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Thoreau: Environmental Revision

September 24, 2016
Andy Goldsworthy

Andy Goldsworthy

I want to highlight the argument from Lawrence Buell’s essay “Thoreau and the Natural Environment,” and in doing so, focus our attention on the writing and revision we will be doing for the first writing project. I have been making the point in our recent discussions of Walden that (as I read it) the environmental perspective within Thoreau’s text emerges with the writing; that at some basic level (closer to the bottom of the pond; at least a bit beneath the muck and slosh of opinion) Thoreau’s environmental or ecocritical agenda is writerly; that to in order to improve our environmental perspective we need to improve the way we read and write–we need to be more deliberate in our reading of how books are written. We need, in other words, to read Thoreau the writer and grasp the nature of his writing: and so irony and metonymy–I have been suggesting–are also relevant for ecological thinking.

We can add to this now Buell’s argument that the acclaimed environmental vision of Walden (and all that we now associate with Thoreau as environmental saint) is more complicated than we might think. Among the complications, Thoreau’s vision does not begin where it ends; it is revised into Walden. That Thoreau’s vision is a matter of revision. Buell suggests there are various environmental projects we might read at any given point in Walden (or in the course of Thoreau’s evolving writing life). By my accounting:

  1. pastoralism: think of the train in “Sounds”
  2. Emersonian/Romantic correspondence between nature and spirit (this one is excerpted out of the essay you read, but included in Buell’s book, The Environmental Imagination): think of the opening paragraph of “Sounds” or the sand foliage passage in “Spring”
  3. frugality/asceticism: small-scale, sustainable agriculture–throughout “Economy,” the focus on purity in “Higher Laws”
  4. natural history: Thoreau as field biologist, as early ecologist, as phenologist–observing the pond in Winter, observing Spring come in.
  5. landscape aesthetics: Thoreau as Cole or Ruskin.
  6. poetic: losing reader in his text; Thoreau the deliberate writer who means in every word he writes (Cavell)–the language focus within the sand foliage passage or all of “Reading.”
  7. political: anticipating his famous “Civil Disobedience” argument–“Economy,” his resistance to philanthropy.

Buell argues that overall Thoreau moves from a more homocentric (or anthropocentric) to a more ecocentric vision of nature in the course of his adult life; and Walden’s revisions reflect this change: thus the later sections of the book which are revised last are more ecocentric. But the notion of environmental projects (plural) reminds us that the vision is often competing and conflicting. Buell writes:

The growing empiricism of his natural history project, for instance, was partially at odds with his pastoral and correspondence projects but was both fueled and regulate by these more long-standing and more poetic interests. And second, the patchwork of convergent and dissonant motives just described, interacting with another dimension of his thought. . . produced both a certain astigmatism and a wondrous acuity of environmental vision: segmentation, disproportion, blurring of focus. One of Walden’s more frustrating charms is that it so easily loses the reader in the landscape of the text. [540]

Thus, Thoreau is not just refining his environmental vision through the craft of revision; he is also un-refining it–making it more (in his terms) extra/vagant. I associate this with the kind irony we have been considering in our reading–Thoreau wanting to speak somewhere without bounds, and worrying the fact that he is writing for bound books. And this suggests to me that environmental vision is for Thoreau an activity of ongoing revision.

As I noted in a recent post, I worked in recent years on a research/essay project that was inspired by teaching this course; the project re-examines Thoreau’s relationship with Emerson in terms of their complex interests writing about nature and, as I argue, their shared interest in the rhetorical figure of metonymy. The project was  inspired by my desire to pursue a deliberate reading of Thoreau’s wild “sand foliage” passage (hallucination?) in “Spring” and to think through the implications of what I have been calling ecological irony and organic reading. Just to let you see that I, too, am engaged in deliberate reading (trying to live up to Thoreau’s challenge), I have provided an excerpt of my reading of the passage below. [from “Ecology and Imagination: Emerson, Thoreau, and the Nature of Metonymy,”  published in Criticism (Spring 2013)].

Metonymy names for Emerson a dynamic lesson in nature’s metamorphosis, a naturalizing of mind recorded by science but also demonstrated aptly in the tropes of the writer. So far as I know, Thoreau does not refer to the name “metonymy” in his writing, unlike the specific reference to metaphor he makes in the opening of the “Sounds” chapter in Walden, where he suggests that, “we are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without metaphor.”[i]  But even that very line, which for Rochelle Johnson marks Thoreau’s ”passion for nature beyond metaphor,” speaks to a melding of the material and the imaginative, of nature and language—the amalgam of a language in things.  It could be argued, of course, that the line itself, in the very figuring of “things and events speak[ing] without metaphor,” trades in the kind of tropology it desires to move away from. I would argue, rather, that Thoreau’s “without metaphor” is not a contradictory case of using a figure to argue for a writing that would be natural and without figure; nor is it a case where the “early” Thoreau is guilty of metaphor, a remnant of Emersonian transcendentalism and its overwhelming influence contaminating what should be (for some critics) the ecological purity of Walden and the author’s attention to the literal world.  Metonymy, as I have suggested, is without metaphor, but not without figure.  With this and other references to the language of things, Thoreau has in mind, rather, metonymy’s mediation of the literal in the figural.  Metonymy speaks to the literal instead of the metaphorical senses of words, but the literal sense, of course, is still a matter of words. I agree with David Robinson’s assessment in Natural Life, that Thoreau’s empirical version of transcendentalism emerges not just in the later journals and unpublished natural history projects, but is evident earlier in Thoreau’s development of an “organic” practice of reading. For Robinson, Thoreau’s material engagement with nature proceeds not despite his attention to language and figure, but through the means of language, in various “interpretive encounters” that signal a movement between the written word and the natural world.[ii]

“There is nothing inorganic,” Thoreau claims of his words and the natural world he observes re-emerging in the phenomena of Walden’s “Spring.”  In this penultimate chapter, Thoreau describes the “hybrid product” of “sand foliage” he observes in the thawing of an exposed sandbank, moving remarkably between the excremental and the ecstatic on the way to declaring “this one hillside illustrated the principle of all the operations of Nature”:

As it flows it takes the forms of sappy leaves or vines, making heaps of pulpy sprays a foot or more in depth, and resembling, as you look down on them, the laciniated lobed and imbricated thalluses of some lichens; or you are reminded of coral, of leopards’ paws or birds’ feet, of brains or lungs or bowels, and excrements of all kinds. It is a truly grotesque vegetation….I feel as if I were nearer to the vitals of the globe, for this sandy overflow is something such a foliaceous mass as the vitals of the animal body. You find thus in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf. No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant by it. The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype…. The very globe continually transcends and translates itself, and becomes winged in its orbit.[iii]

This well-known passage is a tour de force in the analogical imagination that links Thoreau with Romantic science. Thoreau’s extensive analogy of the leaf as “prototype” recalls Goethe, clearly one source for his thinking; the ecstatic witness to transcendence might also bring to mind Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” from Nature, even with Thoreau’s more material focus.[iv] For readers concerned with the legacy of Emersonian metaphor in nature writing, however, this symbolic analogizing of nature’s poetry (“living poetry like the leaves of a tree”) indicates Thoreau’s continued struggle through the 1840s with Emersonian transcendentalism. Such readers do not take comfort in Leo Marx’s influential reading of the melting sand as “poetic figure,” as “a product of imaginative perception, of the analogy-perceiving, metaphor-making, mythopoeic power of the human mind.”  Rochelle Johnson includes Marx amongst a list of myth and symbol scholars who, she asserts, “perpetuate a tradition of inattention to the material world.”[v]

My own reading falls somewhere between Marx’s metaphor and Johnson’s materiality. The poetics of the “sand foliage,” it seems to me, remains a case where Thoreau’s metonymic imagination has been misread due to the misunderstanding of a similar metonymy, so-called but critically neglected, in Emerson’s empirical idealism.  Thoreau translates Emerson to some extent in the passage, but this translation need not be a problem for ecocriticism. Emerson, as we have seen, reads Goethe’s metamorphosis, with the leaf as prototype, as a lesson in the metonymic relation between a self-registering nature and its reporting in writing. Thoreau is translating from a shared understanding of metonymic, not metaphorical, analogy or association. The passage moves from resemblance (the “spray” of thawing sand “resembling” the “forms of sappy leaves or vines”) to remembrance (“reminded of coral, of leopards’ paws”) to relation, wherein the inward law of atoms links to the outward leaves of the earth. Like Emerson in the lecture on “Goethe” or in the lectures invoking Faraday in the materializing of mind, Thoreau observes in the thawing clay the registration of processes that relate mud to man.  But there is also prominent in this observation of the spring thaw Thoreau’s considerable interest in literal rather than metaphorical translation, a radical empiricism that extends to the very language (of “globe” and “leaf”) he uses to describe the phenomena he observes. Thoreau’s passage condenses the observer’s mind with the observation:

Internally, whether in the globe or animal body, it [“leaf”] is a moist thick lobe, a word especially applicable to the liver and lungs and the leaves of fat…. In globe, glb, the guttural g adds to the meaning the capacity of the throat. The feathers and wings of birds are still drier and thinner leaves. Thus, also, you pass from the lumpish grub in the earth to the airy and fluttering butterfly. The very globe continually transcends and translates itself, and becomes winged in its orbit.

So the figural compresses the literal.  If Emerson locates in the natural philosophy of Goethe and Faraday an analogy to give language to mind and to embody its organic destiny, Thoreau locates in language and its interior processes an analogy toward the perception and expression of the operations of nature. Both writers speak to a dynamic relation of the material and the imaginative that goes beyond metaphor by going through metonymy and its associative analogies of contexture. Man is not planetary—but neither is the globe itself.  “This is the frost coming out of the ground; this is Spring”:  the various associations and signs of spring include the language of the passage and the very title of the chapter within the book—this (page) also is  “Spring.”[vi]

I take seriously the writer’s understanding that his very language—the figure of “sand foliage,” the leaves of his book, the author’s own name—is itself organic and material, like the globe. Thoreau, we know, desires an expression that is adequate to the extravagance of the earth’s expression. I read the passage as a vivid demonstration of Thoreau’s more empirical, because more metonymic, understanding of language.  To view Thoreau’s linguistic reflections in the passage as empirical, we need to give more thought and context to the etymological science Thoreau reads and translates into the passage.  Michael West does just that in Transcendental Wordplay, locating the most direct source for Thoreau and his linguistic leavings in the Hungarian linguist Charles Kraitsir and his 1852 text Glossology: Being a Treatise on the Nature of Language and on the Language of Nature.  West indicates that Thoreau transcribed parts of Kraitsir’s  treatise from Emerson’s own copy in the early 1850s. Though Kraitsir’s etymological theories are often “elliptical contortions,” West demonstrates in Kraitsir and other linguists Thoreau knew, including Richard Trench and Walter Whiter, a “linguistic organicism” derived from Wilhelm von Humboldt and Romantic science that inspired Thoreau to “conceive of words biologically” and understand language as a living organism.[vii]

[i] Thoreau, Walden, 111.

[ii] Johnson, Passions for Nature, 183; Robinson, Natural Life, 102, 109.

[iii] Thoreau, Walden, 305-307.

[iv] Laura Walls, for example, suggests Thoreau’s “ecstatic vision” in the passage is “a Thoreauvian answer to Emerson’s transparent eyeball” with “one small note of sharp-eyed difference,” the implications of self-organization, Walls, Seeing New Worlds, 181.

[v] Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964) 264; Johnson, Passions for Nature, 230.

[vi] Thoreau, Walden, 306-306, 308.

[vii] Michael West, Transcendental Wordplay: America’s Romantic Punsters and the Search for the Language of Nature (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2000), 183, 197. James Perrin Warren also focuses on Kraitsir in arguing for Thoreau’s dynamic conception of language, “the dynamic, shifting character of figuration itself, where the figure, like the sand, ‘organizes itself,’ only to be metamorphosed into yet another figure,” Culture of Eloquence: Oratory and Reform in Antebellum America (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1999), 68.


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