Cover image for Faith in a seed : the dispersion of seeds and other late natural history writings
Faith in a seed : the dispersion of seeds and other late natural history writings
Thoreau, Henry David, 1817-1862.
Publication Information:
Washington, D.C. : Island Press/Shearwater Books, [1993]

Physical Description:
xviii, 283 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Added Author:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QK929 .T48 1993 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks-Non circulating
QK929 .T48 1993 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Faith in a Seed contains the hitherto unpublished work The Dispersion of Seeds, one of Henry D. Thoreau's last important research and writing projects, and now his first new book to appear in 125 years.With the remarkable clarity and grace that characterize all of his writings, Thoreau describes the ecological succession of plant species through seed dispersal. The Dispersion of Seeds, which draws on Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, refutes the then widely accepted theory that some plants spring spontaneously to life, independent of roots, cuttings, or seeds. As Thoreau wrote: Though I do not believe a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders. Henry D. Thoreau's Faith in a Seed, was first published in hardcover in 1993 by Island Press under the Shearwater Books imprint, which unifies scientific views of nature with humanistic ones. This important work, the first publication of Thoreau's last manuscript, is now available in paperback. Faith in a Seed contains Thoreau's last important research and writing project, The Dispersion of Seeds, along with other natural history writings from late in his life. Edited by Bradley P. Dean, professor of English at East Carolina University and editor of the Thoreau Society Bulletin, these writings demonstrate how a major American author at the height of his career succeeded in making science and literature mutually enriching.

Author Notes

In September 1842, Nathaniel Hawthorne noted this social encounter in his journal: "Mr. Thorow dined with us yesterday. He is a singular character---a young man with much of wild original nature still remaining in him; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in a way and method of his own. He is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, although courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty. On the whole, I find him a healthy and wholesome man to know." Most responses to Thoreau are as ambiguously respectful as was Hawthorne's. Thoreau was neither an easy person to like nor an easy writer to read.

Thoreau described himself as a mystic, a Transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher. He is a writer of essays about nature---not of facts about it but of his ideals and emotions in its presence. His wish to understand nature led him to Walden Pond, where he lived from 1845 to 1847 in a cabin that he built. Though he was an educated man with a Harvard degree, fluent in ancient and modern German, he preferred to study nature by living "a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust." Knowing this, we should beware of misreading the book that best reflected this great experience in Thoreau's life: Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854). It is not a handbook of the simple life. Though there are elements in the book of a "whole-earth catalogue" mentality, to focus on the radical "economic" aspects of Thoreau's work is to miss much in the book. Nor is it an autobiography. The right way to read Walden is as a "transcendental" narrative prose poem, whose hero is a man named Henry, a modern Odysseus in search of a "true America."

Thoreau left Walden Pond on September 6, 1846, exactly two years, two months, and two days after he had settled there. As he explained in the pages of Walden: "I left the woods for as good a reason as I went to live there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one." Growth, change, and development were essential to his character. One should not overlook the significance of his selecting July 4 as the day for taking possession of his residence at Walden Pond, a day that celebrates the establishment of a new government whose highest ideal is individual freedom. In terms of Thoreau's redefinition of the nation-idea, "the only true America" is that place where one may grow wild according to one's nature, where one may "enjoy the land, but own it not." Thoreau believed that each person should live according to individual conscience, willing to oppose the majority if necessary. An early proponent of nonviolent resistance, he was jailed briefly for refusing to pay his poll tax to support the Mexican War and the slave system that had promoted that war. His essay "On Civil Disobedience" (1849), which came from this period of passive resistance, was acknowledged by Mahatma Gandhi (who read it in a South African jail) as the basis for his campaign to free India. Martin Luther King, Jr. later attributed to Thoreau and Gandhi the inspiration for his leadership in the civil rights movement in the United States.

Thoreau contracted tuberculosis in 1835 and suffered from it sporadically afterwards. His health declined over three years with brief periods of remission, until he eventually became bedridden. Recognizing the terminal nature of his disease, Thoreau spent his last years revising and editing his unpublished works, particularly The Maine Woods and Excursions, and petitioning publishers to print revised editions of A Week and Walden. He died on May 6, 1862 at age 44.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

At his death in 1862, naturalist Thoreau left behind a dozen notebooks and other materials. From those hard-to-decipher handwritten pages, Dean, the editor of the Thoreau Society Bulletin , has rescued an unexpected treasure--Thoreau's scientific study of how one plant species succeeds another through seed dispersal. The book includes several shorter pieces, but ``The Dispersal of Seeds'' is what will lure Thoreau buffs and students. The philosopher of Walden emerges as a dedicated scientific observer, revealing how wind, weather and animals move seeds about to produce new plants. Specialists will appreciate the perspective this book gives on Thoreau's place in the science of his time, refuting as he does the then-prevalent notions of immutability of species and the spontaneous generation of plants. The real treat is for general readers: a chance once again to hear Thoreau's precise, wonderful voice as he roams his beloved woods and finds ``the very earth itself as a granary and a seminary.'' The book is a dazzling debut for Island's Shearwater imprint. Illustrated. ( Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

For Thoreauvians, botanists, agriculturalists, and scholars of 19th-century America, this book represents nothing less than a triumph of editorial skill and integrity over conventional wisdom. A study of plant ecology using Darwinian theory, Faith in a Seed is one of the more interesting books published in our time, so felicitously does it give readers a fresh dose of all that makes Thoreau such a major figure in American letters. The holograph of The Dispersion of Seeds , Thoreau's last major project (as well as the manuscript of Wild Fruits, selections of which appear here along with two other writings probably intended for the title volume) was dismissed by most of the scholars who even knew of it as being taxonomically suspect, uninterestingly concrete, and ``best left unpublished.'' How wrong. It is, in fact, the book that latter-day Thoreau admirers have often wished he had written: sensual, acute, intricate, and altogether fascinating, a text that should cause scholars to reevaluate their assessment of an important writer. A fundamental acquisition for all collections.-- Mark L. Shelton, Athens, Ohio (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.