The final harvest of a great writer's last years, "Wild Fruits" presents Henry David Thoreau's sacramental vision of nature - a vision compelling in part because it grew out of an approach to the natural world at once scientific and mystical. The difficulties of Thoreau's handwriting, method of composition, notations and pagination have kept his final observations and meditations from publication until this version, edited by Bradley Dean. In "Wild Fruits" Thoreau protests the desecration of the American landscape, reflects on the importance of preserving wild spaces "for instruction and recreation" and envisions a new American scripture. As Dean writes, "wildness for Thoreau is the key to unlocking the miraculous in the commonplace; to understanding, as Thoreau expressed the idea in Walden, that heaven is 'under our feet as well as over our heads'".
Henry David Thoreau was 44 years old when he died of tuberculosis in the early spring of 1862. He had acquired a measure of notoriety in his lifetime largely for his fervent support of abolitionism and his refusal to pay taxes to support the American war of conquest against Mexico, the subject of his widely circulated pamphlet Civil Disobedience
. Closer to his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, he was known as something of an eccentric who kept a home in the woods and took long walks when the citizens of the town were at work or church.
We scarcely know Thoreau better, writes archivist and scholar Bradley Dean: we still remember him today for having spent time in jail and spinning philosophy out of the New England woods. On the strength of this lost, and now published, final manuscript of Thoreau's, Dean would have us think of him as a protoecologist, and for very good reason. In the last years of his life, Thoreau resolved to learn better the science behind nature, and in Wild Fruits he collected the lore and facts surrounding the plants around his home, observing such things as the quantity of chestnuts that local trees were producing, the myriad shapes of pine cones as they unfold, the taste of "fever bush," and the smell of sweet gale.
The unfinished manuscript, cataloging dozens of species, affords a fascinating glimpse into Thoreau's method as an amateur student of nature--a method worthy of close study and imitation. Dean adds greatly to it with his intelligent commentary, which revisits Thoreau's sources, corrects a few of his errors, and emphasizes the writer's importance to natural history and belles-lettres alike. --Gregory McNamee