Thursday, October 04, 2012

The facts of life

On February 23, 1860, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal: "A fact barely stated is dry. It must be the vehicle of some humanity in order to interest us. It is like giving a man a stone when he asks you for bread…[A fact] must be warm, moist, incarnated, -- have been breathed on at least."

Thoreau's journal entries of late February 1860, near the end of his all too brief life, are, as always, full of facts -- cloud patterns, the disposition of ice on ponds, animal tracks in snow. He is writing, ostensibly, only for himself, yet the facts live and breathe on the page. We are never without a sense of the man himself, the breath in his lungs, the warmth of his blood, the moistness of the melting snowflakes on his brow. It is his passion and particularity that imbue the facts with humanity.

Thoreau never experienced a dry fact in his life. "A man has not seen a thing until he has felt it," he continues in the passage quoted above. For Thoreau, seeing and feeling were one. That's a fact that leaps, warm and moist, from every page of his journal.

I spent my young adulthood browsing Thoreau's journals, in the big, two-volume, Dover facsimile edition, four pages of a 1904 edition on every page. I was teaching physics, fresh out of graduate school, in love with rigor, in love with facts. I had spent six years being trained to see without feeling, objectively, dispassionately. And then Thoreau came tripping into my life, a long-dead mentor. Suddenly, facts became windows into feeling. Facts lost none of their importance; rather, stones became bread for the spirit.

My career took a new turn. From then on I would try to see with feeling, and communicate as best I could the dry facts of science as portals into a world of inexhaustible wonder. And always, I felt Henry at my side.