Happy birthday, Henry David Thoreau, and happy summer, everyone!

In honor of Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday earlier this month, and in honor of the lovely summer weather, we wanted to highlight some books that fit the season and carry on Thoreau’s legacy. Thoreau is well known for Walden, a book chronicling his year of living alone in nature, and of Cape Cod, a collection of his reflections on those beaches. In both, he uses his experiences in nature as a way of meditating on life’s big questions

Robert Finch follows in his footsteps, walking along miles of the Cape Cod shoreline. He has chronicled some of his rambles in Outlands: Journeys to the Outer Edges of Cape Cod. In this collection of essays, Finch writes of moments of isolation, even danger, as on one walk he finds himself miles from the nearest person but near some agitated harbor seals. Finch uses these moments to probe his, and our, responses to these moments in nature.

However, the best-known successor of Thoreau is Henry Beston, whose Herbs and the Earth and The Best of Beston Godine has had the honor of publishing. Beston is a meticulous observer who has written on a wide variety of places, including (of course) Cape Cod, but stretching to the St. Lawrence River and beyond.

Beston’s thoughtful nature writing is close to home in Herbs and the Earth, where he uses gardening as a way to focus his thoughts on what he grows and its deep roots in areas like history, religion, and medicine.

You can learn more about Beston, the man from Daniel G. Payne’s scrupulously researched and incredibly readable biography, Orion on the Dunes. Payne tracks Beston’s career and development, from his beginnings as Henry Sheahan, a World War I soldier who went on to write children’s stories, to the pioneering conservationist and iconic nature writer as we know him.

Happy birthday, Henry David Thoreau, and may your legacy live on!

 

An Ode to Beston and His Herbs

By Intern Katryna Balboni

“A garden of herbs need be no larger than the shadow of a bush, yet within it, as in no other, a mood of the earth approaches and encounters the spirit of man. Beneath these ancestral leaves, these immemorial attendants of man, these servants of his magic and healers of his pain, the earth underfoot is the earth of poetry and the human spirit; in this small sun and shade flourishes a whole tradition of mankind. This flower is Athens; this tendril, Rome; a monk in the Dark Ages tended this green against the wall; with this scented leaf were kings welcomed in the morning of the world.”

Rue entry; created by Intern Katryna Balboni, 02/2016
Created by Intern Katryna Balboni, 03/2016

“Mysterious in color and strange of leaf, potent, ancient, and dark, Rue is the herb of magic, the symbol of the earthly unknown.”

Daniel G. Payne’s Orion on the Dunes, the first and only biography of renowned American nature writer Henry Beston (1888 -1968) to date, will be available through David R. Godine this summer, making this the perfect time to revisit one of Beston’s masterpieces, Herbs and the Earth. Not knowing the connection however, when I first picked up a copy of Herbs and the Earth in the Godine offices a couple of months ago, I knew simply that this little volume was one of the most sensitive and evocative pieces of prose I’d ever had the pleasure to stumble upon.

In his introduction to Herbs and the Earth, Roger Swain observes that the book “has an intensity that evokes the herbs themselves, as if, pressed between the pages, their aroma has seeped into the pages.” Indeed, I think even the most consummate city-slicker would be hard pressed not to be transported by Beston’s words. Beston wrote with exceptional care – after his death, his wife, Elizabeth Coatsworth recalled that her husband could sometimes take an entire morning to complete a single sentence –  and the gentle, rhythmic lyricism of his prose is only enhanced by the author’s economy of words.

Reading is often an intensely personal experience, and people’s tastes vary so wildly that I rarely recommend a book without knowing something of the reader first. Yet, I would recommend Herbs and the Earth without reservation to every Godine reader who has ever longed for the coming of spring’s green things.

………

To celebrate the quiet beauty of Henry Beston’s prose and John Howard Benson’s accompanying woodcuts, I have created a series of images based on Beston’s list of Ten Great Herbs. If you’ve read this far, you’ve already seen Rue and you’ll find Beston’s odes to Basil, Balm, Sage, and Lovage below. (Sweet Marjoram, Bergamot Mint, Hyssop, Spike Vervain, and Lavender are soon to come.)

BestonBasilv2
Created by Intern Katryna Balboni, 03/2016

“Pivoted upon its share of soil, potent with its intensity of living, symmetrical and predetermined to symmetry, a fine plant of Basil is a form, a gathering together of that mysterious vitality of green.”

BestonBalmv2
Created by Intern Katryna Balboni, 03/2016

“Sturdy, hardy and vigorous, strongly made and strongly growing, it tends to its own green affairs.”

BestonSagev2
Created by Intern Katryna Balboni, 03/2016

“Touched with both beauty and strangeness, the leaf is a thing to catch the eye and prompt a question.”

Lovage entry; created by Intern Katryna Balboni, 03/2016
Created by Intern Katryna Balboni, 03/2016

“Hardy as an oak, vigorous in growth, and interesting to the eye, a clump of Lovage is a fine note among the herbs.”

Herbs and the Earth can be purchased here.

Also check out The Best of Beston: The Natural World of Henry Beston from Cape Cod to the St. Lawrence, also available from Godine.

Keep an eye out for Orion on the Dunes: A Biography of Henry Beston, available on Beston’s birthday, June 2, 2016.