Monday, March 17, 2008

A strong and beautiful bug

Years ago I learned to set type by hand and to print broadsides on the old Vandercook proof press at the Bow & Arrow Press in the basement of Harvard's Adams House. I printed several favorite quotations from Thoreau, including this one, from the end of Walden. My mother recently remembered it and asked me for the exact quotation. Though it refers to a "perfect summer life" it seems appropriate now, when we are seeing the first stirrings of spring.
Every one has heard the story which has gone the rounds of New England, of a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree wood, which had stood in a farmer's kitchen for sixty years, first in Connecticut, and afterward in Massachusetts -- from an egg deposited in the living tree many years earlier still, as appeared by counting the annual layers beyond it; which was heard gnawing out for several weeks, hatched perchance by the heat of an urn. Who does not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality strengthened by hearing of this? Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, deposited at first in the alburnum of the green and living tree, which has been gradually converted into the semblance of its well-seasoned tomb -- heard perchance gnawing out now for years by the astonished family of man, as they sat round the festive board -- may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society's most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!
Jeffrey S. Cramer, in his annotated edition of Walden, traces this story to John Warner Barber's book Historical Collections, but doesn't attempt to identify the bug. Perhaps it was the golden buprestid beetle, whose "metallic green and burnished copper" certainly make it sound beautiful. (Photo is by Scott Tunnock of the USDA Forest Service.)

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