What I most admire about Thoreau’s mature descriptions of the natural world is their unself-conscious mingling of poetic and scientific precision. Typically, he observes a plant or animal, describes it closely, cites its Linnaean name, relates it to previous experiences (often encyclopedic) and is never afraid to intelligently speculate when hard knowledge is exhausted. This journal passage, from Nov. 23, 1852, is not unusual:
“Among the flowers which may be put down as lasting thus far, as I remember, in the order of their hardiness, are yarrow, tansy, these very fresh and common, cerastium [mouse-ear chickweed], autumnal dandelion, dandelion, and perhaps tall buttercup, the last four scarce. The following seen within a fortnight: a late, three-ribbed golden-rod, blue-stemmed golden-rod (these two perhaps within a week), Potentilla argentea, Aster undulates, Ranunculus repens, Bidens connate, and Shepherd’s purse. I have not looked for witch hazel nor Stellaria media [common chickweed] lately.”
This more closely resembles poetry in its precision and concision than what usually passes for prose poetry – or poetry poetry. It also resembles a biologist’s unusually well-written field notes. And how many of us during a snow-covered Thanksgiving week, at the latitude of Concord, Mass., could identify so many flowers and weeds?
We don’t customarily think of Whitman as a nature writer, and for good reason: He didn’t know much about the natural world. His habitat was urban. His ventures into fields and woods are less rigorous and informed than Thoreau’s but for that reason they have a charm Thoreau’s can only occasionally match. I’ve been rereading Specimen Days, Whitman’s 1882 prose grabbag that collects memories of youth, Civil War writings (the heart of the book), travel diaries and anything else pleasing to the chronically ill writer, whose best poetry was behind him. Specimen Days makes virtues of sloppiness, immediacy and even scientific ignorance. The over-sized edition I’m reading was published in 1971 by David R. Godine, with vintage photos (was any writer more proudly photogenic than Whitman?) and an appreciative introduction by Alfred Kazin. This is from nature notes the poet made after the Civil War:
“As I journey’d to-day in a light wagon ten or twelve miles through the country, nothing pleas’d me more, in their homely beauty and novelty (I had either never seen the little things to such advantage, or had never noticed them before) than that peculiar fruit, with its profuse clear-yellow dangles of inch-long silk or yarn, in boundless profusion spotting the dark-green cedar bushes—contrasting well with their bronze tufts—the flossy shreds covering the knobs all over, like a shock of wild hair on elfin pates. On my ramble afterward down by the creek I pluck’d one from its bush, and shall keep it. These cedar-apples last only a little while however, and soon crumble and fade.”
Whitman is probably writing about the Eastern red cedar, Juniperus virginiana. What charms me is his unmediated love of its “homely beauty,” with none of Thoreau’s taxonomic musings. Whitman seems aware that fragility intensifies beauty. In his introduction, Kazin notes that Whitman “suffers from that strange inarticulateness at times” but adds:
“Yet since Whitman, even when he nodded, was a wholly original writer, he could often, despite his strange lethargies and divagations, find the idiosyncratically right word and phrase that was his essential strength – the symbol of his wholly personal way of seeing.”