Saturday, October 29, 2011

`Inconsistent With the Poetic Perception'

Looking for accounts of earlier North American droughts, I found this passage in Thoreau’s journal entry for Aug. 18, 1854:

“A great drought now for several weeks. The hay makers have been remarkably uninterrupted this year by rain. Corn and potatoes are nearly spoiled. Our melons suffer the more because there was no drought in June and they ran to vine, which now they cannot support. Hence there is little fruit formed, and that small and dying ripe. Almost everywhere, if you dig into the earth, you find it all dusty. Even wild black cherries and choke-cherries are drying before fairly ripe, all shrivelled. Many are digging potatoes half grown. Trees and shrubs recently set out, and many old ones, are dying. A good time to visit swamps and meadows. I find no flowers yet on the amphicarpaea.”

The final word refers to Amphicarpaea bracteata, the hog-peanut, which despite its common name has delicate flowers and protein-rich underground beans. I assume Thoreau sampled this toothsome legume. His description of the Northeastern drought is almost identical to what we’ve been enduring in Texas, along with the usual Yankee drollery – “remarkably uninterrupted” and “A good time to visit swamps and meadows.” It seems 1854 was a dry year for much of the country.

Most of the summer in Houston was almost free of mosquitos but the rains two weeks ago rekindled their life cycle. People are complaining, though I haven’t been bitten and have killed only five of them, a paltry showing. Later in the same day’s journal entry Thoreau writes:

“I have just been through the process of killing the cistudo for the sake of science; but I cannot excuse myself for this murder, and see that such actions are inconsistent with the poetic perception, however they may serve science, and will affect the quality of my observations. I pray that I may walk more innocently and serenely through nature. No reasoning whatever reconciles me to this act. It affects my day injuriously. I have lost some self-respect. I have a murderer's experience in a degree.”

A new word: “cistudo.” That’s an Eastern box turtle. Thoreau began collecting them in 1847, along with other species of fauna, for Louis Agassiz, the Swiss-born Harvard biologist. Among his thanks to contributors included by Agassiz in Contributions to the Natural History of the United States (1857) we find “Mr. D. Henry Thoreau, of Concord.” In “Agassiz” (The Geography of the Imagination, 1981), Guy Davenport notes:

“The Thoreau to whom Agassiz made his acknowledgement was a scientist, the pioneer ecologist, one of the few men in America with whom he could talk, as on an occasion when the two went exhaustively into the mating of turtles, to the dismay of their host for dinner, Emerson.”

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