Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Excursions by Henry David Thoreau

Hikes with Henry
Excursions, a collection of essays by Henry David Thoreau, was published in 1863, the year after the author’s death. The nine essays collected here had all been published previously in magazines and journals. The book opens, however, with a “Biographical Sketch” of Thoreau, written by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. This tribute, penned after Thoreau’s death, is far more than a “sketch” but rather a full-blown eulogy, and perhaps one of the greatest literary eulogies every written. Through personal anecdotes drawn from his close friendship with the deceased, Emerson really gives the reader a deep insight into Thoreau’s personality, convictions, philosophy, and humor.

Thoreau is of course best known for his classic memoir Walden, in which he combined vivid and poetic nature writing with his personal manifesto of individualism and nonconformity. Many readers may also be familiar with his more politically tinged works of social commentary like “Civil Disobedience” or “Life Without Principle.” The essays in Excursions, however, are absent of politics, light on philosophy, and almost solely concerned with nature. The contents really do represent a series of excursions in which Thoreau uses a particular hike as a starting point to expound on topics of natural history. Though Thoreau may offer the occasional poetic stanza or nugget of social commentary, here he primarily acts as naturalist, regaling the reader with his empirical observations of the woods, fields, and mountains. The one exception that does have the qualities of a manifesto is his 1862 essay “Walking,” in which Thoreau criticizes the culture of so-called civilized society as a shameful rejection of nature. He asserts that only by constructing a culture around nature rather than in spite of it can mankind truly advance intellectually.

The relative success of the other eight selections depends on how well Thoreau conveys the sublime experience of his walks and how much interesting scientific information he imparts in the process. “Wild Apples,” for example, is a pleasant read because you really do learn a lot about apple trees, and Thoreau makes apple-tasting sound like it’s the most enjoyable activity ever. “Autumnal Tints” is another fine piece in which he examines various species of colorful New England flora. Essays like “A Winter Walk” and “Night and Moonlight,” on the other hand, are less successful because they provide less practical naturalism and instead opt for more poetic observations and allusions to mythology, meaning the reader learns less about nature. “Natural History of Massachusetts,” “A Walk to Wachusett,” and “The Succession of Forest Trees” all strike a fine balance between keen empirical observation, home-spun wisdom, and charming travel writing. The one anomaly in the book’s contents is “The Landlord,” which isn’t nature writing at all but rather Thoreau’s tribute to the profession of country innkeeper.

In general I prefer Thoreau’s writings of the philosophical manifesto variety, so I was less impressed by this volume of nature writings. There are passages in Excursions where Thoreau’s descriptions of the natural world rival those found in his masterpiece Walden, but with the exception of “Walking,” the pieces here never ascend to the level of an inspirational guide to living or a stirring call to arms the way his greatest works do. Still, reading Excursions is often almost as enjoyable as a real walk in the woods, and if you consider yourself a nature lover, who better to guide you on your virtual hike than Thoreau?

Essays in this collection
Biographical Sketch by Ralph Waldo Emerson 
Natural History of Masachusetts
A Walk to Wachusett 
The Landlord
A Winter Walk
The Succession of Forest Trees 
Autumnal Tints
Wild Apples 
Night and Moonlight

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