10 September 2007

Thoreau's grasses

The wonderful website, The Blog of Henry David Thoreau, is running excerpts from Thoreau's journals. And on this date in 1860, Thoreau wrote about the beauty of the local grasses. Below a part of this entry:

"Leaving Lowell at 7 A.M. in the cars, I observed and admired the dew on a fine grass in the meadows, which was almost as white and silvery as frost when the rays of the newly risen sun fell on it. Some of it was probably the frost of the morning melted. I saw that this phenomenon was confined to one species of grass, which grew in narrow curving lines and small patches along the edges of the meadows or lowest ground,—a grass with very fine stems and branches, which held the dew; in short, that it was what I had falsely called Eragrostic capillaries, but which is probably the Sporobolus serotinus, almost the only, if not the only, grass there in its prime. And thus the plant has its day.

"Almost every plant, however humble, has thus its day, and sooner or later becomes the characteristic feature of some part of the landscape or other."

What is amazing about this journal entry is how Thoreau displays an interest in the beauty of grasses, while not ignoring the more scientific identification of a particular species.

And again, for me the ordinary grasses are the most common type of plant, yet if one studies them, one realizes their abundant variety and startling differences.

Of course, Thoreau meant for us to look at all of life and try to see what is special in the everyday. In many ways, this idea is echoed by the avant-garde composer John Cage, who once said:

"If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

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