A white oak near Spencer Brook in Concord, 19 1/2 feet in circumference, as it looked in 2005; it sprouted around the time Thoreau was born, in 1817. Credit: Richard Higgins.
Thoreau wrote prolifically about trees from 1836 to 1861. Although he observed them closely and described them in detail, he did not presume to fully explain them. He respected a mysterious quality about trees, a way in which they point beyond themselves. They bore witness to the holy for him. Trees emerge in his writings as special emblems and images of the divine.
During Thoreau’s lifetime, New England was all but deforested. While he hated the loss of familiar trees or woods — “Thank God, they cannot cut down the clouds!” — he was all the more aggrieved for knowing the ecological and psychological value of trees. “A town is saved,” he wrote, “not more by the righteous men in it, than by the woods and swamps that surround it.” Every tree “sends its fibers forth in search of the Wild” — and in the latter, he famously wrote, is the preservation of the world. Today’s recognition of trees as “carbon sinks” that reduce global warming makes his vision of their value seem clairvoyant.
Thoreau was ahead of his time about trees in other ways. A century before nurse logs became a popular term in forest ecology, he called pines “nurses” to the oak saplings that take root around them. He did not use the word ecology, but he saw forests as whole landscapes that ignored public and private boundaries and urged that they be preserved as such. He depicted forest trees as “communities” and villages, anticipating, if only through metaphor, our discovery of trees’ “social networks.” And, despite the cutting of woods all around him, Thoreau, nevertheless, foresaw that “one day they will be planted and nature reinstated to some extent.”
Loggers had the upper hand, however, in his own day. Thoreau’s response was to use his gifts as a writer to challenge the petty calculus that reduced forests to so many board feet of lumber. He knew that without trees, nature would wither, and, thus, human life would as well. Trees, he said with customary frugal eloquence, “are good for other things than boards and shingles.” They should be allowed to “stand and decay for higher uses.”
Thoreau responded to trees on multiple levels. Five characteristic ways he did so were with his eye, his heart, his muse, his mind and his soul.
A SIGHT TO BEHOLD
Thoreau delighted in observing the shape, color, texture and stance of trees. He sketched them, interpreted their expressions and appraised their character. His eye took in all — root, trunk, bark, branch and crown, leaf, blossom and cone. It was the real trees he knew that made those he imagined so solid on the page. And, he knew them all over Concord — birches, basswoods and hornbeams in pastures and on hills, a pine or hemlock that stood “like a pagoda in the woods.” His eye never tired of the details that differentiate one tree from another. “A tree seen against other trees is a mere dark mass, but against the sky it has parts, has symmetry and expression.”
Thoreau loved to look at big trees — pasture oaks astride the fields, elms whose graceful crowns created a canopy of calm below, pines that rose like spires in the forest. But, he loved small or common trees no less. Rotting logs and dead leaves fascinated him. “Pitch pine cones very beautiful,” he wrote, “not only the fresh leather-colored ones but especially the dead gray ones.” The smallest oak, the shrub oak, was a favorite. It was “rigid as iron, clean as the atmosphere, hardy as virtue, innocent and sweet as a maiden.” Pulling apart willow catkins, he found the tree’s seeds “exceedingly minute,” as small as one-twentieth of an inch. Examining such details was more than observation for Thoreau. It was an act of contemplation. The eye, he wrote, “has many qualities which belong to God more than man.”
THOREAU’S SOFTER SIDE