Monday, November 29, 2010

Thoreau's late November

As Thanksgiving approached last week, I spent a bit of time thumbing throughthe NYRB Classics edition of Thoreau's Journal, which Damion Searls edited last year. I was looking, lazily, for a mention of Thanksgiving, but--as is so often the case with this endlessly rewarding book--I got distracted.

First, I got caught up in a trip to New York, on November 22, 1854:
Left at 7:30 A.M. for New York. Went to Crystal Palace, admired the houses on Fifth Avenue. . . . Greeley carried me to the new opera-house, where I heard Grisi and her troupe. First, at Barnum's Museum, I saw the camelopards, said to be one eighteen the other sixteen feet high. I should say the highest stood about fifteen feet at most (twelve or thirteen ordinarily). The body was only about five feet long. Why has it horns, but for ornament? Looked through his diorama, and found the houses all over the world much alike.
I love the range of that entry: has anyone--even those of us who know Thoreau to be more complicated than the caricature of the woodsy hermit--ever imagined him actively admiring the houses of Fifth Avenue? Yet how quickly, at Barnum's Museum, he's the familiar Thoreau again, instinctively analyzing and questioning the fauna on display, while seeing to little differentiate the human habitations on offer.

Then I got pulled in by the entry for November 19, 1853, which brought to mind recent, weather-prompted thoughts of my own:
What is the peculiarity of the Indian summer? From the 14th to the 21st October inclusive, this year, was perfect Indian summer; and this day the next? Methinks that any particularly pleasant and warmer weather after the middle of October is thus called. Has it not fine, calm, spring days answering to it?
Then, traveling backwards in Thoreau's time and forwards, weather-wise, in my own, I ended up at this entry, from November 25, 1851:
That kind of sunset which I witnessed on Saturday and Sunday is perhaps peculiar to the late autumn. The sun is unseen behind a hill. Only this bright white light like a fire falls on the trembling needles of the pine.
One of the side benefits of my regular running routine is that, as the days draw in with the autumn, it makes me attend to the daily changes in the early evening light. Two weeks ago, the light along the lakefront after work was breathtakingly golden, playing along the lingering leaves with all the warmth of a Maxfield Parrish painting; now the leaves are gone, and the best we can hope for, on a clear day, is the sunset Thoreau describes, attenuated and sickly, but enough--just enough, because it has to be--to hold on to until the thaw.

No comments:

Post a Comment