Sunday, April 24, 2011

In What Book

April 7, 2011
Spring Run Trail, Saratoga Springs, NY

It is only when we forget all our learning
that we begin to know.

I do not get nearer by a hair’s breadth to any natural object
so long as I presume that I have an introduction to it from some learned man.
To conceive of it with a total apprehension
I must for the thousandth time approach it as something totally strange.
If you would make acquaintance with the ferns
you must forget your botany.

You must get rid of what is commonly called knowledge of them.
Not a single scientific term or distinction is the least to the purpose,
for you would fain perceive something,
and you must approach the object totally unprejudiced.
You must be aware that
no thing is what you have taken it to be.

HDT’s Journal, Oct 4, 1859

Today’s quotation is full of irony. After all, I have just begun to “make acquaintance,” slowly filling a bookshelf with all sorts of field guides, and trying to learn whatever I can about the things I see in my walks.
It would be nice if I could use the scientific terms instead of saying,
“That pointy thing on the flower.”
(Are there courses in Botany as a Second Language?!)

And I consider it a great pleasure and honor to accompany “learned men”
(and women),
which is what I did today.
I went a-walking with the Thursday Naturalists !

The meeting place was at the fairly new Spring Run Trail.
Jackie introduced me all 'round to these folks, who are energetic and knowledgeable.

Leading the walk was Ruth Schottman, famously wise in the ways of plants – yet as we pointed them out along the trail, she greeted each one with the enthusiasm of someone seeing it for the first time.

She carried a book which was well-worn, but obviously loved.

It was one of those days so rare this spring -- above freezing, and sunny. Despite the snow lining the path, there was plenty to see and marvel at.

 Hazel trees were bursting with tiny pink stars, and alders stood loaded with dangling yellow catkins.

Ah yes, we must determine exactly WHICH type of alders they were.

 Last year’s burdock stood along the brook,

the hooked burrs looking to hitch a ride to anywhere.

This trail is a recent addition to the fine system of local trails in Saratoga County.
Along the way, a reminder of how brooks were once treated.

Nowadays things are different, and abandoned waysides like these are coming to life in a new way.

As if to prove the point, we saw stumps, vigorously sprouting.

Beside a small brook, skunk cabbage was melting the snow with its chemically-created body-heat.

Sheltered inside, one of spring’s first flowers – though it hardly looks (or smells) like one.

One skunk cabbage looked more like an eggplant, squatting there amongst the liverwort.

Which itself is an interesting thing to see, with its lizardy cell structure.

Just as we did when we were nine years old, we played happily in the brook.

By the time we returned to the parking area, the scent of skunk-cabbage was forgotten as we got a whiff of something much more pleasant - the wood-fired grill of a local hot-dog vendor!

We dined al fresco in the warm sunshine.

It was a fine day to be outdoors, to meet some very interesting people, and to see some signs of spring – including coltsfoot, which Jackie described as “the first spring flower to actually LOOK like a flower.”

It's a beautiful sight. A little bit of sunshine at your feet.

I think maybe I understand what Thoreau is saying. Of course, he also started out learning in the traditional way. A Harvard graduate (Class of 1837), he perused ancient Roman texts on the natural cycles of the year, consulted the few field guides that existed back then (Gray's Botany, 1848 edition), gathered specimens for Agassiz (both plant and animal, something he later regretted), and was among the first to read and champion Darwin. Yes, he listened eagerly to the “learned men” of his time.

He also spent many an hour talking with neighbors. He not only participated in the stimulating Conversations at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home, but also sought the advice of the local old-timers –- farmers, muskrat trappers, Canadian wood-choppers. On his Maine excursions, pummelled his Penobscot guides with questions.

Some of his most treasured books were not science books, but volumes on Hindu and Asian scriptures, gifted to him by a friend. He built a custom-fitted box for these books, using driftwood gathered during his paddles on the Concord River.
As years went on, he didn't care to join organizations, and rather starts to sound a lot more zen in his attitude toward nature. 

Above all he trusted his own direct experience. Throughout his life, he explored that balance point between the poetic and the scientific outlooks. He seems to say here that you can be tilted too much toward one extreme or the other -- that you need to stay open for new experiences, and let the heart lead the way, sometimes.

[same Journal entry, continued right where we left off:]
In what book is this world and its beauty described?
Who has plotted the steps toward the discovery of beauty?
You have got to be in a different state from common.
Your greatest success will be simply
to perceive that such things are,
and you will have no communication to make
to the Royal Society.


  1. Yes, 'sounds like a great walk of discovery!
    So can you tell me what the book was that Ruth used in the field, herself?

  2. hello catharus,
    unfortunately I don't know the book, it had wonderful drawings though and it looks like it had a lot of miles on it- if I ever find out, I can let you know!
    some of the best field guides are older books that you can keep an eye out for at book sales.

  3. I have never seen a more exquisite photo of Coltsfoot! Nor noticed the miniature lilies sprouting there around the center. Amazing! And that eggplant-purple Skunk Cabbage is pretty nice, too.

  4. hi Jackie, sometimes it's a real surprise when you get home and see things in the photo that you weren't able to see at the time !
    a bonus as it were ...