Henry Thoreau's "Secret"
[Daemonic Dispatches] • "He prays for it, and so he gets it."
No, that isn't a line from The Secret. It's a line from Henry Thoreau, just nine words of the over six million he penned in his extraordinary journal, but in many ways those nine words encompass Thoreau's central thought and discovery.
While others have been having a field day lampooning The Secret's slick and sophomoric repackaging of "New Thought" – the emergent American philosophy for the age of Babbitry – Julia Rickert, in an article for the Chicago Reader, went hunting (unsuccessfully, since he never said it) for a quote attributed to "secret teacher" Ralph Waldo Emerson: "The secret is the answer to all that has been, all that is, and all that will ever be." Bosh and poppycock. And poor prose if it really were from a master like Waldo.
Instead of inventing an Emerson quotation, The Secret's crack research team (I suppose "production staff" would be more accurate) could have easily opened the journal that Waldo first inspired young Henry Thoreau to begin on October 22nd, 1837, and flipped a few pages, for it is full of stories of "the secret" working for him.
There is in The Secret's packaging and content a promise of treasure. Henry Thoreau's antebellum America was as obsessed by the finding of hidden treasure as we seem to be today. While prototypical robber barons plundered the national soil, sky and seas, the common folk frequently resorted to parchment (note The Secret's use of this come on) maps, twice-told tales, and spades to dig up the gold dubloons and diamonds that Captain Kidd or some other pirate was reputed to have buried in the neighborhood. Thoreau did not have to go to the cargo-strewn beaches of Cape Cod to find treasure hunters. There were plenty in land-locked Concord. In November 1854, walking to White Pond, he was hailed by John Hosmer and Anthony Wright to come see where they had been digging for money. Looking into a hole six feet square and as many deep, the men told Thoreau that three pirates in Captain Kidd's day had stopped by a Concord house asking if they could bury some treasure. After they were refused, the pirates walked on and buried the treasure in a nearby hollow. A woman followed them and spread the word around the village, and people had been digging in the vicinity ever since.
As a little boy, Hosmer had unearthed three old-fashioned bottles while plowing, and he said that someone then consulted the Lynn seeress Moll Pitcher for exact instructions on where to dig. Born Mary Dimond, Moll Pitcher was the granddaughter of another noted New England wizard, "Ol' Dimond" – Aholiab Dimond – of Marblehead, a Wampanoag Indian wonder-worker who used his clairvoyant powers to locate thieves and lost objects or to save sailors from shipwreck during storms, and who was reputed never to have used his gifts for his own advantage. Moll Pitcher shared this reputation, and the mere association of her name with a prospective treasure site guaranteed it would be dug for generations. Stories were told after the Revolution that she had passed on British military secrets to General George Washington, whom she also prophesied would become President. She had also on a number of occasions predicted future inventions, and more rarely, mentioned certain sites of buried treasure.
Thoreau's greatest interest in the money-digging activities was that the unearthed sand always sported blackberry bushes for a few seasons after the pits were dug. He loved to see the holes where they had dug "since they remind me that some are dreaming still like children, though of impracticable things, – dreaming of finding money, and trying to put their dream into practice. It proves that men live Arabian nights and days still." But Thoreau viewed treasure-hunting as one more indication of how little curiosity his contemporaries had about more important mysteries. [Journal 8: 168-169]
Despite his distaste for this sort of fortune-finding, Thoreau had an uncanny aptitude for discovering treasure. He repeatedly sensed where he would find Indian artifacts, and though this was at least partly due to his experience in distinguishing likely locations of prehistoric settlements, it was equally a mysterious faculty that baffled him: "I have frequently distinguished these localities half a mile off, gone forward, and picked up arrowheads."
The trick occurred most often with flowers. One July day, having recently been shown by Emerson a specimen of the bog rosemary Andromeda polifolia that a Concord botanist had collected in another town, Thoreau discovered the plant in Beck Stow's Swamp. Thoreau called this "a common experience. When I am shown from abroad, or hear of, or in any [way] become interested in, some plant or other thing, I am pretty sure to find it soon." In the fall of 1856, he found two plants that he had never seen before – black nightshade and Pennsylvania smartweed – in Brattleboro, and a week later he discovered them in Concord. "I detected them first abroad," he reasoned, "because there I was looking for the strange." In 1857 he found the wild calla at the south end of Gowing's Swamp, and immediately began to detect it in other places. "Many an object is not seen, though it falls within the range of our visual ray, because it does not come within the range of our intellectual ray, i.e., we are not looking for it. So, in the largest sense, we find only the world we look for."
On a walk in January 1858, he had the thought that he would look for a new plant and instantaneously came upon dyer's green-weed, an alien that had become naturalized further east. After years of searching in vain for Indian hemp, one day he read about it and was alerted to the small size of its blossoms. Within a day or two he found it in three different places. Having had a "presentiment" of finding the boreal shrub Labrador tea, he did so, and called "remarkable" the fact that almost all the rare plants he found in Concord were preceded by some such anticipation.
On more than a few occasions this happened with animals as well. On the Clamshell Bank, a bend in Sudbury River southwest of Concord village, Thoreau one night suddenly wondered whether musk turtles lay their eggs at night, and, lifting his lantern to look, saw a musk turtle just returning from egg laying. [Journal 5: 515, 9: 88, 465, 10: 244, 273, 13: 356]
Stepping out of one's habitual paths could become an opportunity for discovery, if one cultivated the proper "thrilled and expectant mood." That anticipation precedes discovery became the foundation of Thoreau's theory of perception:
"All this you will see, and much more, if you are prepared to see it, if you look for it. Otherwise, regular and universal as this phenomenon is, you will think for threescore years and ten that all the wood is at this season sere and brown. Objects are concealed from our view not so much because they are out of the course of our visual ray as because there is no intention of the mind and eye toward them. . . The greater part of the phenomena of nature are for this reason concealed to us all our lives. . . Nature does not cast pearls before swine. There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate, not a grain more. The actual objects which one person will see from a particular hilltop are just as different from those which another will see as the persons are different. The scarlet oak must, in a sense, be in your eye when you go forth. We cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, and then we can hardly see anything else. In my botanical rambles I find that first the idea, or image, of a plant occupies my thoughts, though it may at first seem very foreign to this locality, and for some weeks or months I go thinking of it andexpecting it unconsciously, and at length I surely see it, and it is henceforth an actual neighbor of mine. This is the history of my finding a score or more of rare plants which I could name."
Plant hunting was the most personal arena for finding evidence of this law, but Thoreau knew it operated universally. He asked what report one would get from a Concord selectman – or Julius Caesar, Emanuel Swedenborg, or a Fiji Islander-placed on the town's highest hill: "Sharpening his sight to the utmost, and putting on the glasses that suited him best, aye, using a spy-glass if he liked, straining his optic nerve to its utmost, and making a full report[,] Of course, he would see a Brocken spectre of himself." Once upon a time Thoreau had been a hunter, and he was on intimate terms with Concord's finest hunters, so he knew that "it takes a sharpshooter to bring down even such trivial game as snipes and woodcocks; he must take very particular aim, and know what he is aiming at."
Shooting at beauty obeyed the same law. The vagabond for beauty needed to know his quarry's seasons, its "haunts and the color of its wing," and would have dreamed of it incessantly, so that he flushed it at every step. "He prays for it, and so he gets it:"
"After due and long preparation, schooling his eye and hand, dreaming awake and asleep, with gun and paddle and boat, he goes out after meadow-hens, which most of his townsmen never saw nor dreamed of, paddles for miles against a head wind, and therefore he gets them. He had them half-way into his bag when he started, and has only to shove them down. The fisherman, too, dreams of fish, till he can almost catch them in his sink-spout. The hen scratches, and finds her food right under where she stands . . The true sportsman can shoot you almost any of his game from his windows. It comes and perches at last on the barrel of his gun; but the rest of the world never see it, with the feathers on. He will keep himself supplied by firing up his chimney. The geese fly exactly under his zenith, and honk when they get there. Twenty musquash have the refusal of each one of his traps before it is empty."
Mary Brown, the daughter of Vermont publisher Addison Brown, once sent Thoreau a box of live mayflowers from Brattleboro, Vermont, where they grew profusely on bare patches of the sand terraces of the old glacial Lake Hitchcock. He wrote to her that on the very day that they arrived in Concord, he was out surveying in Sudbury, and found more of the flowers than he had ever seen before. Owning that "a botanist's experience is full of coincidences," in that thinking about a flower never seen nearly always meant you would find it nearby some day, he turned his botanical experience into a general law of life: "In the long run, we find what we expect. We shall be fortunate then if we expect great things." [Journal 10: 53-54; Journal 1: 285; Correspondence, 551]
Emerson – a capable amateur botanist who shared Thoreau's appetite, but not aptitude, for finding rare plants – was always astounded by this special talent of Thoreau's. He liked to tell the story that when Thoreau was climbing Mount Washington, he had a bad fall in Tuckerman's Ravine, and sprained his foot. Getting up from the ground, Thoreau saw for the very first time the hairy Arnica, a rare alpine composite that was a well-known remedy for sprained joints. Though Emerson appreciated with Thoreau the importance of the desire to apprehend facts as a necessary precursor to securing them, he had a real sense that his friend was at time providentially guided by an invisible sympathetic hand. When Emerson said that "Those pieces of luck which happen only to good players happened to him," he was suggesting the agency of the daemonic, that old individualized genius whose promptings Emerson well knew from his dreams and poetic inspiration. [Essential Writings of RWE, 815] The heightened, expectant frame of mind that brought forth poetic inspiration could as easily manifest mayflowers, music boxes, and musk turtles.
One fall, walking to Fair Haven over the Conantum Cliffs, Thoreau found a swamp full of blossoming witch-hazel, the yellow confetti flowers dangling from the skyward arching branches. Treasure-hunters favored witch hazel branches for their divining rods, but Thoreau saw them pointing in a different direction: "Let them alone and they never point down to earth." Though he never cut himself a witch hazel branch for dowsing water or buried treasure, Thoreau daily divined the true gold of Heaven. While treasure-hunters throughout Concord and America pointed their rods downward and impatiently demanded results, Thoreau pointed his thoughts upwards, and patiently awaited the reply of the spiritual world. Money-diggers like Hosmer and Wright (and today's consumers of The Secret) electrified their body consciousness in the same manner as the mesmeric trance, and thus opened their subconscious mind to the illusory activity of the jinn. Through his purified heart, Thoreau opened instead toward the higher worlds, who were happy to reply. The Old Norse word happ meant chance or good luck. Happiness happened to Thoreau for the same reason that rare plants and arrowheads "happened" to him. He made the daemons happy, and they responded in kind.Tweet