The Language of Concord's Fields

John M. Dolan, Coeditor

The Thoreau Quarterly
[published 1967-1984]

You have before you a book which contains a study of Thoreau's accomplishments as a botanist and a comprehensive botanical index to the fourteen volumes of the new edition of his Journal. What Henry David Thoreau said about Climbing Fern can be said about the combination of knowledge, experience, devotion, and scholarship that produced this book: "It is rare."

But before saying anything about the author of this book or the history of its production, an obvious question must be answered. Why a botanical index to Thoreau's Journal? Wasn't Thoreau concerned with more than flowers? And isn't it a mistake in any case to think of him simply as a naturalist? Indeed, might it not be an error even to suppose him a naturalist at all? Doesn't Emerson tell us (in his celebrated funeral eulogy) that Thoreau "though very studious of natural facts ... was incurious of technical and textual science?"

A reading of Ray Angelo's "Thoreau as Botanist," the essay that opens this volume, and a glance at Angelo's index of the vast proliferation of Latin and other technical botanical terms with which Thoreau's writing abounds will disabuse you of the notion that Thoreau was "incurious of technical and textual science" and persuade you that he was indeed a botanist. Still, if he was a botanist, he was also a surveyor, a classicist, a poet, a pencil-maker, a philosopher, a writer, and yet other things, so the question remains: Why a botanical index to his Journal?

Without doubt, botanizing absorbed much of Thoreau's energies, and his fascination with the mysterious and luxuriant world of living plants made its mark on many of his most memorable passages. A botanical index to his Journal will bring the reader to many more and many more important passages than would be an index to his numerous references to surveying, say, or pencil-making, but there is more to be acknowledged here than that. The connection between Thoreau's absorption in the rich world of living plants, in particular, the plants of Concord, and his creative growth as an artist and thinker is quite intimate.

A journal entry dated 20 November 1857 suggests something of the character of this intimacy:

If a man is rich and strong anywhere, it must be on his native soil. Here I have been these forty years learning the language of these fields that I may better express myself. If I should travel to the prairies, I should much less understand them, and my past life would serve me but ill to describe them. Many a weed here stands for more life to me than the big trees of California would should I go there.

Thus it is that, at age twenty-two, Thoreau is assuring us that:

Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain. (Journal, 22 October 1839)

And nearly twenty years later, when informing us of the degree to which we must rely on our own resources, he writes:

You must prevail of your own force, as a plant springs and grows by its own vitality. (Journal, 3 April 1858)

Throughout his life, the green and powerful and inexhaustible world of living plants lent something of its mysterious life to his language and thought. In what does genuine human success consist? In Walden Thoreau tells us:

If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal, -- that is your success.

A 'fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs" is the mark of that success. And, in the same book, he asks:

Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?

In the Maine Woods, he writes:

Strange that so few ever come to the woods to see how the pine lives and grows and spires, lifting its evergreen arms to the light -- to see its perfect success, but most men are content to behold it in the shape of many broad boards brought to market, and deem that its true success!

And the celebrated sentence from that book which James Russell Lowell suppressed in the Atlantic Monthly concerns the pine tree:

It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.

One of the more splendid entries in the Journal (24 January 1856) concerns the elms:

I find that into my idea of the village has entered more of the elm than of the human being ... They look from township to township ... They battle with the tempests of a century. See what scars they bear, what limbs they lost before we were born! Yet they never adjourn; they steadily vote for their principles, and send their roots further and wider from the same centre. They die at their posts, and they leave a tough butt for the choppers to exercise themselves about, and a stump which serves for their monument. They attend no caucus, they make no compromise, they use no policy. Their one principle is growth.

And the following agricultural characterization of the writer's art strikes us as perfectly just and natural:

It is a great art in the writer to improve from day to day just that soil and fertility which he has, to harvest that crop which his life yields, whatever it may be, not be straining as if to reach apples or oranges when he yields only ground-nuts. (Journal, 9 November 1858)

It is scarcely surprising that Emerson, in his eulogy, described Thoreau as "the attorney of the indigenous plants" and chose for an emblem of his life a rare flower "which grows on the most inaccessible cliffs of the Tyrolese mountains" and whose name, Edelweisse, "signifies Noble Purity." "Thoreau," Emerson said, "seemed to me living in the hope to gather this plant, which belonged to him of right."

Enough about the special justice of a botanical index to Thoreau's Journal. We promised a word about the author of the present volume and some information about the history of its production.

Let us turn then to Ray Angelo. Thin as a rail, about six feet in height, laconic in utterance, disciplined, tenacious, jealous of his freedom, possessed of quick intelligence, as reserved and quiet as the woodlands he spends so much of his time in, Ray Angelo is an inhabitant of Concord, Massachusetts. The biographical note drawn up for him when the present volume was scheduled to appear exclusively as a special issue of the Thoreau Quarterly read as follows:

RAY ANGELO is curator of vascular plants for the New England Botanical Club and co-curator of natural history collections at Harvard's Concord Field Station (Bedford, Massachusetts). After completing three years of graduate work in theoretical physics at Brandeis University, he turned to the pursuit of natural history as an amateur. His chief interests are New England woody plants and beetles, with particular emphasis on the flora and fauna of Concord, Massachusetts. His publications include two field guides (Concord Area Trees and Concord Area Shrubs) published by Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, and a number of articles which have appeared in such journals as The Thoreau Society Bulletin, Rhodora, and The Concord Saunterer. He is now working with a Harvard botanist on an atlas of the vascular plants of New England.

Among other things, this dry summary omits any sense of the depth and intensity of Angelo's attachment to the natural world of Concord. It omits also any clue of the special discoveries he has made and the ways in which he has illuminated Thoreau's relation to Concord.

Consider one episode. It concerns the unusual fern mentioned at the outset: Climbing Fern (Lygodium palmatum). Thoreau discovered this rare plant in Concord's Ministerial swamp in the course of making a survey there on 24 November 1851. A later Journal entry (30 July 1853) describes the plant:

It is a most beautiful slender and delicate fern, twining like [a] vine about the meadow-sweet, panicled andromeda, goldenrods, etc., to the height of three feet or more, and difficult to detach from them ... Our most beautiful fern, and most suitable for wreaths or garlands. It is rare.

Thoreau revealed the location of this unusual plant to a few trusted friends, including Minot Pratt (1805-1878). For nearly seventy years, the knowledge of the exact location of this colony was preserved, but sometime after 1920 it was lost. Over the next half-century, more than one able botanist combed the Ministerial Swamp searching for Thoreau's colony of Climbing Fern, but no one found it. Richard Eaton conjectured in his A Flora of Concord that the colony had been exterminated by the dumping of rubbish.

Ray Angelo faced the problem posed by this situation with wonderful resourcefulness. What was Thoreau doing when he discovered Climbing Fern? He was making a survey. Well, reasoned Angelo, it is possible that he marked the location of the fern on the survey map he produced. Further, that survey map may be preserved in the Concord Free Public Library. Acting on this intuition, Angelo consulted the holdings of the library. The map was there! And at one point in tiny lettering it contained the name "Lygodium"! Angelo headed out to the swamp on 6 Novemeber 1978 with a photocopy of Thoreau's survey map in hand, and after diligent searching discovered the long-lost colony of Climbing Fern. Thus, he recovered something precious and taught us several lessons: about Thoreau's accuracy, about the care with which Thoreau's papers have been preserved, about the remarkable degree to which the natural world Thoreau knew in Concord has been preserved, and about the value of being "forever on the alert" and ready to use one's wits.

This, then, is the man who resolved to tackle the project of tracking down every botanical reference in the fourteen volumes of Thoreau's Journal. A vast undertaking. Quite apart from demanding a mastery of botany, a thorough knowledge of New England flora, and an exact knowledge of the shifts in common and scientific names and in species identifications over the past century and a quarter, the task requires that one pore over thousands of pages of text. For years, without any grant support or salary, without even any promise of future financial reward, without even any expectation that his work would be published, Ray Angelo devoted himself to this task. Moreover, he carried it out with such astonishing accuracy that his work calls to mind Aristotle's remark that "those who work with pleasure always work with more discernment and with greater accuracy." In an attempt to gauge Angelo's accuracy, we randomly selected 358 entries in his manuscript and were stunned to discover that the only error in all that material was a single missing pair of parentheses.

The copyediting and typesetting of the present volume were carried out by the staff of the Thoreau Quarterly. Under a happy arrangement agreed to by the editors of the Quarterly and the representatives of Peregrine Smith Books, this book is appearing simultaneously as a special issue of the Quarterly and as an added index to this new edition of Thoreau's Journal. The happy coincidence that the volume is the fifteenth in the Thoreau Quarterly's succession of annual volumes and the fifteenth in this edition confirms the felicity of the collaborative publishing venture.

Whatever your specific interests or inclinations, the fourteen volumes of Thoreau's Journal are made more valuable and accessible by the present book. This book charts and renders more clearly visible a vast pattern of life coursing through them. Whether you are a lover of literature, a student of Thoreau's work as a naturalist, an historically-minded botanist, someone searching for a striking quotation to place beneath a wildflower photograph, a student of American literature, or simply someone who loves flowers and trees and the writings of Henry David Thoreau, the present volume can be relied on to provide you with many hours of pleasure and instruction. For Thoreau's accomplishments as a pure lover of the natural world and of knowledge, a member of the tradition of the authentic devoted amateur, are here illuminated by the labor of another member of that worthy tradition.

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