cover image Wild Fruits: Thoreau's Rediscovered Last Manuscript

Wild Fruits: Thoreau's Rediscovered Last Manuscript

Henry David Thoreau. W. W. Norton & Company, $29.95 (409pp) ISBN 978-0-393-04751-6

Thoreau's Walden (1854) is regarded both as a masterpiece of American prose and as a forerunner of modern environmentalism. Its author spent much of the 1850s learning what botany could teach him about the New England woods he chronicled. Thoreau brought that knowledge to bear on this sometimes very beautiful essay about plants, fruits and nuts, left incomplete at his death in 1862 and here printed for the first time. Thoreau's brief preface echoes the passions of Walden: ""What are all the oranges imported into England to the hips and haws in her hedges?"" The rest of the work is arranged fruit by fruit: we begin with elm-fruit (""most mistake the fruit before it falls for leaves, and we owe to it the first deepening of the shadows in our streets""), and proceed through several dozen entries to sassafras, skunk cabbage, strawberries, cranberries, juniper berries and, finally, ""winter fruits."" Though many plants' entries comprise just a few sentences, some offer plenty of room to meditate. Huckleberries prompt a 20-page essay, and pitch pine leads Thoreau to explain how ""the restless pine seeds go dashing over [snow] like an Esquimaux sledge with an invisible team until, losing their wings or meeting with some insuperable obstacle, they lie down once for all, perchance to rise up pines."" Though the book as a whole reads like the rough draft it is, plenty of individual essays and sentences retain Thoreau's famous confidence and attention. Editor and Thoreau scholar Dean (Faith in a Seed) appends copious notes, along with passages from Thoreau's still unpublished, unfinished The Dispersion of Seeds. Illustrations by Abigail Rorer. (Nov.)