Feb 3, 2016

Faith in a Seed

by Henry David Thoreau

This volume compiles some nature writings Thoreau did late in life, which were published after his death. The book contains "The Dispersion of Seeds" and parts of manuscripts titled "Wild Fruits", "Weeds and Grasses" and "Forest Trees." It's a lovely and tedious read at the same time. Thoreau was intensely interested in plant life around Concord and made meticulous observations about how plants were naturally distributed. Most of the book details how seeds are spread by the weather and/or wild animals, the resulting patterns of growth, what types of habitat different seeds find favorable, and most interestingly, the reasons why pine woods are succeeded by oaks and oaks again by pines, if all the trees are cut down. I was surprised to read about how many years seedlings would grow up again after being cut down- eaten by rabbits, mown over, etc- some young trees he dug up and measured were spindly little things above the surface, but underground the taproot often proved to be five, seven, ten-plus years old. Tenacious things, trees. They just keep sending up new life!

While I find the subject matter pretty interesting and Thoreau's writing more accessible than I had expected (I've struggled twice to get through 'Civil Disobedience' which is the opening chapter to my volume containing 'Walden', and failed) at the same time the lists of plants and brief descriptions of how this seed is shaped, how it falls, where it falls, what percentage of it comes up in what part of the woods etc etc can get to be really dry. It has been my go-to-sleep book for a week- a week that felt really long. I'm glad I read it, I admire the work that went into it, but I'm not sure if I will deliberately read it again.

I was also pleasantly surprised at how modern-sounding Thoreau's voice is. Yet certain details distinctly reminded me that I was reading the words of a man who lived in another era. He often proclaimed things from scientific circles that have long since been proven otherwise. Was very skeptical of accounts of seeds being recovered from old sites and successfully germinated after tens or hundreds of years- discredited them entirely. And every now and then casually mentioned the numerous pigeons that fed on certain seeds or fruits. I wondered at this for a bit, then a mention of them flying off elsewhere to be shot in great numbers made me realize: he was speaking of the passenger pigeon! Which is now extinct.

Note: the book was compiled and published in 1993, Thoreau actually wrote the studies between 1856 and 1861. There are extensive notes in the back of the book describing how the writings were compiled, identifying quotations, individuals or incidents Thoreau mentioned, and making note of where his self-editing was unclear (passages he might have meant to delete or insert in different places, etc.)

Rating: 3/5       283 pages, 1993


Stefanie said...

I like Thoreau but I can see why this was a go-to-sleep book! Really interesting about the passenger pigeons!

Jeane said...

Yes. It encourages me to try Walden again, but I'll not expect to stay awake on every page!