Tuesday, October 25, 2011

“The forms of the outward . . .”

Herbert W. Gleason, “Sand Foliage from Deep Cut,” March 17, 1900

Excess, what “lies broken and in heaps” (Emerson), ordered by choruses of correspondence. So Thoreau, in Walden, famously cuts loose a metaphorical volley anent the “thawing sand bank” of the railroad cut, a semi-vegetable current:
. . . in a thawing day in the winter, the sand begins to flow down the slopes like lava, sometimes bursting out through the snow and overflowing it where no sand was to be seen before. Innumerable little streams overlap and interlace one with another, exhibiting a sort of hybrid product, which obeys half way the law of currents, and half way that of vegetation. As it flows it takes the forms of sappy leaves or vines, making heaps of pulpy sprays a foot or more in depth, and resembling, as you look down on them, the laciniated lobed and imbricated thalluses of some lichens; or you are reminded of coral, of leopard’s paws or birds’ feet, of brains or lungs or bowels, and excrements of all kinds. It is a truly grotesque vegetation, whose forms and color we see imitated in bronze, a sort of architectural foliage more ancient and typical than acanthus, chiccory, ivy, vine, or any vegetable leaves; destined perhaps, under some circumstances, to become a puzzle to future geologists. The whole cut impressed me as if it were a cave with its stalactites laid open to the light. The various shades of the sand are singularly rich and agreeable, embracing the different iron colors, brown, gray, yellowish, and reddish. When the flowing mass reaches the drain at the foot of the bank it spreads out flatter into strands, the separate streams losing their semi-cylindrical form and gradually becoming more flat and broad, running together as they are more moist, till they form an almost flat sand, still variously and beautifully shaded, but in which you can trace the original forms of vegetation; till at length, in the water itself, they are converted into banks, like those formed off the mouths of rivers, and the forms of vegetation are lost in the ripple marks on the bottom.
The conversion into banks acceding to a fractal geometry.* The landscape photographer Herbert Wendell Gleason notes in the terrific 1917 Through the Year with Thoreau pares off the bodily excess (waters down the correspondent slurry) by eliding the whole sentence beginning “As it flows” and ending “excrements of all kinds”—offering in lieu a photograph, a note, a corresponding Journal entry:
March 2, 1854.   The sand foliage is vital in its form, reminding me [of] what are called the vitals of the animal body. I am not sure that its arteries are ever hollow. They are rather meandering channels with remarkably distinct sharp edges, formed instantaneously as by magic. How rapidly and perfectly it organizes itself! . . . On the outside all the life of the earth is expressed in the animal or vegetable, but make a deep cut in it and you find it vital; you find in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf. No wonder, then, that plants grow and spring in it. The atoms have already learned the law. Let a vegetable sap convey it upwards and you have a vegetable leaf. No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, which labors with the idea thus inwardly. The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype.
(The apparently squeamish Gleason omits Thoreau’s final sentence: “The earth is pregnant with law.”) Of the photograph Gleason says nothing (though, in the book’s “Preface,” Gleason too humbly allows that they “were taken by the author with the sole purpose of securing, in every case, as close a correspondence as possible with Thoreau’s description,” adding: “Artistic considerations were wholly secondary.”) Of the railroad embankment itself Gleason notes: “The ‘Deep Cut’ was despoiled of its magnitude some years ago, a large section of its easterly bank being removed for grading purposes elsewhere. Sufficient of the original sand-and-clay formation still remains, however, to furnish annually the same unique phenomenon in which Thoreau delighted.” Gleason’s hardly needed justificatory memo in the form of a Thoreau Journal entry under the date of December 10, 1856:
It is remarkable how suggestive the slightest drawing as a memento of things seen. For a few years past I have been accustomed to make a rude sketch in my journal of plants, ice, and various natural phenomena, and though the fullest accompanying description may fail to recall my experience, these rude outline drawings do not fail to carry me back to that time and scene. It is as if I saw the same thing again, and I may again attempt to describe it in words if I choose.
While Gleason toes to the prevalent and longstanding line of the Journal’s being “largely a commonplace-book,” a thing “never considered by Thoreau as finished literature,” he aptly notes, too, how the hurriedly writ and provisional “adds a flavor of sincerity and piquancy” to the writings, and quotes Thoreau’s remark of January 27, 1852: “I do not know but thoughts written down thus in a journal might be printed in the same form with greater advantage than if the related ones were brought together into separate essays.” (The entry continues: “They are now allied to life, and are seen by the reader not to be far-fetched. It is more simple, less artful. I feel that in the other case I should have no proper frame for my sketches. Mere facts and names and dates communicate more than we suspect. Whether the flower looks better in the nosegay than in the meadow where it grew and we had to wet our feet to get it! Is the scholastic air any advantage?”)
* Pertinent, too, Thoreau’s lines out of the Journal’s entry for February 2, 1841: “It is easy to repeat, but hard to originate. Nature is readily made to repeat herself in a thousand forms, and in the Daguerreotype her own light is amanuensis, and the picture too has more than a surface significance,—a depth equal to the prospect,—so that the microscope may be applied to the one as the spy-glass to the other. Thus we may easily multiply the forms of the outward, but to give the within outwardness, that is not easy.”

Herbert W. Gleason, “Great Meadows from Flint’s Bridge,” June 30, 1917

Herbert W. Gleason, “Yellow Water Crowfoot in Conantum Pool (Ranunculus delphinifolius multifidus),” May 14, 1919

Herbert W. Gleason, “Overlooking Walden Pond toward Mt. Wachusett, from Pine Hill,” April 28, 1906