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Faith in a Seed: The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings.

The publication of Faith in a Seed, the first new work to appear from Henry David Thoreau in over one hundred years, reaffirms his reputation as one of nineteenth-century America's preeminent field ecologists and scientific prose stylists and should direct much-needed critical attention once again toward the cultural status of nature writing at mid-century. Drawn from two of three book-length manuscripts left unpublished at Thoreau's death in 1862, this collection of natural history writings represents the culmination of "forty years of learning the language of these fields" (174). Faith in a Seed offers scholars a clear reading text of "The Dispersion of Seeds" and representative selections from "Wild Fruits," two natural history projects Thoreau began in 1860 after reading Charles Darwin's Origin of Species that bring to light a mature naturalist whose attention to environmental detail and scientific method puts to rest once and for all Emerson's lament that "young Henry" was suited for little more than being the captain of a huckleberry party.

Faith in a Seed recovers an active and practical Thoreau--one whose work as a field naturalist during the final years of his life had begun to redirect his transcendental energies toward real-world problems of excessive monoculture, poor field husbandry, and the industrialization of New England waterways. Philosophically, Thoreau's adversaries remain the "mass of men" who insist on their own "vulgar prejudice" at the expense of truth, but here prejudice takes the form of a stubborn belief in spontaneous generation and special creation. Thoreau's response is emphatic: "I do not believe a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed." Yet unlike his earlier "extravagance," his more seasoned "faith in a seed" exalts meticulous observation and scientific method. Tramping through woodlots, inspecting fox dung, and clambering high in a pitch pine, Thoreau discloses a rarely-seen network of seed dispersal whose success rests not in the work of an intrusive deity, but in nature's own incessant activity: "while the wind is conveying the seeds of pines into hardwoods and open lands, the squirrels and other animals are conveying the seeds of oaks and walnuts into the pine woods ..." (106). However, while exposing nature's system, he doesn't overlook the importance of man. From atop Concord's hills he discerns a "forest geometry" of fenced-in woodland and burned-over ground which relates "a history of cross-purposes, of steady and consistent endeavor on the part of nature, of ... blundering with a glimmering of intelligence ... on the part of the proprietor" (170). On a pitch pine forest floor, he detects "old corn hills still very distinctly in their rows ... the works of our predecessors, the Indians" (156).

In transcribing these observations into a literary text, Thoreau blends ecological succession, Darwinian natural selection, and aesthetic contemplation in a way that resists generic categorization. The beauty that Thoreau reveals in the dispersion of seeds and forest succession is neither the romantic's "visionary gleam" nor the theologian's "design." It is the beauty of indirection--of determining by the numbers of redpolls and goldfinches whether there is a good crop of birch seeds, of reckoning that a straight line of Alder corresponds to some bygone high-water mark, and that the fuller's thistle growing along the Concord river shore was "planted" by the fulling mills at Lowell, many miles upstream. Even his groundbreaking use of Darwin's theory is masterfully indirect. Unlike other commentators who framed their defense of natural selection in the received language of contemporary theology, Thoreau's proof rests in the Concord woods--provincial enough to appear unthreatening, common enough to be definitive. The forces that propel Thoreau's natural selection are goldfinches and bule jays, red squirrels and deer mice, the wind off Fairhaven Hill and the waters of the Concord and Assabet rivers. "Who could believe in the prophecies of Daniel or Miller," Thoreau asks, "while one milkweed with faith matured its seed?" (93).

Nevertheless, it is the Darwinian principle of natural selection that drives Thoreau's new, ecological view of the landscape, proving "more flexible and accommodating" than the reigning physico-theological theories of his more professional peers, and more in keeping with his own "experimental" transcendentalism. Likewise, it is Thoreau's clear acceptance of natural selection and his transformation of it from an abstract principle into a local narrative that makes Faith in a Seed an important addition to the canon of nineteenth-century American natural history writing. As "The Dispersion of Seeds" demonstrates, the power of Darwin's theory and its eventual reception rests almost entirely in a narrative presentation of the selection principle. Thoreau was abler than many of his contemporaries to see and report on the natural processes that Darwin explained in the Origin of Species precisely because he was in a better discursive position to do so. Professionals like Charles Jackson, in his Second Report on the Geology of the State of Maine (1838), admonished would-be naturalists to "Collect facts, for they are the links of the chain of reason, by which we may mount to the cause of things" (vii). But this lofty perspective was not the one proposed by Darwin, who constantly reminded himself to never say "higher" or "lower." In keeping with Darwin's ideal, Thoreau experiments with the narrative point of view implied by a passage in the Origin in which Darwin places three tablespoons full of river mud in a "breakfast cup" so that he might, three months later, harvest some 537 seedlings as proof of their water-borne dispersion. In "The Dispersion of Seeds," all of Lincoln Country becomes Thoreau's breakfast cup, providing the "near" viewpoint needed to discern that the scratch marks he finds on barberry seeds match exactly the spacing of incisors on a deer mouse skeleton he had discovered earlier. In devising this narrative of Concord's own "tangled bank," Thoreau readily admits, "I do not always state the facts exactly in the order in which they were observed, but select out of my numerous observations extended over a series of years the most important ones, and describe them in a natural order" (104). Yet this does invalidate his claim to a scientific method. Rather, selection of detail "extended over a series of years" was precisely the method that Darwin himself used to uncover a natural world whose own discursive strategy was "descent with modification."

Bradley P. Dean, the editor of Faith in a Seed, has wisely chosen to include a foreword by the biologist, Gary Paul Nabhan, and an introduction by Thoreau biographer, Robert D. Richardson, Jr., thus dramatizing the balance Thoreau himself achieved between literature and science. In addition, the volume is beautifully illustrated by Abigail Rorer, whose line drawings enhance Thoreau's descriptions of seed and sprouts and carry out his intention to include illustrations of his own, some of which also appear in the margins of this text. If is an imperfect work, it is so because its author did not live to see its several parts completed. If there remain in Faith in a Seed occasional lapses into the insouciant style of Walden and flights of Emersonian optimism that seem unbecoming in a man of forty-five, they serve by contrast to accentuate the progress this hometown naturalist had finally made toward realizing his own well-turned maxim: "If a man is rich and strong anywhere, it must be on his native soil" (174).


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Author:Round, Phil
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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