Faith in a Seed

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

The publication of FAITH IN A SEED will prompt thoughtful readers to reconsider the place of Thoreau’s late writings in both the natural and intellectual world. In the introduction, Robert D. Richardson, Jr. contrasts the author of WALDEN, the poet-naturalist, with the later Thoreau, the writer-scientist. While there is merit in considering such phases in Thoreau’s career, the distinction is a fine one. He was always both naturalist and philosopher, and no amount of scientific observation could obscure the larger issues which he always found orbiting the trajectories of nature.

Writing an essay?
Get a custom outline

Our Essay Lab can help you tackle any essay assignment within seconds, whether you’re studying Macbeth or the American Revolution. Try it today!

Start an Essay

FAITH IN A SEED may at one level serve as a guide to Thoreau’s status as a cult figure, for few authors have had their rough drafts so elegantly produced. These articles are based upon Thoreau’s meticulous observations of Concord’s natural history, recorded between 1852 and 1862, and upon extracts which he drew from the writings of a wide variety of naturalists, including Charles Darwin. In the late 1850’s, he began to review these materials in preparation for production of a vast statistical survey of the natural world of Concord. Exactly the form this was to take is unclear. Thoreau himself, shortly before his death, did not feel that he had made much progress toward the goal. As a result, earlier scholars found little of worth in Thoreau’s “technical writing.”

As a work of science, Thoreau’s project was both ambitious and ahead of its time. As art, the value of these articles is more problematic. There are flashes of brilliance reminiscent of WALDEN, but on the whole too little craft. It is perhaps unfair to criticize the author for a draft which he was not yet prepared to publish, but the reader should be aware that the very real merits of this work are almost always embryonic, suggestive of what the finished product might have been. Having been forewarned, however, no aspiring naturalist will be sorry to have spent some time with Thoreau in the rough. One will hardly be able to read FAITH IN A SEED without a heightened awareness, both aesthetic and scientific, of the fragile rhythms of life which are too often taken for granted.

Thoreau’s gift to humanity was a subtle but irresistible warning to slow down, to observe, to take pleasure in the rich complexity of the garden in which you grow. Even unfinished, FAITH IN A SEED is an important part of that legacy.

Sources for Further Study

American Horticulturalist. LXXII, July, 1993, p.26.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

The Economist. CCCXXVII, May 1, 1993, p.97.

Library Journal. CXVIII, May 15, 1993, p.93.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 18, 1993, p.1.

The Nation. CCLVI, June 7, 1993, p.768.

Natural History. CII, October, 1993, p.36.

Nature. CCCLXIII, June 10, 1993, p.507.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, May 23, 1993, p.12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, March 15, 1993, p.79

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, April 4, 1993, p.11.

Faith in a Seed

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1738

This publication of Henry David Thoreau’s late writings will prompt thoughtful readers to reconsider their places in both the natural and the intellectual world. In the introduction, Robert D. Richardson, Jr., contrasts the poet-naturalist author of Walden: Or Life in the Woods (1854) with the later Thoreau, the writer-scientist. While there is merit in considering such phases in Thoreau’s career, the distinction is a fine one. He was always both naturalist and philosopher, and no amount of scientific observation could obscure the larger issues that he always found orbiting the trajectories of nature.

Faith in a Seed: The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings may at one level serve as a guide to Thoreau’s status as a cult figure, for few authors have had their rough drafts so elegantly produced. Throughout adulthood Thoreau was a prescient observer of nature. Between 1852 and 1862, he recorded enormous amounts of primary material, principally in three sets of notebooks—a journal, notes on aboriginal North America, and a pair of large notebooks containing extracts from and annotations to a wide variety of writings on natural history. In the late 1850’s, he began rereading these materials in preparation for production of a vast statistical survey of the natural world of Concord. Exactly what form this was to take is unclear. Thoreau himself, shortly before his death, did not consider that he had made much progress toward the goal. As a result, earlier scholars found little of worth in Thoreau’s “technical writing.” It is clear, however, that the articles included in Faith in a Seed were at least initial attempts to narrate the statistical record of the natural life of his home within a broadly philosophic base.

The composition of this volume is in spirit a reflection of Thoreau’s philosophy. There is no thesis, no authority, no authoritative form, but rather a loose collection from which one may randomly be edified. The personal and ecologically informed foreword was written by Gary Paul Nabhan, cofounder and research director of Native Seeds/SEARCH and vice president of the international Seed Savers Exchange. The biographical introduction was penned by Richardson, professor at Wesleyan College and author of Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (1986). The volume is graced with illustrations from Thoreau’s notes and with Abigail Rorer’s line art, the latter so subdued, tasteful, and perfectly suited to its subject as to suggest perfection.

The main course around which this eclectic array of supplemental material is drawn is the collection of Thoreau’s writing, selected and expertly annotated by Bradley P. Dean, secretary of the Thoreau Society and editor of the Thoreau Society Bulletin and the Thoreau Research Newsletter. The focal point of the collection is “The Dispersion of Seeds,” the most finished of the pieces, which makes up some seventy percent of the space devoted to Thoreau’s works. Twenty-five pages of “Wild Fruits” was the beginning of a book-length manuscript that he put aside in 1861 in order to work full-time on “The Dispersion of Seeds.” “Weeds and Grasses” and “Forest Trees” are tiny fragments that might in time have been incorporated into a finished product.

The meticulous care given to the preservation and dissemination of these pieces should not obscure the fact that this is a collection built around “a very early draft” of a book- length study. For Nabhan, Richardson, and Dean, the master’s voice is clear, even in draft, and deserves the widest audience. The question is, does the content warrant such devotion?

Thoreau’s work must be considered at several levels. First, as a work of scientific inquiry, it is a remarkably thorough and acute piece of mid-nineteenth century observation. Thoreau’s goal was to refute the popular notion that trees “spontaneously” regenerate themselves, and in this he brilliantly succeeded. First, he developed an unprecedented knowledge of his Concord laboratory, which enabled him to elucidate “most of the dominant patterns of seed dispersal” there. Between 1852 and 1862, he kept lists—the dates of fruit’s ripening, the first appearances of birds, recorded sightings of many mammals, reptiles, fish, and insects. By 1862, he had prepared large tabular charts, indicating, for example, the first appearance of April flowers over ten years, or the leafing patterns of Concord forests for a similar period. This intimate knowledge of Concord’s natural history enabled him to deduce patterns in a variety of ways—by measuring distances between trees of the same species; by observing the effects of wind, water, and seasons on seeds; by noticing where and when seeds accumulated; by noting the interaction between seed-bearing animals and their treasure.

Careful observation of his own “wilderness” then enabled Thoreau to assess and incorporate the judgments of a wide variety of naturalists, from Pliny to Charles Darwin. Thoreau was in fact one of the earliest exponents of Darwin’s theories of dissemination. He read On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) in January 1860, carefully tracing Darwin’s arguments and applying them to his mountain of inductive data. Yet even in the midst of such scientific applications, Thoreau was philosophizing. He was certainly right in saying that “one receives only what he is ready to receive, whether physically or intellectually or morally.…We hear and apprehend only what we already half know.” Darwin’s influence was acknowledged and undeniable, but was part of a great chain to which Thoreau’s work of the 1850’s was already linked. As he read authorities such as Darwin, Augustin- Pyrame de Candolle, Theophrastus, and John James Audubon, Thoreau mined hundreds of relevant extracts. During the late 1850’s, as he began to compile his charts and prepare the articles that make up this book, he systematically reviewed the observations and study of a decade in order to produce a work of both science and moral philosophy.

As a work of science, Thoreau’s project was both ambitious and ahead of its time. Calendrical histories of nature were not unusual, but none for New England was so thoroughly based upon careful and extended observations or so thoroughly grounded in scholarship. This volume certainly enhances understanding of the state of the natural sciences in the middle of the last century. Ultimately, however, it becomes clear that Thoreau’s work was not principally scientific.

As art, the value of these articles is problematic. There are flashes of brilliance reminiscent of Walden, but on the whole too little craft. The passage on willows is suggestive, however, of where Thoreau’s observations on natural history were heading. After a lengthy series of scientific observations, he laments the emblematic attachment of the willow to despairing love. “It is rather,” he heroically suggests, “the emblem of triumphant love and sympathy with all Nature.” To ground this surprising conclusion, he then alludes to the Bible, Greek history and myth, and English etymology and biography. It is clear at which point Thoreau returned to his compilation of scientific notes in order to develop the willow’s world role.

Leaving the physical world of sixteen-inch twigs two-thirds buried in a sandy shore, for the metaphysical, he writes that he would gladly hang his “harp on such a willow.… Sitting down by the shore of the Concord, I could almost have wept for joy at the discovery of it”; later he remarks that the “willow of Babylon blooms not the less hopefully here.… It droops not to commemorate David’s tears, but rather to remind us how on the Euphrates once it snatched the crown from Alexander’s head.” Thoreau was fashioning a moral economy for an audience steeped in the Bible and knowledge of the classical Mediterranean world. By alluding to its moral examples, he sought to establish for his readers a similar identity for the plants he was discussing. As precise and scientific as Thoreau undoubtedly intended to be, he was always thinking in larger terms, seeking implications for every observation. Unfortunately, there are no similar portraits for the pitch pine, the saw-leaved alder, or the maple. There is, however, enough craft herein to cause one to lament Thoreau’s early death.

It is perhaps unfair to criticize the author for a draft that he was not yet prepared to publish, but the reader should be aware that the very real merits of this work are almost always embryonic, suggestive of what the finished product might have been. Thus some sections are little more than compilations of notes or a string of observations set out roughly in narrative prose. This becomes all the more important as one considers Thoreau’s indifference as a taxonomist, the validity of whose work depended upon a transcendental insight usually thought alien to an arid scientific environment. Having been forewarned, however, no aspiring naturalist will be sorry to have spent some time with Thoreau in the rough. One will hardly be able to read “The Dispersion of Seeds” without a heightened awareness, both aesthetic and scientific, of the fragile rhythms of life that are too often taken for granted. Thoreau’s careful observation of the ubiquitous squirrel, for example, gives meaning to a common observed activity and elevates one’s sense of the earth’s wholeness.

Richardson is right to distinguish between the “fable of freedom” embodied in Walden and the “fable of dissemination” that is prominent in “The Dispersion of Seeds.” Yet the two works are more similar than a glance might suggest. If “The Dispersion of Seeds” seems to celebrate “fertility, fecundity, and interconnectedness” while Walden is about “the sweet freedom” of a life that is “single, unattached, and uncommitted,” one must remember that it was the same unattached Thoreau reporting on both scenes. He could hardly refrain from such observations, and he almost certainly would have produced a more finished philosophical reflection had he lived to complete his study. Thoreau’s gift to humanity was a subtle but irresistible warning to slow down, to observe, to take pleasure in the rich complexity of the garden in which one grows. Even unfinished, Faith in a Seed is an important part of that legacy.

Sources for Further Study

American Horticulturalist. LXXII, July, 1993, p.26.

The Economist. CCCXXVII, May 1, 1993, p.97.

Library Journal. CXVIII, May 15, 1993, p.93.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 18, 1993, p.1.

The Nation. CCLVI, June 7, 1993, p.768.

Natural History. CII, October, 1993, p.36.

Nature. CCCLXIII, June 10, 1993, p.507.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, May 23, 1993, p.12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, March 15, 1993, p.79

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, April 4, 1993, p.11.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access