Kelly McSweeney

Jul 9th 2019

Science and the Arts: Botanists Use Thoreau to Study Wildflowers


Botanists are combining science and the arts by using Henry David Thoreau’s literature to understand how plants — specifically spring wildflowers — are reacting to changes in global temperatures. Thoreau’s observations of plant life in Massachusetts has been referenced in a recent study by researchers at the University of Tennessee, University of Maine, Boston University and Syracuse University. The study demonstrates the importance of opening scientific work to those outside the field. While scientists are often busy examining the microscopic details of the world, writers can help put research into context.

What Henry David Thoreau’s Work Reveals About the Climate

“Walden,” a staple in the American literary canon, famously details Thoreau’s life in a cabin in the woods by Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. He experimented with basic living, and he meticulously described his surroundings.

A study published in Ecology Letters in March 2019 combines current research with scientific observations made by Thoreau in the 1850s. The study looks at the dates in spring when plants begin producing leaves, known as leaf-out dates. The scientists report that over the past century, “temperatures in Concord have warmed by 3 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit),” and the warmer climate has made plants produce leaves earlier in the year than during Thoreau’s time in the woods, according to Science Daily.

“Wildflowers are now leafing out about one week earlier than 160 years ago, but the trees are leafing out two weeks earlier,” said researcher Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie of Boston University. “Understory wildflowers need the sunny conditions before the trees leaf out for their energy budgets.”

Science Daily notes that the window of time between wildflowers blooming and leaves opening is shortening, and scientists expect this gap to continue to get smaller because global temperatures are predicted to continue to increase at even faster rates in the future. This means that the flowers will have less time without leaf coverage, which means less time to photosynthesize in the spring. They report that these changes could have downstream consequences for other elements of the ecosystem.

Literature and Science

Like Thoreau, there are many other instances of literary observations being used to help further discoveries in the scientific community throughout history.

  • In the 1638 novel “The Man in the Moone,” the protagonist builds a flying machine that he rides to the moon, where he meets aliens. Francis Godwin wrote this book long before space exploration was possible, but it helped spread foundational ideas like heliocentrism and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. As The Atlantic says, “Science fiction alone did not inspire the scientific revolution, but the literature of the era did allow people to imagine different realities—in some cases, long before those realities actually became real.”
  • Author Aldous Huxley is famous for writing “A Brave New World,” but Huxley’s last published essay was “Literature and Science.” A book review published in Science in 1964 describes how Huxley didn’t want literature and science to reconcile, but to unite in their diversity, with literature focusing on the private experience and science striving for observations of facts.
  • Creative nonfiction writer John McPhee won a Pulitzer Prize for his geology collection, “Annals of the Former World,” which describes how North America formed.
  • Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” kickstarted environmentalism, influenced a change in our national pesticide policy and led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Science and the arts both aim to understand and describe people and the world we live in. When science is open to a broader audience, outside perspectives can help come up with creative solutions to scientific problems. Literature like Thoreau’s observations of nature can help more people understand science, which can influence public opinion and lead to policy change.