A Natural Curiosity - Geoff Wisner's Blog
Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Coming soon: Thoreau’s Wildflowers

It’s been almost a year since I announced here that Yale University Press would be publishing my next book Thoreau’s Wildflowers. Now it’s scheduled for release in March 2016, and you can read more about it at Yale’s website.


Thoreau’s Wildflowers is a selection of observations from Thoreau’s Journal between 1850 and 1861, arranged by the day of the year. The text is illustrated with more than 200 long-unavailable black and white drawings by Barry Moser, first published in the 1979 book Flowering Plants of Massachusetts. The book also includes an introduction by myself, and Ray Angelo‘s classic essay ”Thoreau as Botanist.”

For a taste of what you’ll find in the book, follow me on Twitter at @ThoreausFlowers.

Posted by geoff on 10/13 at 02:31 PM
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A Natural Curiosity - Geoff Wisner's Blog
Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Thoreau vs. Strong on organ grinders

The two greatest American diaries of the 19th century, in my opinion, were written by Henry David Thoreau and George Templeton Strong.

The two men were near-contemporaries. Thoreau graduated from Harvard in 1837 and kept his Journal from that year until 1861, the year before his death at the age of 44. Strong graduated from Columbia in 1838. His diary, begun in 1835 when he was an undergraduate, came to an end with his death in 1875.

Each man spent most of his life in his hometown, but while Thoreau was a naturalist and a solitary walker, Strong was a man about town: a lawyer, an Episcopal vestryman, a trustee of Columbia College, and during the Civil War a founder of the Union League and treasurer of the Sanitary Commission, which provided medical aid to wounded soldiers.

The difference in Thoreau’s and Strong’s attitudes toward Italian organ grinders is telling. Both were lovers of music, but while Thoreau was so music-starved that he visited telegraph poles on windy days to listen to them vibrate, Strong was a frequent attendee at concerts and operas, and for several years the president of the New York Philharmonic Society. Naturally enough, his taste in music was somewhat more discerning.

Henry David Thoreau
May 27, 1851

I saw an organ-grinder this morning before a rich man’s house, thrilling the street with harmony, loosening the very paving-stones and tearing the routine of life to rags and tatters, when the lady of the house shoved up a window and in a semiphilanthropic tone inquired if he wanted anything to eat. But he, very properly it seemed to me, kept on grinding and paid no attention to her question, feeding her ears with melody unasked for. So the world shoves up its window and interrogates the poet, and sets him to gauging ale casks in return. It seemed to me that the music suggested that the recompense should be as fine as the gift. It would be much nobler to enjoy the music, though you paid no money for it, than to presume always a beggarly relation. It is after all, perhaps, the best instrumental music that we have.

George Templeton Strong
November 23, 1855, Friday

I must ascertain whether the mighty bug-destroyer Lyons has no modification of his cockroach powder that will exterminate organ-grinders. We suffer peculiarly here, for the street is very quiet, and they play all round the square before they leave it and are more or less audible at each successive station. I have been undergoing the performances of one of the tribe for an hour and a half and have heard “Casta Diva,” “Ah, Non Giunge,” the first chorus of Ernani, and some platitude from the Trovatore languidly ground out six times each. It makes me feel homicidal. If Abel had gone about with hand organs, I shouldn’t censure Cain so very harshly. There goes “Casta Diva” for the seventh time!

Posted by geoff on 09/02 at 10:50 AM
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Saturday, August 22, 2015

Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines


Fénéon apparently hated this portrait by Signac.

I’ve been reading the more than 1,000 faits divers written by Félix Fénéon in 1906 and collected in the NYRB Classics book Novels in Three Lines—the inspiration for the “small fates” that Teju Cole used to post on Twitter. Many of them are curiously up-to-date.

During a scuffle in Grenoble, three demonstrators were arrested by the brigade, who were hissed by the crowd.

Through his ineptitude with fireworks, Hébré, a soldier of Saint-Priest-la-Feuille, Creuse, killed himself and injured his brother.

Six bulls were impaled, at Nîmes, by the Madrid matadors Machaquito and Regasterin, to the advantage of the local press.

Two hundred resin tappers of Mimizan, Landes, are on strike. Three police brigades and 100 men of the 34th Infantry are watching them.

Shot, gunpowder, and nails in a bucket with a fuses: such was the device found near the dwelling of M. Martin, magistrate of Rheims.

M. Husson, mayor of Nogent-sur-Marne, shot himself three times in the head with a revolver without fatal result.

Doing very nicely in his hospital diapers, a 2-month-old infant has been found, in Plaine-Saint-Denis, by a piling of the Soissons bridge.

Maître Tivollier, attorney of Grenoble, was hunting. He tripped, his gun went off, Maître Tivollier was no more.

Bones have been discovered in a village on Île Verte, near Grenoble, those—she admits it—of the clandestine offspring of Mme P.

Of five mussel eaters, employees of the 2nd Artillery Company in Nice, two are dead, Armand and Geais; the others are ill.

Superintendent Chambord decreed that God had no place in the schools. The 11 mayors of Plabannec township, Finistère, demurred.

Posted by geoff on 08/22 at 09:35 AM
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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Proust’s coffee maker

Proust will forever be associated with the scent of lime blossom tea, but he appreciated coffee as well. In fact, according to his housekeeper, he survived on “two bowls of black coffee, hot milk and two croissants when he woke in the afternoon, and then little else.”

In Chapter 2, “Holidays,” of Part II of his unfinished posthumous novel Jean Santeuil, he presents a glimpse of the coffee-making ceremony as it was played out during Jean’s holiday visits to his uncle and cousins in Illiers.

The passage below is from a paragraph more than a page long, and even this excerpt seemed to call for a break to make it more readable.

One might include among the simple attributes of agricultural kingship the extremely complicated, because very primitive, piece of machinery which, at this point in the proceedings, the maid set before Monsieur Albert and in which he made the coffee by virtue of a prerogative which he would never have dreamed of sharing with anybody else. If, by chance, he happened to be away, visiting one of his farms, and did not get back for luncheon, “Who’ll make the coffee?” became a question of almost national importance. Unless someone of outstanding importance, Monsieur Santeuil, for instance, was on the spot, this task was usually entrusted to the maid, who was looked upon as a kind of Secretary of State, so that the arbitrary appointment of a substitute was avoided.

This machine was made of glass and so contrived that one could see the water coming to the boil, the steam permeating the coffee, and covering the sides of the container with blackish deposit, the water passing through a filter and falling back into a second cylinder from which it was then drawn off. Monsieur Albert listened to the water boiling and that music, though less sophisticated than the military tunes which served to stimulate more distinguished digestions, but perfectly expressing the sense of well-being of which he was conscious, heralded the coming moment when the bubblng coffee would add to it an exquisite sensation of warmth, sweetness, liveliness and delicate savour and so complete his satisfaction.

This machine sounds similar but not quite identical to the early French coffee makers by Durant and Gandais. If anyone can identify it more precisely, I’d appreciate it. 

Posted by geoff on 07/26 at 03:13 AM
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A Natural Curiosity - Geoff Wisner's Blog
Sunday, July 19, 2015

Discovering Moore’s Swamp

Oh, bother. It seems that the swamp near Authors’ Ridge in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow cemetery is not Gowing’s Swamp, as I was told earlier, but Moore’s Swamp, as I learn from Cherrie Corey’s blog.

Moore’s Swamp is an equally fascinating place, and as it turns out is mentioned in Thoreau’s Wildflowers more often than Gowing’s. 

June 9, 1858. High blackberry, not long. I notice by the roadside at Moore’s Swamp the very common Juncus effusus [tufted rush], not quite out, one to two and a half feet high.

August 12, 1856. The Aster patens [late purple aster, Symphotrichum patens] is very handsome by the side of Moore’s Swamp on the bank — large flowers, more or less purplish or violet, each commonly (four or five) at the end of a long peduncle, three to six inches long, at right angles with the stem, giving it an open look. Snakehead, or chelone.

September 8, 1853. Roses, apparently *R. lucida*, abundantly out on a warm bank on Great Fields by Moore’s Swamp, with Viola pedata.

September 12, 1859. I stand in Moore’s Swamp and look at Garfield’s dry bank, now before the woods generally are changed at all. How ruddy ripe that dry hillside by the swamp — covered with goldenrods and clumps of hazel bushes here and there, now more or less scarlet

Posted by geoff on 07/19 at 10:18 AM
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