Seeing Nature in Society: Thoreau’s Botanical Descriptions of Clothes

Thoreau often uses metaphor to express a situation or to invoke an image of nature. These stylistic choices not only give his writing vibrance and life, but they also inevitably give the reader multiple ways to dissect his ideas, offering them various lenses through which to observe a single scene. It offers both a literal and more interpretive point of view, imploring that the reader see ordinary things in a new light. 

This mode of description stood out to me as Thoreau was discussing clothes. On page 21 (at least in my edition), he describes clothes using language associated with botany, comparing a human to a plant. He refers to our “thin and fanciful clothes” as our epidermis (the “skin” of a plant), our “thicker garments, constantly worn” as our cortex (tissue beneath the epidermis), and our shirts as our “true bark.” In this way, Thoreau manages to do the opposite of anthropomorphizing, he rather attributes plant traits to humans. 

The clothes he refers to as our epidermis I gathered were our jackets, and the way he describes them here suggests that he sees them as more decorative than functional. Taking the plant perspective however, one could interpret the functional similarities between a jacket and an epidermis: they both act to keep things in (water for plants, heat for humans) and keep things out (bacteria and fungi in plants, water and weather for humans). In this way, he once again creates a layered scene, rife for multiple interpretations.

This passage highlights not only Thoreau’s command of language, but also his extensive knowledge of the natural world. However much I question his work because of his seemingly  condescending attitude toward society, it’s moments like these that show Thoreau’s skill and commitment to a nature-centered way of life. It shows that even when describing a solely human attribute, his mind always takes him back to nature.

One Reply to “Seeing Nature in Society: Thoreau’s Botanical Descriptions of Clothes”

  1. That’s a great point, Maris! At first it often seems like Thoreau sees society in a negative light and sees nature in a positive light, but passages like this and the chapter “The Village” show how his viewpoints and opinions are more complex. I know we have also already acknowledged how he capitalizes words like Clothing and Shelter, and I don’t fully understand why he does this and I think we should talk more about it in class and how it relates to the passage you have just analyzed.

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