A guide to meeting God through nature, brain and the bowel

Wild Fruits

August 18, 2000

This elegant volume brings to us Henry David Thoreau's rediscovered last manuscript, the pages of which are to be found in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. The editor, Bradley P. Dean, is director of the Media Centre of the Thoreau Institute in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and so is directly immersed in the concerns and environments that Thoreau had in both brain and bowels. The text is reproduced in full, along with the author's little diagrams and some lovely line drawings by Abigail Rorer. There are some 1 notes by the editor, a glossary and bibliography, along with a few facsimile pages of the original manuscript as well as editorial notes on the conventions and strategies adopted in the preparation of a modern book.

The pages of the manuscript and some editorial notes had become unbundled and the handwriting was judged very difficult to read, though the examples reproduced do not seem any worse than some of my colleagues' now-rare ventures into that medium. The substantive stuff consists of a couple of pages of Thoreau on the virtues of getting your own fruits rather than buying oranges and pineapples; a catalogue of plants of New England as recognised and seen through their fruits: elm is first, "winter fruits", last; followed by a coda on the advocacy of environmental contact through parks and rivers in towns, and the preservation of the wild.

The descriptions of the fruits are partly written in diary form as their ripening and edibility is chronicled and in part as simple but eloquent description of their form and colour. Some of the entries are laconic, others lengthy and interspersed with bits of verse or quotations from other sources.

The editor does, however, go beyond this cataloguing detail. He asserts that this work is not only an ecological declaration and a useful compendium of New England fruits, but, that "(Thoreau) would be most interested in our reading the work as a uniquely American scripture". This relates to a transcendentalism in which God is beheld directly, here and now, and most probably through a wholly unmediated experience of nature. For Thoreau, it was contact - with rocks, trees, the wind on our cheeks and the solid earth - that brought about the trinity of spirit, matter and body that was a foundation of right living and right use of the natural world.

The reviewer's task is not to judge whether Thoreau was right or wrong, or to assert that his views sound strange to our ears but to ask whether the material in this volume bears it out. Here, I think Dean overstates the case. If you are already familiar with some of Thoreau's other works, then it is possible to read transcendentalism into some of the descriptions of fruits and into the remarks about Concord needing a park or better still, a "primitive" forest.

But the manuscript as presented here seems to me not to yield so complex a reading. It resembles more a catalogue of dates and sensations, with some interesting but not remarkable pieces at the beginning and the end. Again, if as a potential reader you are already acquainted with Thoreau then there is material here to fit the received picture; if you are new to him, then you would be better advised to begin with the more traditional passages and works. Yet none of these reservations is to decry the skills and commitment that have gone into this book, which will be a pleasure to have on my shelves.

Ian G. Simmons is professor of geography, University of Durham.

Wild Fruits

Author - Henry David Thoreau
Editor - Bradley P. Dean
ISBN - 0 393 04751 2
Publisher - Norton
Price - £22.00
Pages - 409

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