David Henry Thoreau: A Centenary Essay
by Henry S. Salt
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