Monday, August 08, 2011

`Push Out with the Skunk-Cabbage in the Spring'

In May 1850, Thoreau pens an early paean to multicultural open-mindedness:

“I pray to be delivered from narrowness, partiality, exaggeration, bigotry. To the philosopher all sects, all nations, are alike. I like Brahma, Hari, Buddha, the Great Spirit, as well as God.” 

Fortunately, Thoreau confines this thought to his journal, and ninety-six years later J.V. Cunningham neatly refutes it with an epigram: 

“This Humanist whom no belief constrained
Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained.” 

What follows in Thoreau’s journal is more interesting. There’s a gap, noted by the journal’s editors as “[Part of leaf missing here.],” followed by this: 

“A page with as true and inevitable and deep a meaning as a hillside, a book which Nature shall own as her own flower, her own leaves; with whose leaves her own shall rustle in sympathy imperishable and russet; which shall push out with the skunk-cabbage in the spring. I am not offended by the odor of the skunk in passing by sacred places. I am invigorated rather. It is a reminiscence of immortality borne on the gale. O thou partial world, when wilt thou know God? I would as soon transplant this vegetable to Polynesia or to heaven with me as the violet.” 

We don’t know what preceded this entry, but Thoreau’s journal, especially in its early years, is a gathering of sparks, hot and briefly illuminating like those struck by steel off flint. Only later and haltingly did he consistently catch fire. The skunk-cabbage passage reads like another of Thoreau’s writerly pep talks to himself. A year earlier he had published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which one hundred sixty-two years later remains unjustly unread. The publication of Walden was four years away; his death, at age forty-four, twelve years. 

Leave it to Thoreau to liken literary worth to the stink of skunk cabbage. He probably liked its Latin name: Symplocarpus foetidus. Because of a biochemical adaptation called thermogenesis, skunk cabbage generates heat sufficient to melt snow. I’ve seen it thriving and green in February in upstate New York. Of course Thoreau was invigorated by the smell. Skunk cabbage might stand as his emblem – scorned, cantankerous, tough and beautiful, a plant that grows downward with age, deeper into its native soil, growing more rooted. He calls for a literature as fierce and inevitable as the natural world, a literature true to the American landscape, and he was creating it, as was Melville. Only rarely since then have American writers heeded their example (Edward Dahlberg comes to mind). 

The subsequent passage in Thoreau’s journal begins with a familiar, Huckleberry Finn-like complaint: 

Shoes are commonly too narrow. If you should take off a gentleman's shoes, you would find that his foot was wider than his shoe. Think of his wearing such an engine! walking in it many miles year after year!” 

Resuming his earlier botanical theme, Thoreau concludes:  

“When your shoe chafes your feet, put in a mullein leaf.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

“It is better to be narrow-minded than to have no mind, to hold limited and rigid principles than none at all.

That is the danger which faces so many people today – to have no considered opinions on any subject, to put up with what is wasteful and harmful with the excuse that there is ‘good in everything’ – which in most cases means an inability to distinguish between good and bad.

There are still things worth fighting against.”

-- Evelyn Waugh