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Henry David Thoreau’s Magical Thinking

After his brother’s death, the writer began to reconsider the science behind life.

Miguel Vieira/Flickr

Strange things happen in Thoreau: sand starts moving like water, stones vibrate with life; extinct species return; pine trees cry; fish become trees; men grow grass out of their brains; men, not gods, walk on water; like animals and with them, men also walk on four legs; they talk to fish and birds; birds migrate back to life after they have been seen dead; humans migrate into birds; birds migrate into other birds; humans migrate into other humans; two persons come to inhabit one body; two bodies come to be inhabited by one person. 

How are we to understand such strangeness? We can’t treat it as fiction for, strictly speaking, Thoreau is not a fiction writer. The generic characteristics of all of his writings—A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is a memoir, Walden is autobiography, the Journal is a record of perceptions and thoughts, while the natural history essays are structured according to the logic of scientific writing of the day—require that we treat their content not as fiction but as truth, and their utterances not figuratively but declaratively, as testimonies. Yet, his declarations are sometimes so eccentric, they so radically blur the distinction between what is possible and what is not, between miraculous and natural, that one must raise the question of whether to take them seriously.

Reported in newspapers as events observed by reliable witnesses, examples of the miraculous—vibrant and nebulous matter observed in the moment of creating new life, toads raining down from populated clouds—assume the status of the factual. More generally, the articles demonstrate that to an antebellum American the divide between fantastic and real was less distinct that it is to us postmoderns, which imposes the requirement that the faithful historian of ideas respect this blur. More specifically, to Thoreau, who collected them systematically, these reports were perhaps proof of his lifelong belief that far from being something surreal, which could at best function as a metaphor of something real, the fictional or even irrational is part and parcel of the real.

But if the fantastic is so embedded in the common as to constitute it, how is it that we, so many ordinary people, can’t see what Thoreau sees? What have we done to alter the real into what is coherent, explicable, and knowable, expelling the wondrous into an elsewhere that is only imagined?

Thoreau is less an ecologist than a thinker obsessed with the problem of life in a properly ontological sense. By this I mean not only that everything in his world—from stones to humans—is alive, but also that in his philosophy life is afforded the status of a force that precedes and generates all individuations and into which individual forms dissolve. Consequently, death is considered a process of deformation but not of cessation. Differently put, in Thoreau’s world death does not have the power to interrupt life but instead functions as the force of its transformation, enabling us to experience finitude while ushering us into what remains animated.

Vitalism emerged as a central issue for Thoreau in the wake of his brother John’s death from tetanus in 1842. The intense grief that remained following John’s departure prompted Thoreau to ask sometimes disconcerting questions about what, and even whether, death was, leading him ultimately toward a stunning theory of grief as well as a novel epistemology and the outlines of a science of life.

Birds fly throughout Thoreau’s work. They fly through A Week, most notably in the discussion regarding the green bittern staring at two brothers as they are “rolling up” the Concord River; they fly through Walden, where a turtle dove embodies a loss taking its leave of Thoreau, and where the loon is summoned to emblematize capacity that all life has for metamorphosis. They also fly through Thoreau’s Walden Pond cabin: “I sat in my sunny doorway … while the birds … flitted noiseless through the house.” They are everywhere in his Journal and his walks, because they are always on his mind as he learns their different languages, caught in a genuine bird-becoming process. In the words of Frederick L. H. Willis, who visited him in his cabin in July 1847:

[Thoreau] said: “Keep very still and I will show you my family.” Stepping quickly outside the cabin door, he gave a low curious whistle; immediately a woodchuck came running towards him … With still another note several birds, including two crows, flew towards him, one of the crows nestling upon his shoulder … He fed them all from his hand … and then dismissed them by a different whistling, always strange and low and short, each little wild thing departing instantly at hearing its special signal.

If birds assume such a central role in Thoreau, it is because they are for him undying repositories of memory. Some readers have noted that his writing employs birds as metaphors of elegiac recollection, as when he addresses John in “Brother where dost do well?”—a poem probably written in 1842 and sent to Sophia Hawthorne in 1843—asking “what bird wilt thou employ / To bring me word of thee?” In that question, birds are employed in the same way as nature in John Milton’s “Lycidas,” a poem whose parts Thoreau copied in one of his very early commonplace books. 

Nature sympathetically records the poet’s personal grief yet remains “barren and silent,” failing to offer consolation. During the decades when Thoreau was writing, paleontology—itself a relatively novel science, the word paléontologie being coined by George Cuvier’s student Henry Marie Ducrotay de Blainville only in 1822—still hadn’t discovered bird fossils as distinct from the widespread marine and reptile fossils that became the basis for Agassiz’s work and his more general theory of the history of life. It was only in 1861 that German paleontologist Herman von Meyer discovered “the first remnant of a bird from pre-Tertiarty times,” which he famously named Archaeopteryx lithographica.

This discovery immediately generated the discussion that would enable Richard Owen, and later Thomas Huxley, to speculate about the bird’s “reptilian nature” and to suggest that birds flew from one period of earth’s life to another, thereby maintaining its continuity while they themselves slowly underwent actual transformations. Contemporary paleontologists know that the rarity of bird fossils is due to their small and fragile hollow-boned skeletons, which frustrate fossilization.

But their absence from the paleontological archives in the 1830s and 1840s was understood by Thoreau as a lack of traces of death, which enabled him to imagine birds as an undying form of life capable of literal metamorphosis; hence his somewhat bizarre juxtaposition in A Week of human and avian bones prompted by the sight of reed-birds flying over “some graves of the aborigines.” Both are metamorphosing; but while human bones are “mouldering elements preparing for … metamorphosis” into the plants they are going to feed, the reed-birds’ bones undergo a different metamorphosis, rustling into new birds that render “the … race of reed-birds … undying.” In the philosophical imagination of Thoreau’s ornithology birds really are a form of life that cancels death by self-change, promising the fabulous renewals that Thoreau will extend to the whole of nature.

Adapted from Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau by Branka Arsic. Copyright © 2016 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by Permission. All rights reserved.