Excursions: The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau
Edited by Joseph J. Moldenhauer
Princeton University, 650 pp., illustrated, $65
The Intelligence of Flowers
By Maurice Maeterlinck
Translated, from the French, by Philip Mosley
State University of New York, 77 pp., $38.50; paperback, $12.95
"Books of natural history make the most cheerful winter reading," suggested Henry David Thoreau, and since flurries have been flying pretty much continuously past my windows this month, I thought I'd take his advice.
Thoreau, as you may or may not know, wrote somewhere around a gazillion sentences. "I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes," he wrote in 1853, "over 700 of which I wrote myself." Despite being prolific, though, Thoreau published just two books in his life: "Walden" and "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers." Subsequent efforts to assemble posthumous books from his trove of journals, letters, and essays were often haphazard.
So in 1966, a handful of scholars decided to put things right and publish a definitive edition of Thoreau's oeuvre. It would correct mistakes in earlier versions, serve up plenty of biographical and textual context, and present lots of unpublished material.
After 42 years, "The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau" project is halfway done. Thirty volumes are planned; the 15th has just been published. At this rate, it will take 39 years longer to produce the exhaustive edition of Thoreau's work than it did for Thoreau to live his life.
The new volume, "Excursions," contains nine of Thoreau's essays, written between 1842 and 1862. Only one, "The Landlord," is dull. The best are the exuberant "Natural History of Massachusetts"; the sweet "A Winter Walk"; a paean to going for walks called, simply enough, "Walking"; and a mildly arrogant speech Thoreau gave at a cattle fair explaining how oak forests can spring up where pine forests have been cut down, "An Address on the Succession of Forest Trees." At $65, "Excursions" is frighteningly expensive, but the edition reeks with judiciousness: Over half its pages are taken up with supporting material, compiled by editor Joseph J. Moldenhauer, and even readers who don't know Thoreau's work, or shudder at textual notes, will find plenty of interesting material inside.
Another important, long-dead essayist and naturalist had an interesting book reissued at the end of 2007 - Maurice Maeterlinck.
I know, Maeterlinck is not exactly a household name. But it used to be. The Belgian won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911 and was, for a while, one of the most widely read authors in the world. And yet, as his translator, Philip Mosley, notes, "It is revealing of current critical judgment that [Maeterlinck] is not included in a recent one-thousand-page encyclopedia of the essay as literary genre."
This is a shame, because Maeterlinck is a seductive essayist, and clearly an heir to Thoreau's transcendent euphoria. Maeterlinck's "The Intelligence of Flowers" is a slim book, not quite 80 pages, and it is given to plenty of poetic ecstasy: sage stigmas are housed in a "nuptial pavilion," louseworts enclose their anthers in a "silken tabernacle," and orchids entice insects to alight on a "magnificent forecourt of bronzed silk."
Orchids are "wise" and "astute"; the Italian catchfly is "very fearful, very sensitive." Indeed, Maeterlinck senses a general intelligence emanating from all things, not just flowers or people, and goes so far as to imagine a sort of "universal fluid" that penetrates all living things and runs like a subtle electricity in us.
But, despite his quaint romanticism, Maeterlinck is first and foremost a ruthless observer, and, as with Thoreau, this saves him from making a fool of himself to modern readers. Maeterlinck is careful to frequently mend his enthusiasm with lines like "Only those who have barely studied it would claim that nature never errs."
Ultimately, Maeterlinck writes with the same intrinsic humility that will be familiar to admirers of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, or Mary Oliver. His conclusions match Thoreau's: That we humans are only part of a network of much greater systems, and that we occupy a position in those systems located at neither the pinnacle nor the center.
"Excursions" is a portrait of a man who thinks nothing of kneeling in the forest for an hour and counting 239 pinecones a red squirrel has stripped and stacked. "The Intelligence of Flowers" is a portrait of a man who thinks nothing of peering into his garden wall and sticking a matchstick into the nectary of an orchid.
"We follow the same path as the soul of this great world," Maeterlinck wrote. What better time than winter to be reminded of that?
Anthony Doerr is the author of "The Shell Collector," "About Grace," and "Four Seasons in Rome."