Thoreau's early zest for science is bright and uncomplicated. Three and a half months out of college, he writes in his new journal, "How indispensable to a correct study of Nature is a perception of her true meaning. The fact will one day flower out into a truth." Thoreau's lifelong engagement with science begins early, with the positive and hopeful asserting of the connection between fact and meaning. Thoreau goes on in this entry to emphasize the difference between the "master workmen" of science and the "mere accumulators of facts. " The young Thoreau begins with an immense respect for fact, an attitude which is always notched to his account, especially when he is compared to Emerson. But he also has a long running skirmish with the idea of fact as sufficient or sole truth. Facts could mirror truths, could lead to truths, could assemble truths, could be irreducibly true as facts. But for most of his life, fact was mainly valuable to Thoreau when it led him on to greater things, to general truths about nature, to human truths, to laws or to ideas. Facts, especially scientific facts, were always indispensable to Thoreau, but they were always means and never ends in themselves. And his frank self-questioning about the nature and use of fact does not, finally, represent major doubts about the value of science. It indicates rather the depth of Thoreau's interest in science and its claims.
At the beginning of his intellectual life, Thoreau has an attitude of confident enthusiasm and openness toward science. This is not surprising, because Transcendentalism in general and Emerson in particular were keenly and approvingly interested in science. Goethe, whose ethic of self-cultivation underlies so much of Concord thought, was also active in science, challenging Newton in optics, and making a still valuable contribution to plant morphology. Kant, who is above all the intellectual founder of modem Idealism, of which transcendentalism is the American branch, devoted his major work to revitalizing modern philosophy by trying to gain for it the care for detail and the rigor which had made modem science so successful. Schelling's later development of Kantian principles results in a "naturphilosophie," a theory of nature's ultimate unity which still has currency in the search for a single basic underlying unit of matter or energy. For the German Idealists (excepting Schleiermacher) and for their American counterparts, the Transcendentalists, science had essentially replaced theology as the key to the nature of things. The Book of Nature now took precedence over the Bible as the true revelation, the true word of God. For Emerson and Thoreau both, the new interest in natural science had genuine religious urgency.
For the young Thoreau, science is heroic. His early experimental essay on "Bravery," which he drafted in 1839, has a paragraph beginning "science is always brave, for to know is to know good: doubt and danger quail before her eye....Cowardice is unscientific&emdash;for there cannot be a science of ignorance." He is interested in the qualities of the "true man of science," and concludes that he "will have a rare Indian wisdom&emdash;and will know nature better by his finer organization. He will smell, taste, see, hear, feel better than other men. The most scientific should be the healthiest man." Later, in his first important essay review for The Dial, "The Natural History of Massachusetts," (1842) Thoreau will gather up and redirect these comments to the reader, adding others in his exclamatory enthusiasm. "What an admirable training is science for the more active warfare of life!" "The Natural History of Massachusetts" is, fittingly for a review of state-sponsored scientific surveys of local "resources, characterized by such exclamations, representing science not only as simple, modern, and good, but also as a heroic battleground, a field for noble striving.
In 1845, while he is working on the first draft of what will become Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau turns again to the subject of science. His train of thought, towards the end of the "Thursday" chapter, leads from human art to nature's "more perfect art," to nature's perfect adaption of means to ends ("She supplies to the bee only so much wax as is necessary for its cell"), to the laws by which Nature operates. This last is indeed a major theme of the book as a whole. Thoreau goes on in this passage to explore the connection between these natural or scientific laws, and the moral law that should direct our lives. Thoreau argues that while natural laws, such as gravity, are "to the indifference and casual observer...mere science&emdash;to the enlightened and spiritual they are not only facts but actions&emdash;the purest morality&emdash; or modes of divine life."
This is the characteristic Idealist or Transcendental position, that the facts and laws of external nature have discoverable bearing on our moral lives, taking the word moral in its large Arnoldian sense: that is moral that teaches us how to live. Yet it is characteristic of the young Transcendental Thoreau to lay his emphasis on the scientific or fact-respecting side, on the intelligibility of the natural world, and on the disciplined gathering and observing of facts. Echoing Emerson's comment in Nature that undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable, Thoreau insists, "all nature invites to further acquaintance and abets the efforts of the honest inquirer&emdash;for by the visible form or shell truth is simply contained, not withheld."
Thoreau's respect for what William James calls "stubborn and irreduc-ible fact" is very high indeed in 1845. He insists that facts "must be learned di-rectly and personally." He praises the collector of facts as possessing "a perfect physical organization. " By comparison, the philosopher possesses a "perfect in-tellectual one. " But it is, predictably, the poet, or as we would say, the writer, who now represents for Thoreau the evenly but mysteriously balanced combination of these two. In other words, Thoreau's current respect for fact and fact collecting is so high in 1845 that he takes it as half of the mental process of the writer.
During the winter and spring of 1846-7 Thoreau is revising and expanding his manuscript of A Week. In this draft, which is the one published in 1849, the "Friday" or last chapter contains an expanded reworking of his earlier comments of science and fact. It is, in effect, a short essay, running to about five printed pages, and constituting Thoreau's most extended and in some ways his most important comments on science. His own life is beginning, but only beginning, to turn toward scientific pursuits. In February 1847, he starts the first of what are to be many statistical studies on Concord's natural phenomena. In May '47 he will be collecting specimens for the great scientist Louis Agassiz, recently arrived from Switzerland. Thoreau's most thoughtful, certainly his most method- conscious meditation on science stands on the threshold of his own serious involvement in doing science, not just reading about it.
He begins the science section of "Friday" with what is, for a moralist, a startling claim. "The eye which can appreciate the naked and absolute beauty of a scientific truth is far more rare than that which is attracted by a moral one." The comment underscores the importance science now plays in Thoreau's mature thought. He loves the clean, economical beauty of physical law or principle and the elegance of mathematical proof. He says, and it reminds one of Poe, "the most difficult and beautiful statement of any truth must at last take the mathematical form." This is not just his customary hyperbole or paradox, it is the conceptual center of his life-long interest in statistics which give us access to patterns or "laws" which are not apparent in individual cases.
Thoreau continues to pursue the connection between the natural and moral worlds. Indeed he presses the connection now, phrasing it in his best assertive style as self-evident axioms. "All the more laws are readily translated into natural philosophy...the whole body of what is now called moral or ethical truth existed in the golden age as an abstract science." He explicates this by reference to Stoic thought. "Or, if we prefer, we may say, that the laws of Nature are the purest morality." He is not now troubled by the moral problem of nature's voraciousness by nature "red in tooth and claw," which will seem to the generations after Darwin a license for predatory violence. The point of his assertion about the link between natural (or scientific) truth, and moral truth, is not to play down science, but to protest the separation of science from morals.
Similarly, Thoreau will not sepa-rate science from the person doing the science. " The fact which interests us most," Thoreau writes, "is the life of the naturalist. The purest science is still bio-graphical." Thoreau will remain interested in the personal, the biographical, the human approach to science. Like Goethe, he is concerned with how things strike us, not just how they are, apart from human observation. This is an interest in the subjective aspect of science, but it is not therefore whimsical or idiosyncratic. Strictly speaking the sky is not blue. Space is black&emdash;the blue comes from short wavelengths of light colliding with and dissipating into the atmosphere&emdash;but it is a universal and subjective experience that the sky is blue. It is a subjective truth. Geography or astronomy teach us to regard the earth and the stars as apart from us. But there is enabling power, per-haps even for the scientist, in Emerson's observation that it is our own eye that makes the horizon, or in Thoreau's con-cept that "man's eye is the true star--finder, the comet-seeker."
But even as he tracks science beck to the scientists, and recalls his earlier, Baconian belief that the "poet uses the results of science and philosophy, and generalizes their widest deductions," he goes on now to formulate his clearest understanding of the importance of method. Method is, in Thoreau's eyes, a behavioral manifestation of the rule of law so evident in, say, physics or botany or astronomy. Thoreau is interested in the process of scientific discovery, which he says, with customary and maddening coolness, "is very simple." The way it works, he explains, is that "an unwearied and systematic application of known laws to nature, causes the unknown to reveal themselves." With remarkable clear-sightedness, Thoreau the lifelong observer notes that what matters most, even in observation, is method or system. "Almost any mode of observation will be successful at last, for what is most wanted is method. Only let something be determined and fixed around which observation may rally." As he will say elsewhere, we all look at the same things, but some see more than others. How to direct attention, focus observation, find and learn to trust a fixed point against which other things may be set for comparison, these are aspects of the process of discovery that now fascinate Thoreau.
Thoreau maintains a steady, in-deed a constantly deepening interest in fact or data. Yet he can be dismayed at the prospect of the passive or mindless accumulation of data and is generally more interested in the process by which general laws emerge from facts. Thoreau's grasp of science and it's procedures during the years 1846 and 1847 is very much like Darwin's when the latter says that "science consists in grouping facts so that general laws or conclusions may be drawn from them." It is not quite so easy, of course. Thoreau is keenly aware of how "the power to perceive a law is equally rare in all ages of the world."
He goes on to make a remarkably useful distinction about just what we mean when we talk about the advance of science. "Much is said about the progress of science," he observes, adding, "I should say that the useful results of science had accumulated, but there had been no accumulation of knowledge." The reason for this, he explains, is that knowledge "is to be acquired only by a corresponding experience." It does not count as knowledge when we do not experience it ourselves." How can we know," he asks, "what we are told merely?" This central question, which occurs to anyone who finds himself obliged to accept on faith the results of a predecessor's work, has a special urgency for Thoreau. For science deals with what we know, and literature deals with what can be told. At present, Thoreau seems more inclined to trust experience than other people's accounts of experience. There is of course a limit to how much one can learn for oneself, but Thoreau's insistence on getting things at first hand will serve him both in his science and in his writing.
For he can also always see the value in the telling, the describing, of nature. It is characteristic of his way of working that, whenever he becomes interested in a subject, such as botany or zoology, he will start with current scientific work, fanning out quickly to read related books and, at the same time, reading backwards toward the beginnings of the subject, coming ultimately to the classics. Thus he will study a subject and the history of the subject simultaneously. As he does this, he thereby gains a balanced outlook which can simultaneously appreciate (in this case) the modern scientist and the ancient naturalist. "Our books of science," he says, "as they improve in accuracy, are in danger of losing the freshness and vigor and readiness to appreciate the real laws of Nature, which is a marked merit in the oft-times false theories of the ancients." He observes --and it is true of his own work in relation to our modern science-- that the older naturalists are better qualified to appreciate than to discriminate the facts. As it is true of Aristotle, Aelian, Pliny, and others, so it is still true of Thoreau that "their assertions are not without value when disproved. If they are not facts, they are suggestions for Nature herself to act upon." More interesting than mere facts are the laws which arise from observed facts, and more interesting than either is the peculiar quality of focused attention that can find the process by which those laws arise.
In retrospect, it is notable that these years from 1839 to 1842, marking Thoreau's most straightforward, least qualified admiration for science, are the years in which Thoreau least identifies his life and work with science. As he becomes more and more involved with science itself, his view of it will become correspondingly more complex. Still, his brave view of science remains essentially the same throughout the mid-1840's, as Thoreau passes through his late twenties and as he writes both drafts of A Week .
In the spring of 1847, just before his thirtieth birthday, Thoreau becomes involved in collecting local specimens for the classifying labors of Louis Agassiz, the great Harvard Professor who is still the single person most responsible for the professionalization of American science dur-ing the middle of the nineteenth century. Agassiz was an ebullient, energetic, entrepreneurial scientist who built and main-tained a network of collectors all over the globe. There is some irony in Thoreau's working as a specimen collector for Agas-siz. By Thoreau's own distinction, Agas-siz would be the "master craftsman," the person seeking laws, synthesis, and ideas, while he, Thoreau, was the mere collector or accumulator. He can hardly have thought of himself at this time as seriously engaged in science. Indeed, at the end of September 1847, when asked what his profession was, he answered by listing thirteen occupa-tions, not one of which makes any mention of science or natural history. Yet his enthu-siasm for science is as high as ever. In a long paragraph of a letter to Emerson in November 1847, Thoreau talks about the new astronomical discoveries and the powerful new telescope at Harvard. "It is true enough," he tells Emerson, in a rare burst of approval of his alma mater, "Cam-bridge college is really beginning to wake up and redeem its character and overtake the age. I see by the catalogue that they are about establishing a scientific school in connection with the university."
During the late 1840's Thoreau's general interest in science was leading him ever more deeply into science itself. He begins now to keep detailed data on such things as the height of the Concord River. He takes a minute interest in identifying species accurately. In December of 1850, he is elected a corresponding member of the new and energetic Boston Society of Natural History, and on most of his future trips to Boston he will make a stop at the Society's rooms to consult their collections or their library. In January 1851, he reads Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle, taking notes that show he is beginning to share Darwin's interests in how plants and animals are dispersed over the earth, in the relation of geology to botany and zoology, and in such marvels of adaption as the Tierra del Fuegians who sweat, naked, even when they are further from the fire than the clothed, shivering Europeans.
And the more serious Thoreau's involvement in science becomes, the more intense his questionings become. This January (1851) he notes that "Science does not embody all that men know, only what is for men of science." (It should be remembered that the word "scientist" was coined only in 1840. "Man of science" still did duty for several decades. Darwin calls himself not a scientist but "a person interested in natural history"). After noting that a woodman "can relate his facts to human life," Thoreau continues with an elaborate image that is remarkably even-handed. "The knowledge of an unlearned man is living and luxuriant like a forest, but covered with mosses and lichens and for the most part inaccessible and going to waste: the knowledge of the man of science is like timber collected in yards for public works, which still supports a green sprout here and there, but even this is liable to dry rot."
1851 was a year when Thoreau read a good deal of botany, including, of course, the history of botany. He read Bartram, Agassiz and Gould, Kalm (a disciple of Linnaeus), Cuvier (the teacher of Agassiz), Loudon (apostle of the Linnean "artificial'' system of botanical classification), Stoever (the biographer of Linnaeus) Pultenay (another Linnean) and, eventually, in Feb. 1852, Linnaeus. (Later, Thoreau will read Lindley, Alphonse de Candolle, and other defenders of the "natural" system). By comparison with these scientific writers whom he openly admired and learned from, Thoreau finds the "Annual of Scientific Discovery" a "poor dry compilation," and he complains that "one sentence of perennial poetry would make me forget, would atone for, volumes of mere science." But he perseveres past the ill-natured comment, to try to fix the source of the difference between interesting and dull science." The astronomer is as blind to the significant phenomena, or to the significance of phenomena, as the wood- sawyer who wears glasses to defend his eyes from sawdust The question is not what you look at but what you see." Darwin, Cuvier, and Linnaeus looked at the same things everyone else did, but they saw more.
This same August, 1851, he noted the changes in his own thinking that had resulted from his renewed scientific interests. "I fear," he begins, "that the character of my knowledge is from year to year becoming more distinct and scientific: that in exchange for views as wide as heaven's cope, I am being narrowed down to the field of the microscopic. I see details, not wholes nor the shadow of the whole. I count some parts and say, 'I know.'" This is not a deprecation of scientific knowledge. It is more an acknowledgment that scientific knowledge comes only at some considerable cost in other areas. And the next day sees Thoreau's enthusiasm back at its usual pitch. Now it is the language of botany which attracts him. "How copious and precise the botanical language to describe the leaves, as well as the other parts of a plant! Botany is worth studying if only for the precision of its terms --to learn the value of words and of system."
Thoreau was delighted with the language for describing leaves. The special vocabulary extends the range of one's ability to translate the natural world into language, plant by plant, leaf by leaf, and down to the smallest detail. "The situation of leaves," says Sir J.E. Smith, author of an attractive, Linnaean Grammar of Botony, "is either at the root or on the stem, or branches; alternate, scattered, opposite, crowded, whorled or tufted. Their insertion is either sessile or stalked: peltate, clasping, connate, perfoliate, sheathing, equitant, or decurrent....The margin of leaves or leaflets is either entire, wavy, serrated, jagged, toothed, or notched, in a simple or compound manner; naked, fringed, spinous, cartilaginous, glandular; flat, revolute (rolled backward) or involute (the reverse)....Their surface is smooth, naked, glaucous, downy, hairy, wooly, warty, glandular, or prickly; even, rugged, or blistery; veiny, ribbed, or veinless; coloured, variegated, opaque or polished....some leaves are fleshy, cylindrical, semi-cylindrical, awlshaped, tumid, channeled, keeled, two-edged, hatchet-shaped, solid or hollow....others are membranous, leathery, rigid or almost woody....With respect to division, simple leaves are either cloven, lobed, sinuated, deeply divided, laciniated, or cut; palmate, pinnatifid, pectinate, unequal (as in Begonia) lyrate, runcinate, fiddle- shaped, hastate, arrow-shaped.
As Emerson notes in "The Poet", there is a liberating exhilaration when "the world is thus put under the mind for verb and noun." The power of precision to specify was not lost on Thoreau. He noted that Linnaeus thought that precise and adequate terms "have preserved anatomy, mathematics and chemistry from idiots, but the want of them has ruined medicine." Though he will later come to articulate a similar view of the function of scientific language, Thoreau now sees it as a great enriching of verbal expressiveness. Speaking about the writing of earlier naturalists, he writes, "Evelyn and others wrote when the language was in a tender nascent state and could be moulded to express the shades of meaning; when sesquipedalian words, long since cut and apparently dried and drawn to mill&emdash;not yet to the dictionary lumber yard, put forth a fringe of green sprouts here and there along in the angles of their rugged bank, their very bulk insuring some sap remaining; some florid suckers they sustain at least; which words, split into shingles and laths, will supply poets for ages to come."
1852 is a peak year for Thoreau. He is reading deeply in modern science and old naturalists (during an era in which this modem clarity of distinction is only dimly emerging). He has discovered William Gilpin and the power of the picturesque to educate the outdoor eye. He is working on the fifth revision of Walden, a major creative reshaping, and his journal is at its richest and fullest. His mood is up. He exults in the world. "This is my year of observation," he writes.
In his botanical reading, he is caught up in the controversy between the natural and artificial systems of botanical classification. The artificial system was championed by Linnaeus; the natural by, among others, John Lindley. Over time, as he compared the systems, Thoreau came to prefer the natural, which is particularly worth noting because Darwin later said, in The Origin of Species, in a reference to his view that speciation is the result of "descent with modification," "I believe this element of descent is the hidden bond of connexion which naturalists have sought under the terms of the natural system."
Thoreau in the early 1850's is naturally drawn to science, but he voices hesitancies. "The actual bee hunter and pigeon catcher is familiar with facts in the natural history of bees and pigeons which Huber and even Audubon are totally ignorant of. I love the unscientific man's knowledge; there is so much more humanity in it. In a journal entry for June 30, 1852, he goes much further. "Nature must be viewed humanly to be viewed at all; that is her scenes must be associated with human affections, such as are associated with one's native place, for instance. She is most significant to a lover. A lover of Nature is preeminently a lover of man. If I have no friend, what is Nature to me? She ceases to be morally significant." There would seem to be an unbridgeable gap between this way of viewing nature and the scientific approach, as we understand the latter now.
Thoreau articulates both approaches, the moral and the scientific, and it would be a mistake to regard this last cited comment, and others like it, as reflecting a growing hostility to science. The problem is that Thoreau has, near the center of his thought, a strongly held idealist position. Idealism held, in Schelling's fine summary, that nature is externalized spirit (read "mind") and spirit is internalized nature. A. N. Whitehead observes, in Science and the Modern World, that idealism "has conspicuously failed to connect, in any organic fashion, the fact of nature with their idealist philosophies." This conflict was particularly severe for Thoreau during 1852 and 1853. Just after his birthday in July of 1852 he wrote to his sister Sophia a listless dispirited letter in which he complains "I am not on the trail of any elephants or mastodons, but have succeeded in trapping only a few ridiculous mice, which cannot feed my imagination. I have become sadly scientific."
We should not put too much weight on that word "sadly," because it is contradicted by the fact, noted by every reader of Thoreau's Journal, that Thoreau becomes increasingly interested in science as time goes on, talking pleasure in exactness and precision. His attitude toward science is now quite complex, indeed two-sided, because he is, from this time in his life onward, both a person interested in science and scientific methods, interested in knowing nature, and a writer or artist whose main aim is to express, describe or tell nature. The two aims are, strictly speaking, incompatible. That is, they cannot be exercised on the same material at the same time. The incompatibility of these views is an affront to the orderly mind, and Thoreau acknowledges the dilemma fully in a journal entry on March 5, 1853, in which he discusses a questionnaire he was asked to fill out for the Association for the Advancement of Science. The key question had to do with "what branch of science I was specially interested in." His reflections on this deserve quotation in full.
"Now, though I could state to a select few that department of human inquiry which engages me, and should be rejoiced at an opportunity to do so, I felt that it would be to make myself the laughing stock of the science community to describe or attempt to describe to them that branch of science, which specially interests me, in as much as they do not believe in a science which deals with the higher law. So I was obliged to speak to their condition and describe to them that poor part of me which alone they can understand. The fact is, I am a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot. Now I think of it, I should have told them at once that I was a transcendentalist....How absurd that though I probably stand as near to nature as any of them, and am by constitution as good an observer as most, yet a true account of my relation to nature should excite their ridicule only."
If we discount the slightly forced tone of disdain, Thoreau can be seen wanting it both ways. His transcendental aims are different (he suggests they are better) than those of science, but Thoreau is the first to poke fun at the opposite mentality, the overly transcendental approach, at the poor philosopher "grown insane with too large views," or the sublimo-slipshod style of his walking friend Channing who was a careless observer and almost completely impervious to fact.
It had been Thoreau's early hope that the results of science would give the writer new material, that the facts so basic to science would also be illuminating to the poet. In "The Natural History of Massachusetts," and in his journal and letters down through the late 1840's, Thoreau seems to assume than transcendentalism and science will both serve the writer. But, increasingly in his notes for the early 1850's, Thoreau writes as though scientific methods and aims were antithetical to and subversive of literary aims. Where he once rejoiced at the gain of descriptive power from the use of scientific language, he now complains that "one studies books of science merely to learn the language of the naturalists, to be able to communicate with them." Here Thoreau seems to agree with Linnaeus' view that technical scientific language serves to keep out the uninitiated. Further, when Thoreau now writes about expression, he does not talk about expressing what the scientist had found. He no longer assumes that the writer draws equally on fact gathering and generalizing. He now thinks that the kind of writing he is interested in and the kind of work he understands as science are fundamentally opposed.
In an oft-quoted passage, Thoreau writes on May 10, l853, "He is the richest who has most use for nature as raw material of tropes and symbols with which to describe his life. If these gates of golden willows affect me, they correspond to the beauty end promise of some experience on which I am entering. If I am overflowing with life, am rich in experience for which I
lack expression, then nature will be my language full of poetry --all nature will fable, and every natural phenomenon be a myth." By ominous contrast, nature now yields the scientist something quite different. Thoreau goes on to insist that "the man of science, who is not seeking for expression, but for a fact to be expressed merely, studies nature as a dead language." To some extent, Thoreau is reacting to the immense bustle of fact and specimen-gathering touched off by Agassiz, and perhaps to Aggasiz's own swelling self-importance and relentless promotion of science, self, and fact. To some extent Thoreau's unhappiness with science is a displaced impatience with himself. But beyond all that can be said in extenuation, the above passage and others like it point to Thoreau's growing and unsettling awareness that the science to which he was so drawn was antithetical to the writer-transcendentalist-naturalist for whom nature is the raw material of expres-sion. "I pray," he concludes, "for such inward experience as will make nature significant."
From this time until his death ten years later, Thoreau never gave up looking for a way to resolve this dilemma, to combine the respect for fact of the scientist with the idealist conviction that there are important, indeed determining connections between inner and outer, between the human spirit and the phenomena of the world. But now, during 1852 and 1853, in the white heat of a major reshaping of Walden Thoreau records some of his sharpest, if not his best-reasoned criticisms of science. "I think that the man of science makes this mistake," Thoreau writes, "and the mass of mankind along with him: that you should cooly give your chief attention to the phenomenon which excites you as something independent of you, and not as it is related to you. The important fact is its effect on me." This is hardly a fair criticism, faulting science for what science doesn't try to do, But it does describe the writer's approach to the same material. Thoreau goes on, "He (the scientist) thinks I have no business to see anything else but just what he defines the rainbow to be, but I care not whether my vision of truth is a waking thought or a dream remembered, whether it is seen in the light or in the dark. It is the subject of my vision, the truth alone, that concerns me." And trying now to fix the focal point with scientific precision, Thoreau concludes "with regard to such objects, I find that it is not they in themselves (with which men of science deal) that concern me: the point of interest in somewhere between me and them (i.e. the objects)."
As his journals are filled increasingly with precise botanical nomenclature, Thoreau also comes increasingly to see what such language does not do. "Our scientific names convey a very partial information only: they suggest certain thought only," he writes in 1858. "It does not occur to me that there are other names for most of these objects, given by a people who stood between me and them, who have better senses than our race. How little I know of that arbor vitae when I have learned only what science can tell me! It is but a word. It is not a tree of life. But there are twenty words for the tree and its different parts which the Indians gave, which are not in our botanies, which imply a more practical and vital science. He used it every day. He was well-acquainted with its wood, and its bark and its leaves. No science does more than arrange what knowledge we have of any class of objects."
Thoreau is no longer looking for the bravery of science, or scientist, no longer open to the scientist's new methods, new languages, and new discoveries. Instead he asserts that scientific language actually gets in the way of our understanding how the world relates to us. Thoreau here has pushed his characteristic fondness for paradox too far. Whatever one may say of the Native American, he did not have a more "practical and vital science" than the European. Not even Thoreau's intimidating way with exaggeration and extravagance can carry that off. Even his closing generalization about science is a serious underestimate, though perhaps partly it is a reaction against an age then so obsessed with "mere" fact gathering that the Scientific American could say, in 1852, "Science is but a collection of well-arranged facts." (Bruce, p.68)
Even these occasional, quotable denigrations of science, untenable or excessive as they appear to us, are the cavils of a man whose own enterprise was becoming ever more scientific, as he himself was well aware. In 1856, two years after the publication of Walden, he spots a plant on May 21, noting, " I am still in doubt whether it is a stellaria or cerostum. This is quite smooth, four to five inches high, spreading and forking, with a single flower on each fork, on a long peduncle: square stemmed, oblong-lanceolate leaves, slightly ciliate and connate...." and on the same day he writes a letter to decline a lecture, saying "what I have is either too scattered or loosely arranged, or too light, or else is too scientific and matter of fact," and he added, "I run a good deal into that of late."
In the late 1850's, Thoreau's scientific interests were still growing actively. He fills entire notebooks with natural history extracts and notes; in l859 he is appointed a member of the Harvard Visiting Committee in Natural History, charged with the annual evaluation of the college curriculum. Even if the Committee was largely a pro forma affair (though there is lively evidence that some of the visiting committees were active and influential groups who forced changes) Thoreau's presence on the committee suggests that he was by now considered a member of the science establishment. The committee in-cludes six doctors, and such notables as Samuel Calbot (who befriended Edward
Desor, who broke with Agassiz after 1848), Theodore Lyman (a former student of Agas-siz's who raised money for him), James Eliot Cabot (who worked with Agassiz, corresponded with Thoreau, and later wrote a life of Emerson), and Augustus Gould, who co-authored with Aggasiz an impor-tant text called Principles of Zoology.
1859 was an active year for science in Boston and Cambridge, and Thoreau was taking an active part in it. It was the year in which Aggasiz's new museum of Comparative Zoology opened, with considerable fanfare and a grant from the Massachusetts legislature. The Natural History department of the College, over which Thoreau was supposed to watch, was, on the other hand, under the direction of Asa Gray, the major American ally of Darwin's soon-to-come struggle with Agassiz over evolution. There is no direct proof that Thoreau was deeply involved in the work of the Visiting Committee, but we should remember that Thoreau undertook nothing pro-forma, and that he allowed himself to be re-appointed the following year. It may also not be entirely a coincidence that Gray was teaching a course in Vegetable Physiology to the sophomores and a course in Geographical and Systematic Botany to the juniors while Thoreau's reading for these years includes a great deal in these exact areas.
On January 1, 1860, Charles Brace, a New York social worker and general intellectual, arrived in Concord with a copy of Darwin's Origin of Species, which he had picked up from Asa Gray. The book had only been out for a month, and Brace, Sanborn, Alcott and Thoreau had dinner and discussed the book., which Thoreau soon got hold of, read, and made notes from. (By contrast, John Torrey, a professional botanist and colleague of Gray's waited for more than three years to get around to reading Darwin.) As has been noted by several writers, Thoreau quickly picked up several of Darwin's main ideas, and these play an important part in Thoreau's late unpublished work. Thoreau even came, by himself, to accept Darwin's "developmental" hypothesis over Agassiz's theory of "special creation." It is difficult to escape the conclusion that by 1860, Thoreau had become the very "man of science" he had at first so admired, then later had so many doubts about. Though he might continue to say that such essays as "Autumnal Tints" were "not scientific," he no longer says it with hostility. Quite the contrary: when he delivers a talk on "The Succession of Forest Trees," in 1860, he describes it frankly at the outset as "a purely scientific subject."
It would be rash to assert that Thoreau ever fully reconciled his interests in science and transcendentalism. For one thing, the manuscript materials needed for a full assessment of Thoreau's late papers have never been published and have been only recently transcribed. Thoreau's Natural History Extract Notebook, and his two long manuscripts on "Wild Fruits" and "The Dispersion of Seeds" are not only not published, they are in such rough state as manuscripts that they have so far defeated all efforts to understand them. Only in the last decade have a few essays and chapters appeared concerning the late work, but even these must be considered as tentative and exploratory. There is, then, a mass of unarranged, undigested manuscript, incorporating much of Thoreau's energies after Walden, and bearing directly on his involvement in science, that has never been taken adequately into account.
Yet a few points about the late papers seem clear enough to emphasize. The "Dispersion of Seeds" and the "Wild Fruits" and the hundreds of meticulous charts Thoreau assembled to plot annual occurrences of many hundreds of separate natural phenomena over ten years --these projects are the work of an energetic, disciplined, scientific mind. In a letter written on March 21, 1862, when Thoreau knows he is dying, he writes, "I have not been engaged in any particular work of Botany or the like, though, if I were to live, I would have much to report of Natural History generally." For all his interest in and sympathy with Darwin's work, Thoreau's own late work shows no real interest in the problem of speciation, which is the problem at the heart of The Origin of Species. Thoreau is much more interested in how plants are dispersed, how one kind of plant succeeds another, and in applying this knowledge to Forest management. Thoreau's "The Succession of Forest Trees" is rightly considered an early founding text of modern technical ecology.
At the end of the first chapter of Walden, Thoreau cites the Persian poet Saadi saying "they call none azad, or free, excepting the cypress, which bears no fruit. " As the central issue of Walden is personal liberation, so the central issue in the late work is interconnectedness. The manu-script of "The Dispersion of Seeds" begins by citing the cypress again. But this time it is the Roman writer Pliny whom Thoreau quotes approvingly, saying chat such trees as the cypress which bear no fruit are considered unlucky or unhappy.
As Thoreau moves from the economy of individual freedom to the detailed study of the New England field and forest, his methods become more and more those of the scientist. And perhaps the late projects would have tried, once again, to bridge the chasm between scientist and transcendentalist, for Thoreau's methods paid attention to observation and detail, while his aim was nothing less than comprehensive: to describe the natural world, in a typical cross-section