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Fresh words from a different drummer

The publication of a new text by a major 19th-century American author is an important literary event, and the appearance of "Wild Fruits" some 137 years after Thoreau's passing is such an occurrence.

Edited by Bradley Dean of the Thoreau Institute from the original manuscripts at the New York Public Library, these pages are a treasure-trove for Thoreau scholars and an interesting text for general readers, too. It is a part of the natural history studies that Thoreau devoted much of the end of his life to advancing.

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As Dean explains, the difficulties of Thoreau's late handwriting, as well as the mass of material, much shuffled and disordered, has discouraged previous publication. Dean has included an introduction and about 90 pages of helpful notes.

The text basically derives from Thoreau's studies of wild plants in the Concord, Mass., area, gleaned through years of almost daily walks across country, through swamps, and along rivers.

His notations range from extensive essays to minuscule notes, such as when he tells us "goldenrods fuzzy October twenty-first. Almost all were fuzzy about October 10, 1860."

More important, of course, are his essays, such as that on wild apples, a fit addition to his famous essay on the subject, as well as one on strawberries, another on huckleberries and blueberries, and extensive commentary on cranberries and currants. Also included are a few pages on the desirability of setting aside wild lands in each town, using the example of Boxboro, Mass., for the advisability of this practice.

For anyone familiar with Thoreau, his side comments in this text often contain the heart of his material. In writing of wild apples, he notes, "Nevertheless, our wild apple is wild only like myself, perchance, who belong not to the aboriginal race here, but have strayed into the woods from the cultivated stock. Wilder still, as I have said, there grows elsewhere in this country a native and aboriginal crab apple, 'whose nature has not yet been modified by cultivation.' "

Also writing about apples, he inserts a note of Thoreauvian wit, saying, "Apples, these I mean, unspeakably fair - apples not of Discord but of Concord! Yet not so rare but that the homeliest may have a share." Thoreau also admired pears, writing, "They have an unexpectedly luscious flavor ... and are like thrushes, which conceal a sweet voice under a dull exterior."

Thoreau is known for growing melons at his home in Concord, and holding a melon party for his neighbors when they got ripe. He also grew pumpkins, as he notes in the book: "In the spring of 1857 I planted six seeds sent from the Patent Office and labelled, I think, Potiron Jaune Grosse - Large Yellow Pumpkin (or Squash). Two came up, and one has become a pumpkin which weighed 123-1/2 pounds. The other bore four weighing together 186-1/4 pounds. Who could have believed that there were 310 pounds of Potiron Jaune Grosse in that corner of my garden! These seeds were the bait I used to catch it, my ferrets which I sent into its burrow, my brace of terriers which unearthed it. A little mysterious hoeing and manuring was all the Abracadabra-presto-change that I used, and lo! true to the label, they found for me 310 pounds of Potiron Jaune Grosse there, where it never was known to be nor was before."

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Such delights are set off by factual passages about wild fruits that have a more limited interest, but nonetheless, the whole text is well worth any nature lover's attention.

* Paul O. Williams is a past president of the Thoreau Society.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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