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"The Wrecking Ground, pt. 19" by Lee Huttner

"The Wrecking Ground" is an essay told in parts by Lee Huttner. We will be publishing a new part each week on our blog. Stay tuned!


In 1854, Thoreau delivered a lecture at the Spring Garden Institute in Philadelphia titled “The Wild.” This was a version of Thoreau’s ever-evolving essay “Walking,” which he would continue amending and revising up to1860, until it was published a month after his death in 1862.

There is little to say about the response to Thoreau’s lecture, or indeed, of his visit. Thoreau remarks in his journal not on the lecture but on visiting the taxidermied animal specimens at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

He pulls out drawer after drawer, each filled with the tissue-silk skins of birds laid out like blessings, the glistening malachite of the violetear, grackle wings of spilled twilight, the belly of the meadowlark a marigold fury.

We know that in 1851—around the time he first began writing “Walking”—Thoreau read The Poetry of Science, an 1848 volume by British scientist Robert Hunt. The Poetry of Science is notable for its inclusion of a chapter on “actinism,” a term devised by the Frenchman Nicéphore Niépce some two decades earlier. Niépce is credited today as the inventor of photography, though he called his process “heliography,” sun-writing.

Heliography, for Niépce, was a demonstration of the metamorphic force of nature. Heliography operated on the principle that the sun’s rays alter the chemistry of a substance through a process similar to burning or slicing away. Niépce also proposed the correlating process of actinism, through which the chemical composition of matter is able to restore itself and negate the destructive property of the sun’s rays. Robert Hunt considered Niépce’s theory and photographic discoveries so important that he placed them alongside such phenomena as electromagnetism and plate tectonics in his Poetry of Science. Hunt explains—in words which Thoreau would directly quote in “Walking”—that “Niépce was the first to show that those bodies which underwent this change during daylight, possessed the power of restoring themselves to their original conditions during the hours of night.” Sun and light, moon and dark work in tandem, destroying and restoring. In the dark, nature is able to recover what was lost to the light.

The lines a boy etches into the sand with a driftwood stick at ebb tide are filled again at flood tide.

Thoreau began writing his essay the year after Margaret Fuller’s death, the year after he combed the beaches of Fire Island awaiting the return of her body or her book. Perhaps Henry found some comfort in reading about Niépce’s theory of actinism. That the destruction witnessed by day—the long battering of the Elizabeth, the roiling aftermath of the storm was smoothed, healed by the night. That the chemistry of the sea could be reconstituted under the glow of the moon. That Margaret and Giovanni, wherever they lie, were now part of that marine chemistry, joined with it in a molecular affinity.

The momentum exhibited at the edge of the sea, never resting, never still.

In his journal, he scrawls: The world with which we are commonly acquainted leaves no trace, and it will have no anniversary.

If only that were true.

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