Murder Mystery

Throughout the drought of August, 1854, Thoreau often “improved” his walks by visiting places normally inaccessible on foot. Little land bridges arose everywhere, and he was often at and in the swamps that he saw as some of Concord’s richest troves.

On the 23rd, we find him afoot in Gowing’s Swamp on “a dense bed of quaking sphagnum, in which I sink eighteen inches in water, upheld by its matted roots, where I fear to break through.” There, on this terra-not-so-firma, in this intermediate world that only he would visit, Thoreau finds a “new cranberry on the sphagnum,” and, with typical precision, he records its appearance: “It has small, now purplish-dotted fruit, flat on the sphagnum, some turned scarlet partly, on terminal penduncles, with slender threadlike stems and small leaves strongly revolute on the edges.” It’s classic Thoreau, nosing deeper and deeper into the world.

A few days before his visit to Gowing’s Swamp, Thoreau’s afternoon path crosses that of a turtle, which has taken up residence near one of that season’s few shrinking pools. Thoreau attends closely to the turtle and its movements, of course. But he also takes it up and carries it off with him. A little later we find that he has followed another persistent exploratory urge and killed the turtle to examine it scientifically. The aftermath of this other nosing into life brings the following paragraph:

I have just been through the process of killing the cistudo [Eastern Box turtle] for the sake of science; but I cannot excuse myself for this murder, and see that such actions are inconsistent with the poetic perception, however they may serve science, and will affect the quality of my observations. I pray that I may walk more innocently and serenely through nature. No reasoning whatever reconciles me to this act. It affects my day injuriously. I have lost some self-respect. I have a murderer’s experience in a degree.

Next, without transition, Thoreau returns to his observer’s world: “The bobolinks alight on the wool grass. Do they eat its seeds?”

I returned to this passage three times, reading it as much for its stark placement as for its stark content. In it Thoreau acknowledges his complexity, the way he is driven to know, even to the point of killing another creature. It is in service of “science,” a system of knowing that demands facts, that goes forward on the wheels of recorded data. But the cost of this knowing is an inconsistency “with the poetic perception” that “will affect the qualities of my observations.” Perhaps Thoreau knew that these slow turtles sometimes live to be 100 years old; perhaps he didn’t know. But he did reckon the cost: a division from nature, even as he had divided the turtle.

Thoreau then turns in language to prayer – not that he may be right with some personified god, but that he may “walk more innocently and serenely through nature.” Killing to know has separated him from nature; next we see it has also separated him from his day and from himself.

Part of why I read and reread Thoreau stems from his bracing honesty with self. We walk in nature to observe, to marvel, to delight in what we meet. And we lay hands on nature, dig into it to know its secrets.

And I think we must ask: when we inquire into it, must we murder mystery too?

4 Comments

Filed under General, The Roost

4 Responses to Murder Mystery

  1. Barbara Ghoshal

    Thanks, both of you, for the discussion of this internal conflict…and thanks for the brilliant portrait of a bright-eyed turtle.

  2. Perhaps this is a realm that Thoreau debated with himself throughout his life. There’s an entry in the first volume of his journal, widely dated 1837-1847 (pp. 464-465 of the 1906 set & the later Dover reprint), that I recently rediscovered and revisited:

    “I hate museums; there is nothing so weighs upon my spirits. They are the catacombs of nature. One green bud of spring, one willow catkin, one faint trill from a migrating sparrow would set the world on its legs again. The life that is in a single green weed is of more worth than all this death. They are dead nature collected by dead men. I know not whether I muse most at the bodies stuffed with cotton and sawdust or those stuffed with bowls and fleshy fibre outside the cases.

    “Where is the proper herbarium, the true cabinet of shells, and museum of skeletons, but in the meadow where the flower bloomed, by the seaside where the tide cast up the fish, and on the hills and in the valleys where the beast laid down its life and the skeleton of the traveller reposes on the grass? What right have mortals to parade these things on their legs again, with their wires, and, when heaven has decreed that they shall return to dust again, to return them to sawdust? Would you have a dried specimen of a world, or a pickled one?”

    Nevertheless — in spite of hating such places — Thoreau visited two of them during his many trips to Worcester. A local minister there had a reptile collection, with specimens both living and “pickled.” And the Natural History rooms in downtown Worcester evidently interested Thoreau enough that he spent several hours in them over several days on one of his visits in 1856.

    Perhaps, as usual, Henry Thoreau could see the benefits of studying animals in both states, living and dead; and at various moments in his life, he may have preferred the one over the other, as the circumstances warranted.

  3. By the Autumn of 1860, Thoreau appears to be adamantly against the killing of animals for scientific study — even while young Horace Mann Jr. was bringing him small dead bodies to identify. On Oct. 9, 1860, Henry wrote in his journal: “This haste to kill a bird or quadruped and make a skeleton of it, which many young men and some old ones exhibit, reminds me of the fable of the man who killed the hen that laid the golden eggs, and so got no more gold. It is a perfectly parallel case. Such is the knowledge which you may get from the anatomy as compared with the knowledge you get from the living creature.” Whether he admonished Horace along these lines, we don’t have a way of knowing for sure.

    When I think on this topic, I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s book, “Life on the Mississippi.” In Chapter 9, “Continued Perplexities,” Twain describes his training as a riverboat pilot, especially when it comes to reading the signs of the river. “The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book — a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve.” Before he learned to interpret its signs, he was always struck by how beautiful the Mississippi River was. Then he earned his right to be a pilot. Suddenly, “the romance and beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.” Twain obviously felt that while some vital information was gained, something important had been lost, too.

    • Sandy Stott

      Thanks, Corinne, for this later piece from Thoreau’s journal – it suggests resolution of the dilemma in his 1854 entry.