Because it is strange, as is everything in creation, unprecedented and one-of-a-kind, though indistinguishable from a million others just like it. My truest teacher, whom I met in person only once, insisted that we look at things attentively, putting assumptions and pre-judgment (prejudice) aside for the moment, and genuinely see, perhaps for the first time. It’s not easy. Then we draw upon what we know, our learning, formal and otherwise. In the passage above, Thoreau almost has it right.
“If you would make acquaintance with the ferns you must forget your botany. You must get rid of what is commonly called knowledge of them. Not a single scientific term or distinction is the least to the purpose, for you would fain perceive something, and you must approach the object totally unprejudiced. You must be aware that no thing is what you have taken it to be. In what book is this world and its beauty described? Who has plotted the steps toward the discovery of beauty?”
After his initial show of Yankee common sense, Thoreau goes off the deep end of self-reliance and segues seamlessly into Transcendentalist mumbo-jumbo:
“You have got to be in a different state from common. Your greatest success will be simply to perceive that such things are, and you will have no communication to make to the Royal Society. If it were required to know the position of the fruit-dots or the character of the indusium, nothing could be easier than to ascertain it; but if it is required that you be affected by ferns, that they amount to anything, signify anything, to you, that they be another sacred scripture and revelation to you, helping to redeem your life, this end is not so surely accomplished.”
Thoreau has a horror of the “common.” Like our day's progressives, reformers and scolds, he’s a closet aristocrat. His is a religion of the self, the least reliable of deities. We don’t learn the anatomy and physiology of the fern in order to save our souls.
“In the one case, you take a sentence and analyze it, you decide if it is printed in large primer or small pica; if it is long or short, simple or compound, and how many clauses it is composed of; if the i’s are all dotted, or some for variety without dots; what color and composition of the ink and the paper; and it is considered a fair or mediocre sentence accordingly, and you assign its place among the sentences you have seen and kept specimens of. But as for the meaning of the sentence, that is as completely overlooked as if it had none. This is the Chinese, the Aristotelian, method. But if you should ever perceive the meaning you would disregard all the rest.”
We hear the familiar self-righteous posturing of the crank. The quoted passages are from Thoreau’s journal entry for this date, Oct. 4, in 1859. Twelve days later, John Brown and his followers raided the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. On Oct. 30, Thoreau delivered a speech in Concord in defense of Brown, later revising it into the essay “A Plea for Captain John Brown.” Thoreau compares Brown, who was responsible for the deaths of at least twenty-three people, to Christ, and the federal government to Pontius Pilate. It may be the most morally stupid thing Thoreau, a very bright man, ever wrote.