Friday, November 13, 2015

In Praise of Pond Scum, Even If It Dismays Dinner Hosts

One of my favorite science writers, Kathryn Schulz, published a take-down of Thoreau in The New Yorker. Funny title: "Pond Scum." It's smart and entertaining but also, I think, an unfortunate example of willful misreading that gets Thoreau wrong in pretty much every way. When The New Republic asked if I cared to respond, I did. An excerpt:
Perhaps the most curiously contrary charge Schulz levels against Thoreau is incuriosity. Provincial, yes—in his travels. In his reading, he was cosmopolitan. But incurious?  The man was endlessly investigating phenomena both natural and human. On his provincial travels in Concord but also to Cape Cod and Maine, he was endlessly interviewing strangers—lumberjacks, oystermen, farmers. He romanticized Native Americans as noble savages, and exoticized them, representing the broken English of those he met phonetically in ways that now make us cringe, but unlike most of his contemporaries, he also made a point of meeting them,  interviewing them, traveling with them, and he tried to learn of and from them on his long walks.
The data he collected at Walden pond is still used by climate scientists, and he sent some 900 different plant specimens he’d collected, as well as animals, to the Swiss-born Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz. My own favorite biographical vignette about Thoreau is this one, from an essay by Guy Davenport: The Thoreau who befriended Agassiz, Davenport writes, “was a scientist, the pioneer ecologist, one of the few men in America with whom [Agassiz] could talk, as on an occasion when the two went exhaustively into the mating of turtles, to the dismay of their host for dinner, Emerson.”
Curiosity is what drew Thoreau to the shipwreck he writes about in Cape Cod, Exhibit A in Schulz’s indictment. Death was yet another phenomenon he sought to understand by studying it up close. Quoting one passage out of the many paragraphs Thoreau devotes to the seaside carnage he witnessed, Schulz pegs him as a heartless bastard, a sort of Transcendental sociopath, indifferent to suffering. “On the whole,” that passage begins, “it was not so impressive a scene as I might have expected. If I had found one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place, it would have affected me more.” He’s describing here a paradox that we’ve all surely experienced: when the sufferings of strangers multiply, they have a way of growing abstract in our imaginations, as do the feelings they elicit, hence the numbed indifference casualty statistics can induce, whereas the suffering of a single individual can move us easily to outrage or tears. We saw this paradox illustrated last September by a photo of another drowned refugee who died seeking sanctuary, Syrian rather than Irish this time, a three-year-old, Aylan Kurdi, on the Greek island of Kos rather than on Cape Cod.