I recently finished reading Faith in a Seed, which collects some of Henry Thoreau‘s late nature writing that was published for the first time in 1993. The book is composed largely of one of his lesser-known essays, “The Dispersion of Seeds,” written in 1860, two years before he died of tuberculosis.
At first I was bored by all the detailed recordings of the size and shape and color and texture and quantity and Latin name and life cycle and history of every little seed pod and pine cone he came across. But I was determined to read the whole book, cover to cover, editor’s notes included, even when it felt like a triumph just to turn a single page.
Eventually, however, I began to succumb to the text’s charm. At many points, “The Dispersion of Seeds” moves with typical Thoreauvian grace between scientific notation and poetry, simple observation and metaphor. His prose is occasionally so lyrical that I had to wipe my tears off the page before continuing to read. For example,
Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no plant has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
By the end I was hooked, like a seed of Bidens, “whose seeds, or fruit, are provided with small barbed spears, or hooks, or other contrivances by which they attach themselves to any passing body that touches them, and so get transported by it… [they] will often adhere to your clothes in surprising numbers. It is as if you had unconsciously made your way through the ranks of some countless but invisible Lilliputian army, which in their anger had discharged all their arrows and darts at you, though none of them reached higher than your legs.”
Thoreau agreed with Charles Darwin, whose On the Origin of Species came out in 1859. In “The Dispersion of Seeds,” Thoreau explains how the trees and plants in his native environment (Concord, Massachusetts) “plant themselves” — via birds and squirrels; wind, rain, snow, ice, and fire; and even via human beings, who spit out cherry stones and who find those prickly Bidens seeds adhering to their pants after traipsing through field and dale. Thoreau’s essay can be read as a response to those mid-19th-century scientists who still believed in “spontaneous regeneration.”
One can only wonder what Thoreau would have thought of the 2nd-century Talmudic text called Zera’im, whose title means “seeds” in Hebrew.