Introduction from
Thoreau and the Language
of Trees,
University of California Press, 2017

©Richard Higgins

INTRODUCTION

SPEAKING
THE LANGUAGE

OF TREES

Henry David Thoreau was captivated by trees, and they played a significant role in his creativity as a writer, his work as a naturalist, his philosophical thought, and even his inner life. He responded to trees emotionally, but he also understood their lives in the forest as well as anyone in his day or since. Indeed, it sometimes seems that he could see the sap flowing beneath their bark. When he wrote in The Maine Woods that the poet loves the pine tree like his own shadow in the air, he was speaking about himself. In short, he spoke their language.

   What drew him to trees? Their beauty and form delighted his eye. Their wildness struck a chord in him, and their patience reminded him that we will sooner overtake the dawn by remaining here, where we are, than by chasing the sun across the western hills. By spending his life rooted to Concord, he emulated trees’ tenacious hold on earth.

   Human nature appeared slightly bent to Thoreau, but he saw trees as upright and virtuous, the nobility of the vegetable kingdom. Their stance spoke of the “ancient rectitude and vigor of nature.” Nothing, he said, “stands up more free from blame in this world than a pine tree.”

   Old trees connected Thoreau to a realm of time not counted on the town clock, an endless moment of fable and possibility. They reminded him “that I, too, am at least a remote descendant of the heroic race of men of whom there is tradition.”

Thoreau and the Language of Trees

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