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The Fruits of Our Labors

The wild grapes have ripened, filling the edge habitats with a heavenly September aroma. Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Depositing them in the bows of the boat, they filled all the air with their fragrance, as we rowed along homeward against the wind, as if we were rowing thro’ an endless vineyard in its maturity. Every now and then, when their perfume wafted to me in the stern, I thought that I was passing some richly laden vine on the shore.”
     He figured they peaked in ripeness “say September 20.”
     This was from a piece he worked on the last two years of his life. It was finally published as “Wild Fruits: Thoreau’s Rediscovered Last Manuscript” in 2000, edited by Bradley P. Dean and beautifully illustrated by Abigail Rorer.
     Besides grapes, Thoreau drew on a lifetime of observations, dotted down in his voluminous notebooks, to try to document the timing of flower and fruits of several hundred species of plants he found in his Concord backyard. He intended “to watch for, describe, all the divine features I detect in Nature. My profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature---to know his lurking places.”
     It was a project he did not see to fruition. Fellow Transcendentalist Emerson eulogized Thoreau at his May 1862 funeral. “It seems an injury that he should leave in the midst of this broken task, which none else can finish.”
     Besides the plant documentation, “Wild Fruits” is full of typical Thoreauvian prose. There’s the tongue-in-cheek contrary provincial arguing for the native fruits of Concord. “Do not think, then, that the fruits of New England are mean and insignificant while those of some foreign land are noble and memorable. Our own, whatever they may be, are far more important to us than any others can be. They educate us and fit us to live here.”
     The same message becomes more universal. “Many of our days should be spent, not in vain expectations and lying on our oars, but in carrying out deliberately and faithfully the hundred little purposes which every man’s genius must have suggested to him. Let not your life be wholly without object, though it be only to ascertain the flavor of a cranberry, for it will not be only the quality of an insignificant berry that you will have tested, but the flavor of your life to that extent, and it will be such a sauce as no wealth can buy.”
     His final comments have the most irony. “Nature is doing her best each moment to make us well. Nature is but another name for health.”
     Thoreau was writing this while he was dying prematurely of tuberculosis. He had carried this common 19th century ailment throughout his adult life. It had claimed his older sister in her twenties. He had lost his beloved brother to lockjaw at a time before tetanus vaccinations.
     He had taken over the family pencil business after his father’s death. The whole family had been caught up in the abolitionist movement. His mother and sister were founding members of the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society. They had met once at the Walden cabin. Thoreau, himself, had risked driving fugitive slaves to West Fitchburg to catch a train to freedom in Canada. And now the family was watching a nation at Civil War.
     The younger man had written at Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
     As he came to die, Thoreau was still advocating a deliberate approach “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each. Grow green with spring and ripe with autumn.”
     This same deliberate approach was voiced by another young scientist recently, in the PBS video series Prehistoric Road Trip. Emilie Grasslie outlined two ways of looking at life.
     Compared to the dinosaurs, we can think “We’re not here that long, what does it matter?” Or we can say “Wow! We aren’t here very long. Every day matters. How we spend our resources matters.”
     Like Thoreau, we can choose to live a meaningful, deliberate and fruitful life, no matter its length.
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