The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Volume VII (of 20)

Page 6 of 99

Of his bird-studies it would be interesting, if there were room, to speak at greater length. Here, even more than in botany, if that were possible, he suffered for lack of assistance, and even in his later entries leaves the present-day reader wondering how so eager a scholar could have spent so many years in learning so comparatively little. The mystery is partly cleared, however, when it is found that until 1854---say for more than a dozen years---he studied without a glass. He does not buy things, he explains, with characteristic self-satisfaction, [xliii] till long after he begins to want them, so that when he does get them he is "prepared to make a perfect use of them." It was wasteful economy. He might as well have botanized without a pocket-lens.

But glass or no glass, how could an ornithological observer, whose power---so Emerson said---"seemed to indicate additional senses," be in the field daily for ten or fifteen years before setting eyes upon his first rose-breasted grosbeak?---which memorable event happened to Thoreau on the 13th of June, 1853! How could a man who had made it his business for at least a dozen years to "name all the birds without a gun," stand for a long time within a few feet of a large bird, so busy that it could not be scared far away, and then go home uncertain whether he had been looking at a woodcock or a snipe? How could he, when thirty-five years old, see a flock of sparrows, and hear them sing, and not be sure whether or not they were chipping sparrows? And how could a man so strong in times and seasons, always marking dates with an almanac's exactness, how could he, so late as '52, inquire concerning the downy woodpecker, one of the more familiar and constant of year-round birds, "Do we see him in the winter?" and again, a year later, be found asking whether he, the same downy woodpecker, is not the first of our woodland birds to arrive in the spring? At thirty-six he is amazed to the extent of double exclamation points by the sight of a flicker so early as March 29.

It fills one with astonishment to hear him (May 4, 1853) describing what he takes to be an indigo-bird after this fashion: "Dark throat and light beneath, and white [xliv] spot on wings," with hoarse, rapid notes, a kind of twee, twee, twee, not musical. The stranger may have been---most likely it was---a black-throated blue warbler; which is as much like an indigo-bird as a bluebird is like a blue jay,---or a yellow apple like an orange. And the indigo-bird, it should be said, is a common New-Englander, such as one of our modern schoolboy bird-gazers would have no difficulty in getting into his "list" any summer day in Concord; while the warbler in question, though nothing but a migrant, and somewhat seclusive in its habits, is so regular in its passage and so unmistakably marked (no bird more so), that it seems marvellous how Thoreau, prowling about everywhere with his eyes open, should year after year have missed it.

The truth appears to be that even of the commoner sorts of birds that breed in eastern Massachusetts or migrate through it, Thoreau---during the greater part of his life, at least---knew by sight and name only a small proportion, wonderful as his knowledge seemed to those who, like Emerson, knew practically nothing.[2]

Not that the journal is likely to prove less interesting to bird-loving readers on this account. On the contrary, it may rather be more so, as showing them the means and methods of an ornithological amateur fifty years [xlv] ago, and, especially, as providing for them a desirable store of ornithological nuts to crack on winter evenings. Some such reader, by a careful collation of the data which the publication of the journal as a whole puts at his disposal, will perhaps succeed in settling the identity of the famous "night-warbler;" a bird which some, we believe, have suspected to be nothing rarer than the almost superabundant oven-bird, but which, so far as we ourselves know, may have been almost any one (or any two or three) of our smaller common birds that are given to occasional ecstatic song-flights.[3] Whatever it was, it was of use to Thoreau for the quickening of his imagination, and for literary purposes; and Emerson was well advised in warning him to beware of booking it, lest life henceforth should have so much the less to show him.

It must be said, however, that Thoreau stood in slight need of such a caution. He cherished for himself a pretty favorable opinion of a certain kind and measure of ignorance. With regard to some of his ornithological mysteries, for example,---the night-warbler, the seringo-bird (which with something like certainty we may conjecture to have been the savanna sparrow), and others,---he flatters himself that his good genius had withheld their names from him that he might the better learn their character,---whatever such an expression may be supposed to mean.

He maintained stoutly, from beginning to end, that [xlvi] he was not of the ordinary school of naturalists, but "a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher in one;" though he believed himself, in his own words, "by constitution as good an observer as most." He will not be one of those who seek facts as facts, studying nature as a dead language. He studies her for purposes of his own, in search of the "raw material of tropes and figures." "I pray for such experience as will make nature significant," he declares; and then, with the same penful of ink, he asks: "Is that the swamp gooseberry of Gray now just beginning to blossom at Saw-Mill Brook? It has a divided style and stamens, etc., as yet not longer than the calyx, though my slip has no thorns nor prickles," and so on, and so on. Pages on pages of the journal are choke-full, literally, of this kind of botanical interrogation, till the unsympathetic reader will be in danger of surmising that the mystical searcher after tropes and symbols is sometimes not so utterly unlike the student of the dead language of fact. But then, it is one of the virtues of a journal that it is not a work of art, that it has no form, no fashion (and so does not go out of fashion), and is always at liberty to contradict itself. As Thoreau said, he tumbled his goods upon the counter; no single customer is bound to be pleased with them all; different men, different tastes; let each select from the pile the things that suit his fancy.

For our own part, we acknowledge,---and the shrewd reader may already have remarked the fact,---we have not been disinclined to choose here and there a bit of some less rare and costly stuff. The man is so sternly virtuous, so inexorably in earnest, so heart-set upon perfection, [xlvii] that we almost like him best when for a moment he betrays something that suggests a touch of human frailty. We prick up our ears when he speaks of a woman he once in a while goes to see, who tells him to his face that she thinks him self-conceited. Now, then, we whisper to ourselves, how will this man who despises flattery, and, boasting himself a "commoner," professes that for him "there is something devilish in manners,"---how will this candor-loving, truth-speaking, truth-appreciating man enjoy the rebuke of so unmannered a mentor? And we smile and say Aha! when he adds that the lady wonders why he does not visit her oftener.

We smile, too, when he brags, in early February, that he has not yet put on his winter clothing, amusing himself the while over the muffs and furs of his less hardy neighbors, his own "simple diet" making him so tough in the fibre that he "flourishes like a tree;" and then, a week later, writes with unbroken equanimity that he is down with bronchitis, contenting himself to spend his days cuddled in a warm corner by the stove.

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