In keeping with Friday’s Thoreau-and-fruit theme let us consider the watermelon. For a man who often wrote not of happiness but ecstasy, Thoreau’s contemporary image is anything but ecstatic. Some readers, or at least image-mongers, have tried to turn Thoreau into an earnest Al Gore with an Amish-style beard and unruly hair. Here is counter-evidence, supplied by Edward Waldo Emerson (Ralph Waldo’s son, 1844-1930) in his wonderful Henry Thoreau Remembered by a Young Man (1917):
“He especially loved to raise melons. I once went to a melon-party at his mother’s with various people, young and old, where his work had furnished the handsome and fragrant pink or salmon fruit on which alone we were regaled; and he, the gardener, came to help entertain the guests.”
Thoreau the gracious host will surprise some, in particular those who fail to recognize him as a great comic writer. Thoreau liked his solitude but on his terms. He was a certified crank but no dour hermit. Any man who takes pride in his watermelon crop, and happily shares the bounty with his neighbors, is a friend of mine. In a brief essay on watermelons collected in Wild Fruits (2000), Thoreau writes:
“Our diet, like that of the birds, must answer to the season. This is the season of west-looking, watery fruits. In the dog-days we come near to sustaining our lives on watermelon juice alone, like those who have fevers. I know of no more agreeable and nutritious food at this season than bread and butter and melons, and you need not be afraid of eating too much of the latter.”
In a journal entry for Aug. 27, 1859, Thoreau offers tips for judging the ripeness of watermelons. If you planted the patch and have watched it all season, the first fruit to appear will probably be the first to ripen, he suggests.
“Next the dull dead color and want of bloom are as good signs as any. Some look green and livid and have a very fog or mildew of bloom on them, like a fungus. These are as green as a leek through and through, and you’ll find yourself in a pickle if you open one. Others have a dead dark greenness, the circulations being less rapid in their cuticles and their blooming period passed, and these you may safely bet on…Of two otherwise similar, take that which yields the lowest tone when struck with your knuckles, i.e., which is hollowest. The old or ripe ones sing base; the young, tenor or falsetto.”
Thoreau advises against poking the melon or tapping on the vine to assess its ripeness. It is, he says, “suggestive of a greediness which defeats its own purpose. It is very childish.” This reminds Thoreau of the time he caught a neighbor boy sitting on one of his watermelons with a case-knife in his hand, carving away. He “instantly blowed him off” with his voice, but the kid had already started cutting the rind. Thoreau concludes:
“This melon, though it lost some of its bloom then, grew to be a remarkably large and sweet one, though it bore to the last a triangular scar of the tap which the thief had designed on it.”