Henry Thoreau and New England Bioregionalism

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Author: Yeojin Kim (The University of Nebraska-Lincoln) | © Yeojin Kim 2016

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In his lecture “An Address on the Succession of Forest Trees” that he delivered at the Middlesex Agricultural Society in 1860, Thoreau introduces himself as a land surveyor and a naturalist: “In my capacity of surveyor, I have often talked with some of you, my employers, at your dinner-tables, after having gone round and round and behind your farming, and ascertained exactly what its limits were. Moreover, taking a surveyor’s and a naturalist’s liberty, I have been in the habit of going across your lots much oftener than is usual” (“Succession” 225-226). In this essay, I would suggest that the two appellations, “naturalist” and “surveyor,” aptly summarize the life-long career of Thoreau. In my other essay titled, “Mapping Thoreau’s Bioregionalism,” I discuss how one could view Thoreau’s major works as a form of mapping that “subverts the conventional land-surveying of his time” by offering “a deep-map narrative of a bioregion” that would in turn “divest a region of its political markers and return it to a bioregion, or a life-place.”1 In this essay, I aim to explore the “spiritual” dimension of New England bioregionalism by examining Henry Thoreau’s “An Address on the Succession of Forest Trees,” Herman Melville’s “The Apple-Tree Table,” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Artist of the Beautiful,” while using the metamorphoses of the seed and the larva as the two analytical levers to get a handle on the idea of eternal return conveyed by the three pieces of New England bioregionalist writing.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 New England bioregionalism, or sense of place and environmental ethics deeply entwined with the local ecologies and natural history of the Northeastern Costal Forests, is distinguished by the fact that this bioregion incubated the Euro-American settler colonialism in North America. The rich soil of this bioregion became the good pasture land for grain and timber that the influx of newly arriving Euro-American settler colonizers sought out and coveted. The esoteric, Gothic, and Romantic traditions in which each of the three authors participated to a degree, I think, suggest the troubled and hunted mind of Euro-American settlers, who crossed the Atlantic in search of a place to set up life. Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, for example, weaves into the narrative the guilt conscious of the Pyncheon family, the genre of romance, and the esoteric tradition of sorcery, as well as New England local ecologies. Confronted with many threats that the new climate, biota, and constant conflicts with indigenous tribes posed for them, these settlers would have felt the impulse to seek a meaning out of all the confusions, or an order around which to structure their lives. As Arthur Versluis aptly posits, the idea of eternal life occupied the mind of New England settlers, whose Puritan beliefs rested on the resurrection of life after death. Thus, Versluis concludes that New England settlers’ preoccupation with immortality from Colonial America well into the Antebellum Period seems to be part and parcel of the esoteric currents of early America, including Hermeticism, Neoplatonism, alchemy, herbalism, and folk magic.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Among these esoteric traditions, Versluis especially highlights alchemy, which “permeated the New England consciousness” (29). According to Versluis, alchemy that involves “the mysterious art and science of the transmutation chiefly of plants and metals” (29) was prevalent throughout the American colonies, presumably due to settlers’ longing for “restoration of paradise” (30) in the new environment that they now found themselves in. The metamorphoses of the seed and the larva in the three texts that I would examine in this essay, therefore, must have posed something more profound and metaphysical to Thoreau’s contemporaries. They would have meant the eternal return of a life-cycle that not only involves the realm of flora and fauna but also that of humans. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the works of the three authors all anticipate the eternal return of life, or resurrection of life.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Interestingly, Versluis posits that “it is clear that the genesis of Hawthorne’s focus on the elixir of life was his purchase of ‘The Wayside,’ a house on the eastern edge of Concord, Massachusetts, about which Thoreau had told him ‘it was inhabited a generation or two ago by a man who believed he should never die'” (83). Thoreau’s comment on “The Wayside” reveals to us his awareness of the New England esoteric quest for the Elixir of Life. It becomes all the more intriguing, therefore, that Thoreau regularly sauntered around the premises of the Winthrop family house, or the old Hunt house, that was built on the land that belonged to John Winthrop (1588-1649), the first governor of Massachusetts. As Versluis notes, “John Winthrop Jr. (1606-76), the son of John Winthrop the Elder (1588-1649) the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the founder of Boston,” owned “many alchemical books” and was “a spagyric physician” himself (31-32). In “The Succession of Forest Trees,” Thoreau recounts how he discovered some rare plant species at the house site after it was taken down in the spring of 1859:For many years I have ransacked this neighborhood for plants, and I consider myself familiar with its productions. Thinking of the seeds which are said to be sometimes dug up at an unusual depth in the earth, and thus to reproduce long extinct plants, it occurred to me last fall that some new or rare plants might have sprung up in the cellar of this house, which had been covered from the light so long. Searching there on the 22d of September, I found, among other rank weeds, a species of nettle (Urtica urens) which I had not found before; dill, which I had not seen growing spontaneously; the Jerusalem oak (Chenoppodium Botrys), which I had seen wild in but one place; black nightshade (Solanum nigrum), which is quite rare hereabouts, and common tobacco, which, though it was often cultivated here in the last century, has for fifty years been an unknown plant in this town . . . I have no doubt that some or all of these plants sprang from seeds which had long been buried under or about that house, and that that tobacco is an additional evidence that the plant was formerly cultivated here. (“Succession” 240-241)

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 “The Succession of Forest Trees,” actually draws upon a portion of The Dispersion of Seeds, a 354-page manuscript produced by Thoreau from 1852 to 1862 that records the activities of local biotic communities and the seasonal changes of a local ecology. Throughout this work, Thoreau reveals his keen awareness of the mechanism of evolution by way of dispersion and succession. While social Darwinism or politicized version of evolutionism indeed helped to tout the Eurocentric accounts of the biological expansion of European species into the Americas, Thoreau “becomes native” to a place by aligning himself with local biotic communities. One could even read The Dispersion of Seeds as Thoreau’s subversive dialogues with some of the most prominent scientific discourses of Europe that easily overlook the indigenous biotic communities in North America. The part that appears in “The Succession of Forest Trees,” most crucially, engages with Darwin’s following statement in On the Origin of Species: “Every one has heard that when an American forest is cut down, a very different vegetation springs up” (59). Darwin speculates, “What a struggle between the several kinds of trees must here have gone on during long centuries” (59-60). Thoreau, by contrast, sees the intricacy of interrelations among various components of a local ecology where Darwin simply describes “the war of nature.” Pointing toward the woodlot of Concord that is alternately occupied by a pine wood and an oak, Thoreau simply highlights the fact that this is the land of mixed-forests, consisting of pines, oaks, birches, and other hardwoods, “sprung from seeds carried into the ticket by squirrels and other animals, and also blown thither” (Dispersion 105). Instead of perceiving nature as a venue for endless competitions among a myriad of organisms trying to occupy a favorable position, Thoreau urges us to see it as a place for the eternal return of a life-cycle.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Earlier, in the Conclusion chapter of Walden, Thoreau tells us “the story which has gone the rounds of New England, of a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree wood” (324). Frank Davidson observes that Thoreau’s last remarks on the bug that crawled out of the apple-tree table in Walden may have inspired Melville to produce his short story “The Apple-Tree Table.”2 Though the original source of Melville’s short story is disputable, it seems clear that both Thoreau and Melville were familiar with the New England regional story about the bug hatched from an egg deposited in an apple-tree table.3 The table was purchased by Mr. Putnam, who had it for twenty years when the insect crawled out of the egg. There were sixty grains in the wood, and the table was owned by Mr. Putnam for twenty years, so in total, at least “eighty years had elapsed between the laying of the egg, and the birth of the insect” (qtd. in Sackman 449). In what follows, I would compare how Thoreau and Melville tell the same story in their own ways and discuss what this would reveal to us regarding the spiritual aspect of New England bioregionalism.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 In Walden, Thoreau only spends a paragraph to introduce the apple-tree table story. Precisely because of such brevity, it is important to note which aspects of the story Thoreau has chosen to include. For example, Thoreau narrates the trajectory with which the apple-tree table journeyed. He notes that “an old table of apple-tree wood” once “stood in a farmer’s kitchen for sixty years, first in Connecticut, and afterward in Massachusetts” (324). He then draws his own conclusion from the story:Who does not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality strengthened by hearing of this? Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, deposited at first in the laburnum of the green and living tree, which has been gradually converted into the semblance of its well-seasoned tomb,–heard perchance gnawing out now for years by the astonished family of man, as they sat round the festive board,–may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society’s most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last! (324-325)

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 This is a culminating paragraph in the Conclusion of Walden. One can easily surmise that Thoreau is identifying himself with the bug that emerges from the apple-tree table, “unexpectedly,” after a long period of dormancy to at last “enjoy its perfect summer life.” We could also take a step further and posit that Walden has likewise emerged from the long period of writing, revisions, and editing, at last, to surprise us with its unprecedented beauty and truth. It is worth comparing this paragraph with the one that precedes it by a few pages in the same chapter:I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. (313-315)To Thoreau, there is no higher law than that of nature. By becoming native to a local ecology and pursuing the careers of land surveyor and naturalist, Thoreau seems to be endeavoring to find the true meaning of being in this world.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 In the meanwhile, Melville’s short story was first published in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine in May 1856. Its original title was “The Apple-Tree Table; Or Original Spiritual Manifestations.” Woven into Melville’s short story are the two contrasting views of looking at natural phenomena in Antebellum New England, epitomized by Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana and Democritus the rational philosopher, who proves any possibility of spiritual phenomena absurd. As Megan Mulder explains, Mather’s Magnalia, which consists of “his epic and exhaustive account of 17th-century Puritan New England,” offers “many accounts of the signs and ‘wonders’ experienced by the colonists as evidences of God’s direct intervention in human affairs” and “Hawthorne, Poe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and many others borrowed Mather’s source material as they formed a mythology of America’s origins.”4 In Melville’s short story, the narrator, who discovers the apple-tree table along with the copy of Mather’s Magnalia, studies both the table and the book as some strange sounds are heard from the table. Unlike Thoreau, who cheerfully narrates the same story, Melville incorporates into his story some of the Gothic and Romantic elements demonstrated by such authors as Poe and Hawthorne. Melville, nevertheless, seems to diverge from these traditions by having Professor Johnson explicate the mysterious emergence of the insect in scientific terms:The incident was not wholly without example. The wood of the table was apple-tree, a sort of tree much fancied by various insects. The bugs had come from eggs laid inside the bark of the living tree in the orchard. By careful examination of the position of the hole from which the last bug had emerged, in relation to the cortical layers of the slab, and then allowing for the inch and a half along the grain, ere the bug had eaten its way entirely out, and then computing the whole number of cortical layers in the slab, with a reasonable conjecture for the number cut off from the outside, it appeared that the egg must have been laid in the tree some ninety years, more or less, before the tree could have been felled. (50)

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Melville, however, renders the conclusion of the story more obscure. While he contrasts Mather and Democritus throughout the story–calling the former “doleful, ghostly, ghastly” and praising the latter by exclaiming, “Democritus forever”–Melville in the end does not entirely denounce Mather. For example, after listening to Professor Johnson’s computation of the age of the table and the bug, the narrator asks his wife, “after that scientific statement of the case (though, I confess, I don’t exactly understand it), where are your spirits?” (50). To which, his wife Julia answers, “say what you will, if this beauteous creature be not a spirit, it yet teaches a spiritual lesson. For if, after one hundred and seventy years’ entombment, a mere insect comes forth at last into light, itself an effulgence, shall there be no glorified resurrection for the spirit of man? Spirits! Spirits!” (51). Julia then adds, “I still believe in spirits, only now I believe in them with delight, when before I but thought of them with terror” (51).

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Hence, in the apple-tree table story, Melville suggests that New Englanders, now more equipped than ever with the enlightened mind and the development of science, could better understand the seemingly mysterious phenomena of the new environment, while not totally abandoning their faiths in the spirit and resurrection; only, they do not fear as much as before because now they can better appreciate the natural phenomena that surround them. In so doing, Melville reconciles New England transcendentalism with science.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Interestingly, Scott Harshbarger identifies Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Artist of the Beautiful” as the major inspiration for Melville’s “Apple-Tree Table.” The main reason for this argument is that “both stories grapple with the spirit/matter dichotomy by presenting characters who, for a variety of reasons, respond differently and dramatically to either or both sides of this dualism” (Harshbarger 187). In this short story, Hawthorne presents the portrait of Owen Warland as a struggling artist who strives toward “the spiritualization of matter” (140). After much struggle, Warland produces the butterfly that “represented the intellect, the imagination, the sensibility, the soul of an Artist of the Beautiful” (147). Hawthorne, however, ends the story by crushing it in a snatch of a little child. What is more important, however, is Warland’s response to such a tragic incident:[H]e looked placidly at what seemed the ruin of his life’s labor, and which was yet no ruin. He had caught a far other butterfly than this. When the artist rose high enough to achieve the beautiful, the symbol by which he made it perceptible to mortal senses became of little value in his eyes while his spirit possessed itself in the enjoyment of the reality. (150)

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 In this conclusion, Hawthorne almost seems to prioritize spirit over matter. However, one should bear in mind that Warland could produce his masterpiece after a long period of indulgence in observing nature, while finding “amusement in chasing butterflies or watching the motions of water insects” and “contemplat[ing] these living playthings as they sported on the breeze or examin[ing] the structure of an imperial insect whom he had imprisoned” (138). In other words, Hawthorne is ultimately endeavoring after “the spiritualization of matter,” which many other New England bioregional writers likewise pursued.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Thoreau also offers the portrait of the artist of Kouroo in the Conclusion chapter of Walden. Just like Warland who defied “the measurement of time” and came to reach the realm of eternity, the artist of Kouroo also aims to “strive after perfection” (317). As Thoreau writes, “His singleness of purpose and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth. As he made no compromise with Time, Time kept out of his way, and only sighed at a distance because he could not overcome him” (306). The concluding chapter of Walden, therefore, could be read as Thoreau’s revelation of Elixir of Life–the eternal truth of higher law, which so many of his predecessors sought out and with which he emerged from Walden after his two year and two month sojourn there. For Thoreau the Naturalist and Surveyor, to survey a bioregion meant not so much “to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century” as “to gravitate toward that which most strongly and rightfully attracts” him (320).

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 So far, this essay has strived to show the spiritual aspect of New England bioregionalism by tracing the idea of eternal life embedded in the local ecologies in the textual representations of the bioregion by the three authors. As Hawthorne has aptly put it, to understand New England bioregionalism would ultimately require us to see the “spiritualization of matter” in one’s place.

Works Cited

  • 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0
  • Cook. Jonathan A. “The Typological Design of Melville’s ‘The Apple-Tree Table.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 40-2 (1998): 121-141.
  • Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of the Species. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Davidson, Frank. “Melville, Thoreau, and ‘The Apple-Tree Table.'” American Literature 25-4 (1954): 479-488.
  • Harshbarger, Scott. “Bugs and Butterflies: Conflict and Transcendence in ‘The Artist of the Beautiful’ and ‘The Apple-Tree Table.'” Studies in Short Fiction 26 (1989): 186-9.
  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Artist of the Beautiful.” Mosses from an Old Manse and Other Stories. London: Aeterna Publishing, 2010. 132-150.
  • —. The House of the Seven Gables. New York: Collier Books, 1962.
  • Kim, Yeojin. “Mapping Thoreau’s Bioregionalism” Thoreau Society Bulletin 293 (Spring 2016): 1-3.
  • Melville, Herman. “The Apple-Tree Table.” The Apple-Tree Table and Other Sketches. Princeton, Princeton UP, 1922. 9-51.
  • —. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. 1857. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Company, 1968.
  • Mulder, Megan. “Magnalia Christi Americana by Cotton Mather (1702).” Rare Book of the Month at ZSR Library Online: https://zsr.wfu.edu/2011/magnalia-christi-americana-by-cotton-mather-1702/.
  • Oliver, Egbert S. “Melville’s Picture of Emerson and Thoreau in The Confidence-Man,” College English 8-2 (1946): 61-72.
  • Sackman, Douglas. “The Original of Melville’s Apple-Tree Table.” American Literature (1939-40): 448-451.
  • Thoreau, Henry David. “An Address on the Succession of Forest Trees.” Essays. Ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer. New Haven: Yale UP, 2013. 225-242.
  • —. Faith in a Seed: The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings. Ed. Bradley P. Dean. Washington D.C.: Island P, 1993.
  • —. Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition. 1854. Ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer. New Haven: Yale UP, 2004.
  • Versluis, Arthur. The Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.


  1. 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0
  2. See Yeojin Kim, “Mapping Thoreau’s Bioregionalism” Thoreau Society Bulletin 293 (Spring 2016): 1-3.

  3. 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 While if Thoreau’s Walden really influenced Melville’s composition of “The Apple-Tree Table” cannot easily be determined, Melville’s rather pejorative caricature of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau in his last novel The Confidence-Man (1857) suggests that Melville was indeed conscious of the two New England transcendentalists. In the novel, we meet Mark Winsome the mystic and his disciple Egbert, who are obviously modeled after Emerson and Thoreau. Curiously, Melville describes the two at best as apathetic, aloof snobs. As Egbert S. Oliver notes, however, Melville greatly admired Emerson and was an avid reader of his works. In 1849, for example, upon attending a lecture by Emerson, Melville wrote to his friend Evert Duyckinck, “he’s a great man” (Oliver 61).

  4. 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 According to Jonathan A. Cook, “the story is based on the historical incident of three bugs eating their way out of the wood of an old apple-tree table in Williamstown, Massachusetts, between 1806 and 1814–a popular scientific curiosity recorded in Timothy Dwight’s Travels in New England and New York (1821) and David Dudley Field’s A History of the Country of Berkshire, Massachusetts (1829)” (121).

  5. 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 See “Magnalia Christi Americana by Cotton Mather (1702)” by Megan Mulder in Rare Book of the Month at ZSR Library Online: https://zsr.wfu.edu/2011/magnalia-christi-americana-by-cotton-mather-1702/.

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Source: https://commons.digitalthoreau.org/tsag2016/thursday-july-7-2/henry-thoreau-and-new-england-bioregionalism/