The Fortean Thoreau: The Works of Henry David Thoreau as a Database of Anomalies in Natural Science

By J.T.O.

The practical value of science is arguably its “natural laws,” those formulae that render reality usefully predictable, or at least comfortably explicable.

The philosophical value of science is arguably that all those laws are statistical, not absolute, certainties; that matters are always open to question and revision, and in fact demand such scrutiny.

In a world of academic tenure and prestige, these values certainly do not always coexist happily. But in the broad sweep of things, science has historically and philosophically been driven by anomalies. In a system that rejects the concept of the supernatural and yet acknowledges the limits of observation, exceptions prove science’s rules—and sometimes find them lacking.

It follows that anyone who compiles anomalies is doing science a huge favor, whether it likes it or not. In this vein, one of the greatest popular scientists—though he would have bristled at the term—was the eccentric Charles Fort (1874-1932), a journalist who gathered an enormous collection of anomalous reports in virtually every field of science, but especially meteorology and astronomy. Strange lights, rains of ants and frogs, unidentified flying objects and unidentified stalking animals—all were grist for Fort.

He presented his findings in wild, raving books, spinning his own partly tongue-in-cheek philosophies of the universe and making caustic, insightful potshots at science at the same time. Fort was a reactionary who overly relied on newspaper reports (even less reliable then than now). But his books such as “The Book of the Damned”—so named for the anomalous data “damned” from mainstream science simply because they don’t fit—constitute some of the earliest modern critique of science (and especially of the mythos of positivist progress that often comes attached) while adding immensely to it.

Fort’s more rational modern successor, and an unsung hero of modern popular science, was William Corliss (1926-2011), a Maryland physicist by training who for decades compiled anomalistic reports almost exclusively from scientific journals new and old. Through his Sourcebook Project, he published compilations of these reports under such alluring titles as “Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation,” “Remarkable Luminous Phenomena in Nature” and “Archeological Anomalies.” It’s impossible to read any of them without having a renewed sense of wonder—and fact-based wonder at that (the best kind).

Samplings from Corliss’s “Science Frontiers” newsletter include the “Plain of Jars” in Laos; supernovas resetting atomic clocks; a wild bear that reportedly learned to knock on doors so people would be tricked into letting it indoors; and the unreliability of the gravitational constant. (I follow Corliss in using “anomalous” to refer to the rare as well as to the unexplained.) Corliss gave ink to catastrophists before catastrophism was cool (again).  In his books, I first read about “rogue waves,” lakes that are actually meteor craters, and the thunderstorm-related luminous phenomena known as jets and sprites, all many years before they were welcomed into the fold of orthodox science.

The value and power of Fort’s and Corliss’ works lie in science’s own findings being thrown back at it. But literature is rich with references to natural anomalies—Emily Brontë, Poe and Byron are just a few anomaly-heavy authors who spring to mind—that are uncatalogued and too easily forgotten as fiction or dismissed as tropes. Such allusions bolster and illustrate the drier work of Corliss and Fort.

A classic overlooked example is an author who was somewhat of a living anomaly himself, Henry David Thoreau (1817-62). The author of “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience” is known today predominantly as a natural philosopher, with the emphasis on “philosopher,” and even more emphasis on his role as one of the anti-materialist New England Transcendentalists. Widely overlooked is his Enlightenment-era interest in and skill at scientific observation—which led to a goldmine of anomalistic reports. Combing his books for such reports not only adds to anomaly lore, it offers a sharper understanding of Thoreau.

We may as well start with “Walden,” which, like all great books, is wildly misunderstood. The misconceptions about Thoreau’s pondside living experiment and related social critique are well-addressed by many others. What interests me is the focus on Thoreau as a Transcendentalist, when “Walden” also shows him to be a devoted empiricist and sharp skeptic—contradictions that show what depths his mind held, as well as provoking his fascination with the anomalous.

In the book, Thoreau recounts how he heard endless rumors that Walden Pond is bottomless. He not only tested the rumor by going out and sounding the pond, but he also made a topographic map of its bottom and attempted to extrapolate a scientific formula for determining the deepest point of any given body of water. “It is remarkable how long men will believe in the bottomlessness of a pond without taking the trouble to sound it,” he writes, adding that even those who make superficial attempts typically only “fathom their truly immeasurable capacity for marvelousness.”

“While men believe in the infinite some ponds will be thought to be bottomless,” he concludes.

A truism of Thoreau’s work is that wilderness can always be found nearby, and scientific anomalies bear the postscript message that mystery and wonder are right out there with it.

“Shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous,” says Thoreau the skeptic in “Walden.” “If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments.”

It’s no wonder anomalies attracted Thoreau, because they offer exactly that. What could be more fairy-tale than, say, a winged cat?

“A few years before I lived in the woods there was what was called a ‘winged cat’ in one of the farm-houses in Lincoln [Massachusetts] nearest the pond, Mr. Gilian Baker’s,” Thoreau writes in “Walden.” He recounts his failed attempt to see this cat in 1842 and his conversation with its owner, who informed him “that in the winter the [cat’s] fur grew thick and flatted out along her sides, forming strips ten or twelve inches long by two and a half wide, and under her chin like a muff, the upper side loose, the under matted like felt, and in the spring these appendages dropped off.”

Thoreau didn’t see the cat, but he took home some kitty wings. “They gave me a pair of her ‘wings,’ which I keep still. There is no appearance of a membrane about them.” He then bizarrely speculates the cat could be the hybrid offspring of a flying squirrel.

Thoreau came across another natural curiosity at Flint’s or Sandy Pond in Lincoln. “There also I have found, in considerable quantity, curious balls, composed apparently of fine grass or roots, of pipewort perhaps, from half an inch to four inches in diameter, and perfectly spherical. These wash back and forth in shallow water on a sandy bottom, and are sometimes cast on the shore. They are either solid grass, or have a little sand in the middle. At first you would say that they were formed by the action of the waves, like a pebble; yet the smallest are made of equally coarse materials, half an inch long, and they are produced only at one season of the year. Moreover, the waves, I suspect, do not so much construct as wear down a material which has already acquired consistency. They preserve their form when dry for an indefinite period.”

Later in “Walden,” he describes his experiences with what sound like phenomena known as “Brocken specters” and “glories,” unusual effects of dew or fog in which an observer’s shadow is seen as capped with a halo of rainbow light. His account may also include an anomalous rainbow.

“Once it chanced that I stood in the very abutment of a rainbow’s arch, which filled the lower stratum of the atmosphere, tingeing the grass and leaves around, and dazzling me as if I looked through colored crystal. It was a lake of rainbow light, in which, for a short while, I lived like a dolphin….As I walked on the railroad causeway, I used to wonder at the halo of light around my shadow, and would fain fancy myself one of the elect.” He goes on to say the phenomenon “is especially observed in the morning, but also at other times, and even by moonlight.”

The unusual acoustic properties of frozen bodies of water drew Thoreau’s attention. He writes that he once hit the frozen surface of Flint’s Pond with an axe; “it resounded like a gong for many rods around, or as if I had struck on a tight drumhead.” He refers also to the booming frozen ponds can emit under the warming of the sun, and how surprisingly unpredictable the sounds are. He recounts the tale told to him by another man of the grandly swelling, resonant sound produced by a huge sheet of lake ice breaking loose and grinding away on the shore edge.

The odd and anomalous turn up in other Thoreau books as well. In “Cape Cod,” he describes hearing the “rut,” “a peculiar roar of the sea before the wind changes” known to locals but inexplicable to them.

While climbing a hill a quarter-mile from shore, he recounts, “I was startled by a sudden, loud sound from the sea, as if a large steamer were letting off steam by the shore, so that I caught my breath and felt my blood run cold for an instant….There was a low bank at the entrance of the Hollow, between me and the ocean, and suspecting that I might have risen into another stratum of air in ascending the hill,—which had wafted to me only the ordinary roar of the sea,—I immediately descended again, to see if I lost hearing of it; but, without regard to my ascending or descending, it died away in a minute or two, and yet there was scarcely any wind all the while.”

Musing on the rut, he suggests it involves wind-blown water piling up in one area, then crashing ashore just prior to the wind that drove it arriving. He recounts an anecdote a ship captain told him about occasionally meeting waves at sea that moved against the wind, presumably from a similar cause.

Elsewhere in “Cape Cod,” Thoreau describes various optical illusions produced by the flat surface and lack of scale on a beach, as well as a local mirage. Stones shaped “exactly” like bivalve clams are another oddity he comes across.

In “The Maine Woods,” Thoreau describes hearing an anomalous echo of the cry of a loon on a lake. The echo was louder than the original sound—“probably because, the loon being in a regularly curving bay under the mountain, we were exactly in the focus of many echoes, the sound being reflected like light from a concave mirror.”

He was also driven into nature-worshipping ecstasy by his discovery of the common, but striking and remarkable, phenomenon of phosphorescent wood.

As some of the above examples indicate, Thoreau collected anecdotes of other people’s anomalous experiences, too. In “Cape Cod,” he recounts a lighthouse-keeper’s remarkable report of having seen the upper edge of the sun for about 15 minutes before sunrise actually happened. No anomaly slouch, Thoreau; he speculates quite credibly that it was a known phenomenon in which refraction on high clouds of sunlight from below the horizon makes it appear as if the sun is rising early.

He also quotes from Francis Buckland’s “Curiosities of Natural History” (1837), which mentions many supposed anomalies (such as mermaids and mermen) with a dryly skeptical eye.

In “The Maine Woods,” he mentions his Native American guide’s knowledge of will-o’-wisp electrical phenomena.

In “Walden,” Thoreau alludes to reports of rains of flesh and blood—some of the wilder stuff later catalogued by Fort.

And for the penultimate metaphor in his grand summation at the end of his greatest book, he relies on yet another bizarrely anomalous anecdote.

“Every one has heard the story which has gone the rounds of New England, of a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree wood, which had stood in a farmer’s kitchen for sixty years, first in Connecticut, and afterward in Massachusetts,—from an egg deposited in the living tree many years earlier still, as appeared by counting the annual layers beyond it; which was heard gnawing out for several weeks, hatched perchance by the heat of an urn.”

Thoreau elaborates on the obvious Christian resurrection theme of this urban legend. Similar tales—most frequently, and even less believably, about toads somehow surviving entombment within stones cracked open by miners—were part of the anomaly lore of the day. (It should go without saying that not all reported anomalies are true.)

Indeed, it must be noted that Thoreau was by no means unusual in his love of the odd; natural history of the day was driven by the collection of curiosities, as much for romantic reasons as for scientific ones.

But Thoreau remains significant for his devotion to the anomalous, his wealth of first-hand experience with it, and its obviously profound influence on his natural philosophy—one that saw great value in wondering why, and even greater value in simply wondering.

Anomalies are key to his vision—and arguably, to ours, as a scientific generation. They tell us that what is really strange about the anomalous is our inability to see the complexities that connect it into the matrix of the natural.

“If we knew all the laws of Nature, we should need only one fact, or the description of one actual phenomenon, to infer all the particular results at that point,” Thoreau muses in “Walden.” “Now we know only a few laws, and our result is vitiated, not, of course, by any confusion or irregularity in Nature, but by our ignorance of essential elements in the calculation. Our notions of law and harmony are commonly confined to those instances which we detect; but the harmony which results from a far greater number of seemingly conflicting, but really concurring, laws, which we have not detected, is still more wonderful.”

Or, as Fort put it simply, “One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.”

Even from the wing of a cat, or the halo of a shadow.

The Thoreau editions used and quoted in this column are the Penguin Nature Classics edition of “Cape Cod” and the Quality Paperback Book Club editions of “Walden” and “The Maine Woods.” Significant sources not cited in the text include: “The Complete Books of Charles Fort” by Charles Fort; “Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena” by William R. Corliss; “The Oxford Companion to Philosophy,” edited by Ted Honderich; and Buckley’s “Curiosities of Natural History” in scanned form at quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moagrp.

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