* “Talk of mysteries! — Think of our life in nature, — The solid earth! The actual world! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?
Thoreau had all the makings of a great crime solver - the analytical skills of a surveyor, the observational skills of a scientist, a photographic memory, and a passion for collecting arcane information. His instinct for detecting human foibles was razor-sharp and he had a heart-felt sense of justice. And like most legendary detectives, he marched to his own drummer.
Indeed, Thoreau was as much a master of observation and deduction in real life as Sherlock Holmes is in fiction.
Henry David Thoreau: "The question is not what you look at – but how you look & whether you see."
Sherlock Holmes: "The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes."
Both Thoreau and Holmes meticulously collected information before they formed their deductions.
Holmes: "Data! Data! Data! I can't make bricks without clay."
Thoreau: "No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof."
And collect proof Thoreau did. He filled volumes recording data concerning natural phenomena that scientists find valuable today in the study of climate change.
But as much as both Thoreau and Holmes appreciated the value of collected evidence, they also accepted circumstantial evidence and drawing inferences from it.
Thoreau: "Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk."
Holmes gives his approval of this statement in The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor: "Circumstantial evidence is occasionally very convincing, as when you find a trout in the milk, to quote Thoreau's example."
(Farmers at the time would dilute their cow milk they sold with water from a nearby stream to increase volume and profit)
Thoreau and Holmes both had finely tuned senses.
Thoreau was said to hear as with an ear-trumpet. And a contemporary of his claimed "no hound could scent better."
And Holmes compares himself to a hound. "Perhaps the scent is not so cold that two old hounds like Watson and myself may get a sniff of it."
Also, both men's sense of vision was most acute. Holmes is often demonstrating his extraordinary eye sight. For example, in A Study in Scarlett he says, "Across the street I could see a blue anchor tattooed on the back of the fellow's hand."
One of Thoreau's friends claimed that "he saw as with a microscope." And to see even better, he always carried a magnifying glass in his pocket. As did Sherlock Holmes.
Thoreau and Holmes were both expert trackers.
Thoreau said while at Walden: "I could always tell if visitors had called in my absence, either by bended twigs or grass, or the print of their shoes, and I could tell of what sex or age they were by some slight trace left, as a flower dropped, or by the lingering odor of a cigar or pipe."
Thoreau recorded in his journal "I frequently detect the track of a foreigner by the print of the nails in his shoes…How much we infer from the dandy's narrow heel-tap, while we pity his unsteady tread, and from the lady's narrow slipper, suggesting corns, not to say consumption. The track of the farmer's cowhides, whose carpet-tearing tracks in the heel frequently rake the ground several inches before his foot finds a resting-place, suggest weight and impetus."
Holmes, too, when examining the scene of a crime, would frequently drop to the ground to search out unnoticed signs and clues, whether a bent twig or a heel print.
Holmes: "There is no branch of detective science which is so important and so much neglected as the art of tracing footsteps."
And as far as shadowing suspects goes, Thoreau would have been as good at it as Holmes. He boasted that he "could glide across the fields unperceived right in front of a farmer's window" and he could get very near wild animals too. He wore brown and green clothes that harmonized with the landscape.
Both Thoreau and Holmes had an instinct for detecting human foibles.
According to Louisa May Alcott's father Bronson, Thoreau had a seventh sense when it came to seeing and judging and could measure a man at a glance.
And Watson says about Holmes: "On meeting a fellow-mortal, he could at a glance distinguish the history of the man, and the trade or profession to which he belongs."
Both Thoreau and Holmes were loners who didn't care about being social.
Holmes: "This looks like one of those unwelcome social summonses which call upon a man either to be bored or to lie."
Thoreau: "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes."
Holmes: "I do not encourage visitors."
Thoreau: "I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude."
Both men were wary of women.
According to Holmes: "the motives of women are so inscrutable."
And this is what Holmes has to say about marriage: "But love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things. I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgment."
Thoreau never married either. He thought a woman worth listening to was a rarity. He felt most women had nothing to say. Except, perhaps, for Mrs. Lidian Emerson. According to social historian Robert Richardson he was "emotionally attached to Lidian." And he wrote her lofty, ardent and rather passionate letters as a young man. And he stated in his 1848 journal, most likely in regard to Lydian: "You are mine. You are of me and I of you. I can not tell where I leave off and you begin -- there is such harmony when your sphere meets mine."
It's doubtful he ever acted upon his feelings, however. That would have gone against his personal code of honor. Both Thoreau and Holmes had an inborn personal code of honor. This is true of most great detectives in literature, from Chandler's Marlow to Parker's Spenser. Spenser even compares himself to Thoreau, trying to live life honorably and on his own terms. Thoreau certainly lived on his own terms. He invented the idea of marching to the beat of his own drummer.
Both Thoreau and Holmes had a heartfelt sense of justice.
Thoreau: "Justice is sweet and musical, but injustice is harsh and discordant."
Holmes: "It is every man's business to see justice done."
And because Thoreau and Holmes listened to their own conscience, they didn't feel compelled to follow established laws.
Thoreau: "It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right." "Anyone in a free society where the laws are unjust has an obligation to break the law.
Holmes too was willing to break the law if it stood in the way of true justice. In one story he says to Watson: "Legally, we are putting ourselves hopelessly in the wrong, but I think that it is worth it."
An example of Thoreau's observational and deductive skills from THOREAU ON WOLF HILL:
Wednesday, December 1, 1847
I had already done a day’s doctoring, downed a dram of whiskey, and gotten chilled to the bone before setting down to breakfast this morning. And just when I was about to dig into a stack of flat-jacks fresh off Gran’s griddle, there was a knock on the back door.
“Pray you do not have to go out on another patient call!” Harriet said, giving me such a look of concern I thought she might burst into tears. Although Gran’s ward is nigh reaching womanhood, she still has the volatile emotions of a child.
“Adam ain’t goin’ nowhere afore he gits some hot food and coffee down his gullet,” Gran said.
She declared this with such conviction you would think she still had a say in my comings and goings. I suppose it is only natural for her to fall into old habits now that I have taken up residence in my boyhood home for a spell. Of course I would have disregarded her command and left my breakfast uneaten if the need for me were urgent. Such is the life of a country doctor, a life I never intended to have when I left Tuttle Farm for Harvard. Obligations have overruled ambitions, however.
It turned out the caller was Henry Thoreau. “Well, ain’t you the early bird,” Gran said as she ushered him in.
But it is never too early for Henry. He feels it unwise to keep the head long on a level with the feet, as he puts it, and appears to thrive on little sleep and much exercise. He looked full of vigor as usual this morning, the hawky, ever-present look of vigilance upon his clean-shaven visage. His erect carriage and the quick grace of his movements always calls to my mind an Indian brave, as does his strong, large nose. At thirty, he is my senior by five years, but he still has the boundless energy of a boy. Or a colt. His ruddy, unruly mane was dank with morning mist, and he was clutching his broad-brimmed felt hat to his chest.
“On sich a cold, damp morn as this, you would have been better off wearin’ that hat than carryin’ it,” Gran told him.
“If I’d kept it on my head,” he replied, “in what would I have collected these?” He proffered his hat to her.
Gran’s eyes lit up when she looked into the deep crown. “Chestnuts!” she cried.
“I came upon them not too far from here,” he said, “and reckoned you might appreciate them, Mrs. Tuttle.”
“You reckoned right,” she said. “Roasted, stewed, or preserved, there ain’t nothin’ I like more’n chestnuts.” She transferred the glossy nuggets into a basket. “How did you manage to find such a bounteous treasure of ’em so late in the season?”
“I simply looked where I thought a squirrel might,” he said with a shrug and went to stand by the fire. He seemed to take for granted his ability to find treasures invisible to others. Often when we hike together, he unearths an ancient arrowhead, yet no matter how hard I look for them, I have never come upon a single one.
“Set yourself down, and I’ll hot up the coffee fer ye,” Gran told him.
“Thank you kindly but no coffee for me,” he said.
“You sure? ’Twon’t be no trouble at all.”
“Henry does not take coffee, nor tea, nor any other stimulant,” I told Gran. “Not even fermented cider.”
“Not even cider!” That did amaze her. “Why, most menfolk drink it like water.”
“I believe water is the only drink for a wise man,” Henry said.
Gran sniffed. “Suit yerself.”
Henry gave me an amused look, then a more careful study from head to toe. “Well, my friend, I see you have been up and about very early yourself. And even though you had a bit of trouble with your horse or gig on your way to the Yates farm, you still got there in plenty of time to deliver Mrs. Yates of a fine baby boy.”
We all three stared at him. I had related those very facts to Gran and Harriet when I staggered in not ten minutes before.
“Mr. Thoreau is clairvoyant!” Harriet said.
Henry laughed. “Not clairvoyant. Observant.” He pointed to my feet. “There in the cleft of Adam’s boot heel is a leaf from the climbing fern.”
“So what about it?” Gran said.
“That rare species of fern can be found in Old Sow Swamp, which lies between here and the Yates farm,” Henry said. “Hence I surmised that’s where Adam picked it up on his boot when he got out of his gig. But what would compel him to alight in a swamp? Obviously something was in need of fixing before he could go on.”
“And so it was,” I confirmed. “I stopped there to straighten the bit that had gone askew in Napoleon’s mouth.”
“But how’d you git from knowin’ where some fern grows to knowin’ why Adam went out afore daybreak?” Gran asked Henry.
“Ratiocination,” Henry replied.
Gran and Harriet looked at him blankly. I own that I did too.
“You need to explain your reasoning process to us, Henry,” I said. “If you don’t mind.”
Of course I knew he wouldn’t mind a jot. If there’s one thing Henry enjoys, it’s showing off his powers of observation and deduction. He sat down at the table and elucidated.
“I noted the climbing fern in Old Sow Swamp a few days ago. And then, as I cut through a pasture behind the Yates farmstead, I saw the lady of the house hanging out her wash. She had a hard time of it for she was very far advanced with child. Thus I deduced that Adam went out that way early this morning to assist with the birth.”
“But how did you know Mrs. Yates was delivered of a boy?” Harriet said.
“Why, Adam’s breath,” Henry replied. He folded his arms across his chest and said no more, no doubt waiting to be urged to.
He did not have to wait long. “Out with it, Henry!” Gran said. “You got me hooked now like a catfish danglin’ on a chunk of dough. What in tarnation has my grandson’s breathing to do with the sex of Mrs. Yates’s newborn?”
“I can smell whiskey on Adam’s breath,” Henry said, his large and bright eyes dancing with quiet merriment. “Mr. Yates is famous for being closefisted and a man who seldom imbibes. So it would be a rare occasion indeed when before dawn he would bring out his best liquor. He already has three daughters, so another would not so inspire him. Only a boy would do the trick. And I wager this was the first time Adam ever quaffed a spirituous libation so early in the day. That would also indicate to me that the birth was a long and perilous one. Still, if I know him he toasted the birth of the boy to please the proud father more than to indulge himself.”
I could only nod. He had deduced all from what seemed no evidence at all.
“Well, I’ll be jiggered,” Gran said. “You are as smart as a steel trap, Henry. And as a reward for yer fancy bit of cogitat’n I am going to serve you up a heapin’ pile of flat-jacks.”