Thursday, August 13, 2009

`Perfectly Distinct to the Observant Eye'

Thoreau the man died at age 44 on May 16, 1862, but the writer had died six months earlier, on or around Nov. 3, 1861, the date of his final journal entry. He had contracted tuberculosis as early as 1835, and suffered recurrent bouts of illness for the remainder of his life. We forget this strong, vigorous man, happiest in the woods, was often very sick. In May 1861, in the company of Horace Mann Jr., he started a two-month, 3,000-mile journey to Minnesota and back to Concord, hoping to ease the ravages of the disease, but returned weaker and more seriously ill.

In the undated journal entries preceding the final one, Thoreau records the presence of a large hornets’ nest in a maple and the birth of four kittens. The latter “lay like stuffed skins of kittens in a heap, with pink feet; so flimsy and helpless they lie, yet blind, without any stiffness or ability to stand.” That’s the entire entry, and one notes the Thoreauvian tone of sympathy mingled with the clinical coolness of “stuffed skins.”

Thoreau next quotes an excerpt from the autobiography of Edward Lord Herbert, the First Baron Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), remarking on the sweetness of his breath before he smoked tobacco – no comment appended. Five paragraphs follow on the growth and behavior of the kittens. Thoreau concludes feline ear scratching is instinctive, not taught by the mother cat:

“You would say that this little creature was as perfectly protected by its instinct in its infancy as an old man can be by his wisdom.”

In the second-to-last paragraph Thoreau notes a “violent easterly storm” overnight that clears by noon: “I notice that the surface of the railroad causeway, composed of gravel, is singularly marked, as if stratified like some slate rocks, on their edges, so that I can tell within a small fraction of a degree from what quarter the rain came.”

He spends another two sentences, sounding remarkably like Sherlock Holmes, describing the impact of wind-driven rain on pebbles and gravel. Then comes the final sentence, the last 22 words of the more than 2 million in his journal:

“All this is perfectly distinct to the observant eye, and yet could easily pass unnoticed by most. Thus each wind is self-registering.”

This stands as a sort of epitaph for Thoreau the writer: “perfectly distinct to the observant eye.”

1 comment:

Ian Woolcott said...

I notice NYRB is publishing a paperback edition of the Journals later this year.