Tuesday, August 27, 2013

`Blazing with There-ness'

Sometimes, though not often enough for one so gifted, Thoreau gets it just right, as in this passage from his journal on this date, Aug. 27, in 1853: 

“Topping corn now reveals the yellowing pumpkins. Dangle-berries very large in shady copses now; seem to love wet weather; have lost their bloom. Aster undulatus. The decurrent gnaphalium has not long shown yellow. Perhaps I made it blossom a little too early. September is at hand; the first month (after the summer heat) with a burr to it, month of early frosts; but December will be tenfold rougher. January relents for a season at the time of its thaw, and hence that liquid r in its name.” 

“Dangle-berry” is the folk name for Gaylussacia, a genus of flowering plants in the family Ericaceae. The following Latin name refers to the wavy-leaved aster. Its appearance heralds autumn in late summer, and in the Northeast you can see it still blooming as the snow falls. “Decurrent” is a botanical term for leaves extending downward along the stem. Gnaphalium is a genus of flowers in the daisy family. In Concord, it would have been known as the dwarf huckleberry. More than a botanical update, a report from the field as the seasonal cusp approaches, the passage suggests Thoreau is revving up for a playful romp with the seasons, one rooted in the folk adage that the names of the cold months, September through April, contain the letter “R.” This dovetails nicely with the sound we make in English to suggest cold: burrrrrrr. Thoreau’s ear is sensitive and clever, and he notes the “liquid r” coinciding with the customary January thaw. This is Thoreau at his finest: the sharp-eyed naturalist and riffer on words and ideas. No bitching, no politicking, no cranky self-righteousness – just a prose master at work, one of our best. 

In the latest entry in the “One Thousand Words” series at Front Porch Republic, Will Hoyt writes: “Thoreau can try your patience.” Can, and will. He can be insufferable with his complaining about his fellow Americas. For a man who prized and dramatized his status as an outsider, Thoreau often sounds like one of our own bloviating-class elitists, a pretender to democratic ideals. Hoyt gives a thoughtfully balanced assessment: “…Thoreau’s pedantry and Yankee practicality and best instincts are each of them in the service of a most wondrous end, which is to report how heaven works, via a detailing of its cogs and gears and nuts and bolts.” That’s the naturalist in Thoreau, the man who surveyed for a living, manufactured pencils and moved through the fields and woods like a walking field guide. As a writer, Thoreau is impossible to swallow whole. Reading him is always like panning for gold, separating nuggets from dross. He wrote terrible verse but his prose must be read with the vigilance we customarily give to poetry. Hoyt writes: 

“Thoreau is our one, absolutely indispensable American man of letters. [Not so. Where are Henry James and Nabokov, among others?] He faces east! I don’t mean he looks toward India. Rather, I mean he’s a watchman for morning—which is to say, for the human person and things blazing with there-ness.”

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