New Names on Thoreau’s Dance Card

Two great ways to get your science written up in the New York Times: link it to climate change or to Thoreau. Boston University’s Richard Primack and Harvard’s Charles Davis hedged their bets and got lucky yesterday. It seems lots of flowers present in Thoreau’s journals are nowhere to be found by industrious grad students these days, and those that remain are blooming earlier in the year. It’s just more bad news for proud Yankees already wringing their hands over their sugar maples turning Canadian.

Historians will smirk at one team member’s fussing about Thoreau’s indecipherable longhand. While the Times presents the image of scientists in archives as novel, historical documents have long been in service of those interested in past ecosystems. Conservation ecologist David Mladenoff is one who has made a career out of reconstructing the pre-cutover forests of the Great Lakes states by scouring the Public Land Surveys and mapping witness trees and another botanical notations of the hearty surveyors. Over in the humanities, prize-winning environmental historian Brian Donahue pieced back together the agroecology of colonial Concord from unsexy rubble like tax assessment records and probate deeds. (Although, he has the unfair advantage of looking a great deal like a colonial farmer.)

Primack, Davis, et al. will catch sympathy from historians when lamenting the rarity and ephemeral nature of these historical documents. Just as a jack pine is going to get more pollen into a palynologist’s core than a dogwood because the former’s is wind dispered, what shows up in the historical record isn’t there accidentally.  Some folks’ ink last longer than others’.  And Thoreau knew this as well as anyone when he promised a paddler on the Concord River,

You shall see rude and sturdy, experienced and wise men, keeping their castles, or teaming up their summer’s wood, or chopping alone in the woods; men fuller of talk and rare adventure in the sun and wind and rain than a chesnut is of meat, who were out not only in ’75 and 1812, but have been out every day of their lives; greater men than Homer, or Chaucer, or Shakespeare, only they never got time to say so; they never took to the way of writing. Look at their fields, and imagine what they might write, if ever they should put pen to paper. Or what have they not written on the face of the earth already, clearing and burning, and scratching, and harrowing, and ploughing, and subsoiling, in and in, and out and out, and over and over, again and again, erasing what they had already written for want of parchment.

That last bit carries an extra warning for scientists who go sniffing for documentary data.  No human, Thoreau included, is ever “simply watching the landscape and recording what occurs in it.”  Hell, that it’s the charismatic species of Concord (orchids and such) that are missing could be a smoking gun. You might well find those missing flowers not beside global warming’s chess board but on Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau’s coffee table.

Posted by Brian on October 28th, 2008 • • 1 comment
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  1. Thoreau Followup | a Conservation Blog said, on November 3rd, 2008 at 1:09 am

    [...] like to respond to Brian’s post about the recent study on shifts in abundance of flowers in Concord over the past 150 years. One [...]