Book Review: Thoreau’s Wildflowers
by Henry David Thoreau
edited by Geoff Wisner
drawings by Barry Moser
Yale University Press, 2016
Thoreau’s Wildflowers, this lovely new volume from Yale University Press, almost immediately announces itself as a requisite addition to any shelf of Thoreau books. It’s a smart and generous selection, made by editor Geoff Wisner, of the botanical writings Thoreau made about the plant-life of his beloved Concord. Famous friends, acquaintances, and distant bystanders, from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Louisa May Alcott to Ralph Waldo Emerson, all noted Thoreau’s consuming passion for flowers and blossoms of all kinds, how he could lose himself in contemplating the most humble greenery and almost invariably talked about flowers as though they were personal friends of his. This volume’s extracts from his various journals and other writings conveys perfectly that earnest, ungainly enthusiasm, whether it’s in the form of quick, largely factual observations, like this one from May 5, 1855:
The small andromeda has lost its reddish leaves, probably about the time it blossomed, and I can neither get the red cathedral window light looking toward the now westering sun in a most favorable position – nor the gray colors in the other direction, but it is all a grayish green.
Or else in the frequent passages in which Thoreau does what he does best and draws deeper connections together under the bright exteriors of what he’s seeing, as in a June, 1852 entry about, paradoxically enough, a flower that smells like rotting flesh:
All things both beautiful and ugly, agreeable and offensive, are expressed in flowers. All kinds and degrees of beauty, and all kinds of foulness. For what purpose has nature made a flower to fill the lowlands with the odor of carrion? Just so much beauty and virtue there is in the world and just so much ugliness and vice you see expressed in flowers. Each human being has his flower, which expresses his character. In them nothing is concealed but everything published.
Thoreau’s Wildflowers would be a richly rewarding book even if it were as plain as brown wrapper. But Yale University Press commissioned a riot of black-and-white illustrations from the great Barry Moser; they appear on almost every page, and they add considerable joy to an already wonderful volume.