Patterns in flowing mud, and the roots of life (Walden 189)

Remember when Thoreau groused about the railroad in Chapter 2? “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” Guess where he discovered a mind-blowing natural wonder?

Naturally… in a railroad cut.

Anyone else might have walked on by without noticing. It’s just mud, Henry! Everything’s melting — it’s that ugly, sloppy time of year, the days of dirty snow and soggy brown grass. But when Henry noticed a mixture of thawing sand and clay flowing down the sides of a railroad cut like lava, he observed that “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….”

Thoreau wasn’t the first to notice these similarities among natural patterns. He had been fascinated with the idea ever since reading Goethe in college. Now he felt he was getting a peek at one of the unifying principles of nature.

“I feel as if I were nearer to the vitals of the globe, for this sandy overflow is something such a foliaceous mass as the vitals of the animal body. You find thus in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf. No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant by it. The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype… Thus it seemed that this one hillside illustrated the principle of all the operations of Nature. The Maker of this earth but patented a leaf.”

And his thoughts soar even higher:

“It convinces me that Earth is still in her swaddling-clothes, and stretches forth baby fingers on every side. Fresh curls spring from the baldest brow. There is nothing inorganic. These foliaceous heaps lie along the bank like the slag of a furnace, showing that Nature is ‘in full blast’ within. The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit — not a fossil earth, but a living earth; compared with whose great central life all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic.”

“This,” says biographer Robert Richardson, “is the central idea of Walden, and the cornerstone of the modern conservation ethic.” (Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, p. 256)

Here Henry also anticipates James Lovelock’s “Gaia hypothesis,” developed in the 1970s, which proposes that the whole earth can be seen as a self-regulating organism, and “that this system as a whole, called Gaia, seeks a physical and chemical environment optimal for contemporary life.” The idea remains controversial among biologists, though some who don’t think that it’s literally true will grant its metaphorical value. Thoreau, writing even before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, was in no position to settle the biological question, but nevertheless he was overwhelmed with a sense of nature’s order, complexity, and seeming unity of principle. He couldn’t help but see the earth as one thing — alive, and extravagantly producing life.

With that in mind, the video below presents excerpts from Proteus: A Nineteenth Century Vision, a 2004 film by David Lebrun and Night Fire Films. The film is about biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), his study of radiolarian, and his book Art Forms in Nature. Looking through a microscope, Haeckel was enthralled with the complex patterns he discovered, and the film provides a stunning and awe-inspiring presentation of his drawings.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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