Henry David Thoreau didn’t like questions, or so he sometimes said. “The wise answer no questions,—nor do they ask them,” he wrote in his Journal in 1841. In 1850 he wrote, “I do not love to entertain doubts and questions.” Yet questions were at the heart of Thoreau’s lifelong journey of self-exploration.
His Journal itself, the mine from which nearly all his literary work was quarried, began with a question, thought to be posed to the freshly minted Harvard graduate by his Concord neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson. “’What do you do now?’ he asked. ‘Do you keep a journal?’ So I make my first entry today.”
Walden itself was prompted, as Thoreau tells it, at least in part by the questions of his neighbors. “Some have asked what I got to eat; if I did not feel lonesome; if I was not afraid; and the like. Others have been curious to learn what portion of my income I devoted to charitable purposes; and some, who have large families, how many poor children I maintained.”
Readers who don’t like Thoreau often don’t like him because of what can seem the didactic, Sermon on the Mount quality of his pronouncements. Thoreau diagnoses our ills, tells us how to manage our lives, and exhorts us to have faith. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” “The sun is but a morning star.”
Few of Thoreau’s best-known quotations take the form of a question. Yet those that do cut deep. They get under our skin. “Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises?” Thoreau asks in Walden. “What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” he writes in a letter to H.G.O. Blake.
One of the few Thoreau scholars to recognize the importance of Henry’s questions is Jeffrey Cramer, whose collection The Quotable Thoreau devotes a section to questions. In doing so, he recognizes that Thoreau was not necessarily the man with all the answers.
“Thoreau,” writes Cramer, “was the vegetarian who ate meat; the conservationist who surveyed woodlots in Walden Woods; the pacifist who endorsed violence; the hermit who loved gossip.” Thoreau was no hypocrite, as he has often been painted: he was “a questioner of the very concepts we have come to associate with his name.”
Thoreau was not averse to questioning his neighbors, as he admitted on June 7, 1851: “I wonder that I ever get five miles on my way, the walk is so crowded with events and phenomena. How many questions there are which I have not put to the inhabitants!” But he was not always accommodating when questions were put to him: “When a man asks me a question, I look him in the face. If I do not see any inquiry there, I cannot answer it.”
Not surprisingly, Thoreau’s most probing questions were the ones he posed to himself. Nowhere do we see the self-questioning Thoreau more clearly than in his Journal, and those questions are an important part of why some of us love the Journal even more than we do Walden, Cape Cod, or The Maine Woods, and why we believe that the real Henry is to be found there. The Journal is where we find the vulnerable and seeking Thoreau, the Thoreau always striving to expand his knowledge and his wisdom, and like the good surveyor that he was, posing questions that stake out the limits of his understanding.
On the first page of his Journal, just after setting down Emerson’s question, he poses his first question to himself. Appropriately, it concerns solitude. “To be alone I find it necessary to escape the present,—I avoid myself. How could I be alone in the Roman emperor’s chamber of mirrors?”
That question is quickly followed by further questions that set the tone for many more to come: questions about music, the soul, and other intangibles, about the influence of the meandering Concord River on the peaceful villagers of Concord, and about the purpose of his Journal itself, a question he poses after having kept it only four months or so: “But what does all this scribbling amount to? What is now scribbled in the heat of the moment one can contemplate with somewhat of satisfaction, but alas! tomorrow—aye, tonight—it is stale, flat, and unprofitable…”
Questions about man’s relation to nature crop up early, sometimes in amusing forms. “Why should we not cultivate neighborly relations with the foxes?” Thoreau writes in August 1839, while journeying with his brother John down the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. “As if to improve upon our seeming advances, comes one to greet us nosewise under our tent-curtain. Nor do we rudely repulse him. Is man powder and the fox flint and steel? Has not the time come when men and foxes shall lie down together?”
A little later, when a musquash (muskrat) raids the brothers’ supply of potatoes and melons, Henry takes it philosophically. “Is not this the age of a community of goods?”
Not content to observe what plants and animals are doing, Thoreau constantly asks why:
‘What is the devil’s-needle [damselfly] about? He hovers about a foot above the pads on humming wings thus early, from time to time darting one side as if in pursuit of some invisible prey.”
“Sometimes one [bullfrog] jumps up a foot out of water in the midst of these concerts. What are they about?”
“What are those crows about, which I see from the railroad causeway in the middle of a field where no grass appears to rise above the snow,—apparently feeding?”
He asks the same question about his neighbors, as if they were another kind of wildlife. “What are the men of New England about?” “There is such an officer, if not such a man, as the Governor of Massachusetts. What has he been about the last fortnight?”
Some questions point to the idea that nature has an alphabet, or more obscurely a set of hieroglyphics, that we can try to decipher. “Was not he who creates lichens the abettor of Cadmus when he invented letters?” “What are these rivers and hills, these hieroglyphics which my eyes behold?” “A red-wing’s nest, four eggs, low in a tuft of sedge in an open meadow. What Champollion can translate the hieroglyphics on these eggs?”
The most common question in the Journal, if we can call it that, is the most basic: just a question mark in parentheses, suggesting doubt about a statement. This (?) appears about 500 times in the roughly 7,000 pages of the Journal. Thoreau first uses it sometime between 1845 and 1847 (the dating of Thoreau’s early Journal is spotty), to express his uncertainty as to whether Squire Cummings was the owner of the former slave Brister Freeman.
The next occurrence is more typical: a query as to whether a plant he has observed is the wild prince’s feather. Many other such queries follow: “Heard a prolonged dream from frog (?) in the river meadow; or was it a toad?” “Scare up a splendid wood (?) duck, alternate blue and chestnut (?) forward, which flew into and lit in the woods; or was it a teal?” “Did I hear part of the note of a golden-crowned (?) wren this morning?”
Of the “real” questions in the Journal, the most common is undoubtedly “how long?” On November 1, 1851, he writes, “The pitch pines show new buds at the end of their plumes. How long this?” Over the next decade, until the Journal comes to an end, he writes “how long?” more than 170 times, usually when trying to determine the day a flower blooms—part of his project to create a Kalendar of all the yearly phenomena of Concord. “The white ashes are in full bloom now, and how long?” “Tobacco-pipe, how long?”
As Thoreau’s botanical knowledge deepens, his questions about plants become more technical, to the point where in September 1852 he asks, “What is that bidens now just blossomed, rough-stemmed or bristly, with undivided, lanceolate, serrate, and strongly connate leaves, short but conspicuous rays, achenia four-awned and downwardly barbed?” (“B. cernua,” he answers himself in a later note, identifying his mystery plant as the nodding beggartick.)
In March 1857, Thoreau dined with the famous abolitionist John Brown, and talked with him about the struggle in “Bleeding Kansas” between Free Soil and proslavery forces. Late in September 1859, as John Brown is preparing for his raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, Thoreau notices tobacco plants sprouting in the cellar hole of a house that had been pulled down earlier in the year. His thoughts turn to the festering problem of slavery. “What obscene and poisonous weeds, think you, will mark the site of a Slave State?—what kind of Jamestown-weed?”
Following the raid, Thoreau’s furious response to the arrest and trial of John Brown prompts many pages of outrage, condemnation, and pointed questions. October 19: “There sits a tyrant holding fettered four millions of slaves. Here comes their heroic liberator; if he falls, will he not still live? … What is the character of that calm which follows when the law and the slaveholder prevail?” October 21: “What is that that I hear cast overboard? The bodies of the dead, who have found deliverance. That is the way we are diffusing humanity, and all its sentiments with it.”
By October 22, the trickle of disturbing questions has become a torrent.
Is it not possible that an individual may be right and a government wrong? Are laws to be enforced simply because they were made, and declared by any number of men to be good, when they are not good? Is there any necessity for a man’s being a tool to perform a deed of which he disapproves? Is it the intention of lawmakers that good men shall be hung ever? Are judges to interpret the law according to the letter, and not the spirit? Who is it whose safety requires that Captain Brown be hung? Is it indispensable to any Northern man? If you do not wish it, say so distinctly.
On December 2, John Brown was hanged in Virginia. Six days later, Brown was still on Thoreau’s mind, but he was prepared to view his legacy more philosophically.
“When a noble deed is done, who is likely to appreciate it? They who are noble themselves. I am not surprised that certain of my neighbors speak of John Brown as an ordinary felon. Who are they? … How can a man behold the light who has no answering inward light?”
Though his observations of nature were set aside for a while, Thoreau is on the verge of making his most important contribution to science: a theory on the distribution of seeds and the succession of forest trees. His habit of asking why focuses more and more on his dawning understanding of why oak forests succeed pine forests, and vice versa.
On Christmas Day of 1859, not long after the death of John Brown, he turned his attention back to nature, and to the fate of the local forests. “Will not the nobler kinds of trees, which bear comparatively few seeds, grow more and more scarce? What is become of our chestnut wood?”
He spends more and more time studying the stumps, seeds, and sprouts of trees, and asking questions about the spread of trees and other plants.
“By the way, how nearly identical is the range of our pines with the range of our oaks?”
“Some of the largest chestnut stumps have sent up no sprout, yet others equally large and very much more decayed have sent up sprouts. Can this be owing to the different time when they were cut?”
“What if the oaks are far off? Think how quickly a jay can come and go, and how many times in a day!”
“Are not birches interspersed with pines a sign of a new wood?”
“Are animals more likely to plant walnuts in open land than acorns? or is it that walnuts are more likely to live there when planted?”
“If the pine seed is spontaneously generated, why is it not so produced in the Old World as well as in America?”
On December 3, 1860, while counting the rings of tree stumps on a rainy day, he catches a cold that worsens into bronchitis. Until his death in 1862, he is never well again.
Years before the term was coined, Thoreau is becoming an ecologist, an observer not only of plants and animals and landscape but an investigator of the ways they interacted. The process is speeded by his reading of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published in England in 1859 and quickly devoured by Thoreau and the intelligentsia of Massachusetts.
From then on, Thoreau’s thoughts about nature are influenced by his acceptance of evolution, which he calls “the development theory,” and his dismissal of spontaneous generation. In October 18, 1860, he writes, “I see spatterdock pads and pontederia in that little pool at south end of Beck Stow’s. How did they get there? … We are not to suppose as many new creations as pools.”
The idea that Thoreau ceased to be a Transcendentalist in his later years, devoting himself to collecting data, has been largely discredited. The quality of his questions is one more indication that he never ceased balancing science, nature, and the metaphysical, and that his fanciful imagination and his sense of humor never left him. These are all from 1860:
“What if you could witness with owls’ eyes the revelry of the wood mice some night, frisking about the wood like so many little kangaroos?”
“Have we not more finely divided clouds in winter than in summer? flame-shaped, asbestos-like?”
“The crow, flying high, touches the tympanum of the sky for us, and reveals the tone of it. What does it avail to look at a thermometer or barometer compared with listening to his note?”
“You have seen those purple fortunate isles in the sunset heavens, and that green and amber sky between them. Would you believe that you could ever walk amid those isles? You can on many a winter evening. I have done so a hundred times. The ice is a solid crystalline sky under our feet.”
Even the theory of forest succession has its Transcendental side. Oak forests, he writes in January 14, 1861, result from “a kind of accident,” when animals fail to keep or retrieve the seeds they find. “Yet who shall say that they have not a fair knowledge of the value of their labors—that the squirrel when it plants an acorn, or the jay when it lets one slip from under its foot, has not a transient thought for its posterity?”
The final entry of Thoreau’s Journal is about an observation he made on November 3, 1861. (In his illness, as in his early journal keeping, he is no longer so careful about dating his entries.) It does not contain a question, but it takes up a theme of his earlier questions, for the last time. Seeing the ridges of gravel left behind after a storm, he revisits the idea that nature writes itself, in alphabets and hieroglyphics, and that we can learn to read the message. “All this is perfectly distinct to an observant eye, and yet could easily pass unnoticed by most. Thus each wind is self-registering.”
Geoff Wisner is the editor of Thoreau’s Wildflowers (2016) and Thoreau’s Animals (2017), both published by Yale University Press.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Heavenly Questions by Gjertrud Schnackenberg This year, two of our most classically oriented poets have released books of mourning and elegy. But whereas Anne Carson, in Nox, her memorial to her late brother, drew on her long-standing interest in the broken, the partial, the fragmented, Gjertrud Schackenberg in Heavenly Questions does almost the opposite, offering...
- Fourteen Questions for Jean-Philippe Toussaint There are three disclaimers to be made. First, I work for a literary publishing house (Dalkey Archive) that is currently publishing this man, Jean-Philippe Toussaint. We keep reprinting his old books, signing on new ones—we cannot get enough of him. Second, he is also one of my own favorite writers,...
- The Journal of Henry David Thoreau edited by Damion Searls The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, edited by Damion Searls. NYRB Classics. 700 pp, $22.95. Walden is surely one of the greatest American books. Whether we measure it by its influence on the lives of its readers, by the precision of its language, by the number of memorable sentences it...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Geoff Wisner