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Thoreau: Deep Naturalism, Phenology, Anthropocene

September 19, 2018

If pressed, I might refer to the wild, extended passage in “Spring,” Thoreau’s ecstatic observation of the thawing sand bank in the second to last chapter in Walden, as an example of “deep naturalism.”

We will have occasion later in the course to engage more directly with “deep ecology,” an inspiration, it would seem, for this critical category of deep naturalism. In the meantime, here is a call for papers I received for the ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment) conference in 2015. You can get a feel for the range and mixture of the literary and the environmental that is of interest in contemporary environmental criticism. You might think of one or more of these topics as a way into your close reading of Walden.

CFP: Deep Naturalism 

With its roots in Romanticism and Transcendentalism, ecocriticism has only begun to consider literary naturalism as a genre preoccupied with questions of environment, materialism, and the animal. Naturalism is deeply concerned with the influence of place, space, environment, animals, and nonhuman things on social experience. Rather than framing literary naturalism within its immediate contexts in European and American literature, this panel will consider how naturalist ecologies engage with deep time and wide-ranging geopolitical relations. Possible paper topics might include naturalism’s intersections with:

–cultural geography

–deep history

–new materialisms

–agricultulture and soil management

–evolutionary theory

–ecological governance

–literary influences on later environmental writing

–food studies

–environmental injustice

–climate science

–geological phenomena

–modes of transcorporeality

–urban ecologies

–animal studies


We also began to consider the ecological observation evident in later chapters in terms of Thoreau’s interest in phenology–observing and recording the changing phenomena of the seasons. This, he tells us in “Spring,” is one of the reasons he decided to live at Walden. Thoreau in his final years kept a “Kalendar” of phenological data he drew out of his journal. For more on Thoreau’s Kalendar project, see this digital archive. Question: Does the intensely quantitative and scientific data Thoreau records conflict with the transcendental/imaginative project of deep naturalism? Or, as Thoreau suggests, do they only “seemingly conflict”?

One of the critical readings of Thoreau we turn to (by Purday) argues that we best make sense of his project as responding to what we know call the “anthropocene.” For those interested in further reading on the concept of the anthropocene, I recommend this post by Rob Nixon, “The Anthropocene: Promise and Pitfalls of an Epochal Idea.” Nixon is the author of Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, an important example of contemporary ecocriticism and its interest in environmental justice.

Thoreau: Spring and All

September 15, 2018

In the chapter “Spring,” Thoreau’s triumphant yet simple line, so far as I read it, is this one: “Walden was dead and is alive again.”

This is “Walden” as metaphor, Walden as pond and book, the symbolic Walden of “earth’s eye,” potentially anthropomorphized. Walden as a person coming back to life, as we often say we do, coming out of the darkness of winter. The symbolic and metaphorical language of awakening that is basic to the poetry of spring–and clearly important to the agenda of this book.

In this regard, to consider one example from the poetry of spring, we might hear in William Carlos Williams’s famous poem “Spring and All” an echo back to Thoreau’s chapter and the pleasure it takes in waking from the dead.

Spring and All
by William Carlos Williams
By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast-a cold wind.  Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines-

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches-

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter.  All about them
the cold, familiar wind-

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined-
It quickens:  clarity, outline of leaf
But now the stark dignity of
entrance-Still, the profound change
has come upon them:  rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken

But this is not just metaphor.

To enter Spring is to awaken from the dead of Winter. Williams, it seems to me, reminds us that the symbolic nature of Spring is not merely metaphor–but is also a material reality of life and living. And so the sentence “Walden was dead and is alive again” is symbolic, but not only in the metaphorical sense. Thoreau is thinking very materially, scientifically, ecologically, as well as poetically, about the dynamics of Spring: rooting down and waking up. In other words, Thoreau, like Williams, is thinking about, and writing with, the metonymy of Spring. The chain of associations between the living matter of Spring (all the stuff going on in the thawing sand bank for Thoreau, the rooting down for Williams) and the human life doing the observing (and writing) are figurative but no less material. Walden is matter for symbol, and for poetry, but only because it is living matter–and thus can’t be reduced to symbol for poetry. Both writers focus attention on the Spring that is not merely metaphor, dead leaves in a book, but living poetry–as Thoreau puts it. And in that sense, the environmental vision is to use the metonymy of Spring and all its gritty, material associations–the kind of stuff we might find more readily in a scientific work–to express the poetry of nature. “There is nothing inorganic,” Thoreau writes: Nature is “living poetry like the leaves of a tree.” Spring–the written and the natural phenomenon–is a hybrid product.

To my way of thinking, even though Thoreau uses a simile here (a type of metaphor), the argument is that such poetry (or pattern, to recall Berry) is entirely organic, natural. The metaphor emerges from nature, like leaves from a tree.  This is to say that the metaphor emerges originally as metonymy, as a symbolic representation or figure materially connected to what it represents. And Thoreau wants us to remember that and return to it. Walden, we remember each Spring, is not just dead metaphor but is alive, under our feet as well as over our heads.

To the extent that metonymic language tends toward the realistic and to be of relevance to nonfiction prose, particularly nonfiction interested in the art of observation, we will continue to see metonymy as we work our way into American environmental writing. My point in focusing our attention on this–and I recognize it is complicated–is to emphasize and borrow from Thoreau’s own argument: that the ways writers represent nature and try to express it, adequately and otherwise, does not mean that they are doing so only or exclusively as poets/artists or exclusively as scientists/naturalists. As we see in the sand thawing passage in “Spring,” the writer himself (his brains, his bowels) are part of the hybrid production he would portray. This is even there in what may be Thoreau’s pun at the end, in reference to Thaw as a type of Thor. Thoreau’s name was pronounced, in the local vernacular, as Thaw-reau, not as we mostly do, Tha-reau.

In “Spring” Thoreau invokes epitome, which we can think of as a literary-ecological analogy: a piece or part of a larger system (or book) that represents it. The day is an epitome of the year, Thoreau suggests. Here is the etymology of epitome. Here, then, is a hypothesis: Thoreau’s encounter of the day in Spring, the thawing of the sand in the cut of the railroad bank, is then an epitome of the year; and this encounter in this chapter is an epitome of the book (which is also presented to us as an epitome of the year; and that year as an epitome of a life). How, then, does Spring–and these encounters with the sand, and later with the decaying horse–epitomize Thoreau’s project?

Here is a passage from an early Wendell Berry essay, “The Native Hill.” Berry’s echoes with Thoreau’s interest in exploring nature’s processes firsthand while recognizing the limits of exploration and understanding suggest one way of phrasing the project:

We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it.

This raises the question: how conclude this book, this project? What’s next for Thoreau?

Thoreau and Metonymy: Small Waldens

September 12, 2018
English: The Thoreau family gravesite in Sleep...

Thoreau’s grave in Concord: the ultimate metonymy? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The following is part meditation on, part introduction to, another literary concept in Thoreau’s writing that (I want to argue) is also ecological: the rhetorical idea of metonymy–a figure of speech and thinking somewhat like metaphor, but different in crucial ways. It is also my example  for the kind of deliberate reading of  passages in Walden that you are working on for the first writing project.

In “The Pond in Winter” Thoreau observes a “parlor of the fishes” and watches a man fishing for pickerel early in the morning. The language and imagery of the passage (p. 190-91) focuses on metonymy: Thoreau observes the contiguous, material, even digestive but no less symbolic relations between the man, the activity of fishing, and the fish itself.  In fact, he argues that the fisherman is better than the naturalist because his very life (and body) has “Nature carried out in him”:

The perch swallows the grub-worm, the pickerel swallows the perch, and the fisherman swallows the pickerel; and so all the chinks in the scale of being are filled.

He goes on to refer to the fish as “Walden all over and all through: are themselves small Waldens.”  To understand why this metonymy, or this verbal and literary figuring of relation and scale and association (food chain), is important to Thoreau, we need to remember that he is interested in a Nature that is expressed “without metaphor” (the opening of “Sounds”) and is concerned about the ways that we have come to live at a distance from our symbols. That is to say, Thoreau understands that Nature is symbolic (“transcendent beauty” he sees in the fishes) but that we have lost our connection to the symbols. To see this, we can go back to an earlier chapter where Thoreau mediates on another parlor.

In “House-Warming” Thoreau gets into one of his intense riffs on language–provoking us to think about the words we use, the houses we live in, how we commonly view things. It is another version of Thoreau kicking off the dust of our ways of seeing, thinking, talking. The passage I am thinking of is where he criticizes the “parlors” in houses and how remote they have become from real talk–places of “parlaver.” This is a passage where I would argue it helps to think about some distinctions between metaphor and metonymy–since Thoreau is talking in part about symbols. So, here goes.

The case I am making for Thoreau and how he might influence our understanding of American environmental writing–both looking back on the tradition and looking ahead to what may come–goes something like this.

  • That we encounter the tension he encounters, and sometimes despairs but also celebrates in his writing: a tension between poetry and science, between the poetic and the practical, as he puts it in one of his journal entries (with the philosophic being the neutral, middle-ground); the tension between being a writer and being a scientist/naturalist.
  • That we need to recognize this encounter not simply as contradiction, but more significantly as a dynamic or (to use a favorite and relevant image from Thoreau) magnetic relation: opposites that attract. In literary terms, this would be paradox; it might also be viewed in  terms of irony. I have argued that we need to understand Thoreau in these literary terms because he engages these issues as a writer and literary artist; his approach to nature is self-consciously through the medium of language.
  • Another set of literary terms we can add to this idea of dynamic tension (of opposition that paradoxically relates, strange things that are also familiar and attractive) is metaphor/metonymy. I would suggest that Thoreau is thinking about this poetic understanding of language in the ‘parlaver’ passage in Walden (165). There, we see him not only play with language, turn meanings and roots of words over and under, as we have seen him do from the beginning–like a good poetic-naturalist would. The passage, beyond this, opens up to a recognition of how our language  has come to influence our living, an influence that lives at too great a distance and remoteness from the natural connections between nature (the world, our lives in the world) and the symbols we necessarily use to move about that world, to live in it, to keep house, as it were. And the problem, as I read Thoreau in this passage (this is my example of a close reading passage I am working on for my essay) can be associated with the difference between metaphor and metonymy.

The metonymic pole emphasizes continguity and context, relations through some sort of material association (think of the very material association of digestion that Thoreau has in view moving from worm to fish to man). This is when we represent through substitution (as all writing and language does, and one could, all thinking), but do so with a figure (word, image) that represents something else by being somehow related or connected with it. A part that represents the whole it relates to; or the reverse, the whole used to represent one of its parts. A classic metonymy for house would be: hearth–one part of the house, but used to represent the idea of a house (its center, its warmth).  I think Thoreau is getting at this with his reference to kitchen and workshop. Metonymy is often associated with these art forms: film–and specifically, the close-up in film; Cubism, prose, epic, realism. A key figure of metonymy for writing would be ‘hand’–the connection between the writing and the hand holding the pencil, touching the paper. This sense of metonymy as something that comes from the hand strikes me as particularly relevant to Thoreau, to a writer so interested in the labor of his hands.

Some etymological origins and variations for the word hearth. Noticing that the word “focus” is associated, by way of Latin and fire, we can hear Thoreau saying in this passage (and the book overall) that we need to get back the center of our homes, the fire that sustains us, the heart of our houses. And what I am suggesting is that for Thoreau such a notion–the heart/hearth of our living–is no mere metaphor, or shouldn’t be. It is a symbol whose nearness and reality we have forgotten.

What does this mean? Briefly, metaphor and metonymy are not just two types of figurative language or rhetorical devices, but rather, larger polarities for how we can use language–and some would even argue, for how we can think (since we can’t separate our language from our thinking so easily).

With the metaphoric pole (I am echoing here one of the leading theorists on this issue, the linguist Roman Jakobson), we compare or figure one thing for another thing by way of substitution and similarity. To represent and emphasize the idea of the largeness of a house, for example, we might say/write: the house is a mountain. And notice that though metaphor is about some sort of similarity, it usually works best through difference, through a comparison that is not realistic; the house is a mansion/castle seems less interesting as a metaphor, though it technically is one. Examples of kinds of art/writing that align with the metaphoric: drama, montage, surrealism, poetry, lyric, symbolism. We could return to the “manurance” passage from “The Bean-Field” chapter. The word “manurance” is metonymy–it refers to the practice of cultivating land, and terms such as manure are related to it. So, whenever Thoreau is talking about forms of decomposition, in this case organic waste, it is also metonymy for agriculture. But the same passage begins with metaphor: Thoreau wants to plant the “seeds” of truth and sincerity, not just seeds for beans. That’s a familiar metaphor, biblical even: reaping what we sow. But Thoreau takes the metaphor and further cultivates it by turning it back into something material. The actual, material practices of cultivation.

Though Thoreau uses metaphor, my argument is that Thoreau ultimately wants to ground metaphor in the metonymy of language–in language that emphasizes its connection and contiguity with the world of its use–the connection between word and world. And moreover, what we see in his concern for life that is passing at such remoteness from its symbols, is a concern for life’s language (or nature’s language, which is also language’s nature) becoming too metaphoric. Another phrase for this would be ‘dead metaphor’–language that we use and forget its origins. This is a point Emerson makes in Nature–giving an entire section to ‘language’ and his theory of its origins.

So, from Thoreau’s perspective, we have forgotten the meaning and significance of hearth and house; forgotten what parlor means (etymologically, linked to speaking, parle). To use our language and the homes we build with language more deliberately–and the larger home, we remember, is earth’s home, ecos, from Greek–means to use it more metonymically.  To that extent, this could mean that we environmental writers (at least from where Thoreau is sitting in his parlor) need to let more of the scientific perspective (if science is traditionally resistant to metaphor, it would seem to be more focused on metonymy: finding parts that can suggest larger wholes; inductive analysis) into the poetry of our writing. But just as importantly, and just as Thoreau will turn from expressing concern with poetry to concern with science, metonymy is still figurative, symbolic, human-made perceptions of nature. Going “without metaphor” doesn’t mean going beyond language into some pure, objective realm of nature. If Thoreau has metonymy in mind, as I think he does, going beyond metaphor toward metonymy means that we digest Nature by recognizing the extent of our relations within it. This makes Walden both symbolic and material, real–all over and all through us. Walden is under our feet as well as over our heads–and in our intestines.

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads” (190). I then take this line to be a key reminder in Thoreau’s project. Metaphor is above us (the potential for us to see and think abstractly) and metonymy is under our feet. And the project is to relate the two, or remember that our vision and imagination is based in what is near and next to us, even as it also soars to great distances.

For those interested in further exploration of Thoreau and metonymy, you can read my essay “Ecology and Imagination: Emerson, Thoreau, and the Nature of Metonymy” (Criticism 2013).

Further discussion on the poetics of metonymy and metaphor, see this post from my nonfiction course on The Essay.