Vagrancies of Place


LeConte’s Sparrow, an early-winter migrant through the Loess Hills. (Photo by Nic Salick.)

(Becoming a Naturalist, part 11)

“These crimson aerial creatures have wings which would bear them quickly to the regions of summer, but here is all the summer they want.” (Henry David Thoreau, Journal, December 11th 1855.)

Today we walk along a thin spine of arched earth, a cat’s back raised against the sky above the Missouri River floodplain. High ridges in the Loess Hills are striped with deer trails, used by coyotes and badgers and all manner of varmints, and by early white invaders and earlier still, native peoples. Indigenous humans and many other species have been extirpated, and the wagon roads of their European vanquishers have almost vanished as well.  And now, our band of naturalists follows these trails and tracks.

On that ridge we meet newly-arriving migrants, brilliantly festive and richly arrayed. They are parties of juncos and sparrows, titmouses and finches, the solstice gems of this place. Summer-like wintering grounds are well within range and reach, but our frigid climes are summer enough for them. In August they make smudges and rusts, but today they are obsidian and ruby. They remind me of the travelers Thoreau encountered on this day, 161 years ago:

“There is superadded superfluous paintings and adornments, a crystalline, jewel-like health and soundness, like the colors reflected on ice-crystals….The woods and the fields, now somewhat solitary, being deserted by their more tender summer residents, are now frequented by these rich but delicately tinted and hardy northern immigrants of the air.” (Thoreau, Journal, December 11th, 1855.)

These bright immigrants belong to this place and to this season; we do not. We are vagrants of this place, having vanquished the original residents of scale and skin and feather, now longing for something true and native and real. We are cold and looking for birds, but more deeply, for wildness and a sense of belonging. We have this in common with Thoreau.

Contrary to the mythological Thoreau of calendars and coffee-table books, he wrote from a place of emptiness and alienation and cold feet. Thoreau reads as an enlightened saint in his highly refined Walden, but his personal letters and journals air his grievances about the weather and his neighbors and his disappointing boots. He suffers an unrequited love for his virgin maiden and savage mother, nature. Here we find a companion who is a lot like us: “If any part of nature excites our pity, it is for ourselves we grieve, for there is eternal health and beauty. We get only transient and partial glimpses of the beauty of the world.” (December 11th, 1855.)

The power and genius of Thoreau lies in his longing for beauty and healing. His genius, in my view and in the view of an increasing number of scholars, is most clearly and candidly expressed in his published 14 volume Journal: “Is not a poet bound to write his own biography? Is there any other work for him but a good  journal? We do not wish to know his imaginary hero, but how he, the actual hero, lived from day to day” (October 21st, 1857). The Journal is most accessible in abridged editions, and the good ones are faithful to the original form, character, and length of the daily entries. Like a winter landscape, we find long narratives of the ordinary and the random in-breaking of brilliance.


Thoreau Journal, December 11, 1855*.

In fact, his December 11th journal entry perfectly describes our experience, except for the native species he encounters. The non-heroic and day-to-day Henry David climbs with us up this cold and hard Iowa hill on this snowless and almost birdless morning. The sugary loess soil is deeply eroded by the impress of human avarice and alienation, his frequent complaint. Settlement has skeletonized these hills; exposed roots and sometimes junk make a useful ladder. Now on the summit, winter finally bears wild fruit, transient glimpses of beauty:

” All the fountains of nature seem to be sealed up. The traveller is frozen on his way. But under the edge of yonder birch wood will be a flock of crimson-breasted lesser redpolls, busily feeding on the seeds of birch and shaking down the powdery snow! As if a flower were created now in bloom, a peach birds be fully ripe on its stem.”

Every naturalist in the American tradition walks with Thoreau. He sought an authentic and distinctly American experience of the sacred in nature, and a way of recovering what it means to be human by restoring our sense of wildness. His December 11th walk brought clarity of insight: “The age of miracles has thus returned….In winter, too, resides immortal youth and perennial summer.” But Thoreau is dead and his New World is gone. He was a wanderer like us, but we have to find our own way home.

Find your own birds and see with your own eyes. Winter sparrows are summer enough. Read Thoreau’s Journal but write your own.To become a naturalist is not to become more like Thoreau, but to find ourselves lost in nature. There is a threshold between having an itinerary and being curious, between being a tourist and being a vagrant. The most powerful moments come when we are lured off the trail and into the bush, when our walking is transformed into wandering, when the hiking is hostile, where nature is not always beautiful but always mysterious.

*Read a transcription of Henry David Thoreau’s December 1855 Journal here.

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