Fall 2006

Thoreau’s Wild Fruits

Frances Richard

Edible wild plants that Thoreau would have recognized.

In 1862, Henry David Thoreau was forty-four years old. He had already written Walden; or, Life in the Woods and spent the night in jail that generated “Civil Disobedience.” He had graduated from Harvard, taught school, failed as a pencil-maker, and was scraping by as a surveyor. Living at his mother’s house on Main Street in Concord, Massachusetts, he had neglected to marry, though he sometimes squired his sister Sophia on his daily walks and boating trips. He maintained a nourishing, if volatile, friendship with the “Sage of Concord,” Ralph Waldo Emerson, and when Margaret Fuller Ossoli—translator of Goethe, editor with Emerson of the transcendentalist magazine The Dial, and author of the feminist classic Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1854)—drowned with her Italian husband and their baby off Cape Cod, Thoreau was dispatched to claim the bodies. He was, in other words, claimed as a peer by a generation of writers freshly conscious of their role in creating a specifically American literature, and he was generally expected—by himself and by his friends—to do great things for which his extant books were preparation. Instead, on the morning of May 6, Thoreau died of tuberculosis.

The expectations, though, were not unfounded. He was deep in a writing project he called Wild Fruits, which he envisioned as nothing less than a handbook of practical woodcraft seamlessly woven into an ars poetica of New England nature—at once a scientifically accurate study of fruiting and forestry in the North Atlantic states, and a soaring though acerbic celebration of the ecological interdependences that link plants to humans, animals, weather patterns, and topography. Thoreau the serious amateur naturalist builds a scaffold inside his hat for carrying home freshly picked specimens, makes bold to taste choke cherries, and notes the days in consecutive years when muskmelon, fever bush, or bayberry bloom, ripen, wither, and freeze. In his pastoral-hermit guise, he squats down to watch white-pine cones dry and open, measures the tubers of wild artichokes, and draws blown cattails and the seedpods of Asclepias cornuti in his diary. As a polemicist, however, he remains acutely aware that his compatriots are busy building railroads, harvesting old-growth timber, and arguing the legality of slavery in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. He intends his precise botanical observations to refract the moral and aesthetic life of a swiftly modernizing capitalist nation embroiled in civil war, and he seems to know that he is speaking for the conservation of undespoiled lands near a point of no return. Wild Fruits thus emerges as a kind of hands-on record of the motions of the spirit that Emerson called the “Over-Soul.” A journal of ecstatic union with the lilies of the field, the book never ceases to inquire into the biological and cultural processes whereby those lilies—or sassafras roots, nightshade berries, whortleberries, and wild grapes—are germinated, mulched, garnered by squirrels, pecked by birds, marked by rot, appreciated (or not) by farmers, sold (or not) at market, and represented in history.

The manuscript of Wild Fruits was left bound together with string, full of interleaved passages stuck in place with sealing wax, larded with not-yet-synthesized redundancies, and marked in the author’s notoriously hard-to-read hand with corrections, queries, and notes for possible cuts. The difficulty of arriving at a clean final text was such that the material was not published until 2000, when Bradley P. Dean, longtime editor of the Thoreau Society Bulletin, produced a scholarly edition tracking each crossed-out word and syntactical variant, with an appendix presenting a related, also unfinished piece considering reforestation processes, called The Dispersion of Seeds. Abiding by Thoreau’s lyrical-encyclopedic format, Dean’s text is organized under plant-name headings. In places, the prose amounts to little more than jauntily annotated dates:


July 14, 1856. The touch-me-not (noli-me-tangere) seeds already spring.

September 17, 1852. Its seeds [sic] vessels go off like 
pistols—shooting their seeds like shot. They explode in 
my hat.

July 30, 1850. Some quite seedy and spring on a slight 
touch, and startling you: striped, stomate, light- and 
dark-green. 1

Elsewhere, favorite subjects—cranberries, huckleberries, chestnuts, acorns, wild apples—evolve into stand-alone essays (a version of “Wild Apples” was the only portion of the manuscript published in Thoreau’s lifetime). In these passages, the direct experience of virgin terrain is considered as a vehicle for individual and national self-knowledge. This self-discovery entails a brave American rejection of haughty, overcivilized—read, “European”—precedents. Speaking, for example, of his beloved black huckleberry, Thoreau descants upon nomenclature: 

By botanists it is called of late, but I think without good reason, Gaylussacia resinosa, after the celebrated French chemist [Joseph-Louis Gay-Lussac, 1778-1850]. If he had been the first to distill its juices and put them in this globular bag, he would deserve this honor; or if he had been a celebrated picker of huckleberries, perchance paid for his schooling so, or only notoriously a lover of them, we should not much object. But it does not appear that he ever saw one. What if a committee of Parisian naturalists had been appointed to break this important news to an Indian maiden who had just filled her basket on the shore of Lake Huron! It is as if we should hear that the daguerreotype had been finally named after the distinguished Chippeway conjurer, The-Wind-that-Blows.2

But independence-minded wit is not, in Wild Fruits, an unmixed flavor. The book also consistently takes Americans to task for exploiting their physical surroundings and 
forgetting their status as sojourners or “Saunterers” whose tenure on the continent is new, and problematic. “Our wild apple,” Thoreau admits, “is wild only like myself, perchance, who belong not to the aboriginal race here, but have strayed into the woods from the cultivated stock.”3 This “straying” is clearly salutary, for it is the woods that will redeem and educate an American understanding already conditioned by violence—not only against the landscape and non-European peoples, but against what President Lincoln, in his first inaugural address in 1861, had called “the better angels of our nature.” Thoreau reminds his readers that, in wild places, 

[i]f you look closely you will find blueberry and huckleberry bushes under your feet, though they may be feeble and barren, throughout all our woods, the most persevering Native Americans, ready to shoot up into place and power at the next election among the plants, ready to reclothe the hills when man has laid them bare and feed all kinds of pensioners.4

Again meditating on black huckleberry, he bursts out:

This crop grows wild all over the country—wholesome, bountiful, and free, a real ambrosia. And yet men, the foolish demons that they are, devote themselves to the culture of tobacco, inventing slavery and a thousand other curses for that purpose…5

Thoreau’s voice in Wild Fruits, as elsewhere, can turn 
sarcastic—cranberries, he remarks grumpily, “cut the 
winter’s phlegm, and now you can swallow another year 
of this world without other sauce”6—or slides toward the 
different-drummer cadences of Walden—“If you would really take a position outside the street and daily life of men, you must have deliberately planned your course, you must have business which is not your neighbors’ business, which they cannot understand.”7 Like Emerson, he revels in cross-
referenced reading of historical sources, ranging knowledgeably from Pliny to Manasseh Cutler’s “An Account of Some of the Vegetable Productions, Naturally Growing in This Part of America, Botanically Arranged,” published in 1785. He also writes, approvingly, of Darwin. But the lonely ferocity of his earlier years has distilled to something less hotly personal, and he privileges, as kindred spirits, distinctly unlofty sources—elderly Penobscot Indians, housewives, schoolboys. Conspicuously avoiding Christian piety, he refers to Mother Nature as the “midwife”8 of uncultivated growth, and quotes delightedly the battered farmer “who always selects the right word,” when he says that wild apples “have a kind of bow-arrow tang.”9

This fellow-feeling for the keepers of homely know-
how avoids (as it does not always in Walden) rugged-
individualist rhetoric. Rather, it is kept soberly in check 
by Thoreau’s consciousness of war and industrialization. 
He muses romantically, “Is not the bloom on fruits equivalent to that blue veil of air which distance gives to many objects, as to mountains in the horizon?”10 and allows as how the “tame and forgettable” apples cultivated by “pomological gentlemen” are eaten “with comparatively little zest and have no real tang or smack to them.”11 But he admits that even the solitary walker must come home, and that the indoor life transforms perceptions: 

It is remarkable that the wild apple, which I praise as so spirited and racy when eaten in the fields or woods, being brought into the house, has frequently a harsh and crabbed taste. The Saunterer’s Apple not even the saunterer can eat in the house … for there you miss the November air, which is the sauce it is to be eaten with.12

Such recognition of rhetorical shades of gray extends to one of Thoreau’s favorite subjects, the schoolboy’s sentimental education in the woods. He grouses about the Parisian patrician who has never seen a huckleberry field nor needed the money he got from picking quarts there. But the pure-hearted country youth or proto-Huckleberry Finn is acknowledged, simultaneously, to be an apprentice in a far more complex and compromising system:

Sometimes, just before reaching the spot, every boy rushed to the hillside, and hastily selecting a spot, shouted, “I speak for this place,” indicating its bounds, and another “I speak for that,” and so on; and this was sometimes considered good law for the huckleberry field. At any rate, it is a law similar to this by which we have taken possession of the territory of Indians and Mexicans.13

As Dean points out in his introduction, Wild Fruits responds to the exhortation in Emerson’s Nature (1836), which argues audaciously that “foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we through their eyes. … Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”14 Thoreau’s universe was comparatively narrow. He climbed Mount Katahdin (“Ktaadn”) in Maine, foraged in the dunes of the Cape, and ventured as far north as Quebec and west to Minnesota. He never crossed the Atlantic, nor saw the Pacific. Rather, his decades spent walking, rowing, and working in the ponds and hills neighboring Concord came to stand in for the erotic, expansive “kosmos” that Whitman identifies with the poetic self.15

I see that all is not garden and cultivated field and copse, that there are square rods [Webster’s defines a square rod as 30.25 square yards] in Middlesex County as purely primitive and wild as they were a thousand years ago, which have escaped the plow and the axe and the scythe and the cranberry rake—little oases of wildness in the desert of our civilization, wild as a square rod on the moon, supposing it to be uninhabited. I believe almost in the personality of such planetary matter, feel something akin to reverence for it, can even worship it as terrene, titanic matter extant in my day. … I love it as a maiden. … How happens it that we reverence the stones which fall from another planet, and not the stones which belong to this—another globe, not this—heaven, and not earth? Are not the stones in Hodge’s wall as good as the aerolite at Mecca? Is not our broad backdoor stone as good as any corner-stone in heaven?

It would imply the regeneration of mankind if they were to become elevated enough to truly worship sticks and stones. … If I could, I would worship the parings of my nails. … I would fain improve every opportunity to wonder and worship, as a sunflower welcomes the light.16

Like the “spirited and racy” wild apple, Wild Fruits is an acquired taste. The reader not already enamored of field guides and almanacs may be dismayed by the plethora of weedy detail minutely recounted. But for the mind charmed by sensory immersion—in “the odor of skunk cabbage” (Red and Fetid Currants),17 “a rare steel-blue purple” (Solanum dulcamara),18 rattling seedpods sounding “like the trinkets about an Indian’s leggins [sic] or a rattlesnake” (Crotalaria),19 or the picture of the philosophical author, hands sticky with white-pine pitch, kicking his coat into the air and catching it on his arm, or picking it up with his teeth—the book is a treasure-trove of vicarious experience. The “tang and smack” of Thoreau’s language is such that it is better to quote than paraphrase him, and reading him at length, unadulterated, is the tangiest of all. Almost 150 years down the line, however, the sharpest part of Wild Fruits is its prescience. Before Reconstruction or the Spanish-American War, before Marx published Das Kapital (1867), and before the United States was urbanized, Thoreau saw connections between political choices, market forces, labor and social relations, and the collective understanding of national character. He argued that such human arrangements are bound up, inextricably, with the life of sumac, dogwood, mouse-ear, tupelo, barberry, and sand cherry.

This article was corrected on 15 October 2014. It originally stated that Thoreau tasted water hemlock. This is in fact a highly poisonous plant. Though he discusses water hemlock in Wild Fruits, he does not state that he ate it. In his journal, he does discuss using the leaves of the hemlock spruce in his tea, but notes right away that this should not be confused with the poisonous water hemlock. An accompanying image of a hemlock plant was also deleted.

  1. Henry David Thoreau, Wild Fruits, ed. Bradley P. Dean (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2000), p. 64. Emphasis original. The entries are not alphabetical, nor are the notes under each heading always chronological. This follows (I assume) Dean’s findings in the manuscript. Dean defines stomate as “covered with a surface of fine pores, such as breathing pores,” p. 277.

  2. Ibid., p. 37.

  3. Ibid., p. 79. Italics original.

  4. Ibid., p. 44.

  5. Ibid., p. 51.

  6. Ibid., p. 106.

  7. Ibid., p. 165.

  8. Ibid., p. 100.

  9. Ibid., p. 84.

  10. Ibid., p. 157.

  11. Ibid., p. 84–85. Italics original.

  12. Ibid., p. 85.

  13. Ibid., p. 56.

  14. Ibid., p. xiii.

  15. As Whitman put it in section 24 of “Song of Myself”: 

  16. Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,

    Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding,

    No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them,

    No more modest than immodest.

    Unscrew the locks from the doors!

    Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!

    Whoever degrades another degrades me,

    And whatever is done or said returns at last to me …

    This was the 1892 version of the passage, though Whitman had been experimenting with the idea of himself as a “kosmos” since Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855.
  17. Ibid., p. 168–169.

  18. Ibid., p. 59.

  19. Ibid., p. 95.

  20. Ibid., p. 192.

Frances Richard is a poet who writes frequently about contemporary art. She teaches at Barnard College and the Rhode Island School of Design, and lives in Brooklyn.