David Henry Thoreau: A Centenary Essay
by Henry S. Salt
I. HENRY D. THOREAU
(July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862)
It is a little over sixty years since an obscure American writer recorded in his private journal that he had just received a wagon-load of his unsaleable volumes from the publisher. “They are something more substantial than fame,” he wrote, “as my back knows, which has borne them up two flights of stairs. My works are now piled up on one side of my chamber, half as high as my head, my opera omnia. This is authorship; these are the work of my brain. Nevertheless, in spite of this result, sitting beside the inert mass of my works, I take up my pen to-night with as much satisfaction as ever.”
What would Thoreau have said, could he have been forewarned, on that evening, that within half a century an original copy of his rejected book, the “Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” would sell for ten guineas; that scraps of his handwriting would fetch more than their weight in gold; and that the foremost of American publishing firms would be planning an edition of his works in twenty volumes? For this is literally what has happened to the reputation of the “Yankee Diogenes” and the “Rural Humbug,” as his contemporaries styled him. Of all the Concord group it is beginning to be seen that Thoreau, the least regarded in his lifetime, will live the longest in the end, by virtue of that rare, pungent, aboriginal flavour of his, which may attract or repel, according to the taste of the reader, but will in no wise suffer itself to be forgotten.
It was, of course, inevitable that so eccentric and uncompromising a nature as Thoreau’s should be misunderstood by the majority of his kinsmen and acquaintances. What could the respectable folk of a New England village make of their strange townsman, who described himself as follows?—
“I am a schoolmaster, a private tutor, a surveyor, a gardener, a farmer, a painter (I mean a house-painter), a carpenter, a mason, a day-labourer, a pencil-maker, a glass-paper maker, a writer, and sometimes a poetaster. My present employment is to answer such orders as may be expected from so general an advertisement as the above. That is, if I think fit, which is not always the case, for I have found out a way to live without what is commonly called employment or industry, attractive or otherwise. Indeed, my steadiest employment, if such it can be called, is to keep myself at the top of my condition, and ready for whatever may turn up in heaven or on earth.”
As we know him now, we see in this statement an admirable description of Thoreau’s genius, but to his contemporaries, with a very few exceptions, it must have seemed to be a mere wilful aberration. We recall, for example, an occasion, recorded in the Journal, when Thoreau’s father, that practical, unobtrusive old man, made protest against his son’s waste of time, as he considered it, in making sugar in a neighbouring maple-wood, when he could have obtained it more cheaply in Concord, and received for answer that his occupation, far from “taking him from his studies,” was his study—he felt, after it, “as if he had been to a university.” In like manner even Emerson complained that Thoreau, lacking ambition, “instead of engineering for all America, was the captain of a huckleberry party”; while Lowell, less sympathetic and less scrupulous, misrepresented the Walden episode as an attempt at “an entire independency of mankind.” But such misapprehensions, inevitable once, are less pardonable now, when the fuller publication of Thoreau’s works has corrected the earlier impressions of him, and has shown him in a clearer light to those who desire to understand him. We can see now that, as an original thinker and idealist, he did “engineer for all America,” in a sense other and better than that which Emerson intended—that he built from his countrymen, and for us, a priceless viaduct of thought, to lead us on from the sophisms and falsities of a too complex civilisation to a simpler and happier mode of living.
The process of this recognition of Thoreau has been a slow but sure one. As in the case of every great writer who has had a message to deliver, it was as artist that he first won unwilling homage from those who detested his views. “With every exception,” said Lowell, the most hostile of his critics, “there is no writing comparable with Thoreau’s in kind that is comparable with it in degree. His range was narrow, but to be a master is to be a master. There are sentences of his as perfect as anything in the language, and thoughts as clearly crystallised.”
This may stand as an expression of the best literary judgment of Thoreau for the past quarter-century; and in the wake of this frank appreciation of the stylist there has been growing up the slower but not less certain appreciation of the man. It has taken half-a-century to do it, but we are at last beginning to get rid of certain false notions concerning Thoreau by which the minds of his readers have been obsessed—notably the stubborn conviction that he was a mere disciple and imitator of Emerson, whereas, in fact, though deeply indebted to Emerson in his youth, his mature intellect was wholly independent and self-centred. Again, what was from the first grasped by the few is now being recognised by the many, that a live book such as “Walden” cannot have been written by a “skulker” (such was Stevenson’s term), or by a misanthrope, or by a “stoico-epicurean adiaphorist,” as a Scotch professor, who so far forgot himself as to attempt to analyse Thoreau, has learnedly described him. The fiction of a selfish, indifferent, or even misanthropic Thoreau, so studiously cultivated by some of his critics, is shattered by a knowledge of the noble part which he played as an abolitionist—as the abolitionist who spoke the first public word on behalf of the imprisoned John Brown at that supreme crisis. “Was it Thoreau or Lowell,” asks Wentworth Higginson, “who found a voice, before the curtain fell, after the first act of that drama, upon the scaffold of John Brown? It was on this occasion that Thoreau quoted Marvell’s lines, so applicable to his own action:
“When the sword glitters o’er the judge’s head,
And fear has coward churchmen silenced,
Then is the poet’s time; ‘tis then he draws,
And single fights forsaken virtue’s cause.”
Nor can the fiction of a hard, stocial Thoreau, for which Emerson himself is largely responsible, inasmuch as it was by this too partial editing of the “Letters” and “Poems” that the excessive idea of Thoreau’s “stoicism” was generated and fostered, survive a reading of the delightful “Familiar Letters,” first edited by Mr. F. B. Sanborn in 1894, and now reprinted with enlargement in the “Walden” edition, or of many human glimpses in the Journal.
Why is it, then, that Thoreau the thinker is still knocking at the gate where Thoreau the writer has been admitted? Plainly, because the message brought by him was in some respects a disturbing one, and unwelcome to the majority of those who heard it; because his philosophy makes too severe a demand on the conscience of his readers. For Thoreau is not a naturalist only, like White or Waterton, nor a simple child of nature like Borrow; but he is, as his friend and biographer, Channing, so aptly named him, a “poet-naturalist,” one who sees nature through the medium of human aspirations. Nor is this inconsistent, as might at first be thought, with the belief elsewhere expressed by him that man is not the sole object of concern to nature and the universe; for it has to be remembered that the “human” element was regarded by Thoreau as a property not of mankind alone, but also of the lower races, and of nature, which is the parent of all. “Shall I not have intelligence with the earth?” he asks, “Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?”
What, then, are the “ideas” for which Thoreau stands in American literature? It is difficult to express them in a word, for if we say “simplicity”—the word which perhaps most nearly comprehends his views—there is a danger that it will be taken, as it often is, to imply a mere simplification of living. “To what end,” he asks in one of his letters, “do I lead a simple life at all? That I may teach others to simplify their lives, and so all our lives be simplified merely, like an algebraic formula? Or not, rather, that I may make use of the ground I have cleared, to live more worthily and profitably?” The intention of “prescribing rules” was expressly disavowed by him; it was not his wish to induce the luxuriously minded to abandon their luxuries, but rather to spur the sluggish minds to think for themselves and so to follow their own personal tastes instead of the traditional prejudice. Individuality of judgement lies at the very root of his simplification. His intensely alert and thrifty nature, barded with keenest insight into the sophistries of custom, led him to the simple life (if we may still use that much-maligned term) of which he was the chief modern exponent. In Thoreau’s creed, the natural life is to be lived as well as eulogised; and, as it is here that he comes to grips with conventional habit, as no other writer has done, it is not surprising that on this point he has been more persistently misapprehended.
II. THE APOSTLE OF SIMPLICITY
It has of late become somewhat fashionable to talk and write of simplification, and Pastor Wagner’s little book on “The Simple Life” is said to have had a large circulation both in Europe and America, doubtless owing to the fact that his view of the subject is one which makes no demand on the conscience of his readers, but rather aims at obscuring an unpopular doctrine in a cloud of agreeable talk. Certainly the simplicity preached by the polite pastor, and discussed by the many well-to-do readers of his book, is a very different virtue from that which Thoreau had in mind, not only during his comparatively brief experiment at Walden, but through the twenty active years of his strenuous life.
Now, simplification may be viewed under two aspects, the personal and the social. Personal simplicity is a sign, not of asceticism, as is often wrongly supposed, but of the triumph of genuine taste over traditional habit; a wise man simplifies, because, on the whole, he derives more satisfaction from simplicity than from abundance. But while it is important not to overburden one’s self with “comforts,” it is no less important not to overburden other persons with the labour of producing them; and it is this social and humanitarian view of the question which is so frequently evaded. The hard work of the world has to be done by someone. As Thoreau says: “If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations also.”
Unfortunately, this humane consideration finds no expression in Pastor Wagner’s essay. The simplicity preached by the pastor is a purely personal one, and amounts to little more than what might be called moderation and good taste in the various departments of life; he defines it as a “state of mind,” and insists that it presents “no external characteristics.” Much that he says of the virtue of simplicity is very true and sensible, so far as it goes, but he states only half the argument; and when the other, the social side of the question, is overlooked, the doctrine of simplification of life is apt to become somewhat futile.
Look, for example, at the fashionable comments on Wagner’s book in the “Letters on the Simple Life,” reprinted from the Daily Graphic in 1905, where, in one case, we have a lady commended for the simplicity, because “she does not spend more than £150 a year on her clothes.” We have remembrance, too, of a delightful account which appeared in a London paper of a camping-out party which was to visit the Egyptian Desert last winter and to follow “the simple life” in picnics, shooting-parties, and shopping expeditions. The prospectus ran as follows:
“Each member of the party will have a separate double-roofed sleeping-tent, with an interior worked by Arabs in coloured linens. The floor will be spread with an Oriental carpet. There will be a big dining-tent for all, and a drawing-room tent for the ladies. The camp will be near the Pyramids, and within easy reach of Cairo by tram. In this desert camp ‘the simple life’ will really be followed. Everybody will follow his own inclinations—going to picnics, or shooting expeditions, or bazaar-shopping under the charge of the dragoman. The advantage of going with a party is that the inclusive expenses only come to £7 a week.”
This is what comes of defining simplicity as “a state of mind, and as devoid of “external characteristics.”
“I cannot help wondering,” says Mr. A. C. Benson in his recent work, “From a College Window,” “whether the people who talk about the simple life have any idea what it means.” But does Mr. Benson himself—does anyone whose outlook is from a college window—know what it means? When he argues that “the first requisite is a perfect sincerity of character,” and that “the essence of the really simple character is that a man should accept his environment and circle, and if he is born in the so-called world, he need not seek to fly from it,” and when he goes on to sketch the simple liver as a pleasant, comfortable, well-balanced person such as he himself has known “in every rank of life,” it is evident that he does not in the least perceive what the real simplicity means—the simplicity which has found its highest expression in the writings of Thoreau.
For it must be clearly understood that though, on the one hand, simplification of life does not imply a rigid hard-and-fast rule of conduct, as that everyone should renounce the life of towns and live in a hut in a forest (with all the other absurd misapprehensions into which Thoreau’s early critics used to fall), it cannot, on the other hand, be whittled down to the mere vacuous, amiable concept to which Mr. Benson would reduce it. There is a practical side, as well as a spiritual side, in the simple life; and it is ridiculous to pretend that members of a fashionable and luxurious “society” may be living simply, because, forsooth, their simplicity is “a state of mind.” It is quite true, as Charles Wagner points out, that a man who rides in his carriage may be naturally sincere, while a shoeless beggar may be “dreaming of idleness and pleasure”; it is true, but it is also irrelevant. A teetotaller may be dreaming of brandy and champagne, but that does not prove that it is as simple to drink strong beverages as to drink water. The simple life implies simple action no less than simple taste, and the practical moral view of the matter is not thus lightly to be set aside.
For there is, at many points, a very intimate connection between simplicity and humaneness; most of all, perhaps, with regard to the food that we eat and the clothes that we wear. Take the question of simplification in dress and note how vitally it may promote the well-being of both our human and sub-human fellow-creatures. Fashionably-dressed men and women too often carry on their persons products of much needlessly inflicted suffering, their victims including the sweated tailor and the over-worked seamstress, with a long train of sacrificed animals, from the silkworm to the whale. The fur fashion alone means the torture of millions of animals yearly. Politicians may talk of “one man one vote”; but, really, when we study the world of dress, a programme of “one man one skin” seems more important.
So, too, with regard to the food question. It is a matter of the greatest concern to others—and thus, also, to himself—whether a man elect to live after the carnivorous or the frugivorous fashion—whether he ally himself to the beasts of prey or to the ranks of the social animals. Here and there, no doubt, a vegetarian may, in certain cases, be living less simply than a flesh-eater, but the exception does not vitiate the rule: a fleshless diet is more in accordance with the simple life than a diet of “scorched corpses.” As Thoreau puts it: “Having been my own butcher and scullion, as well as the gentleman for whom the dishes were served up, I can speak from an unusually complete experience. The practical objection to animal food in my case was its uncleanness, and besides, when I had caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially. It was insufficient and unnecessary, and cost more than it came to. A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well, with less trouble and filth.”
It is impossible, in the face of these facts, to treat the principle of simplicity as if it meant no more than a cheerful, contended disposition, which accepts its own “environment,” even if it be born to “the so-called world,” and (say) three thousand a year! Simplification of life is something more genuine, more actual, than that. It is the deliberate abandonment of what is excessive and luxurious, with a view to one’s own conform, both of body and of mind—of body, because, as all experience shows, the happiest men are they who live simply; of mind, because to live otherwise than simply is to put a grievous burden upon others. “All men,” as Shelley says, “are called to participate in the community of Nature’s gifts. The man who has fewest bodily wants approaches nearest to the divine nature. Satisfy these wants at the cheapest rate, and expend the remaining energies of your nature in the attainment of virtue and knowledge.”
It is not surprising, perhaps, that, as the simple life itself is so entirely misunderstood by many who discourse of it, the character of Thoreau, a pioneer of simple living, should still be misconceived. He was a victim, according to Mr. Benson, of the fatal desire “to stimulate the curiosity of others.” “The most conspicuous instance of this in literature,” he says, “is the case of Thoreau;” and he asserts that “Thoreau was indolent rather than simple, and what spoilt his simplicity was that he was for ever hoping that he would be observed and admired. . . . He was for ever looking at himself in the glass, and describing to others the rugged, sunbrowned, slovenly, solemn person that he saw there.”
Is it believable that a man who was “for ever hoping to be observed and admired” should have taken a course such as Thoreau took, which cut him off from all possibility of recognition during his lifetime—that of spending a great portion of his life in solitary rambles, and entirely ignoring all the avenues which lead to what is known as “success”? Mr. Benson presumably imagines that the diaries in which Thoreau jotted down his thoughts were written with a view to publication, but this was not the case; indeed, as Mr. Sandborn has recently pointed out, “it was never Thoreau’s intent to print these Journals as they now appear, still less as they were partially published by his editor after 1876.” When Thoreau died in 1862, a practically unknown man, with only two of his books, “The Week” and “Walden,” published, nothing seemed more certain than that he had deprived himself of all likelihood of fame by his entire indifference to public opinion; and if it was his desire to stimulate the curiosity of his fellow-countrymen, he stultified himself completely by taking the utmost pains to secure the contrary result.
“It is almost true,” remarks Mr. Benson, “to say that the people who are most in love with simplicity are often the most complicated natures.” We should say it is not “almost,” but wholly true, and the reason is obvious. It is precisely because the spiritual needs of mankind are so complex that it is necessary to simplify our bodily needs, and therefore the most complex natures, such as Shelley’s and Thoreau’s, are those which have the strongest tendency to simplification. “Plain living” and “high thinking” of necessity go together. “Your physical wants,” says Shelley, “are few, whilst those of your mind and heart cannot be numbed or described, from their multitude and complication. To secure the gratification of the former, you have made yourselves the bondslaves of each other.” This is, of course, the very corner-stone of the whole principle of simplification; yet Mr. Benson has overlooked it.
After what we have seen of Mr. Benson’s insight into the simple life, it is delightful to find him deprecating anything in the nature of a “movement” towards such reform. “There is nothing which is more fatal to it,” he thinks, “than that people should meet to discuss the subject.” Well, I am not so sure about that. If Mr. Benson had taken the precaution of attending some discussion of the question, it might at least have saved him from adding this ill-advised chapter to his book.
Certainly the simple life is not only “a state of mind,” but a state of body also, which abstains, as far as may be, from all cruel customs and fashions which provide the superfluities and luxuries of one class at the cost of the suffering of another.
III. THE HUMANE NATURALIST
Our methods of studying natural history are at present in a state of transition. Under the old system the naturalist united the functions of sportsman, anatomist, and collector; while the animals were regarded as nothing more than automata, mere “specimens,” to be “obtained” or “collected,” in the interests of the glass-case or the museum, with as little injury as possible to their external appearance, but with entire indifference to their feelings as a part of nature. This process of “collecting” might be carried on by the naturalist in person, or it might be delegated to another—to the gamekeeper, for instance, that most dismal figure in English country life, the sexton of all that is free and wild and beautiful. “Gentlemen interested in natural history,” said Richard Jefferies, “often commission the keeper to get them specimens of rare birds.” That was “natural history,” of the old style—the body-snatching period, when animals appeared to have no sense of rights or individuality in their life, and were only of interest to the student as promising to be ornamental when dead. Fortunately, this method of natural history is beginning to be moribund itself.
The new method is a study not of death, but of life; it observes animals not as potential corpses, but as living embodiments of nature’s will. It sees them possessed not of mere racial “instinct”—a word which for centuries has furnished the excuse for every form of mistreatment—but of real personal individuality and a due share of rights. They are persons, not things. Accordingly, in proportion as this view is prevalent, we see the collector rebuked and the hand of the blood-sportsman stayed. The gun is replaced by the field-glass and the camera, the scalpel by the pencil; the stuffed corpses in the museum, or the dead-alive prisoners in the menagerie, by the free life that springs up (when we encourage it—even in our city parks and gardens. We are beginning to know that there is something better worth studying in nature than hides and bones.
That is newer aspect of nature—study is now in the ascendant (though, of course, the body-snatching method is still largely practised) is shown by the fact that it is in favour with all the writers of genius who have devoted themselves to natural history during recent years. Richard Jefferies, though in part belonging to the old school, may, on the whole, be quoted as strongly leaning to the new. Mr. W.H. Hudson’s books on English open-air life are entirely devoid of the miserable mania for killing; and the same is true of the works of Mr. Edmund Selous, the brothers Kearton, and other modern writers of distinction. Not less striking, in America, is the tribute borne to the new methods by such well-known authorities as Mr. Ernest Thompson-Seton and Mr. William J. Long. The spirit of the new and humaner movement could hardly be better expressed than in the following passage from Long’s “School of the Woods,” in a reference to the Moose:—
“Though the rifle is in your hand, its deadly muzzle never rises from the trail. That great head, with its massive crown, is too big for any house. Hung stupidly on a wall, in a room full of bric-a-brac, as you usually see it, with its shrivelled ears that were once living trumpets, its bulging eyes that were once so small and keen, and its huge muzzle stretched out of all proportion, it is but misplaced, misshapen ugliness. It has no more, and scarcely any higher significance than a scalp on the pole of a savage’s wigwam. Only in the wilderness, with the irresistible push of his twelve-hundred-pound, force-packed body behind it, the crackling underbrush beneath, and the lofty spruce aisles towering overhead, can it give the tingling impression of magnificent power which belongs to Umquenawis the Mighty in his native wilds.”
What is true of “Umquenawis the Mighty” is true also of the smallest denizen of the woods. We owe it to Mr. Long and Mr. Thompson-Seton that they have demonstrated, as has never before been demonstrated, the individuality of animals. There is no surer step towards a recognition of their rights.
But while we honour these distinguished writers, let us not forget that the humane natural history had its earlier pioneers, men who anticipated the new spirit, by some keen instinct, in the very heyday of the body-snatching. Of these pioneers none is more remarkable than Thoreau. “The poet-naturalist” was Ellery Channing’s description of him; and the title, so applicable in Thoreau’s case, seems likely to be perpetuated in the school of which he was a forerunner. And between poetical natural history and humane natural history there is, as we shall see, a very close kinship and connection.
At the very outset, however, we are met by that common criticism of poet-naturalists in general, and of Thoreau in particular, which asserts that they look through Nature instead of at her. There is a noteworthy passage in Thoreau’s journal where this criticism is anticipated in a very characteristic reference to the old conflict between the poetical and the scientific temperament.
“Man cannot afford to be a naturalist, to look at Nature directly, but only with the side of his eye. He must look through and beyond her. To look at her is as fatal as to look at the head of Medusa. It turns the man of science to stone.”
One sees what Emerson meant when he wrote of Thoreau that “none knew better than he that it is not the fact that imports, but the impression or effect of the fact on your mind. Every fact lay in glory in his mind, a type of the order and beauty of the whole.”
Then there is the complaint that Thoreau intrudes his own personality between the reader and the subject. It is true that there is what may be called a self-consciousness in such modern poet-naturalists as Thoreau and Jefferies which is absent in the simple old naturalist school of Gilbert White; but the “self” portrayed by them is the higher and spiritual self, and quite as notable a part of nature as are the skies or forests. Thoreau, as we know, declined to write essays on natural history, pure and simple, on the ground that “he could not detach the external record of observation from the inner associations with which such facts were connected in his mind.”
To come to the point, then, as to Thoreau’s attitude towards nature. He held that “nature must be viewed humanly, to be viewed at all, that is, her scenes must be associated with humane affections.” To him there was no yawning gulf between human and non-human; indeed, he so anticipated, in his poetical fashion, the evolutionary doctrines of a later era that Mr. Grant Allen has written of his as follows:
“Like no one else, he knew the meaning of every note and movement of bird and beast, and fish and insect. Born out of due time, just too early for the great change in men’s views of nature, which transferred all interest in outer life from the mere dead things one sees in museums to their native habits and modes of livings, he was yet in some sort of vague and mystical anticipatory precursor of the modern school of functional biologists.”
It was the opinion of Thoreau that there may be a civilisation going on among animals as well as men. The Walden foxes seemed to him to be “rudimental, burrowing men, still standing on their defence, awaiting their transformation.” The horse was “a human being in a humble state of existence”; and he was pathetically affected by the human behaviour of the oxen when loosed from the yoke at nightfall; even the wild moose in the Maine forests were to him “Moose-men, clad in a sort of Vermont grey or home-spun.” He remarks how “man conceitedly names the intelligence and industry of animals instinct, and overlooks their wisdom and fitness or behaviour.” Here is a significant comment on the failure of man to assist the development of the horse:—
“I saw a man a few days since working by the river, with a horse, carting dirt; and the horse and his relations to him struck me as very remarkable. There was the horse, a mere animated machine . . . . No contract had been made with him that he should have the Saturday afternoons, or the Sundays, or any holidays, his independence never being recognised; it being now quite forgotten, both by man and horse, that the horse was ever free . . . . It was plain that the man was not educating the horse, not trying to develop his nature, but merely getting work out of him.”
The better way in natural history, as Thoreau discerned it, is stated in the following passage:—
“There is a higher law affecting our relation to pines as well as to men. A pine cut down, a dead pine, is no more a pine than a dead human carcass is a man. Can he who has discovered only some of the values of whalebone and whale oil be said to have discovered the true use of the whale? Can he who slays the elephant for his ivory be said to have ‘seen the elephant’? These are petty and accidental uses; just as if a stronger race were to kill us in order to make buttons and flageolets of our bones; for everything may serve a lower as well as higher use. Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.”
The fact of Thoreau’s friendship with the great scientist, Agassiz, makes such testimony the more remarkable. Elsewhere he says:—
“I think that the most important requisite in describing an animal is to be sure and give its character and spirit, for in that you have, without error, the sum and effect of all its parts known and unknown. You must tell what it is to man. Surely the most important part of an animal is its anima, its vital spirit, on which is based its character, and all the peculiarities by which it most concerns us. Yet most scientific books which treat of animals leave this out altogether, and what they describe are, as it were, phenomena of dead matter.”
At an early period in his life Thoreau discarded the use of the gun and trap. “As for fowling,” he says, “during the last years that I carried a gun, my excuse was that I was studying ornithology, and sought only new or rare birds; but I confess that I am now inclined to think that there is a finer way of ornithology than this. It requires so much closer attention to the habits of the birds that, if for that reason only, I have been willing to omit the gun.” He desired, as he tells us, to hold the bird not in the hand, but “in the affections.” It is said that when he was once asked by some Concord folk whether he really did not shoot a bird if he wanted to study it, he replied, “Do you think I should shoot you if I wanted to study you?” There we have the principle of humane nature-study in a sentence.
Directly connected with this view of natural history was Thoreau’s humane attitude towards the treatment of animals in general. Though he disowned any principle of “compassion” as such, and avowed his belief in the “universal innocence” of nature (“I love to see that nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another”), he has yet given incomparable expression to many humanitarian sentiments. Take, for example, a passage in his Journal for December 12, 1856:—
“Wonderful, wonderful is our life, and that of our companions! That there should be such a thing and a ‘brute’ animal, not human! And that it should attain to a sort of society with our race! Think of cats, for instance; they are neither Chinese nor Tartars, they neither go to school nor read the Testament. Yet how near they come to doing so, how much they are like us who do! . . . At length, without having solved any of these problems, we fatten and kill and eat some of our cousins! Where is the great natural historian? Is he a butcher? or the patron of butchers? As well look for a great anthropologist among cannibals.”
It is instructive to note the progress of Thoreau’s humanitarian sympathies in his successive writings. In the “Week on the Concord River,” the earliest of his published volumes, we find him in a somewhat divided state of mind, “waiting for further information”:—
“The woods on the neighbouring shore were alive with pigeons . . . . We obtained one of these handsome birds, which lingered too long upon its perch, and plucked and boiled it with some other game, to be carried along for our supper . . . . It is true, it did not seem to be putting this bird to its right use to pluck off its feathers, and extract its entrails, and broil its carcass on the coals; but we heroically persevered, nevertheless, waiting for further information. The same regard for Nature which had excited our sympathy for her creatures nerved our hands to carry through what we had begun . . . . The carcasses of some poor squirrels, however, the same that frisked so merrily in the morning, which we had skinned and embowelled for our dinner, we abandoned in disgust, with tardy humanity, as too wretched a resource for any but starving men. It was to perpetuate the practice of a barbarous era. If they had been larger, our crime had been less. Their small red bodies, little bundles of red tissue, mere gobbets of venison, would not have ‘fattened fire.’ With a sudden impulse we through them away, and washed our hands, and boiled some rice for dinner . . . . Yet sheep and oxen are but larger squirrels, whose hides are saved and meat is salted, whose souls perchance are not so large in proportion to their bodies.”
When “Walden” was written, the “further information” had in large measure been vouchsafed, as may be learnt from the remarkable chapter entitled “Higher Laws,” in which, though still constrained by his optimistic temperament to revere the “primitive, rank, and savage” instincts, as well as the higher ones, he bears this explicit witness to the better way:—
“I have found repeatedly of late years that I cannot fish without falling a little in self-respect. I think that I do not mistake. It is a faint intimation, yet so are the first streaks of morning. There is something essentially unclean about this diet and flesh. Having been my own butcher and scullion and cook, as well as the gentleman for whom the dishes were served up, I can speak from an unusually complete experience. It may be vain to ask why the imagination will not be reconciled to flesh and fat. I am satisfied that it is not. Is it not a reproach that man is a carnivorous animal? True, he can and does live, in a great measure, by preying on other animals; but this is a miserable way—as any one who will go to snaring rabbits or slaughtering lambs may learn—and he will be regarded as a benefactor of his race who shall teach man to confine himself to a more innocent and wholesome diet. Whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt that it is part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilised.”
In a later written work, “The Maine Woods,” he has the following remarks on the sport of moose-hunting:—
“But on more accounts than one I had had enough of moose-hunting. I had not come to the woods for this purpose, nor had I foreseen it, though I had been willing to learn how the Indian manoeuvred; but one moose killed was as good, if not as bad, as a dozen. The afternoon’s tragedy, and my share in it, as it affected the innocence, destroyed the pleasure of my adventure. This hunting of the moose merely for the satisfaction of killing him—not even for the sake of his hide—without making any extraordinary exertion or running any risk yourself, is too much like going out at night to some woodside pasture and shooting your neighbour’s horses. These are God’s own horses, poor timid creatures that will run fast enough as soon as they smell you, though they are nine feet high . . . . It is no better, at least, than to assist at a slaughter-house.”
Enough has been said to show how, in Thoreau’s case, the poetic and the humane treatment of natural history were practically identical. Loving nature as he did, he could not but equally love those children of Nature whom we call “the animals.” They were, so Emerson has told us, “as it were, his townsmen and fellow-creatures; so that he felt an absurdity or violence in any narrative of one of these by itself apart, and still more of it dimensions on an inch-rule, or in the exhibition of its skeleton, or the specimen of a squirrel or a bird in brandy.”
But the most beautiful feature of Thoreau’s character as naturalist yet remains to be mentioned—the strange influence which he wielded—like the hermits of old—over the wild inhabitants of the forest. “His intimacy with animals,” says Emerson, “suggested what Thomas Fuller records of Butler, the apologist, that ‘either he had told the bees things or the bees had told him.’ Snakes coiled round his leg, the fishes swam into his hand, and he took them out of the water; he pulled the woodchuck out of its hole by the tail, and took the foxes under this protection from the hunters.” The power was perhaps owing in part to habit of silent watchfulness, which enabled him “to sit unmovable, a part of the rock he rested on, until the bird, the reptile, the fish, which had retired from him, should come back and resume its habits”; but we cannot doubt that it was mainly due to his humane sympathy, the sense of love and brotherhood which, as in the case of St. Francis, lent so rare a charm to his relations with the non-human races.
In conclusion, let us quote a passage from Thoreau’s writings which sums up the task that awaits the great naturalist of the future, and the characteristics of the new study of natural history: —
“How little we know of the inner life of animals! How few our facts are, and how little certain we are of them! What a huge book, and what an intensely interesting one, is waiting to be written on this subject by some great genius of the future! Surely it tells not a little for the in-curiosity, and perhaps the conceit, of us humans that we have been taken up so entirely with our little selves for these many thousand years past, and have been honouring historians and poets and philosophers and novelists and travellers and essayists, simply because they told or imagined or guessed or reported the way and the manner and the conversations and thoughts and ideas and faculties of our fellow human creatures; and all the time we have been acting as if we were alone in the world, and as if it were not inhabited by crowds of being with ways towards us and towards each other which, seeing how much we depend upon the same animals, it behoves us most strongly to understand.”
When such a book is written—and it can hardly be written until the general feeling of mankind towards the lower races is quickened and humanised—its author and its readers alike will owe much to Thoreau, as the pioneer who braved the ridicule of the critics and scientists of his day in his advocacy of a method of nature-study which was then regarded as a mere whim or oddity, but is now in process of being adopted by the best naturalists of our age.
Published: The Humanitarian League, 1917