Thoreau’s Radicle Empiricism: Arboreal Encounters and the Posthuman Forest

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

It is time to liberate the forest from the anthropocentric metaphor. Donna Haraway, endorsing Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think (2013), says this clearly: “A thinking forest is not a metaphor.” Recent work by Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers on “Gaia,” along with Timothy Morton’s concept of the “hyperobject,” demands that we reevaluate our tendency toward metaphor when dealing with trees.

Kohn’s work, along with Michael Marder’s and Peter Wohlleben’s, suggests that we emphasize the cognitive life of trees, rather than harnessing the image of trees as metaphors for human cognition. We must view the forest as a thinking entity in its own right.

In this paper, I examine Henry David Thoreau’s writing as a model for an encounter with trees that moves beyond mere metaphor. Thoreau draws on his position as an American Transcendentalist and an empirical naturalist to approach trees both philosophically and scientifically. As a poet, he does not make poetry out of trees, but instead sees the poetry that trees themselves create.

For Thoreau, writing about trees is not a matter of generating something new out of the raw arboreal material; it is about tuning one’s sensitivity toward the meaning already present in the twisting roots, the stretching branches, and the kinship within the forest. I call Thoreau’s philosophical and literary style his “radicle empiricism,” punning on Branka Arsić’s characterization of Thoreau’s empirical method as “radical” while also alluding to Thoreau’s reference in Walden (1854) to a plant’s radicle, or taproot, digging into the earth so that the plant may sprout.

While Arsić and others have persuasively contrasted Thoreau’s scientific method to the more idealistic holism of writers like Goethe and Emerson, scholars have yet to adequately examine the role of the forest—as a non-conscious, albeit cognitive, entity—in Thoreau’s empiricism. Thoreau recognizes the effects of one’s grounding belief in the environment, one that is primed to see the forest as either a self-determined entity or as a collection of timber ready for human utilization. Practicing his radicle empiricism, Thoreau approaches the trees like he would a conversation among humans, hoping as he does in “Autumnal Tints” (1862) that “perchance amid these groves might, arise at last a new school of philosophy or poetry.”

I argue that Thoreau’s writing, being so heavily influenced by his daily encounters with trees, models a posthuman translation of arboreal poetic philosophy. Trees for Thoreau, as Richard Higgins notes, exist as writing and as poems. They are hieroglyphic, demanding attention and observation, but also speculation and experimentation.

Thus, Thoreau’s empirical method begins by recording his arboreal encounters, but it progresses toward philosophical speculation and poetic engagement, just as the radicle allows the plant to sprout. Yet this speculative forest thinking is an ambiguous endeavor by both the trees and Thoreau: this is thinking on and about the forest, but also the forest itself thinking. Thoreau therefore thinks with the forest, modeling a more sustainable speculative practice for posthuman radical thinking in—and after—the Anthropocene.

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Cecilie Klingenberg