Bird of Paradise Flower at Descanso Gardens, February 2020
Indigenous to South Africa, the bird of paradise flower (Strelitzia reginae) has become a welcome interloper among the flora of Southern California. I remember when I first saw one, my first response was, “How exotic!” Now I almost tend to take them for granted, they are so widespread.
It is amazing to me that mankind has succeeded in shuffling the flora around all around the earth. I was amazed to see eucalyptus trees in the Peruvian highlands. Even more amazing to me were the jacarandas in Buenos Aires, flowering as they did in November during the Southern Spring. (But then, jacarandas are native to South America.)
The same thought hit Henry David Thoreau writing in The Maine Woods. On his three trips to Maine, Thoreau is disturbed by what man had dome to the trees of Massachusetts. In the Maine of the early 19th century, that shuffling of the trees had not yet occurred. What had occurred, on the other hand, was massive logging. It was rare for Thoreau and his co-travelers not to come across old logging camps far into the interior of the state.
Joe Polis, a Penobscot Indian Who Traveled with Thoreau
One result of man’s interference is the potential loss of important species. On his third trip to Maine, Thoreau traveled with an Indian, Joe Polis, who told him that every plant was medicinal to the Penobscot Indians, and went on to demonstrate among several examples which Thoreau showed him.
After the White Man pretty much replaced the original population, we lost a great deal that they had learned over thousands of years.
Originally published after its author’s death, Henry David Thoreau’s The Maine Woods is a classic. Take, for instance, this description of a night in the woods:
About nine o’clock we reached the river, and ran our boat into a natural haven between some rocks, and drew her out on the sand. This camping-ground McCauslin had been familiar with in his lumbering days, and he now struck it unerringly in the moonlight, and we heard the sound of the rill which would supply us with cool water emptying into the lake. The first business was to make a fire, an operation which was a little delayed by the wetness of the fuel and the ground, owing to the heavy showers of the afternoon. The fire is the main comfort of the camp, whether in summer or winter, and is about as ample at one season as at another. It is as well for cheerfulness as for warmth and dryness. It forms one side of the camp; one bright side at any rate. Some were dispersed to fetch in dead trees and boughs, while Uncle George felled the birches and beeches which stood convenient, and soon we had a fire some ten feet long by three or four high, which rapidly dried the sand before it. This was calculated to burn all night. We next proceeded to pitch our tent; which operation was performed by sticking our two spike-poles into the ground in a slanting direction, about ten feet apart, for rafters, and then drawing our cotton cloth over them, and tying it down at the ends, leaving it open in front, shed-fashion. But this evening the wind carried the sparks on to the tent and burned it. So we hastily drew up the batteau [boat] just within the edge of the woods before the fire, and propping up one side three or four feet high, spread the tent on the ground to lie on; and with the corner of a blanket, or what more or less we could get to put over us, lay down with our heads and bodies under the boat, and our feet and legs on the sand toward the fire. At first we lay awake, talking of our course, and finding ourselves in so convenient a posture for studying the heavens, with the moon and stars shining in our faces, our conversation naturally turned upon astronomy, and we recounted by turns the most interesting discoveries in that science. But at length we composed ourselves seriously to sleep. It was interesting, when awakened at midnight, to watch the grotesque and fiend-like forms and motions of some one of the party, who, not being able to sleep, had got up silently to arouse the fire, and add fresh fuel, for a change; now stealthily lugging a dead tree from out the dark, and heaving it on, now stirring up the embers with his fork, or tiptoeing about to observe the stars, watched, perchance, by half the prostrate party in breathless silence; so much the more intense because they were awake, while each supposed his neighbor sound asleep. Thus aroused, I, too, brought fresh fuel to the fire, and then rambled along the sandy shore in the moonlight, hoping to meet a moose come down to drink, or else a wolf. The little rill tinkled the louder, and peopled all the wilderness for me; and the glassy smoothness of the sleeping lake, laving the shores of a new world, with the dark, fantastic rocks rising here and there from its surface, made a scene not easily described. It has left such an impression of stern, yet gentle, wildness on my memory as will not soon be effaced. Not far from midnight we were one after another awakened by rain falling on our extremities; and as each was made aware of the fact by cold or wet, he drew a long sigh and then drew up his legs, until gradually we had all sidled round from lying at right angles with the boat, till our bodies formed an acute angle with it, and were wholly protected. When next we awoke, the moon and stars were shining again, and there were signs of dawn in the east. I have been thus particular in order to convey some idea of a night in the woods.
I have just finished reading Laura Dassow Walls’s Henry David Thoreau: A Life. As I have mentioned before, I don’t usually like biographies, because if you admire the person who is the subject of them, you are devastated when he or she dies in the last chapter. Sitting in my little library, I was devastated when the American I most loved and admired succumbed to consumption at the age of forty-four.
Everyone knows a little about Thoreau, most of it wrong. When I first read the book, I was told by friends that when he moved to his cabin by the shores of Walden Pond, Thoreau “cheated.” What kind of a hermit was he when he spent a lot of time in Concord with his friends. The answer is: He was no kind of a hermit. The first chapter of Walden, or Life in the Woods is entitled “Economy,” not some eremitical mumbo-jumbo.
Long after he returned to his house in Concord, Thoreau lived an active life giving speeches, writing thousands of pages of notes on nature, fulminating against slavery (his house was a station on the Underground Railroad), and supporting John Brown and his followers even after Brown was executed for his raid on Harper’s Ferry. He had read and understood Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, even while thousands of Americans condemned it as heretical.
I love the above photograph of Thoreau, which also is on the dust jacket of Laura Walls’s biography. Look at those piercing blue eyes. The scraggly beard was to warm his neck to protect him from the ravages of consumption.
This biography is nothing less than spectacular. I was saddened to come to the end of it.
Why do I admire Thoreau so much? I can only say that he was one of the most observant people who ever lived, easily on a par with John Muir and Charles Darwin. It was Thoreau’s notion of land set aside from human occupation as “commons” which led, via Muir, to the creation of the National Park System. Also, I regard Walden as a great book in a century that included such luminaries as Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman.
Now I’m going to have to read some more Thoreau. Lucky me!
Author Laura Dassow Walls and Her Biography of Henry David Thoreau
Today I did not even set foot outside my apartment. It was a nice day, even a bit on the cool side, but I was entranced reading Laura Dassow Walls’s Henry David Thoreau: A Life.
Ever since I first read Walden, I have been entranced by Thoreau. I even liked A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which was not exactly received with open arms when it was published. Wikipedia describes him as a Naturalist and indicates his chief interests as being (in no particular order) ethics, poetry, religion, politics, biology, philosophy, and history.
In addition, he was a pencil manufacturer (the family business), handyman, surveyor, builder, and agronomist. His published works represent but a small part of his interests. Perhaps his major work consisted of his notebooks, which were voluminous. His friend Ralph Waldo Emerson promoted him and his work, but lost interest as the friendship wore off and referred to Thoreau as the ideal captain of a huckleberry party.
I am not always fond of reading biographies: As soon as I become interested in the subject, he or she dies at the end of the book. Still, I always wanted to know more about Thoreau, so I’ll have to put up with some grief when I get to that last chapter.
I’ll leave you with this great quote from Walden:
However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.
It is the opening of William Burroughs’s Nova Express:
“Listen to my last words anywhere. Listen to my last words any world. Listen all you boards syndicates and governments of the earth. And you powers behind what filth consummated in what lavatory to take what is not yours. To sell the ground from unborn feet forever—
“Don’t let them see us. Don’t tell them what we are doing—
“Are these the words of the all-powerful boards and syndicates of the earth?”
“For God’s sake don’t let that Coca-Cola thing out—”
Almost two hundred years ago, Henry David Thoreau writing in Walden saw where it would all lead, even before the first skyscraper was ever erected (or did the Tower of Babel not count?):
Men have an indistinct notion that if they keep up this activity of joint stocks and spades long enough all will at length ride somewhere, in next to no time, and for nothing; but though a crowd rushes to the depot, and the conductor shouts “All aboard!” when the smoke is blown away and the vapor condensed, it will be perceived that a few are riding, but the rest are run over,—and it will be called, and will be, “A melancholy accident.”
I saw this quote from Thoreau at the end of Joseph Wood Krutch’s The Forgotten Peninsula: A Naturalist in Baja California written in 1961. This was almost sixty years before the massive development of Los Cabos and La Paz changed the state of Baja California Sur forever.
I am slowly reading Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), which he wrote after the fact about a canoe trip with his late brother John, who got tetanus seven years earlier when he cut himself shaving. It is a leisurely book full of philosophizing, local history, and poetry. In it I ran into this description of a former Indian chief who had lived in New England in earlier times:
In these parts dwelt the famous Sachem Pasaconaway, who was seen by Gookin “at Pawtucket, when he was about one hundred and twenty years old.” He was reputed a wise man and a powwow, and restrained his people from going to war with the English. They believed “that he could make water burn, rocks move, and trees dance, and metamorphose himself into a flaming man; that in winter he could raise a green leaf out of the ashes of a dry one, and produce a living snake from the skin of a dead one, and many similar miracles.” In 1660, according to Gookin, at a great feast and dance, he made his farewell speech to his people, in which he said, that as he was not likely to see them met together again, he would leave them this word of advice, to take heed how they quarrelled with their English neighbors, for though they might do them much mischief at first, it would prove the means of their own destruction. He himself, he said, had been as much an enemy to the English at their first coming as any, and had used all his arts to destroy them, or at least to prevent their settlement, but could by no means effect it. Gookin thought that he “possibly might have such a kind of spirit upon him as was upon Balaam, who in xxiii. Numbers, 23, said ‘Surely, there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel.’ His son Wannalancet carefully followed his advice, and when Philip’s War broke out, he withdrew his followers to Penacook, now Concord in New Hampshire, from the scene of the war. On his return afterwards, he visited the minister of Chelmsford, and, as is stated in the history of that town, “wished to know whether Chelmsford had suffered much during the war; and being informed that it had not, and that God should be thanked for it, Wannalancet replied, ‘Me next.´”