

The real payoff for the 21st century reader, however, is in the details. Thoreau's writing is sumptuous—a luxury often not affordable in the economy of today's science writing. In this respect reading Thoreau is akin to gobbling up the spiritual comfort food of Christian author Barbara Brown Taylor or the nature poetry of Wendell Berry. Alas, the lingua franca of Thoreau's day, so full of biblical analogy, has been lost on modern readers, as has Greek mythology and Shakespeare, and it may seem a bit otherworldly to moderns that Thoreau's nature hikes are interspersed with readings from Virgil and Wordsworth. The annotations in the Yale edition are a treasure trove for those—especially Americans—whose education did not tend towards the classical.

What can a practicing scientist in the 21st century—even a "bench scientist" like me whose scientific forays are confined to a laboratory—glean from a 19th century wanderer like Thoreau? Two things are especially worthy of mention. First, for Thoreau, attentiveness to nature involves a particular way of seeing: "Wisdom does not inspect, but behold. We must look a long time before we can see." Moreover, this act of intense seeing requires attention to the smallest detail:

Nature will bear the closest inspection; she invites us to lay our eye level with the smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain. She has no interstices; every part is full of life.

Seeing for Thoreau is more about a frame of mind than about photons impinging upon the retina. He has read the latest reports on horticulture, but he is frustrated that the farmer who witnesses the miracle of growth from seed to mature plant every day fails to apprehend the wonder of the process before him. For someone like myself, immersed in the genetic dissection of cellular processes in embryos, Thoreau's attentiveness to the nature of nature is an important reminder. Thoreau rekindled in me a desire to inculcate in my own undergraduate and graduate students a sense of the profundity of creation amid the execution of their experimental protocols.

Second, for Thoreau there is a seamless fusion of technical knowledge and rapturous appreciation. His poetic musings reflect thoughtfulness, a savoring of creation that we moderns rarely take time for. Thoreau finds wildness supremely therapeutic: "In wildness is the preservation of the world," he writes in the splendid essay "Walking." Anyone who has seen the explosion of color in the fall in the Northeastern United States will surely resonate with his celebration of leaves in the essay "Autumnal Tints." I cannot help but wonder if there are ways to infuse even the most technically precise science writing with this sense of rhapsodic appreciation.

To be honest, there are other things in these essays that are endemic to the Transcendentalists, including their supreme self-confidence and even self-absorption. Thoreau's sentimentality toward nature seems to run afoul of what most of us have seen in television documentaries. For those living in a post-nuclear world, his overconfidence in the valiant goodness of science seems sadly ironic ("Science is always brave, for to know, is to know good[;] … cowardice is unscientific; for there cannot be a science of ignorance"). Nevertheless, for the patient reader who is willing to read carefully, there is great reward in these essays. Thoreau "walks the walk" of appreciation of the natural world in a way that provides Christians with pointers toward glory.

Jeff Hardin is professor and chair, Department of Zoology, and director, Biology Core Curriculum, at the University of Wisconsin.

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