Wild Fruits

by Henry David Thoreau

edited by Bradley P. Dean

Published by W.W. Norton

409 Pages, 1999

ISBN: 0393047512 

Buy it online





The Fruit of Time

Reviewed by Jonathan Shipley


I long lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove, and am still on their trail.

These are the words of Henry David Thoreau and they speak volumes about his life. Thoreau thirsted for knowledge, hunted spirituality and wanted to find his place in the world. He loved nature. From 1845 to 1847 Thoreau lived in a small house that he built himself on the shore of Walden Pond. These experiences seeped into his soul. He reveled in the wonders of the world and now readers can revel in that same world with him with the publication of Wild Fruits.

Thoreau died in 1862, three years after beginning work on the never-completed Wild Fruits, his final, penetrating doctrine on American ecology and his own self-described "New Testament." This final work of Thoreau's, which has been in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library since the 1940s, hasn't been published until now for many reasons. Thoreau's handwriting is very difficult to read. He had confusing methods of composition. His pagination and notations were erratic. It was confounding to scholars and thought to be unpublishable. Until now.

Bradley Dean, the editor of this magnificent work brought to light, works at the Thoreau Institute in Lincoln, Massachusetts, where he is the director of the media center. He has published widely on Thoreau and has taught at several major universities. He is the man who, after meticulous research, decoding, deciphering, and the like, has brought us a wondrous gift about the natural world, a gift that only Thoreau could give us.

In the same style, meter and prophetic wordage of his earlier works, Thoreau gives the reader his gospel on botany. "Who could believe in prophecies of Daniel or of Miller that the world would end this summer, while one milkweed with faith matured its seeds?" A fountain of knowledge and wisdom, Thoreau touches more than just the soil, but digs deep within not only the ecology around him, but the nature within us all. "We are all schoolmasters, and our schoolhouse is the universe." Thoreau blesses us with his last will and testament of sorts, a book that speaks as loudly today as it did more than 130 years ago. Perhaps it speaks more loudly today. Perhaps it wouldn't have made the same impact before deforestation, smog and pollutants and the extinction of both flora and fauna forever on our minds. Wild Fruits reminds us again of what's important and will continue to be important if we are to live on this earth.

Within the pages, Thoreau catalogues the black oak and the white pine, the butternut and the sumac, wild gooseberry and thistles. Of the high blackberry he writes, "Surely the high blackberry is the finest berry that we have -- whether we find their great masses of shining black fruit, mixed with red and green, bent over amid the sweet fern and sumac on sunny hillsides, or growing more rankly and with larger fruit in low ground and by rich roadsides." Of the yew he writes, "I find this interesting undershrub in but one place in Concord. It fruits very sparingly, the berries growing singly here and there on last year's wood, and hence four or five inches below the extremities of the upturned twigs." With Wild Fruits, Thoreau engages the reader by observing nature and not a part of it as he did with his previous works and in so doing so, makes the book one in which we too observe the flowering of shrubbery, we too feel the chilling rains of winter, we too taste the bitterness of the chokecherry.

The true significance of this book is more than just its appeal to botanists and nature lovers with its precise recordings. The truth is that it entreats readers to contemplate and honor the world around them. It is the testimony on the desecration of the American landscape before environmentalism was ever thought of. It is rich and it is beautiful. "Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit... Be blown on by all the winds. Open all your pores and bathe in the tides of Nature, in all her streams and oceans, at all seasons." | February 2000


Jonathan Shipley is a graduate of Washington State University and the editor of the literary magazine Odin's Eye.

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