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Friday, September 22, 2006

Features

Tom Blanding introduces Thoreau's favorite animal: the cat

Since Carlisle lies in the midst of Thoreau Country, we are familiar with lectures and books on Thoreau and Walden, Thoreau and the woods, Thoreau and civil disobedience, Thoreau and simplicity. But Thoreau and cats? Really?
Thoreau scholar Tom Blanding entertains participants at the first "Parlor Talk" in Carlisle last Sunday. (Photo by Ellen Miller)


Yes, really. Last Sunday afternoon acclaimed Thoreau scholar Tom Blanding of Acton presented the first in a bimonthly series of "Parlor Talks" in Carlisle on the life and writings of Henry David Thoreau. Blanding designed the talks "in the Transcendentalist tradition" and they are held at the home of Uschi Schueller on Hartwell Road.

A dozen participants from area towns, most of whom are confirmed Thoreauvians and followers of Blanding, gathered in the Schuellers' spacious, book-lined Colonial living room to learn about Thoreau's special affinity for felines. Blanding asked how many ailurophiles were present — most attendees raised their hands after learning that the term means "lover of cats."

"References to cats," Blanding began, "are scattered throughout Thoreau's writings. There are over 400 references to cats in his published and unpublished writings." The rapt audience appeared incredulous. Thoreau's friends, said Blanding, confirmed that the famous philosopher was "extremely attached to cats. Something about their nature appealed to him."

Blanding was quick to point out a Carlisle connection to Thoreau's fascination with cats. One of Thoreau's greatest aspirations was to see a wild cat, and sightings had been affirmed in the wilderness surrounding Concord. In 1860, a Carlisle farmer named John Quincy Adams shot and killed a Canada lynx on his farm. He gave his friend Thoreau the skin which the writer stuffed himself, Blanding related with some amusement. Thoreau then presented the stuffed lynx to Cummings Davis, who had a local natural history museum in Concord. This pleasing adventure, the culmination of a long-standing wish, was chronicled in one of Thoreau's journals.
Henry David Thoreau (photo by Rik Pierce)


Thoreau, a scientist and naturalist throughout his short life, admired the cat, which he called "a perfect machine" in nature. Blanding compares many of Thoreau's own characteristics with those of a cat — each had acute senses, curiosity, a sense of wildness, single-mindedness, aloofness, love of family, and each was enigmatic and mystical. "Thoreau was a cat in human form," Blanding declared. "He was like a cat — he sauntered through the woods and fields, hunted wild quarry, basked in himself."

Thoreau wrote famously, "I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude," but cats came close to that companionability. He did not, however, take a cat with him to his cabin in the Walden woods, since his goal was to simplify.

A Thoreau scholar

Tom Blanding is an independent scholar of New England Transcendentalism. In 1991, the Boston Globe reported, "He is thought by many to be the outstanding Thoreau scholar in the United States." He has published more than 70 articles in his field and is the author of Historic Walden Woods and co-author of A Thoreau Iconography. He is an editor of the multi-volume edition of Thoreau's Writings published by Princeton University Press. In the late 1980s, Blanding was instrumental in saving Walden Woods from becoming a commercial development.

Blanding wears his mantle of scholarly research lightly, presenting a highly entertaining, informative talk. He read many passages from Thoreau's journals that illustrated the writer's wit and wisdom concerning his favorite animal. In one vivid scene, Thoreau described a boat trip on the Sudbury River with his sister Sophia. From the river, they heard what seemed to be a catbird in distress, but when they went ashore they discovered "a little dot of a kitten," not yet weaned. "It was six inches long from the tip of its tail to its nose," Thoreau recorded in his journal. The Thoreau siblings took the tiny kitten home where the family nursed it to health, an around-the-clock endeavor. Thoreau admired the kitten's powerful instinct for self-preservation: "It hailed the boat, its life being in danger, and saved itself." He learned later that the kitten had been brought to the river by an Irish servant ordered to drown it, but she failed to weigh the little creature down to ensure its demise. The tiny survivor swam ashore and was rescued.

Thoreau's journals are filled with observations of feline life — sleeping during the day in the grasses, stalking prey by night; a cat "full of sparrow" who would not require dinner that day; a cat "studying ornithology between the cornrows." He admired the graceful movement of cats which he described as "undulation" and their bodies as "supple-jointed." Blanding points out that Thoreau's "undulation" emphasizes Transcendentalism as the unifying force that circulates through the universe and harmoniously connects physical reality with spiritual reality.

Min Thoreau

The Thoreau family always had cats at home, at least those that deigned to share space with them. Their most famous feline was Min, who was often the subject of Thoreau's journals in the mid-1850s. On February 1, 1856, he wrote: "Our kitten, Min, two-thirds grown, was playing with Sophia's broom this morning as she was sweeping the parlor, when she suddenly went into a fit, dashed around the room . . . rushed up two flights of stairs and leaped from the attic window to the ice and snow by the side of the doorstep — a descent of a little more than 20 feet — passed round the house and was lost. But she made her appearance again about noon, at the window, quite well and sound in every joint, even playful and frisky."

When Min went missing for five snowy winter nights, the Thoreaus gave her up as lost but she returned at daylight "awakening the whole house with her mewing. . . She is a mere wrack of skin and bones, with a sharp nose and wiry tail. She is as one returned from the dead."

In most poignant readings, Blanding recreated Thoreau's last days as he lay dying of tuberculosis in 1862. He could no longer go forth into nature to write his observations, so he closely observed Min's kittens, commenting on them as newborns, their growth at three weeks, and later. He wrote about a kitten's instinctive movements, such as scratching an ear with a hind leg, and the "eloquent tail that speaks of what she sees."

Thoreau died on May 6, 1862. His final journal entry ends with: "All this is perfectly distinct to an observant eye, and yet could easily pass unnoticed by most.
Thus each wind is self-registering."

And each cat, too, is self-registering.


2006 The Carlisle Mosquito