Nature's Traces:

Following the tracks through image and text in Thoreau’s Journal

William L. Bond

Between 1853 and 1860, Thoreau drew around sixty sketches of animal tracks – footprints, wing-marks, impressions made by tails and bodies in the snow, as well as numerous other animal traces, including droppings and bones. The drawings of tracks are concentrated in the Journal entries for winter months, and in particular, for the January and February of 1855 and 1856. We might account for Thoreau’s recording of animal traces by seeing them in the context of an empirical and scientific project: Thoreau the empiricist can be seen sketching the traces of animal life around him in a bid to produce a detailed and accurate representation of the natural world. On the other hand, we can also see in these drawings Thoreau’s meditation on the concept and problem of representation itself: to what extent does a track or print function as a representation of the creature which made it? When Thoreau draws a print, is he attempting to do justice to an original phenomenon, or to produce a trace of his own? Sharon Cameron famously argues “It is insufficient to say that he is trying to record nature or to take its dictation. He also wants to incarnate its articulating will.”[1] Are Thoreau’s drawings of animal prints simply copies of them, or are these sketches his attempts to re-print (to act as Nature acts)?

“I brought home and examined some of the droppings of the crow mentioned four pages back. They were brown and dry though partly frozen. After long study with a microscope, I discovered that they consisted of the seeds and skins and other indigestible parts of red cedar berries and some barberries” (From the entry for 22 Jan 1856)

These questions are rooted in the text and images of the Journal itself, where Thoreau regularly reflects on his own relationship with his environment. For example, in the entry for the 22nd of January 1856, Thoreau discusses some frozen crow droppings which he takes home to examine: “After long study with a microscope, discovered that they consisted of the seeds and skins and other indigestible parts red cedar berries and some barberries… and I knew whence it had probably come, i.e. from the cedar woods and barberry bushes by Flint’s Pond.” Thoreau’s account begins as a successful empirical examination, as he reveals the constituent materials of the droppings. Then the “indigestible parts” of the berries he finds lead him to an obvious conclusion – the crow has been living among the cedar and barberry bushes. This final conclusion feels less like further reasoning than merely a restatement of the material evidence. It is as though his investigation stalls. The same sentence is interrupted by a drawing of the droppings, a pair of dark semi-circular shapes.

Unlike the text, the drawing offers no information about the crow’s diet or habitat – it does not possess that kind of detail. In fact the drawing almost works against the text here. In the description, Thoreau is trying to unpack and interpret the droppings as signs. But, as he has already suggested, the attempt to digest these materials has failed. In their resistance to the interpretive text, perhaps the drawings participate in what Branka Arsić calls the “semiosis of imprints.” [2] As Arsić argues, Thoreau is embarking on a process “literalization” which resists both the metaphorical treatment of Nature, and the metaphorical use of language. The drawings are a concrete means of avoiding the “curtain of metaphors”[3] and the symbolization of Nature.

The sketches of tracks in particular provide a focal point for Thoreau’s thinking about “literalization.” On the one hand, the drawings are certainly mimetic representations of trails and footprints – they are “literal” in an ordinary sense (not in the way Arsić uses the term); but on the other hand, they are acts of tracing by Thoreau himself and as such they are tracks in their own right and records of his experience of tracking. We can see this thinking at work in the entry for the 31st of January 1856 (shown below). Across these two pages the tracks and traces of birds and mice regularly break into the text. This kind of variety is not atypical for Thoreau: frequently a single entry will contain numerous sketches of tracks. In the bottom right-hand corner of the page, he describes the creature responsible for   one set of prints thus: “there were but 4 hops in all - & then it ended as above though there was nothing near enough for it to hop upon from the snow – The form of the foot was some what like that of a squirrel.” Before the word “foot” he has written track and then crossed it out. Thoreau it seems is keen not to mistake the two, not to confuse the limb and the print. Similarly, when he refers to the tracks “as above,” sending the reader’s eye back up the page to his own drawing, that phrase makes clear he is only comparing the real tracks to the sketch. A few lines prior he comments “Perhaps the tracks of the mice are the most amusing of any – they take such various forms… Here is where one has come down the bank.” With the phrase “they take,” the tracks are granted some autonomy from the mice; next, when Thoreau locates the tracks with the line “Here is where one has come down the bank,” it is easy to read the referent of “Here” as the page itself, where we – readers and viewers – encounter the prints. To clarify, this possible slippage, facilitated by the text, functions not to indicate a real correspondence between prints in the snow and prints on the page. Rather, it works as remind us of the integrity of the drawings themselves – they are not immaterial or abstract (as Thoreau was aware), but thoroughly material, belonging to a space – a Here – of their own.

(Excerpt from entry for 31 Jan 1856)

The way in which Thoreau’s textual references to the tracks allow for a movement between his own drawings and the tracks themselves can also be fruitfully seen in terms of the Journal’s treatment of memory and remembered experience. In the words of H. Daniel Peck, the Journal is “a book deliberately conceived to ‘keep’ time by enlarging the temporal view of reality through the process of cross-reference.”[4] As Peck sees it, Thoreau’s “recording of alert observation” in his Journal would facilitate this “cross-referencing.” Individual experiences and objects could be recast in the broad context of a variety of other observations; this re-contextualization would allow the observer (or reader) to comprehend the whole, rather than merely a single part. This whole would constitute “a full matrix of past, present and even future.”[5] In the entry for the 1st of February 1856, Thoreau draws a three-pronged foot. The image appears amid his description of a brook, in which he remarks:

“I see where a crow has walked along its side. In one place it hopped –& its feet were side by side as in the track of yesterday—though a little more spread the toes—I have but little doubt that yesterday’s track was a crows – The 2 inner toes are near together – the middle more or less curved often.” (From the entry for 01 Feb 1856)

In the entry for the previous day he had also described bird prints, and even written a note between the lines of description, saying “Prob a crow. V. Feb. 1st.” This explicit act of cross-referencing recalls Peck’s argument about the temporal matrix. Thoreau allows different days and different distinct experience to reflect upon one another. The precise nature of the relation between different crow prints is ambiguous. It is not exactly a comparison between the two prints, but he does not explicitly claim they are the same. The drawing sits on the page between his detailed description of the print he has spotted on the river back and his recollection of the print from the day before. We might see it as a representation of one of these actual prints; but we might equally read it as a component of Thoreau’s matrix-making. The drawing functions as a sign of his willingness not only to record precise details about the world, but also to have those details creatively transformed within the text of the Journal: the drawing of the crow-print  is not subordinated completely to either of the external prints: it is not merely a sign of some other external (physical) reality. Rather, while it is related to both of them, it possesses its own (physical)reality.

“In one place I see where one after running a little way--has left 4 impressions of its wings on the snow on each side extending 18 or 20 inches 12 or 15 in width—In one case almost the entire wing was distinctly impressed—8 primaries & 5 or 6 secondaries.” (From the entry for 13 Feb 1855)

Thoreau would often draw and re-draw the same kind of track multiple times in the same entry. In part we can see this as a response to the variety and specificity of his observations. However, we might also find, in the variety of his track-drawings, evidence of his complex (and even seemingly contradictory) attitudes towards the idea of a natural trace. Near the beginning of his entry for the 13th of February 1855, Thoreau describes the impressions which partridges leave in the snow. Where the partridge has “squatted” in the snow, there is a “perfectly smooth & regular oval impression like the bowl of a spoon 5 inches wide.” He then details the way the bird's “primary” and “secondary” quills leave impressions of differing lengths in the snow. At this point in the entry, he draws an 'impression' consisting of short vertical lines, in series – this, presumably, is related to the impressions made by the partridge's “quills.” Later on in the entry, when Thoreau returns to discussing partridges.

Alongside this text, he draws (in the bottom right-hand corner of the left-hand page), a pair of near-ovals, one of which is crossed out, as well as another tiered series of short vertical strikes. The oval-like shapes appear to call back to his earlier spoon-simile, though there is no textual reference to the comparison at this point in the entry. Thoreau’s claim in the text beside the oval sketches, that such impressions affect him in the manner of a “some mystic oriental symbol” stands in direct contrast to the domestic register of the spoon image. Are we then to see the drawings – his own attempt to create this kind of visual impression – as something like mystical symbols? The claim to mysticism, with its connotations of obscurity and the unknown, seems almost calculated to undermine the familiarity of the earlier metaphor; but drawings don’t appear to play quite the same role. It is worth pausing on the claim, when he finds an impression in the snow, that “the bird that made it is gone & there is no trace.” Appearing in a discussion of bird-prints , it seems odd to claim that “there is no trace.” However, if we think of trace more particularly as a sign of symbol belonging to the bird which made it, as a sign which might tell us something about the creature, the meaning of the line comes into focus. The Partridge has left impressions, but there are no traces of the partridge, because the significance of the impressions is not what information they yield about partridges: they do not function as signposts pointing towards their originators (though earlier, of course, Thoreau was able to determine the dimensions of the birds). This is what both the image of the “mystical symbol” and the simile of the spoon reveal about how we might read the drawings: they are not images or representations of partridges, but of impressions (made by a bird already gone). Thoreau responds to prints and impressions by printing and drawing – rather than re-reading the impression (as a sign of a creature), he responds by re-making it, tracing the track on the page.

(Excerpt from entry for 13 Feb 1855)


[1] Cameron, Sharon. Writing Nature: Henry Thoreau’s Journal. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985, pp. 47.

[2] Arsić, Branka. Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2016. pp. 7

[3] Ibid, pp.8

[4] H. Daniel Peck. Thoreau’s Morning Work: Memory and Perception in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, the Journal and Walden. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990, pp. 45

[5] Ibid.