delicate, like the lightly dusted wings of a butterfly. Pinning an
identifying label onto it might mar the specimen, draining it of
its vitality, leaving only a hollow and meaningless shell.
Experience supported this hunch. As a second grader in central Illinois, I sometimes spent my school recess periods sifting
through the gravel under the playground’s swing set, trying to
find Indian beads. They were tiny, segmented, cylindrical rocks
that, I was told, had been handcrafted as jewels by the native
tribes of the Great Plains—the Shawnee, the Kickapoo, the
Sauk. Indian beads were moderately hard to find. But a half-hour
of searching on the playground usually uncovered a couple. In
class, I kept a small collection of them in the groove that was
designed to keep pencils from rolling o= my desktop.
They possessed a sort of magic, those beads. With one in
hand, I could imagine that the dull, flat, thoroughly conquered
landscape outside was wild and hallowed ground worthy of
legend. The perfectly segmented fields that surrounded the
school weren’t merely corn and soybean farms. They were the
battlefields of warring tribes, the sacred sites of ancient rituals,
haunted lands of blood and smoke.
When I was older, I did some research to learn more about
Indian beads. Those poetic totems that had ennobled a bland
world, I discovered, had nothing to do with Indians. The beads
are actually fragments of the fossilized stems of segmented crinoids, marine echinoderms that sometime in the nineteenth
century were saddled with the name Delocrinus missouriensis.
They are occasionally called sea lilies. The Indians didn’t make
them. It is possible, I suppose, that no tribes had set foot on that
little patch of land around my school, ever.
The magic was destroyed in an instant.
NAture wrItINg is a dangerous business. Botch the job and
you murder the vitality you’re trying to celebrate. All those tire-
some descriptions. The inevitable tone of eulogy. The misty
spiritualism embedded in every floating cloud. Thoreau nailed
it: “The surliness with which the woodchopper speaks of his
woods, handling them as indi=erently as his axe, is better than
the mealy-mouthed enthusiasm of the lover of nature.”
That sentence appears in A Week on the Concord and Merri-
mack Rivers, which he published in 1849. But he’d written the
same sentence, give or take a word or two, in one of his daily
journal entries eight years earlier. I dove into his journal at
about the same time I started making my daily pilgrimages to
the park in Buenos Aires. Every page, it seemed, was studded
with precisely identified sedges and songbirds. Here was a man
who, after being stumped by that linden, buckled down with his
field guides and eventually was able to identify unseen plants
by their scent when stepped upon. He greedily collected hard little
facts of nature, and when he put them all together they min-
gled, spawned, evolved, and collectively transformed a small,
unremarkable plot of New England soil into an inexhaustible
universe. To read the journal was to witness a man name a new
world into existence. Identification itself was an act of creation.
In the journal, Thoreau monitors his senses closely, and con-
stantly exercises them. Inspired by the writings of painter and
art critic John Ruskin, he is determined to see the world in all its
colors, not just the primary ones. At one point, Thoreau tries to
track down a cyanometer—an instrument that Alexander von
Humboldt used during his journeys in South America to distin-
guish fifty-three distinct shades of blue sky.
The fastidiousness began to rub o= on me, particularly dur-
ing my walks to the rose garden. I began to seek a more incisive
language to match my perceptions. I wasn’t content to see the
crushed-brick pathways as orange, or even burnt-orange; they
were slightly moistened paprika. The trellised bridge wasn’t merely
white: I distinguished six di=erent shades of white on its sides,
ranging from cream to glittering mica, and its glossy underside
swam with greens—shimmering reflections from the dark
water below. But the water itself was more than green; it was
an Impressionist’s unstirred solution of black, ochre, camel, raw
umber, myrtle, and teal.
It was exhausting to sustain that level of particularity, but
that’s really how a lot of those who followed Ruskin saw color, or
tried to see it: as combinations of discreet tones. Ruskin (who,