Great Minds Think Alike: Thoreau Embraces Darwin

I just read an absorbing and detailed excerpt adapted from The Book That Changed America, by Randall Fuller, which details the impact of Darwin’s then just published Origin of Species on American intellectual life, specifically in this section at the deep draw it had for Henry David Thoreau.

Origin

Photo of Darwin & First edition of The Origin of the Species

Initially fascinating as an examination of how one great mind was influenced by another, the chapter expands on how Thoreau not only embraced the writing of Darwin, but also allowed the theoretical framework to redefine his intellectual understanding of the world.

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First edition of Walden by Thoreau

Some compelling quotes from the chapter:

Darwin’s portrait of a teeming, pulsating natural world deeply resonated with Thoreau. The Origin of Species revealed nature as process, as continual becoming. It directed one’s attention away from fixed concepts and hierarchies, toward movement instead. It valued moments of evanescent change above all others. If it endowed each organism with a history, it also pointed to a future that was impossible to predict.

Thoreau latched onto this particular moment in the Origin for several reasons. For one, it implied that the history of an environment was recoverable. If one accepted the premise that perpetual struggle between species led to the creation of place, then one could uncover its history and thereby determine why “precisely these objects which we behold make a world,” as he had written in Walden.

In Darwin’s vision of nature, species and individuals honed themselves in strife. They came into being through continual friction with one another. “Many cases are on record showing how complex and unexpected are the checks and relations between organic beings,” Darwin wrote, “which have to struggle together in the same country.” Thoreau didn’t express it in quite the same way, but he seems to have begun envisioning a natural world that resembled a democracy more than a kingdom, its citizens connected and yet perennially jostling for advantage.

 

 

Harvest the Best of the Worst?

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Cultivate the tree which you have found to bear fruit in your soil.

~Henry David Thoreau

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.

~Robert Louis Stevenson

harvest-moon-sidney-australia-e1474044536249Look for the full Harvest Moon on September 16 (including a subtle penumbral eclipse on the night of September 16-17, visible from visible from half of Earth, but unfortunately not North America).

 

A bad tree does not yield good apples. (English proverb)

This has been a great year for apples. The trees at RMH have been generous with their fruit, and the flavors have been delicious, consistently great. I didn’t find myself having to choose the “best of the worst,” unlike with politics these days. Imagine how sad you would be if, during harvest, you picked two apples, checked them over, and handed them to a friend, saying, “they’re both mealy, not the best examples of apples, but this one is the least bad of the two.”

Mmm. Tasty. Of course, an apple doesn’t have to be perfect to be part of a great applesauce or apple butter

“The sweeter the apple, the blacker the core. Scratch a lover and find a foe!”    ~Dorothy Parker

Would you apologize for the garden? The growing conditions this year? Your ability to pick fruit? Luckily, even bad fruit can be used to make good compost, especially if mixed with a bit of manure.

Let’s just say, one does reap what one sows, and, especially, what one cultivates. I believe this metaphor applies to socio/political gardening.

Reap & Sowbee-rose

Thankfully, gardening is much harder work than reading the news online or my inane social media feed, and, thus, is remarkably more rewarding. More so, given my current state of being, as I’ve become one of those Tylenol or Advil commercials of a person of a certain age who “over did it today” and needs a bit of “gentle safe relief” from my exertion.

As I’ve said many times, I love every season, and especially the transition between two. Summer into Autumn is a delight because while still harvesting the summer garden, one is planting cooler-weather crops. In fact, around here we typically have a nearly constant harvest of fruits & especially vegetables throughout the year. (Providing, of course, one appreciates the lovely flavors and healthfulness of leafy greens, a staple of the cool weather garden.)

Crushing fall

It’s always funny how the angle of the light in the sky and the crispness of the air give a classic statement of Autumn. Of course, it doesn’t officially begin until September 22 (at 7:21am, PDT, to be precise), and yet the human urge to rush seasonality is almost inescapable.

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From right outside my office at RMH–a percussive addition to the sounds of fall

It doesn’t help that around here wineries in the area have been deep into the grape crush for weeks—something I refer to as the “hum of crush.” As I’ve blogged before, one notices different traffic patterns and energy as people rush to vineyards for picking—a specific urgency as workers hurry from one location to another, as their workplace is in a different location every day. Also, just to make sure we know it’s harvest, the nighttime horizon of a given vineyard is often dominated by the remarkably bright and oddly intimating glow of harvest lights.  (It’s easy to imagine some alien landing or government conspiracy event that might take place in a field; in fact, I often think of the dessert landing scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when I first discover them.)

Crush is an odd reality unto its own.  A dimensional time shift in which the leisurely pace of grape growing during the idyllic “dog days” of summer is suddenly sped up to an urgency of harvesting, crushing and pressing to extract the elixir of the Vitis vinifera to speed it on its way fermenting.

Growers and winemakers suddenly become driven to urgency seemingly out of context for something as simple as wine. But, then again, it is wine, fine wine around here.

Squash, that gourdcindarella-smaller

I think the pumpkins have a lot to do with it also.  We’ve got a lot growing here at RMH, and their flame-colored delineation becomes more and more pronounced as their developing width and increasing mass catch the growing golden tinge of the sunlight as their now-spent fan-like leaves begin to fade.  In the case of the classic Cinderella pumpkin, an heirloom from France (a cultivar of Cucurbita maxima, also known as the Rouge Vif d’Etampes), their crimson carriages do indeed take on a magical feel.

And yet, ours will be used for the delicious but less enchanted categories of decoration & food. Especially since these “winter squashes” are edible for such a prolonged period after their harvest. Which points to their value as an “old world” food so essential to human habitation on this continent.

Reflected Light in the Night

As I stated up top, this weekend is the full Harvest Moon. Curious how much lunar lore dominates human culture, especially given that “moon light” is all reflected light.

A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.

Oscar Wilde

snow-moon-risingI’m moved by the moonlight, as was evidenced by my distraction last night as I noticed the glow of the rising moon, incongruous, as the moon was not yet visible in my part of the night sky.  When I think about it, I become mesmerized by the effect of the beautiful luminosity of our star (the sun), not visible, as it shines its burning light over 90 million miles, past the earth (while illuminating the Eastern Hemisphere), to the moon. Then, the reflected light of a practically full moon bounces back nearly a quarter-million miles to the night sky.

It was a nice moment, capping a day during which I was able to both garden and take some pictures of the later summer flowers around here.

I’ve been distracted from spending as much time working on projects connected to nature, which is not my nature.  Office work of running a business has been “eclipsing” time I might spend on these projects, while at the same time, in some cases, issues at various organizations have deflected my engagement.

So, the metaphor, of course, is that sometimes reflected light is more illuminating than we realize.  The phenomena of nature are all around us, holding us, shaping us, the stuff of us. So, though one might be in an absence of direct enlightenment, inspiration is still available.

bee-dahlia

Midsummer Dreaming

Spring into the solstice, our enduring drought, turning the moon blue

If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
Midsummer’s Night Dream; Puck’s epilogue

The earliest sunrise of the year was Sunday, June 14; yet, the longest day of the year is June 21.

Here we are in late spring, on the verge of summer (preparing to “spring into summer”? too much?), with unseasonably cool weather in the middle of a crippling drought.

Nature—confused or confusing?

DSCN3102March 20, the first day of spring, seems relegated to the fringes of our calendar of communal obligations:  Holiday demands. Shopping frenzies. Awards season. Fund-raising appeals. School activities. The back-and-forth of extracurricular activities.
Stuck between the faux bacchanal of St. Patrick’s Day and the indulgences of spring break, the actual Spring Equinox is oft mentioned but seldom authentically celebrated as a meaningful demarcation of the seasons and transition to a “rebirth” of the natural world.

The summer solstice, the official start of summer on June 21, gets even less respect as its false start is typically signaled by Memorial Day and the end of the school year.
Midsummer is also a Northern European celebration that accompanies the actual solstice (or take place on a day between June 21 and June 25 and the preceding evening. The exact dates vary between different cultures).

[15 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the Summer Solstice]

This year, the first day of spring was a perfectly nice 70-degree day with a partly to mostly cloudy sky. You certainly recall it was an unseasonably warm and desperately parched winter, so the transition, the Vernal Equinox, seemed even more ceremonial this year, since it had been feeling like spring (or certainly not winter) for weeks. (Ah the guilt of enjoying the great weather while knowing that some predict California may be “out of water” in a year if we don’t get some exceptional precipitation this year.)

So, is nature confused?  A very early but very dry start to the spring growing season…an unseasonably cool late spring…a full day of light, drippy precipitation the first week of June.  (Let’s not call it rain. The argument would point out how paltry the wetness was relative to the Seattle-like grayness of the day.)sunflower

The weather is “unseasonal” and the temperatures are “unusual”; the new growth that occurred in February and March “unreal”; the slowing of development in some of the vineyards due to coolness “unexpected” (sorry, I just got “quote happy”)…but these are relative to human standards.  The earth has been working through variations and cycles for, literally, eons.

And, as I look back over my blog posts, I’ve been talking about dry winter and early spring for the last several years.  I, in my short half-century have noticed changes.  In fact, most incredibly, in the 8 years we have been growing at River Myst Haven, there has been dramatic variation in the seasons. It’s been unmistakable.
[For now, for this post, I am setting aside the issue of how or why the weather and climate are so very atypical—causation and politics.]

I believe that nature finds a way, and, rather than debating the collective phenomena of the physical world, we should find a humility that allows us to better know our place in it.  Or, expressed far more eloquently:

“How, then, did we fail to take into account just who or what we were dealing with when we plundered the Earth? It’s probably one more manifestation of the patriarchal mentality, dismissing the Earth as a powerless feminine reality.”

Humility before the forces of nature by Carol Meyer

Our gardens are constructions of our preference—a mix of plants chosen to suit our desires with only minimal regard to the influences of local or, dare say, native conditions.  With a hubris exhibited only by our species, we cull plants from around the world and place them in our cultivated spaces if we’ve been told they have even the smallest chance of surviving.

RMHviewcropsmallGardens by human design, horticulture, are often quite engaging and can be monumental achievements in vision, design and execution—they appeal to our very core. We are quite literally cultivating delight.

The “transformative power of the natural world” saves us from ourselves.  When we cultivate, it is a controlled natural world, still with the power to transform and delight, but our attempt to make what we most love about nature more accessible. We cultivate and curate, but we’re still on nature’s terms when we do.  Our efforts to enhance, enrich, enliven, are always based on timeless, basic rules and laws of nature.

Plants, in their native conditions, are well adapted to survive, even in extreme conditions.  The seed itself is a marvelously hardy vehicle to transcend time, place and annual environment to perpetuate the botanical parent.

And yet, we get so very fixated on the ebb and flux of our environment as if it’s the exalted privilege of our species to make and remake the physical world without consequence.

Which Drought?DSCN0971
Water? Water? Everywhere?

Prior to 2011 (when California officially declared drought), surface water made up two-thirds of the state’s supply. Groundwater now makes up a full 75 percent of California’s total supply, up from one-third. (PBS Newshour)

And today, the State Water Resources Control Board issued historic cuts to water rights in the state (LA Times).  Long a part of our history, it’s starting to feel perhaps a bit odd that individuals and companies have “rights” to natural resources that are essential to our ability to survive.  What the “Rule of 3”? We can “survive” 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water and 3 week without food?  In an era of dwindling supplies, should others control rights to massive amounts of these essentials?

Being a California native, I remember clearly the drought of 1976-77.  We ran our washing machine “gray water” onto our lawn (the grass smelt so very clean & fresh), and if it was yellow, it mellowed.  (In our own home.  In a shared restroom, there has to be a public health determination to just flush…)  We did it because we cared and wanted to make a difference—there was value in helping help the community.

Perhaps it was the influence of the apocalyptic films of the decade that made us care. (I mean, how many times do you need to watch “Soylent Green,” “Silent Running” or “Logan’s Run.”)  However, I recall a much more collective mindset, at least in my teenage mind.

If we breakdown the concept of “drought,” we can have a much more straightforward discussion:
“…four basic approaches to measuring drought: meteorological, hydrological, agricultural, and socioeconomic. The first three approaches deal with ways to measure drought as a physical phenomenon. The last deals with drought in terms of supply and demand, tracking the effects of water shortfall as it ripples through socioeconomic systems.”

Natural resources are integral to our socioeconomic systems, but we simply can’t equate the totality of nature as being resources for economic use.  Every material that we desire—from food to clothing to iPads—come form processed natural resources:  biological plants as factories processing raw materials into stuff we need and like to eat to buildings we call plants, built factories, processing raw materials into clothing, cars, technology…Sunflower2

Priorities—the right of the individual to have enough water to survive (3 days) versus the right of the individual to own water for production.  Both have rights, but they cannot be equivalent social priorities.

And what of the rights of nature? Ah, the moral and ethical challenge of leaving enough water for the environment—be it helping salmon survive or preventing the ground beneath our communities from collapsing from draining the ground water.

I’ve come to understand that my responsibility as a naturalist isn’t to enforce a specific perspective, objective or opinion on the natural.  I seek to serve as a curator, a keeper of a heritage—not of nature itself, but of a connection to and experience of the natural world.  I didn’t help create it, and it isn’t mine to hold or possess—I can’t define a specific experience of nature that is mandatory.  However, I do believe I have an obligation to inspire wonder and awe in that which surrounds and defines all that we create as a species.

The Terroir of self

The vineyard at River Myst Haven, our farm in the Russian River Valley.

The vineyard at River Myst Haven, our farm in the Russian River Valley.

Terroir (French pronunciation: [ter-wahr or terˈwär] from terre, “land”) is the set of special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place, interacting with plant genetics, express in agricultural products such as wine, coffee, chocolate, hops, tomatoes, heritage wheat, and tea.

Terroir can be very loosely translated as “a sense of place,” which is embodied in certain characteristic qualities, the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the production of the product. Terroir is often italicized in English writing to show that it is a French loanword.  ~Wikipedia

“Food, rather than simply being fuel, is the most concrete and intimate connection between ourselves and the earth that exists.”  ~Introduction by Norman Wirzba to The Art of the Commonplace, by Wendell Berry

Nature gives us sustenance. It really doesn’t take much science to understand that pretty much all life on earth is fueled by the energy of the sun. (Remember the wonder of photosynthesis.) In fact, it would be monumentally patronizing for me to presume that you don’t grasp this basic truth of life sciences. The basic truths of the other studies of our planet—the multidisciplinary geosciences—are fairly easy to observe.

We can’t help but be connected to nature, in that dependence on air, water & food bind our very sustenance to the natural world. Regardless of how processed one may prefer their food, it has to contain stuff shaped by biology if one is to survive for long.

However, beyond our dependence on the natural world for maintaining our life, this relationship to the planet is essential for our *well* being.

And yet, we’re profoundly and progressively even more disconnected from the natural world. Sadly, it’s to the detriment of the greater social good and ourselves. For the sake of our community and ourselves we need to recommit and more deeply engage a connectedness to the natural world.

Thoreau gave us one early modern articulation of this viewpoint that the good life, and the life that ethically prepares a person for self-government, is necessarily a life lived in contact with nature. “No matter how urban our life, our bodies live by farming.”

Perhaps mentioning Thoreau in only my second post may be off putting, but his writings on the importance of being connected to the land and the environment—as a necessity for social order & good—were made so very long ago that they serve as a keen benchmark of the challenge we have in remembering what sustains us.

Just as terroir determines the characteristics of foods and flavors of a region, the set of special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place make us who we are, and, thus, the community what it is.

We are connected to nature and our surrounding environment for sustenance as well as nuance and character. We ignore that to our peril.  Well then, seems pretty unambiguous to me.

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