Thoreau`s Vision of Insects and the Origins of American Entomology is, as the title suggests, an account of Thoreau`s observations of insects in America and the place of insects in his creative work. It is the first full interpretation of insects in his writing.To identify many of the insects in Thoreau, I draw on my entomological background in lepidopteral conservation, and experience as adviser to a number of agencies promoting habitats including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, as well as membership of the National Bio-diversity Committee for Scotland. The book also contains a comprehensive list of insects indispensable to all students of Thoreau. As Rachel Carson wrote: “the insect world is nature`s most astonishing phenomenon. Nothing is impossible to it; the most improbable things occur there.”
The insects inhabited the planet millennia before ourselves, and are uniquely adapted to it. Thoreau quotes Coleridge in his Literary Notebook to the effect that “the insect world, taken at large, appears as an intenser life that has struggled itself loose & become emancipated from vegetation." The key word is intenser, and as the winged creature at the end of Walden may suggest, the dramatic intensity suggested by metamorphosis - and a writer is continually transforming elements from real life -is the source of a great wonder about life on earth. My other theoretical and critical books also explore this theme in other contexts. They are The Metaphysics of Insect Life (1995) and The Poem and the Insect: Aspects of Twentieth Century Hispanic Culture (1999), both obtainable from the University Press of America.
Here now is a section of my new book, Thoreau`s Vision of Insects and the Origins of American Entomology:
“THE METAMORPHOSES OF WALDEN
In 1848 Thoreau transcribed sections of Coleridge`s Hints towards the Formation of a More Comprehensive Theory of Life which had just been published. At the same time he made a copy of Spenser`s Muiopotmos or the Fate of the Butterflie, where the life of the insects is viewed by the reader from as great a distance as the Olympians look down upon humanity, akin to that doublet Thoreau identified in his own character watching his active self (134-35). Coleridge`s Hints is “a treatise on the use of natural history as means to the discovery of underlying laws of creation” and was an essential literary starting-point for Thoreau`s more technical exploration of what is today cladistics. Walls argues in opposition to Robert Sattelmeyer and Richard A. Hocks that at this point Coleridge merely offered Thoreau “the solace of the familiar,” and offered him “nothing new,” but as she admits the extracts he made from her preferred influence, Humboldt, “are far more perfunctory.” As already mentioned, for Coleridge, had nature progressed no further than the flora and fauna, “the whole vegetable, together with the whole insect creation, would have formed within themselves an entire and independent system of life.” He draws on Heinrich Steffens (1773-1845) for the adage “THE INSECT WORLD IS THE EXPONENT OF IRRITABILITY, AS THE VEGETABLE IS OF REPRODUCTION.” What Coleridge crucially provided Thoreau with was the encouragement, even perhaps in terms of authorial authority, the right, to merge a scientific approach to nature with his kaleidoscopic imaginative sweep over the living ecology of Walden. William Ellery Channing, poet and a walking companion, gives an indication of the day-to-day life of the writer in his Concord habitat: “Insects were fascinating [to Thoreau], from the first gray little moth, the perla, born in February`s deceitful glare, and the `fuzzy gnats` that people the gay sunbeams, to the luxuriating Vanessa antiopa, that gorgeous purple-velvet butterfly somewhat wrecked amid November`s champaign breakers. He sought for and had honey-bees in the close spathe of marsh-cabbage, when the eye could detect no opening of the same; water-bugs, skaters, carrion beet