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Editor’s Pages – Volume 30 / 2022

by Kathleen Coyne Kelly

We all follow different processes as we write. Attempting to describe how we arrive at our arguments and insights may move some of us to metaphor—building, for example, is a familiar enough trope. In Walden, Thoreau, ostensibly referring to constructing his pond-side house, writes: “I made no haste in my work, but rather made the most of it” (42). Thoreau also invites us to think about his other work—the text of Walden that we hold in our hand or scroll through on a screen. Sorting is another useful image for scholarly and creative effort, as in separating the wheat from the chaff, to adapt Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest advice—in this case, to let go of those dried husks of false starts and unworkable drafts. Another figure that comes to mind (not a winnowing but a tallying) is gathering—a particularly resonant word for Thoreauvians—here, the art of collaging primary text and secondary source, of choosing the apt word and the true phrase. Every issue of the Saunterer is a gathering, granted, but in this particular issue, form and content fit together across a number of dimensions.


We begin with a piece excerpted from the Keynote Address that J. Drew Lanham delivered at the 2022 Annual Gathering of the Thoreau Society. In “Birds as Moral Measure / Thoreau and Audubon as Men of Their Time: Choosing Sins of Hate or Love and Doing Better,” Lanham, whose email moniker is blackbirder, discusses birding, civil disobedience and identity—and identity, even birding—as civil disobedience. He then goes on to ventriloquize Henry David Thoreau and John James Audubon in an imagined exchange of letters. In a way, Lanham’s piece is a response (a cri de cœur) that reaches across the centuries to resonate with the African American writers that several of our contributors discuss in this issue.

William Rossi’s “Making Walden and Its Sandbank” is, in part, a forensic account of the complicated process behind a famous gathering in Walden: Thoreau’s urgent exploration of the phenomenon of water, mud, and sand as it flowed and braided down the “deep cut,” a part of the Fitchburg Railroad embankment near Walden Pond. Rossi began by gathering together, quite literally, Thoreau’s palimpsestuous leavings of revisions, additions, and deletions in order to create a three-dimensional transcription in a two-dimensional space. Rossi’s argument, grounded as it is in the materiality of paper, pen, and pencil, will surely influence, going forward, how we interpret Thoreau’s work and his writing process—and also how we understand Thoreau’s overall intellectual trajectory.

We next offer a gathering of essays and primary texts based on a call for submissions that was, in part, inspired by a painting. On Inauguration Day, Congress traditionally welcomes the new President and Vice President by holding a luncheon at the Capitol. A painting by an American artist is hung behind the head table; it is carefully chosen by the incoming administration to capture the official theme of each year’s inaugural ceremony, which for Joe Biden in 2020 was “America United.” Dr. Jill Biden chose “Landscape with Rainbow” (1859) by the African American artist, Robert S. Duncanson. (See Figure 1). Not well-known previously outside of art-historical circles, Duncanson has enjoyed a renascence since the inauguration—prints of the painting are selling on Etsy and through other online shopping venues, and are even available on t-shirts. Thanks to the Bidens, the history of American representations of the natural world has been made more diverse, at least in the popular imagination.

Figure 1. Robert S. Duncanson, Landscape with Rainbow” (1859)

And, thanks to many scholars in the field of American Studies, the history of what we call nature writing has been enlarged and made more diverse in recent years, particularly with respect to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.1 We wanted to contribute to this recuperative work in these pages by focusing on a few of Thoreau’s African American contemporaries and near-contemporaries who had a thing or two to say about the natural world and their place in it. And what nineteenth-century African Americans produced—from the ecological thought running through some of George Moses Horton’s poems to Harriet Jacob’s description of the swamp as both refuge and danger—is an eco-narrative that cannot be separated from enslaved experience in an economy in which both Black bodies and the environment were commodified by white enslavers and their enablers.

When it comes to reading texts written by African American ecocritically, scholars are agreed that one of the difficulties lies in how we have historically defined the genre of nature writing itself. Especially for nineteenth- century Americanists, to train an eco-theoretical eye on African American texts, both familiar and unfamiliar, is to reshape our understanding of nature writing, its contexts, its occasions, and its purposes. Kimberly Ruffin argues: “African American artistic traditions . . . are a reservoir of moments of insight that wrestle with a history of environ- mental injustice and a desire for environmental belonging” (10). If not immediately obvious, how do we teach our- selves and our students to read for descriptions, engagements, or even simple indexical registers of the natural world in such African American artistic traditions?2

Our contributors to the cluster, “Other than Thoreau,” have taken up this task in different ways. In “Martin Delany: Labor, Ecology, and Black Freedom,” Alex Moskowitz considers how Delany (1812-1885), a free person of color, an activist, abolitionist, Civil War officer, emigrationist, and writer—and trained as a doctor to boot—argued for what we would now call an antiracist natural science in his Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party (1861). Moskowitz argues that here, as well as in his novel, Blake (1861), Delany recognized the degree to which labor, economy, and environment are entwined, and are always already political.

Megan Cole, in “Environmental Double Consciousness and Thoreauvian Intertextuality in Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative,” demonstrates how the Transcendental production of and experience of nature is neither universal nor a given; rather, race (and gender and other registers of identity) figure into how one dwells in and imaginatively represents the natural world. Crafts, who escaped enslavement in 1857 and moved to New Jersey, echoed some of the language of the Transcendentalists when it came to recounting and/or fictionalizing her own encounters with nature.

Matthias Klestil offers us a little gem of a primary text: his transcription of Frederick Douglass’ observations on Niagara Falls.3 (We also reproduce Douglass’ notes in manuscript: anyone familiar with Thoreau’s handwriting may well envy the editors of Douglass’s papers!) Recently, a handful of scholars have productively placed Douglass’s work in conversation with ecotheory and environmental history.4 Mindful of this work, in “Frederick Douglass: ‘Niagara,’” Klestil identifies what he calls a “Niagara discourse” in which Douglass participates and also claims for his own. As tourism became a favorite leisure pastime in the nineteenth century, the Falls at Niagara drew thousands of sightseers, and, for many, came to epitomize an American sublime—not a race-neutral concept.

From 1862 to 1864, Charlotte Forten Grimké (1837-1914) taught at a Quaker school on St. Helena Island, working with recently-emancipated Black inhabitants of all ages. A member of an influential abolitionist family and an anti-slavery activist, educator, poet, and writer in her own right, Forten recorded her experiences in the Sea Islands in her Journals. In “Charlotte Forten, Nature Writer,” Molly Barnes offers us selections that highlight Forten’s lyrical observations about the natural world—made, as Forten expressly says, while sauntering. Barnes’s commentary urges us to think about nineteenth-century Transcendentalism in all of its pluralities, particularly with respect to gender and race.

In this issue, we also include a creative non-fiction piece, several poems, and a selection of photographs. In “What Thoreau Knew About Butterflies,” Lewis Hyde offers us an excursus on Thoreau and his notes on this class of insects. We’re happy to publish this excerpt from Hyde’s own ongoing project on lepidoptera and the literary. As part of his work, Hyde gathered together Thoreau’s notes on butterflies, pointing out that Thoreau had few published resources to turn to as a way to deepen and confirm his knowledge gained by observation. Fortunately, Thoreau did have his friend, the accomplished etymologist Dr. Thaddeus William Harris, to guide him. Our choice of cover image was inspired by Thoreau’s mention of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) as depicted by the distinguished nineteenth-century etymologist Thomas Say. (See Figure 2.) For a full accounting of Thoreau’s mention of other-than-human beings, see The Henry David Thoreau Animal Index in The Walden Woods Project Archives and Research Collection at https://www mal_Index_July2021-1.pdf.


Figure 2. Swallowtail

In Sonnet 55, Shakespeare, addressing his lover, asserts that “You live in this”—that is, in his poem, which will outlast any “marble or gilded monument” (14, 1). David K. Leff, in his gathering of poems about Thoreau (“Thoreau at the Morgan,” “Walking Around Walden,” and “Thoreau’s Cairn”), gives us a Thoreau who persists at the Morgan Library as well as on the shores of Walden Pond—in the latter case, certainly not in marble, but in an ever-changing but still stable cairn of stones. We would also like to think that David, who died during the production of this issue and is much missed, lives on in these poems that he shared with us.

We also include a gathering of poems by David McGann (“The House of Stillness,” “Pen from Korea,” “Loon’s Way”), whose environmental imagination was shaped by his many years teaching Chinese and Korean poetry. The poem “Pen from Korea” is a sijo, McGann explains: three lines, with a “twist” at the start of the third.

The photographs of butterflies included here constitute a gathering of sorts. They were all beheld at or near Walden Pond. These photographs were taken by two familiar figures at Walden—our very own Executive Director of the Thoreau Society, Michael Frederick, who captured the astonishing hummingbird moth with his camera, and Vanessa Vallee, a passionate steward of the pond and its surrounding woods, who spotted a black swallowtail and a painted lady—and with whom, delightfully, she shares the Latin name.

May your gatherings in the coming year—people, projects, thoughts—be made the most of.

Kathleen Coyne Kelly

Cambridge, Massachusetts

November 24th, 2022

PS. Duncanson’s rainbow reminded me that Thoreau drew a “conical rainbow—a parabola of rainbow colored reflections”—really a circumzenithal arc; in this case, as Thoreau correctly notes, the phenomenon was created by ice crystals reflecting the sun. Note the self-portrait, as it were, capturing his point of view as he looks at the sun (Figure 2).


Figure 2. Thoreau’s rainbow in his Journal (January 29th, 1860; XIII: 112)


1. Now-foundational texts include Beyond Nature Writing; see especially Michael Bennett’s “Anti-Pastoralism, Frederick Douglass, and the Nature of Slavery.” For a historical overview that begins with the story of enslaved people in the south, see To Love the Wind and the Rain. Along with Beyond Nature Writing, both African American Environmental Thought and Black on Earth have their feet in the nineteenth century. Recent anthologies tend to focus on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, though we do have Black Nature: Four Hundred Years of African American Nature Poetry.

2. I borrow from Myra Jehlen, who, writing in 1995 (the same year that Laurence Buell’s The Environmental Imagination was published), urges us to read deliberately for gender, arguing that “unless it figures explicitly in story or poem, it will seldom read for itself” (273).

3. Just recently published in the latest installment of The Frederick Douglass Papers.

4. See Bennett, “Anti-Pastoralism,” and Ellis, “Amoral Abolitionism.”

Works Cited

Armbruster, Karla, and Kathleen Wallace, editors. Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism, U of Virginia P, 2001.

Bennett, Michael. “Anti-Pastoralism, Frederick Douglass, and the Nature of Slavery.” Beyond Nature Writing: Ex- panding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism, edited by Karla Armbruster and Kathleen Wallace, U of Virginia P, 2001, pp. 195-210.

Dungy, Camille T. Black Nature: Four Hundred Years of African American Nature Poetry, U of Georgia P, 2009.

Douglass, Frederick. “Niagara.” The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series Four: Journalism and Other Writings, Volume 1, edited by John R. McKivigan, et. al., Yale UP, 202, pp. 2-3.

Ellis, Cristin. “Amoral Abolitionism: Frederick Douglass and the Environmental Case against Slavery.” American Literature, volume 86, no. 2, 2014, pp. 275–303.

Jehlen, Myra. “Gender.” Critical Terms for Literary Study, 2nd ed., edited by Frank Lentriccia and Thomas McLaughlin, U of Chicago P, 1995, pp. 263-73.

Glave, Dianne D. and Mark Stoll, editors. To Love the Wind and the Rain: African Americans and Environmental History. U of Pittsburgh P, 2006.

Ruffin, Kimberly N. Black on Earth: African American Ecoliterary Traditions, U of Georgia P, 2010.

Smith, Kimberly K. African American Environmental Thought: Foundations, UP of Kansas, 2007.

Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 55.” Shakespeare’s Sonnets, edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones, Bloomsbury, The Arden Shakespeare Third Series, 1997, rev. 2010.

Thoreau, Henry D. The Journal of Thoreau, Henry D. 14 vols, edited by Bradford Torrey and Francis Allen, Houghton Miffilin, 1906.

—. Walden, edited by Lyndon J. Shanley, Princeton UP, 1971.

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