Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A Matter of Perspective

The "usual view" this morning looks more golden to the camera than to the eye. I find it much more of a flat gray out there beneath these glorious clouds. The weatherfolk tell us to expect snow later this week.

This is about all of Nature I get to see lately, being housebound with an injury. Having finished reading all seven of the Harry Potter books in recent weeks, this morning I opted for a change of pace and picked up Faith in a Seed, the final—previously unpublished—works of Henry David Thoreau. The book contains his work on The Dispersion of Seeds and several of his last essays. It also expands our perspective on who Thoreau was and what he was doing in the final decade of his life.

Once the naturalist whose travels and early accounts grounded us in a philosophy of place, now he launched an intensive effort to collect data on the activities and adventures of seeds in the woods of Concord, creating a detailed calendar on the flowering and fruiting of more than two dozen species of trees. He became a scientist, though that word was not widely used at the time and is understood differently in our time. Unlike his contemporaries, who believed that plants could arise spontaneously, Thoreau wrote:

Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up
where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed.
Convince me that you have a seed there,
and I am prepared to expect wonders.

In 1860, just two years before he died, Thoreau was also introduced to the master work of Charles Darwin, which then became "an authoritative context for his observations." * He was among the first Americans to explore and appreciate its implications in the field and on his own work.

Thoreau apparently kept his perspective as a literary naturalist, even as he wrote about the details of his investigations. He shifted from poet to technical writer, naturalist to scientist. I look forward to this opportunity to develop and perhaps shift my own perspective on his work as I explore our shared interest in seed ecology.

* From the foreword by Gary Nabhan. Thoreau had previously read The Voyage of the Beagle and was familiar with the developing ideas of natural selection, but this was his first exposure to On the Origin of Species.

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