Rebecca Solnit, Henry Thoreau, and Huckleberries

by Evan Edwards


In her article, “The Thoreau Problem,” Rebecca Solnit begins by drawing our attention to the mythical place that huckleberries play in Thoreau’s writing. In his two most famous texts — Walden and “Civil Disobedience” — Thoreau recounts the story of being taken by the authorities for not paying a tax that would go toward paying for the Mexican-American war. For Thoreau, this war was unjust not because it was an act of violence, as is commonly believed, but because he thought it was little more than a thinly veiled attempt on the part of the American government to take land that rightfully belonged to another nation. His resistance to the war was then similar to his resistance to slavery and to the genocide of native Americans: these things constituted an infringement on the right to self-determination, and further that this infringement was “the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool.” Thoreau writes, in both Walden and “Civil Disobedience,” that when he was released from jail, he went straight to the huckleberry field “to get [his] dinner…on Fair-Haven Hill.” Solnit calls our attention to this repeated story to pose the following question: why did Thoreau consider “the conjunction of prisons and berry parties, of the landscape of incarceration and of pastoral pleasure” significant?

This question seems to me to have two separate but interrelated parts. First, we might want to ask why Thoreau thought to go to the huckleberry field after a night of incarceration in the first place. If you have ever spent a night (or longer) in jail, you will know that such an experience is not pleasant, it is dehumanizing, terrifying, and demoralizing. After such an experience, we might more readily expect Thoreau to go home, take a shower, sleep, or seek out a friend. That he chooses to, almost nonchalantly, go to a huckleberry field should give us moment to pause and consider the significance of this decision. Second, we might want to ask why Thoreau thought to tell us that he went to the huckleberry field after being in jail. He is a deliberate writer—he went through seven full drafts in nearly ten years in the process of writing Walden, and each draft shows an increasing precision in his choice of words, concepts, and structure—and so the choice to include this detail in his account is significant. The fact that he does not end his account of incarceration with his release suggests that for him, there is something significant about placing the experience of being in jail alongside the experience of going “a’huckleberrying.”

Solnit argues that to understand this significance, we have to consider a widely held, but incorrect, understanding of Thoreau’s philosophy. Namely, that he was primarily a transcendental mystic and naturalist, and that his political and ethical philosophy was disconnected and superadded to his naturalism. She argues that this perspective—the one that “permits no conversation, let alone any unity, between Thoreau the rebel…and that other Thoreau who wrote about autumnal tints, ice, light, color, grasses, woodchucks, and other natural histories”—is misguided because it believes that “conscience is an imposition upon consciousness” and views “engagement as a hijacker rather than a rudder, interference with one’s true purpose rather than perhaps at least part of that purpose.” This is misguided because Thoreau, as we will see, in fact considers “nature writing” to be nearly synonymous with ethical, political, and economic philosophy. In Walden, which begins with a chapter called “Economy,” is as much about the flora and fauna around Walden pond as it is about ethics, political economy, and lessons in practical tasks like farming. The significance of the conjunction between incarceration and huckleberries, then, stems from the fact that Thoreau finds something in the act of picking huckleberries that reveals more about prisons than we might at first expect. Solnit, because of the brevity of her article and because she does not give a reading of Thoreau’s late text on huckleberries, does not do much to show what this lesson might be, so we will have to return to address that shortly.

First, however, I want to pose one more problem. Solnit argues that the common misreading of Thoreau stems from a wider problem in our society which makes a hard and fast distinction between “environmental literature” and other types of writing. This separation of genres might give us cause for thought, insofar as it forces us to ask the question: what is environmental literature in the first place? If it is “simply” writing about the environment, then the deeper question emerges: what is an “environment?” Unless we are terribly myopic, we must admit that the environment is what environs us, and as such, environmental writing is about the city as well as the country, urban trees as well as Sequoias, human suffering as much as animal suffering, &c. In other words, if we take Solnit and Thoreau’s suggestion that environmental writing is not confined to commenting on the beauty of nature, but in fact must include discussions of cities, human rights, politics, &c. we run the risk of overgeneralization rather than myopia. So how do we find a balance between these two extremes?

Perhaps by turning to Thoreau’s text, we can begin to consider these two issues more closely.


* * *

In the 1850s, the last decade of his life, Thoreau began to write more extensively on natural history and phenomena than before. In 1853, he encountered the work of Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian naturalist whose work Kosmos proposed a unified vision of the universe, one in which nature and human culture were continuous with one another. Humboldt’s vision of the kosmos was one in which the earth as a whole had to be considered a kind of organic totality, with biological, geological, hydrological, climactic, and cultural processes being simply so many aspects of one unified process of “life.” Thoreau was already beginning to think in this way when he wrote in 1851 that “the earth I tread on is not a dead inert mass,” but is rather “a body — has a spirit — is organic — and fluid to the influence of its spirit — and to whatever particle of that spirit is in me.” His reading of Humboldt convinced him that in order to really understand the significance of this insight, he had to attend to the minutiae of natural processes, understand their regularity, and get to know the wildlife and plants in his immediate environment. Throughout the 1850s, then, he took thousands of pages worth of notes on the ecosystem around Concord, MA. Shortly after he contracted bronchitis in 1859, he realized he was going to soon die and put together a collection of essays based on these observations. “Huckleberries” was one of these late “nature essays.”

This selection from the longer essay begins by wondering about the relation between the education we get in nature and the one we get in school. He writes that “I well remember with what a sense of freedom and spirit of adventure I used to take my way across the fields with my pail…and I would not now exchange such an expansion of all my being for all the learning in the world.” He goes on to write that “liberation and enlargement” are the fruit “which all culture aims to secure,” and that these fruits are ones he found alongside the huckleberries. The education and “liberation and enlargement” that came from huckleberrying were not different in kind from the kind of education that he got in school. Rather, he found himself “in a schoolroom where [he] could not fail to see and hear things worth seeing and hearing.” That is, his time in the fields made it so that what he learned in class was more significant, more real, and more apparent to him than if he had simply read. This suggests that for him, the lessons of nature are continuous with those of school: “such experience often repeated was the chief encouragement to go to the Academy and study a book at last.”

That he describes “liberation and enlargement” as fruits that “culture aims to secure” is important for several reasons. First, we see in it his characteristic argumentative strategy: analogical reasoning. For Thoreau, following his friend and mentor Ralph Emerson, we find in nature analogies to human life. Analogy works by suggesting that we can better understand one thing by seeing its similarity to something else that we can perhaps see more clearly. For example, “honesty is like the sun.” We learn something about honesty by identifying in it characteristics that are easy to see in something else, so this analogy might mean that honesty shines a light on things, but it can also burn us. So secondly, by making an analogy between “liberation and enlargement” and fruits, Thoreau attempts to show us something about the ideals of human culture. Liberation and enlargement are, like fruits, not something that can be forced, but rather must be cultivated. They can be found cultivated by nature in the wild, like huckleberries, or they can be grown, cared for, and tended to by human artifice. Finally, by stating that all “culture” aims to secure these advantages, Thoreau makes a secondary, and more subtle analogy between what we normally think of as culture (religion, art, philosophy, economy, &c.) and the more original understanding of culture as cultura and colere, Latin terms that mean cultivation and growth and were originally used in agricultural contexts. In other words, Thoreau, in this short passage, makes a strong analogy between the purposes of human life and the purposes of nature, suggesting that all cultivation (human or otherwise) tends toward, as J.S. Mill and Walt Whitman put it, “freedom and variety.” So, going huckleberrying is not only something we do when we go out in fields, but it is also, by analogy, something that we do in human society. It is “natural” to want freedom and variety, liberation and enlargement, and in order to get it, we must tend to it the way that nature and the farmer tend to their plants and fruits.

“But ah we have fallen on evil days,” Thoreau writes. “I hear of pickers ordered out of the huckleberry fields, and I see stakes set up with written notices forbidding any to pick them.” The problem, as Thoreau sees it, is in the institution of private property. More specifically, it is in the way that private property divides up the land in order to make one part the exclusive property of a person. He identifies this division of the land with the division of labor, suggesting that the reason A, B, C, and D only get a part of the fruit is that they miss out on the picking, the making of the tool to harvest, the cooking of the fruit, and the philosophical/scientific reflection on the plant. By dividing our lives like we divide the land (in fact because we divide the land), we only taste one fifth of the fruit itself.

With the analogy above in mind, we can see the significance of this claim. The division of labor (as well as the division of disciplines into “nature writing” and other kinds of writing) obscures so much of what we could taste of “liberation and enlargement” if we sought out the interconnections between disciplines and topics, or viewed them as all pursuing a similar end. Abolition, the cessation of imperialist wars, and the desire for justice for Native Americans are all, for Thoreau, oriented toward this same end: liberation and enlargement, freedom and diversity. To see a significant distinction between going to jail for refusing to pay for the Mexican-American war and going huckleberrying is to miss this central analogy.