What two Minnesota marvels wowed Henry David Thoreau?
Henry David Thoreau put Walden Pond on the map, and made a name for himself by writing about life and nature in Concord, Massachusetts where he spend most of his life.
But in 1861, a year before he died, Thoreau ventured west to Minnesota, traveling roughly thirty-five hundred miles. It was the longest, and last, trip of his life. So what drew him here? Oddly enough, Thoreau came for our climate. He wrote a friend that, "it will be most expedient for me to try the air of Minnesota, say somewhere about St. Paul's." At age 43, Thoreau was already suffering from the lung problems that would cause his death, so he heeded his doctor's call for travel.
On May 11, 1861, Thoreau and a companion, Horace Mann, Jr., a botanist and son of the famed educator, took a train headed for Chicago. After a leisurely trip west with scenic stops, the men boarded a steamboat at Dunleith, known now as East Dubuque, Illinois, and began their expedition up the Mississippi River.
To Thoreau, the Mississippi was "the grand feature hereabouts." So what else about Minnesota moved the great writer? Well, not St. Paul. Thoreau judged Prairie du Chien as "the smartest town on the river," while St. Paul's buildings were constructed of "poor stuff." He stayed in St. Paul just long enough to have breakfast and then moved on to Minneapolis and St. Anthony where he spent two weeks happily roaming, often with the state geologist, Dr. Charles L. Anderson.
It was in Minneapolis where Thoreau saw up close what had long eluded him. Henry David Thoreau wrote about wild crab apples the way birders speak of ivory billed woodpeckers. He had contemplated traveling to Pennsylvania just to find the "half-fabulous" tree which he had only seen in books. In Wild Fruits, his posthumously published final book, Thoreau writes that he first spied his elusive treasure as the train chugged through Michigan, spotting "a tree with handsome rose-colored flowers. At first I thought it was some variety of thorn, but it was not long before the truth flashed on me -- that this was my long-sought crab apple. It was the prevailing flowering shrub or tree to be seen from the cars at that season of the year -- about the middle of May. But the cars never stopped before one, and so I was launched on the bosom of the Mississippi without having touched one, experiencing the fate of Tantalus."
When Thoreau reached St. Anthony Falls, he was told he was too far north to see his tantalizing crab apple. But just a few miles west of the falls, Thoreau finds, touches, and smells the tree of his dreams. He writes that he "secured a lingering corymb of flowers for my herbarium." (Note: corymb is my word of the day, which the dictionary describes as a botanical term for a flat-topped cluster of flowers in which the outermost flowers are first to open.)
I imagine Thoreau stalking the wild crab apple, dressed in his 'best pants,' flannel shirt, and 'half-thick coat,' armed with spy glass, notebook, botanical manual and tape measure, not to mention the hat he jury-rigged with a slight shelf inside the crown to tuck plant specimens. He gently touches the faded corymb, his prizedcrab apple blossom, smiling as he envisions the delight he'll have back home in Concord every time he examines his herbarium, which now holds his flowering crab apple, found in Minnesota.
Thoreau had planned to stay three months in the Midwest, but cut his trip short, and was back home in Concord by July. Maybe he grew weary of travel. But maybe he'd seen enough. He found his wild crab apple.
In Thoreau’s rediscovered final manuscript, Wild Fruits, published in 2000, the naturalist devotes nineteen pages to wild apples, noting, "I know of no trees which have more difficulties to contend with and which more sturdily resist their foes. These are the ones who story we have to tell."
And this is the time to tell the story of apples. Thoreau notes that late October and early November are the season for wild apples. As I bite into a small, tart apple, picked at a Minnesota orchard, I savor Thoreau's ode to apples and their "wild flavors of the Muse, vivacious and inspiring."
As Thoreau wrote, "Every wild-apple shrub excites our expectation thus, somewhat as every wild child."
Wild Fruits, by Henry David Thoreau, edited and introduced by Bradley P. Dean, W.W. Norton & Co., 2000.
“Thoreau in Minnesota,” by John T. Flanagan, a paper read at the