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THE PORTABLE THOREAU
HENRY DAVID THOREAU was born in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1817. Self-described as “a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot,” Thoreau was known for his extreme individualism, his preference for simple, austere living, and his revolt against the demands of society and government. The two years he spent in a house he built, writing and observing nature, resulted in Walden (1854). He was the author of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), “Civil Disobedience” (1849), Excursions (1863), and The Maine Woods (1864). Thoreau died in Concord in 1862.
JEFFREY S. CRAMER is Curator of Collections at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods. He is the editor of the award-winning Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, The Maine Woods: A Fully Annotated Edition, and The Quotable Thoreau.
The Portable Thoreau
Edited with an Introduction by
JEFFREY S. CRAMER
To my editor at Penguin, Elda Rotor, for appreciating the need for a new edition of the classic volume, The Portable Thoreau, originally edited by Carl Bode in 1947, and for making the call.
To Larry Buell, with special thanks.
And to my family—Julia, Kazia, and Zoë—for not thinking that just because Thoreau was portable this time they could get him out of our house.
Standing Up to Live, Sitting Down to Write
How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live! Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow…
—THOREAU IN HIS JOURNAL, AUGUST 19, 18511
When Thoreau moved from Concord to New York in 1843, ostensibly to be the tutor for the children of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s brother, William, he was situating himself in the center of the American publishing world. Although for various reasons, including an overwhelming sense of homesickness, he returned to Concord and remained there for the rest of his life, it is clear that at this point Thoreau was determined to be a writer. Whatever else he may have been—social reformer, naturalist, surveyor, pencil-maker, teacher—his work, as he would write in his journal on October 18, 1856, “is writing, and I do not hesitate, though I know that no subject is too trivial for me, tried by ordinary standards.”2
Henry David Thoreau was born David Henry Thoreau on July 12, 1817, in Concord, and he died in Concord on May 6, 1862. During his forty-four years, or, more precisely, during the twenty-four years when he was actively writing, he wrote works that have become classics of American literature—Walden, a book on deliberate and purposeful living; “Civil Disobedience,” a treatise on a person’s rights and duties in relation to an unjust government; and “Walking,” a piece on man’s place in Nature—in addition to writing a two-million-word journal.
Thoreau’s success as a writer lies in the truth he utters. The questions he asks himself are the questions every individual, at his or her most attentive and sentient moments, asks. As he wrote, “These same questions that disturb and puzzle and confound us have in their turn occurred to all the wise men; not one has been omitted; and each has answered them, according to his ability, by his words and his life.”3 Because the answers change, however, not only from generation to generation but for each individual from year to year, his writings are works to which we return, texts constantly reflecting our own evolution.
“To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit,” Thoreau wrote in the “Reading” chapter of Walden, “is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”4 Reading in the way Thoreau meant, you will meet with a realization that many other readers will fail to achieve, which ultimately means that a good book must not only be written by a good writer but that it must be read by a good reader.
One way to be a good reader is to understand the nature of an essay. Wendell Berry defined it best in writing about Edward Abbey’s essay “Down the River with Henry Thoreau”: “It is an essay in the literal sense: a trial. Mr. Abbey tries himself against Thoreau and Thoreau against himself; he tries himself and Thoreau against the river; he tries himself and Thoreau and the river against modern times, and vice versa.”5 This is how a reader should approach any piece by Thoreau.
Thoreau gave more than seventy lectures between his first in 1838 and his last in 1860. Sometimes he found members of his audience reading the newspaper. He once overheard one person say to another, “What does he lecture for?”6 But some reviews of his talks indicated a man who could move his audience. A talk on “Economy” in 1848 caused The Salem Observer to write that his lecture was “interspersed observations, speculations, and suggestions upon dress, fashions, food, dwellings, furniture, &c., &c., sufficiently queer to keep the audience in almost constant mirth, and sufficiently wise and new to afford many good practical hints and precepts.”7 And The Eastern Argus Semi-Weekly of Portland, Maine, wrote the following year that his talk “was unique, original, comical, and high-falutin. It kept the audience wide awake, and pleasantly excited for nearly two hours.”8 A decade later, The Liberator wrote of Thoreau’s talk on John Brown that a “very large audience listened to this lecture, crowding the hall half an hour before the time of its commencement, and giving hearty applause to some of the most energetic expressions of the speaker.”9
Thoreau wrote in his journal on December 6, 1854: “After lecturing twice this winter I feel that I am in danger of cheapening myself by trying to become a successful lecturer, i.e., to interest my audiences. I am disappointed to find that most that I am and value myself for is lost, or worse than lost, on my audience.”10 The lyceum, however, served as a testing ground for much of his writing. Early versions of what would become essays or sections of his books were given as lectures, some multiple times in different locations with audiences of differing backgrounds. That much of his work was originally presented, at least in part, on the lecture circuit accounts for the directness with which Thoreau approached his readers. For Thoreau there was always an audience, not an imagined reader but a real man or woman sitting in the front row looking in his eyes and listening to his words. “I take it for granted, when I am invited to lecture anywhere…that there is a desire to hear what I think on some subject, though I may be the greatest fool in the country,” he wrote in “Life Without Principle,” resolving “that I will give them a strong dose of myself. They have sent for me, and engaged to pay for me, and I am determined that they shall have me, though I bore them beyond all precedent.”11
“I would rather write books than lectures,”12 Thoreau confessed in his journal. “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book,” Thoreau wrote in Walden, perhaps understanding at this point the type of work he was trying to present. “The book exists for us, perchance,” he went on to say, “which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones. The at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered.”13 With wisdom we also learn not to do desperate things such as his neighbors, living their “lives of quiet desperation,”14 were doing. It was important “so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”15 It was pivotal to Thoreau’s philosophy that action follow thought. “What I began by reading,” he wrote in 1841, “I must finish by acting.”16
Although Thoreau wrote that “the writer must to some extent inspire himself,”17 no discussion of Thoreau can ignore the influence of Emerson. Although some tend to downplay the influence of Emerson over the young Thoreau, it is impossible to think of Thoreau without hearing echoes of Emerson. This in no way diminishes Thoreau but adds to an understanding of him. Emerson himself knew that it was “easy to see that the debt is immense to past thought. None escapes it. The originals are not original. There is imitation, model and suggestion, to the very archangels, if we knew their history.”18
Emerson was one of the leading men of letters of his day and the center of the transcendental circle as well as a mentor and eventual friend to the younger author. That Emerson was an influence on Thoreau, and a strong one, was as it should be. That Thoreau could take that influence and adapt it without being overwhelmed by it was the key to his strength and individuality. He was a master at absorbing what had come before him and turning it uniquely into his own. Emerson wrote that a “great man” fills what he quotes “with his own voice and humor, and the whole cyclopaedia of his table-talk is presently believed to be his own.”19
Emerson, in 1837, presented his oration, “The American Scholar,” to Thoreau’s graduating class at Harvard. It is unclear whether Thoreau heard it at that time, but if he hadn’t, he would certainly have read it later in its pamphlet form at the Emerson home. In this highly charged essay, Emerson wrote of the unfulfilled potential of young Americans in these words:
Young men of the fairest promise, who begin life upon our shores, inflated by the mountain winds, shined upon by all the stars of God, find the earth below not in unison with these, but are hindered from action by the disgust which the principles on which business is managed inspire, and turn drudges, or die of disgust,—some of them suicides. What is the remedy? They did not yet see, and thousands of young men as hopeful now crowding to the barriers for the career do not yet see, that if the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him. Patience,—patience; with the shades of all the good and great for company; and for solace the perspective of your own infinite life; and for work the study and the communication of principles, the making those instincts prevalent, the conversion of the world. Is it not the chief disgrace in the world, not to be an unit;—not to be reckoned one character;—not to yield that peculiar fruit which each man was created to bear…. We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.20
Imagine the power of those words on a young Thoreau, on anyone, who was searching, trying to find out who he was, what he was about; imagine the power of those words as a call to arms, a clarion call, or a call like the crowing of chanticleer waking his neighbors up.
When Emerson wrote in the same essay that “the ancient precept, ‘Know thyself,’ and the modern precept, ‘Study nature,’ become at last one maxim,”21 the idea was substantiated that understanding nature was parallel to understanding yourself; that through a close examination of the exterior life you could discern the interior life. Thoreau would be able to put this principle into practice, merging self-examination and the study of nature into one act.
A dozen years before Thoreau’s Walden experiment, Emerson asked in his journal, “But would it not be cowardly to flee out of society & live in the woods?”22 Thoreau’s move, however, was no escape but only a temporary repositioning to adjust his angle of vision. The place from which one makes an observation is critical, as when he noted that the seashore of Cape Cod formed “neutral ground, a most advantageous point from which to contemplate this world,”23 or when he wrote in 1852 that the “elevated position” afforded by climbing a mountain allowed him to “see an infinite variety far and near in their relation to each other, thus reduced to a single picture.”24
Walden Woods was not the place a Harvard graduate usually went to live. It had been home to former slaves, Irish immigrants working on the railroad, lurkers, alcoholics, and, in 1845, Henry David Thoreau. Unlike many of the others who resided in Walden Woods for whom it was less a matter of choice than necessity, Thoreau’s move to the woods “to live deliberately”25 was a matter of consideration, aspiration, and, ultimately, consequence.
Thoreau’s going to Walden Pond was in part a personal, although not necessarily a private, response to the challenges suggested to him by the utopian communities springing up in the early 1840s, and in particular the two with which some of his friends were closely associated: Fruitlands and Brook Farm. George Ripley, one of the founders of Brook Farm, explained that they were trying to prepare “a society of liberal, intelligent, and cultivated persons, whose relations with each other would permit a more simple and wholesome life, than can be led amidst the pressure of our competitive institutions…. If wisely executed, it will be a light over this country and this age.”26
Thoreau conducted the same experiments in living as these communities, but did so on a smaller scale and from a different direction. He was not trying to re-create society by reinventing how a community should work or by imposing a new constitution upon a self-created communal association, as Brook Farm had done. This was not the way society would be renewed. The failure of these and other similar efforts to fundamentally change the way people lived showed that Thoreau was correct in searching for another method to reform human culture.
At Walden Pond Thoreau could question the individual’s role and obligations, not only to society but to himself: how should he live, how should he interact with his neighbors, how should he obligate himself to the laws, not only of the society within which he lived, but to those laws that were higher than those of the land: moral or religious principles, or laws of conscience, that take precedence over the constitutions or statutes of society. These questions were paramount.
Thoreau wrote in his journal, and repeated in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, that autobiography is preferable to biography: “If I am not I, who will be?”27 Or again, in his journal: “Is not the poet bound to write his own biography? Is there any other work for him but a good journal? We do not wish to know how his imaginary hero, but how he, the actual hero, lived from day to day.”28 It was the poet’s business, he wrote, to be “continually watching the moods of his mind, as the astronomer watches the aspects of the heavens. What might we not expect from a long life faithfully spent in this wise?…As travellers go around the world and report natural objects and phenomena, so faithfully let another stay at home and report the phenomena of his own life.”29
The personal pronoun “I” is as much a persona as Mark Twain or the narrator of Remembrance of Things Past whom we call Marcel Proust. That the hero of Thoreau’s books and essays was an ideal not easily recognized by his neighbors as the man walking the streets of his hometown caused one Concordian to say, “I don’t understand why his books should be so popular,”30 and another, “Why should any one wish to have a sentence of Henry Thoreau’s put in print?”31 Thoreau would not have been surprised by this attitude, writing in 1851, “The fathers and the mothers of the town would rather hear the young man or young woman at their tables express reverence for some old statement of the truth than utter a direct revelation themselves. They don’t want to have any prophets born into their families,—damn them!”32
All of Thoreau’s writings are literary works in which some liberties are taken with biographical faithfulness for the sake of the artistic integrity of the mythic life he is creating. Nonetheless, the “author’s character,” Thoreau wrote, “is read from title-page to end. Of this he never corrects the proofs.”33 Thoreau wrote to his friend H.G.O. Blake, “My actual life”—the life he experienced on a day-to-day basis as opposed to the author’s character, his ideal, or what he sometimes called his real life—“is a fact, in view of which I have no occasion to congratulate myself; but for my faith and aspiration I have respect. It is from these that I speak.”34 Similarly, he wrote to another friend, “You may rely on it that you have the best of me in my books, and that I am not worth seeing personally—the stuttering, blundering, clod-hopper that I am. Even poetry, you know, is in one sense an infinite brag & exaggeration. Not that I do not stand on all that I have written—but what am I to the truth I feebly utter!”35
For Thoreau, 1851 was a defining year, a time when everything that had come before could be seen as preparatory. He was now feeling “uncommonly prepared for some literary work” and experiencing “a mere fullness of life, which does not find any channel to flow into,” but finding that he could “select no work. I am prepared not so much for contemplation, as for forceful expression. I am braced both physically and intellectually.”36
When he read The Human Body and Its Connexion with Man that year, Thoreau wrote in his journal that James Wilkinson’s book “to some extent realizes what I have dreamed of,—a return to the primitive analogical and derivative senses of words. His ability to trace analogies often leads him to a truer word than more remarkable writers have found…. The faith he puts in old and current expressions as having sprung from an instinct wiser than science, and safely to be trusted if they can be interpreted…. All perception of truth is the detection of an analogy; we reason from our hands to our head.”37 Understanding this was a confirmation of what Thoreau was trying to do when he put pen to paper, because it was through analogy that we begin to comprehend the correspondence between the physical and the spiritual, and to truly understand that nature is not something outside of us but that we and nature are the same. Thoreau wrote in his journal, “Some incidents in my life have seemed far more allegorical than actual; they were so significant that they plainly served no other use.”38 Notwithstanding the predominance of the pronoun “I” in his text, it would be a mistake to treat Thoreau’s examination of his life as self-involved or even strictly self-serving. It is through observing the self that we can observe society, it is through the “me” that we can understand the “not me,” and it is by way of the individual that the world can be changed.
“The writer has much to do even to create a theme for himself,” Thoreau wrote. “Most that is first written on any subject is a mere groping after it, mere rubble-stone and foundation. It is only when many observations of different periods have been brought together that he begins to grasp his subject and can make one pertinent and just observation.”39 One predominant theme that runs throughout Thoreau’s writings regardless of the apparent topic or genre is his personal search for wildness. Wildness is synonymous with neither wilderness nor nature but is that which wilderness or nature represents, a freedom not subject to the dictates and demands of a “culture merely civil,” as he called it in “Walking.” “Whatever has not come under the sway of man is wild. In this sense original and independent men are wild,—not tamed and broken by society,”40 Thoreau wrote in his journal.
Wildness and deliberation are tantamount. Wildness means to be infused with spirit, to follow our genius—genius not in relation to intellectual capacity but what Emerson called our natural bias and the “spontaneous perception and exhibition of truth”41 or what Sampson Reed simply called “divine truth.”42 To follow the essence of wildness, as Thoreau meant it, is to live a willful and deliberate life free from the external forces that cause us to live in discord with our true nature. To do that, you have to learn what it is that is concordant with your nature and to differentiate, as Thoreau did, between your actual life—that is, the life you experience on a day-to-day basis—and your ideal, or real, life.
Thoreau read Richard Trench’s On the Study of Words in 1853 and found this: “‘Wild’ is the participle past of ‘to will;’ a ‘wild’ horse is a ‘willed’ or self-willed horse, one that has never been tamed or taught to submit its will to the will of another; and so with a man.”43 Thoreau commented in his journal that Trench “says a wild man is a willed man. Well, then, a man of will who does what he wills or wishes, a man of hope and of the future tense, for not only the obstinate is willed, but far more the constant and persevering. The obstinate man, properly speaking, is one who will not. The perseverance of the saints is positive willedness, not a mere passive willingness. The fates are wild, for they will; and the Almighty is wild above all, as fate is.”44
Thoreau knew that every one of his neighbors had the potential to be wild if they found the will to live a deliberate life. When Thoreau exhorted his readers in Walden to “grow wild according to thy nature, like these sedges and brakes, which will never become English hay,”45 he knew that his farming neighbors would recognize that these imported crops were especially cultivated and valued in America as feed, and they were called English hay to distinguish them from the less esteemed native meadow hay harvested for bedding. It was a call to be true to one’s own nature, as when he wrote in the final chapter of Walden, “Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy that he can? Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made.”46 Or as expressed in his journal:
It is of no use to plow deeper than the soil is, unless you mean to follow up that mode of cultivation persistently, manuring highly and carting on muck at each plowing,—making a soil, in short. Yet many a man likes to tackle mighty themes, like immortality, but in his discourse he turns up nothing but yellow sand, under which what little fertile and available surface soil he may have is quite buried and lost. He should teach frugality rather,—how to postpone the fatal hour,—should plant a crop of beans. He might have raised enough of these to make a deacon of him, though never a preacher. Many a man runs his plow so deep in heavy or stony soil that it sticks fast in the furrow. It is a great art in the writer to improve from day to day just that soil and fertility which he has, to harvest that crop which his life yields, whatever it may be, not be straining as if to reach apples or oranges when he yields only ground-nuts. He should be digging, not soaring. Just as earnest as your life is, so deep is your soil. If strong and deep, you will sow wheat and raise bread of life in it.47
Thoreau wrote in his journal in what reads like a reminder to himself: “Improve the opportunity to draw analogies. There are innumerable avenues to a perception of the truth.”48 This was so integral to Thoreau’s perception of the world around him that once, on seeing ice on the river, he asked himself in his journal, “What is the analogy?”49 The answer sometimes required distance. It was not always possible to immediately appreciate the correspondence between things seen and things unseen. “Poetry,” he wrote, “puts an interval between the impression and the expression,—waits till the seed germinates naturally.”50 Little of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was written while traveling the rivers with his brother. Most of Walden was written after his two-year tenure at the pond, but with many observations dating from the years before he even contemplated his move there. “Walking” is made of two separate lectures. Thoreau’s writing process was like the building of a mosaic: small pieces taken from a variety of times and situations that, when juxtaposed, fitted, and cemented, form a seamless and organic whole. Although he sometimes found that thoughts or ideas “of different dates will not cohere,”51 many of his works involved pulling together observations from all he had and melding them in a way that created what he called a “natural order,”52 rather than putting facts and thoughts together in what we might consider chronologically real time. This gave him the freedom to invest an incident or an excursion with a universal and transcendental view by adding layers of thought and sometimes years of experience to a simple incident. Take, for instance, Thoreau’s night in jail: he, like others before him, refused to pay a poll tax because paying the tax would support a government that tolerated slavery; he, like others, was arrested; he, like Bronson Alcott before him, had his tax paid by a neighbor; but unlike the others, he was able to write about it in a way that lets us feel more than a century and a half later that he is speaking directly to our own conditions and issues.
When Wendell Berry questioned “the political value of his forlorn, solitary taxpayer’s revolt against the Mexican War,”53 he failed to see that although Thoreau’s action—as expressed through the ethic of his essay—did little to end the Mexican War or abolish slavery, it nonetheless had great value, both politically and otherwise. It had value for a minister trying to end racial segregation in the South, or for one man peacefully leading his country to home rule, or for a generation trying to end a war in Vietnam. Thinking in those terms, and bearing in mind that the ethic is sometimes greater than the action, Thoreau’s examination of self begins to seem a more altruistic and noble goal.
Thoreau’s insistence on individual reform was never a withdrawing from or abandoning of the societal issues that plagued his day—such issues as slavery, education reform, and the conditions and rights of women, Native Americans, and immigrants. It was through the transformation of one that the many would be reformed. If the individual is reformed, then societal improvement would be a natural consequence. In “Paradise (to Be) Regained,” Thoreau wrote, “We must first succeed alone, that we may enjoy our success together.”54
Self-emancipation, which is what Thoreau said he was looking for in an early journal entry, was only a step toward a greater and more universal liberation, because when any one person makes a conscious decision to act or refrain from acting, that decision puts every one of us in the position of making a choice: deliberately, mindfully, and willfully. When one person signs off from a church, as Thoreau had done, then those who remain do so by choice, whether they realize it or not. When one person refuses to pay a tax, or to submit to the draft, or to eat meat, then those who do pay the tax, or go to war, or eat meat, do so consciously, because the ability to do otherwise has been made explicit. “I know of no more encouraging fact,” Thoreau wrote, “than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.”55
His efforts and example were not self-righteous but simply righteous: honest, respectable, and good. Although at first, according to Alcott, Emerson thought Thoreau’s going to jail was “mean and skulking, and in bad taste,”56 Emerson soon took issue with the abolitionists who spoke for freedom but were not willing to give up a lifestyle that hypocritically supported slavery. Reevaluating the incident in his journals, Emerson wrote, “My friend Mr Thoreau has gone to jail rather than pay his tax…. The abolitionists denounce the war & give much time to it, but they pay the tax.”57
Reading Thoreau presents us with options. Once we have read his words, we are no longer allowed the luxury of ignorance. Thoreau does not implore us in any way to live the life he chose; he asks that we accept only such aspects of his work that apply to each of us individually. “I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits,”58 he reminded us in Walden. To find if the coat fits we must ask ourselves the same questions Thoreau asked himself, as when he considered what, “to use the words of the catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life.”59 To answer such questions he had to search sincerely and profoundly. If time, as he wrote, is but a stream, and a stream that he knew to be shallow, then he had to be willing to let current time go to find timelessness beyond, to find that which is eternal. It was a sacred quest for the miracle that daily fronted him: life, nature, spirit.
When describing in Walden the woodcutter Alek Therein, in whom the “spiritual man” was “slumbering as in an infant,” Thoreau was defining his neighbors. “He had been instructed only in that innocent and ineffectual way in which the Catholic priests teach the aborigines, by which the pupil is never educated to the degree of consciousness, but only to the degree of trust and reverence, and a child is not made a man, but kept a child.”60 Thoreau wanted to awaken his readers to a degree of consciousness that would take them beyond reliance on something secondary to trust in and reverence for the primary, original source. It was this principle of the divinity within that allowed for a personal, innate relationship with God. He did not want to hear about miracles from a historical biblical past but to experience the miracle of the day. “There is no interpreter,” he wrote in his 1850 journal, “between us and our consciousness.”61
The question Thoreau addressed directly to his readers in Walden—“Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer?”62—could stand as the motto for all of his writings. Thinking of those authorities who stand between us and life itself, he wrote, “What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen?”63 In using a word like seer, Thoreau went beyond its literal meaning of one who sees. He knew that if or when you see, you become by extension what the word seer also means: a prophet, someone who speaks with divine inspiration. This inspiration was what the transcendentalists often called reason, that which intuits what is beyond proof, or what George Ripley defined as “the immediate perception of Truth.”64 Emerson explained it this way: “Reason is the highest faculty of the soul—what we mean often by the soul itself; it never reasons, never proves, it simply perceives; it is vision…. Reason is potentially perfect in every man.”65 Because reason is potentially perfect in each of us, we owe it to ourselves to pay attention to this intuited truth.
To live right, to do right, and by precept or example to perhaps cause others to do so also, was a goal worth striving for. In the “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” chapter of Walden, Thoreau wrote, “It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”66
To do that one needs to be able to consciously ask questions, questions asked by a wakeful mind, that will draw thoughtful, attentive, and deliberate answers, and to present those answers to his readers. “All that interests the reader,” he wrote in 1856, “is the depth and intensity of the life excited.”67 “The poet,” Thoreau wrote in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “will write for his peers alone. He will remember only that he saw truth and beauty from his position, and expect the time when a vision as broad shall overlook the same field as freely.”68
JEFFREY S. CRAMER
1. The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, Walden ed., 20 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906), 8:404–5.
2. Ibid., 15:121.
3. Ibid., 2:120.
4. Ibid., 2:112.
5. Wendell Berry, What Are People For? (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990), 47.
6. Thoreau, Writings, 4:470.
7. Quoted in Raymond R. Borst, The Thoreau Log: A Documentary Life of Henry David Thoreau, 1817–1862 (New York: G. K. Hall, 1992), 140.
8. Ibid., 144.
9. Quoted in Walter Harding, ed., Thoreau as Seen by His Contemporaries (New York: Dover Publications, 1989), 8.
10. Thoreau, Writings, 13:79.
11. Ibid., 4:455–56.
12. Ibid., 13:79.
13. Ibid., 2:120.
14. Ibid., 2:8.
15. Ibid., 2:16.
16. Ibid., 7:216.
17. Ibid., 17:438.
18. The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Concord ed., 12 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1875), 8:180.
19. Ibid., 8:183.
20. Ibid., 1:114–15.
21. Ibid., 1:87.
22. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson in His Journals, ed. Joel Porte (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1982), 107.
23. Thoreau, Writings, 4:186.
24. Ibid., 10:392.
25. Ibid., 2:100.
26. George Ripley to Ralph Waldo Emerson, November 9, 1840, quoted in Joel Myerson, ed., Transcendentalism: A Reader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 308–9.
27. Thoreau, Writings, 1:163.
28. Ibid., 16:115.
29. Ibid., 8:403.
30. Alfred Munroe, quoted in Harding, Thoreau as Seen by His Contemporaries, 182.
31. George Frisbie Hoar, quoted in The Quotable Thoreau, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 462.
32. Thoreau, Writings, 9:119.
33. Ibid., 7:226.
34. The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Walter Harding and Carl Bode (New York: New York University Press, 1958), 216.
35. Ibid., 407.
36. Thoreau, Writings, 8:467–68.
37. Ibid., 8:462–63.
38. Ibid., 11:203.
39. Ibid., 17:439.
40. Ibid., 8:448.
41. The Selected Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2005), 70.
42. Henry David Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 87n60.
43. Richard Chenevix Trench, On the Study of Words (New York: Redfield, 1852), 203.
44. Thoreau, Writings, 10:482.
45. Ibid., 2:230.
46. Ibid., 2:358.
47. Ibid., 17:304.
48. Ibid., 8:456.
49. Ibid., 8:111.
50. Ibid., 8:341.
51. Ibid., 9:288.
52. Henry David Thoreau, Faith in a Seed, ed. Bradley P. Dean (Washington, D.C.: Island Press/Shearwater Books, 1993), 104.
53. Berry, What Are People For? 40.
54. Thoreau, Writings, 4:299.
55. Ibid., 2:100.
56. The Journals of Bronson Alcott, ed. Odell Shepard (Boston: Little, Brown, 1938), 183.
57. Emerson in His Journals, 359.
58. Thoreau, Writings, 2:4.
59. Ibid., 2:9.
60. Ibid., 2:162–63.
61. Henry David Thoreau, I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 44.
62. Thoreau, Writings, 2:123.
64. Thoreau, Walden, 11n63.
65. The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph L. Rusk, 6 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939), 1:412–13.
66. Thoreau, Writings, 2:100.
67. Ibid., 15:121.
68. Ibid., 1:363.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Thoreau, Henry D. Cape Cod. Edited by Joseph J. Moldenhauer. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.
———. Collected Essays and Poems. Edited by Elizabeth Hall Witherell. New York: The Library of America, 2001.
———. Collected Poems of Henry Thoreau. Enlarged ed. Edited by Carl Bode. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965.
———. The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau. Edited by Walter Harding and Carl Bode. New York: New York University Press, 1958.
———. Excursions. Edited by Joseph J. Moldenhauer. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.
———. Faith in a Seed: The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings. Edited by Bradley P. Dean. Washington, D.C.: Island Press/Shearwater Books, 1993.
———. I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau. Edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
———. Journal. Edited by John C. Broderick et al. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981– .
———. The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau. Edited by Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906.
———. The Maine Woods: A Fully Annotated Edition. Edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
———. The Quotable Thoreau. Edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.
———. Reform Papers. Edited by Wendell Glick. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.
———. Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition. Edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.
———. The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau. Walden ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906.
Borst, Raymond R. The Thoreau Log: A Documentary Life of Henry David Thoreau, 1817–1862. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992.
Cavell, Stanley. The Senses of Walden. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981.
Fink, Steven. Prophet in the Market-Place. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Howarth, William L. The Book of Concord: Thoreau’s Life as a Writer. New York: Viking, 1982.
Johnson, Linck C. Thoreau’s Complex Weave: The Writing of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, with the Text of the First Draft. Charlottesville: Published for the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, by the University Press of Virginia, 1986.
Krutch, Joseph Wood. Henry David Thoreau. New York: W. Sloane, 1948.
Meltzer, Milton, and Walter Harding. A Thoreau Profile. New York: Crowell, 1962.
Paul, Sherman. The Shores of America: Thoreau’s Inward Exploration. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1958.
Richardson, Robert D., Jr. Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
Miller, Perry, ed. The Transcendentalists: An Anthology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950.
Mott, Wesley T., ed. Biographical Dictionary of Transcendentalism. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996.
———. Encyclopedia of Transcendentalism. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Myerson, Joel, ed. Transcendentalism: A Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
A Note on the Texts
Texts for all works, unless otherwise noted, are drawn from The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau (Houghton Mifflin, 1906). Five poems—“To a Marsh Hawk in Spring,” “Brother where dost thou dwell?” “Manhood,” “Life,” and “Inspiration”—were taken from Collected Poems of Henry Thoreau, Enlarged Edition, edited by Carl Bode (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965); one poem—“Pens to mend, and hands to guide”—was taken from The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, edited by Walter Harding and Carl Bode (New York University Press, 1958).
For scholarly and/or annotated editions of the texts, please refer to those volumes published by Yale University Press and Princeton University Press listed in the Suggestions for Further Reading section of this volume.
1817 Born David Henry Thoreau, July 12, third of four children—Helen (1812–1849), John (1815–1842), and Sophia (1819–1876)—to John and Cynthia (Dunbar) Thoreau in Concord, Massachusetts.
1818 Family moves to Chelmsford, Massachusetts, where father opens a grocery store.
1821 Grocery store closes; family moves to Boston, where father works as a schoolteacher.
1822 Visits Walden Pond for the first time.
1823 Family moves back to Concord, where father begins making pencils; family takes in boarders.
1828 Enrolls in Concord Academy, as does his brother, John, where they study geography, history, and science, as well as French, Latin, and Greek.
1829 Attends lectures at the Concord Lyceum.
1833 Enrolls in Harvard College.
1835 To earn money, teaches in Canton, Massachusetts, during winter term.
1836 Leaves Harvard temporarily due to illness.
1837 Graduates from Harvard; starts journal; friendship with Emerson begins.
1838 Travels to Maine for the first time to search for a teaching position; gives first lecture, “Society,” at Concord Lyceum; elected secretary and curator of the Lyceum; opens small private school before taking over the Concord Academy in September.
1839 John joins Thoreau at Concord Academy as a teacher; Thoreau meets Ellen Sewall, to whom both he and John will propose and by whom both will be rejected; takes boat trip with John on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers to Concord, New Hampshire.
1840 The Dial first published, for which Thoreau will be a contributor and sometime editor; teaches himself surveying.
1841 Concord Academy closes due to John’s poor health.
1842 John cuts himself while stropping his razor and dies of lockjaw, January 11; Thoreau meets Nathaniel Hawthorne; climbs Mount Wachusett; publishes “Natural History of Massachusetts” in The Dial.
1843 Tutors William Emerson’s children on Staten Island, New York; publishes “Paradise (to Be) Regained” in The United States Magazine and Democratic Review.
1844 Accidentally burns 300 acres of woodland, causing more than $2,000 in damage; helps build the family’s “Texas” house in the southwest portion of Concord.
1845 Builds and moves into a small house at Walden Pond, July 4; begins writing A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
1846 Begins writing Walden; spends night in jail for nonpayment of poll tax; climbs Katahdin in Maine.
1847 Gives lecture “A History of Myself,” an early draft of Walden, at Concord Lyceum; leaves Walden Pond on September 7, moving in with Emerson family while Emerson is in Europe; collects specimens for Louis Agassiz at Harvard.
1848 Publishes “Ktaadn” in Sartain’s Union Magazine; gives lecture “The Relation of the Individual to the State” (“Civil Disobedience”).
1849 Publishes A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; publishes “Resistance to Civil Government” (“Civil Disobedience”) in Elizabeth Peabody’s Aesthetic Papers; sister, Helen, dies of tuberculosis; travels to Cape Cod for the first time.
1850 Family moves to house on Main Street, Concord, where Thoreau will live for the remainder of his life; goes to Fire Island, New York, at Emerson’s request, to search for the remains and papers of Margaret Fuller, who died in a shipwreck; travels to Canada.
1852 Publishes excerpts from Walden in Sartain’s Union Magazine.
1853 Publishes parts of A Yankee in Canada in Putnam’s Monthly; travels to Maine for what will be the basis for “Chesuncook.”
1854 Publishes “Slavery in Massachusetts” in National Anti-Slavery Standard, The Liberator, and the New York Tribune; publishes Walden; or, Life in the Woods; lectures in Philadelphia.
1855 Grows throat beard, also known as Galway whiskers, early in the year; publishes parts of Cape Cod in Putnam’s Monthly; receives gift of forty-four volumes of Asian literature from Thomas Cholmondeley.
1856 Surveys in Perth Amboy, New Jersey; meets Walt Whitman in Brooklyn.
1857 Meets John Brown; grows full beard; makes final trip to Maine.
1858 Publishes “Chesuncook” in Atlantic Monthly; travels through the White Mountains and climbs Mount Washington, July 2–19.
1859 Father dies; becomes financially responsible for family; delivers his first public support of John Brown in “A Plea for Captain John Brown.”
1860 Reads Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species; catches cold that turns into bronchitis, precipitating his tuberculosis.
1861 Visits Minnesota for his health in May, returning unimproved in July; visits Walden Pond for the last time in September; begins revising his writings for posthumous publication.
1862 Dies May 6 of tuberculosis; buried May 9 in New Burying Ground, Concord, and later reinterred on Author’s Ridge at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
The Portable Thoreau
NATURAL HISTORY OF MASSACHUSETTS
When “Natural History of Massachusetts” first appeared in The Dial, it was prefaced by Emerson, who wrote:
We were thinking how we might best celebrate the good deed which the State of Massachusetts has done, in procuring the Scientific Survey of the Commonwealth, whose result is recorded in these volumes, when we found a near neighbor and friend of ours, dear also to the Muses, a native and an inhabitant of the town of Concord, who readily undertook to give us such comments as he had made on these books, and, better still, notes of his own conversation with nature in the woods and waters of this town. With all thankfulness we begged our friend to lay down the oar and fishing line, which none can handle better, and assume the pen, that Isaak Walton and White of Selborne might not want a successor, nor the fair meadows, to which we also have owed a home and the happiness of many years, their poet.
“Natural History of Massachusetts” is an early example of Thoreau’s ability to expand from a small center of localized and personal fact—a walk in winter, an excursion with his brother on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, a night in jail for nonpayment of taxes, two years in the woods of Concord by the shore of Walden Pond, or, as in this case, four reports published under the auspices of the Commissioners on the Zoological and Botanical Survey of the State—to create a work of universal significance and appeal.
First published in The Dial (July 1842) and collected in Excursions (1863).
NATURAL HISTORY OF MASSACHUSETTS*
Books of natural history make the most cheerful winter reading. I read in Audubon with a thrill of delight, when the snow covers the ground, of the magnolia, and the Florida keys, and their warm sea-breezes; of the fence-rail, and the cotton-tree, and the migrations of the rice-bird; of the breaking up of winter in Labrador, and the melting of the snow on the forks of the Missouri; and owe an accession of health to these reminiscences of luxuriant nature.
Within the circuit of this plodding life,
There enter moments of an azure hue,
Untarnished fair as is the violet
Or anemone, when the spring strews them
By some meandering rivulet, which make
The best philosophy untrue that aims
But to console man for his grievances.
I have remembered, when the winter came,
High in my chamber in the frosty nights,
When in the still light of the cheerful moon,
On every twig and rail and jutting spout,
The icy spears were adding to their length
Against the arrows of the coming sun,
How in the shimmering noon of summer past
Some unrecorded beam slanted across
The upland pastures where the Johnswort grew;
Or heard, amid the verdure of my mind,
The bee’s long smothered hum, on the blue flag
Loitering amidst the mead; or busy rill,
Which now through all its course stands still and dumb,
Its own memorial,—purling at its play
Along the slopes, and through the meadows next,
Until its youthful sound was hushed at last
In the staid current of the lowland stream;
Or seen the furrows shine but late upturned,
And where the fieldfare followed in the rear,
When all the fields around lay bound and hoar
Beneath a thick integument of snow.
So by God’s cheap economy made rich
To go upon my winter’s task again.
I am singularly refreshed in winter when I hear of service-berries, poke-weed, juniper. Is not heaven made up of these cheap summer glories? There is a singular health in those words, Labrador and East Main, which no desponding creed recognizes. How much more than Federal are these States! If there were no other vicissitudes than the seasons, our interest would never tire. Much more is adoing than Congress wots of. What journal do the persimmon and the buckeye keep, and the sharp-shinned hawk? What is transpiring from summer to winter in the Carolinas, and the Great Pine Forest, and the Valley of the Mohawk? The merely political aspect of the land is never very cheering; men are degraded when considered as the members of a political organization. On this side all lands present only the symptoms of decay. I see but Bunker Hill and Sing-Sing, the District of Columbia and Sullivan’s Island, with a few avenues connecting them. But paltry are they all beside one blast of the east or the south wind which blows over them.
In society you will not find health, but in nature. Unless our feet at least stood in the midst of nature, all our faces would be pale and livid. Society is always diseased, and the best is the most so. There is no scent in it so wholesome as that of the pines, nor any fragrance so penetrating and restorative as the life-everlasting in high pastures. I would keep some book of natural history always by me as a sort of elixir, the reading of which should restore the tone of the system. To the sick, indeed, nature is sick, but to the well, a fountain of health. To him who contemplates a trait of natural beauty no harm nor disappointment can come. The doctrines of despair, of spiritual or political tyranny or servitude, were never taught by such as shared the serenity of nature. Surely good courage will not flag here on the Atlantic border, as long as we are flanked by the Fur Countries. There is enough in that sound to cheer one under any circumstances. The spruce, the hemlock, and the pine will not countenance despair. Methinks some creeds in vestries and churches do forget the hunter wrapped in furs by the Great Slave Lake, and that the Esquimaux sledges are drawn by dogs, and in the twilight of the northern night the hunter does not give over to follow the seal and walrus on the ice. They are of sick and diseased imaginations who would toll the world’s knell so soon. Cannot these sedentary sects do better than prepare the shrouds and write the epitaphs of those other busy living men? The practical faith of all men belies the preacher’s consolation. What is any man’s discourse to me, if I am not sensible of something in it as steady and cheery as the creak of crickets? In it the woods must be relieved against the sky. Men tire me when I am not constantly greeted and refreshed as by the flux of sparkling streams. Surely joy is the condition of life. Think of the young fry that leap in ponds, the myriads of insects ushered into being on a summer evening, the incessant note of the hyla with which the woods ring in the spring, the nonchalance of the butterfly carrying accident and change painted in a thousand hues upon its wings, or the brook minnow stoutly stemming the current, the lustre of whose scales, worn bright by the attrition, is reflected upon the bank!
We fancy that this din of religion, literature, and philosophy, which is heard in pulpits, lyceums, and parlors, vibrates through the universe, and is as catholic a sound as the creaking of the earth’s axle; but if a man sleep soundly, he will forget it all between sunset and dawn. It is the three-inch swing of a pendulum in a cupboard, which the great pulse of nature vibrates by and through each instant. When we lift our eyelids and open our ears, it disappears with smoke and rattle like the cars on a railroad. When I detect a beauty in any of the recesses of nature, I am reminded, by the serene and retired spirit in which it requires to be contemplated, of the inexpressible privacy of a life,—how silent and unambitious it is. The beauty there is in mosses must be considered from the holiest, quietest nook. What an admirable training is science for the more active warfare of life! Indeed, the unchallenged bravery which these studies imply, is far more impressive than the trumpeted valor of the warrior. I am pleased to learn that Thales was up and stirring by night not unfrequently, as his astronomical discoveries prove. Linnæus, setting out for Lapland, surveys his “comb” and “spare shirt,” “leathern breeches” and “gauze cap to keep off gnats,” with as much complacency as Bonaparte a park of artillery for the Russian campaign. The quiet bravery of the man is admirable. His eye is to take in fish, flower, and bird, quadruped and biped. Science is always brave; for to know is to know good; doubt and danger quail before her eye. What the coward overlooks in his hurry, she calmly scrutinizes, breaking ground like a pioneer for the array of arts that follow in her train. But cowardice is unscientific; for there cannot be a science of ignorance. There may be a science of bravery, for that advances; but a retreat is rarely well conducted; if it is, then is it an orderly advance in the face of circumstances.
But to draw a little nearer to our promised topics. Entomology extends the limits of being in a new direction, so that I walk in nature with a sense of greater space and freedom. It suggests besides, that the universe is not rough-hewn, but perfect in its details. Nature will bear the closest inspection; she invites us to lay our eye level with the smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain. She has no interstices; every part is full of life. I explore, too, with pleasure, the sources of the myriad sounds which crowd the summer noon, and which seem the very grain and stuff of which eternity is made. Who does not remember the shrill roll-call of the harvest-fly? There were ears for these sounds in Greece long ago, as Anacreon’s ode will show.
“We pronounce thee happy, Cicada,
For on the tops of the trees,
Drinking a little dew,
Like any king thou singest,
For thine are they all,
Whatever thou seest in the fields,
And whatever the woods bear.
Thou art the friend of the husbandmen,
In no respect injuring any one;
And thou art honored among men,
Sweet prophet of summer.
The Muses love thee,
And Phœbus himself loves thee,
And has given thee a shrill song;
Age does not wrack thee,
Thou skillful, earthborn, song-loving,
Unsuffering, bloodless one;
Almost thou art like the gods.”
In the autumn days, the creaking of crickets is heard at noon over all the land, and as in summer they are heard chiefly at nightfall, so then by their incessant chirp they usher in the evening of the year. Nor can all the vanities that vex the world alter one whit the measure that night has chosen. Every pulse-beat is in exact time with the cricket’s chant and the tickings of the deathwatch in the wall. Alternate with these if you can.
About two hundred and eighty birds either reside permanently in the State, or spend the summer only, or make us a passing visit. Those which spend the winter with us have obtained our warmest sympathy. The nuthatch and chickadee flitting in company through the dells of the wood, the one harshly scolding at the intruder, the other with a faint lisping note enticing him on; the jay screaming in the orchard; the crow cawing in unison with the storm; the partridge, like a russet link extended over from autumn to spring, preserving unbroken the chain of summers; the hawk with warrior-like firmness abiding the blasts of winter; the robin* and lark lurking by warm springs in the woods; the familiar snowbird culling a few seeds in the garden or a few crumbs in the yard; and occasionally the shrike, with heedless and unfrozen melody bringing back summer again:—
His steady sails he never furls
At any time o’ year,
And perching now on Winter’s curls,
He whistles in his ear.
As the spring advances, and the ice is melting in the river, our earliest and straggling visitors make their appearance. Again does the old Teian poet sing as well for New England as for Greece, in the
RETURN OF SPRING
Behold, how, Spring appearing,
The Graces send forth roses;
Behold, how the wave of the sea
Is made smooth by the calm;
Behold, how the duck dives;
Behold, how the crane travels;
And Titan shines constantly bright.
The shadows of the clouds are moving;
The works of man shine;
The earth puts forth fruits;
The fruit of the olive puts forth.
The cup of Bacchus is crowned,
Along the leaves, along the branches,
The fruit, bending them down, flourishes.
The ducks alight at this season in the still water, in company with the gulls, which do not fail to improve an east wind to visit our meadows, and swim about by twos and threes, pluming themselves, and diving to peck at the root of the lily, and the cranberries which the frost has not loosened. The first flock of geese is seen beating to north, in long harrows and waving lines; the jingle of the song sparrow salutes us from the shrubs and fences; the plaintive note of the lark comes clear and sweet from the meadow; and the bluebird, like an azure ray, glances past us in our walk. The fish hawk, too, is occasionally seen at this season sailing majestically over the water, and he who has once observed it will not soon forget the majesty of its flight. It sails the air like a ship of the line, worthy to struggle with the elements, falling back from time to time like a ship on its beam ends, and holding its talons up as if ready for the arrows, in the attitude of the national bird. It is a great presence, as of the master of river and forest. Its eye would not quail before the owner of the soil, but make him feel like an intruder on its domains. And then its retreat, sailing so steadily away, is a kind of advance. I have by me one of a pair of ospreys, which have for some years fished in this vicinity, shot by a neighboring pond, measuring more than two feet in length, and six in the stretch of its wings. Nuttall mentions that “the ancients, particularly Aristotle, pretended that the ospreys taught their young to gaze at the sun, and those who were unable to do so were destroyed. Linnæus even believed, on ancient authority, that one of the feet of this bird had all the toes divided, while the other was partly webbed, so that it could swim with one foot, and grasp a fish with the other.” But that educated eye is now dim, and those talons are nerveless. Its shrill scream seems yet to linger in its throat, and the roar of the sea in its wings. There is the tyranny of Jove in its claws, and his wrath in the erectile feathers of the head and neck. It reminds me of the Argonautic expedition, and would inspire the dullest to take flight over Parnassus.
The booming of the bittern, described by Goldsmith and Nuttall, is frequently heard in our fens, in the morning and evening, sounding like a pump, or the chopping of wood in a frosty morning in some distant farm-yard. The manner in which this sound is produced I have not seen anywhere described. On one occasion, the bird has been seen by one of my neighbors to thrust its bill into the water, and suck up as much as it could hold, then, raising its head, it pumped it out again with four or five heaves of the neck, throwing it two or three feet, and making the sound each time.
At length the summer’s eternity is ushered in by the cackle of the flicker among the oaks on the hillside, and a new dynasty begins with calm security.
In May and June the woodland quire is in full tune, and, given the immense spaces of hollow air, and this curious human ear, one does not see how the void could be better filled.
Each summer sound
Is a summer round.
As the season advances, and those birds which make us but a passing visit depart, the woods become silent again, and but few feathers ruffle the drowsy air. But the solitary rambler may still find a response and expression for every mood in the depths of the wood.
Sometimes I hear the veery’s* clarion,
Or brazen trump of the impatient jay,
And in secluded woods the chickadee
Doles out her scanty notes, which sing the praise
Of heroes, and set forth the loveliness
Of virtue evermore.
The phœbe still sings in harmony with the sultry weather by the brink of the pond, nor are the desultory hours of noon in the midst of the village without their minstrel.
Upon the lofty elm-tree sprays
The vireo rings the changes sweet,
During the trivial summer days,
Striving to lift our thoughts above the street.
With the autumn begins in some measure a new spring. The plover is heard whistling high in the air over the dry pastures, the finches flit from tree to tree, the bobolinks and flickers fly in flocks, and the goldfinch rides on the earliest blast, like a winged hyla peeping amid the rustle of the leaves. The crows, too, begin now to congregate; you may stand and count them as they fly low and straggling over the landscape, singly or by twos and threes, at intervals of half a mile, until a hundred have passed.
I have seen it suggested somewhere that the crow was brought to this country by the white man; but I shall as soon believe that the white man planted these pines and hemlocks. He is no spaniel to follow our steps; but rather flits about the clearings like the dusky spirit of the Indian, reminding me oftener of Philip and Powhatan than of Winthrop and Smith. He is a relic of the dark ages. By just so slight, by just so lasting a tenure does superstition hold the world ever; there is the rook in England, and the crow in New England.
Thou dusky spirit of the wood,
Bird of an ancient brood,
Flitting thy lonely way,
A meteor in the summer’s day,
From wood to wood, from hill to hill,
Low over forest, field, and rill,
What wouldst thou say?
Why shouldst thou haunt the day?
What makes thy melancholy float?
What bravery inspires thy throat,
And bears thee up above the clouds,
Over desponding human crowds,
Which far below
Lay thy haunts low?
The late walker or sailor, in the October evenings, may hear the murmurings of the snipe, circling over the meadows, the most spirit-like sound in nature; and still later in the autumn, when the frosts have tinged the leaves, a solitary loon pays a visit to our retired ponds, where he may lurk undisturbed till the season of moulting is passed, making the woods ring with his wild laughter. This bird, the Great Northern Diver, well deserves its name; for when pursued with a boat, it will dive, and swim like a fish under water, for sixty rods or more, as fast as a boat can be paddled, and its pursuer, if he would discover his game again, must put his ear to the surface to hear where it comes up. When it comes to the surface, it throws the water off with one shake of its wings, and calmly swims about until again disturbed.
These are the sights and sounds which reach our senses oftenest during the year. But sometimes one hears a quite new note, which has for background other Carolinas and Mexicos than the books describe, and learns that his ornithology has done him no service.
It appears from the Report that there are about forty quadrupeds belonging to the State, and among these one is glad to hear of a few bears, wolves, lynxes, and wildcats.
When our river overflows its banks in the spring, the wind from the meadows is laden with a strong scent of musk, and by its freshness advertises me of an unexplored wildness. Those backwoods are not far off then. I am affected by the sight of the cabins of the muskrat, made of mud and grass, and raised three or four feet along the river, as when I read of the barrows of Asia. The muskrat is the beaver of the settled States. Their number has even increased within a few years in this vicinity. Among the rivers which empty into the Merrimack, the Concord is known to the boatmen as a dead stream. The Indians are said to have called it Musketaquid, or Prairie River. Its current being much more sluggish and its water more muddy than the rest, it abounds more in fish and game of every kind. According to the History of the town, “The fur-trade was here once very important. As early as 1641, a company was formed in the colony, of which Major Willard of Concord was superintendent, and had the exclusive right to trade with the Indians in furs and other articles; and for this right they were obliged to pay into the public treasury one twentieth of all the furs they obtained.” There are trappers in our midst still, as well as on the streams of the far West, who night and morning go the round of their traps, without fear of the Indian. One of these takes from one hundred and fifty to two hundred muskrats in a year, and even thirty-six have been shot by one man in a day. Their fur, which is not nearly as valuable as formerly, is in good condition in the winter and spring only; and upon the breaking up of the ice, when they are driven out of their holes by the water, the greatest number is shot from boats, either swimming or resting on their stools, or slight supports of grass and reeds, by the side of the stream. Though they exhibit considerable cunning at other times, they are easily taken in a trap, which has only to be placed in their holes, or wherever they frequent, without any bait being used, though it is sometimes rubbed with their musk. In the winter the hunter cuts holes in the ice, and shoots them when they come to the surface. Their burrows are usually in the high banks of the river, with the entrance under water, and rising within to above the level of high water. Sometimes their nests, composed of dried meadow-grass and flags, may be discovered where the bank is low and spongy, by the yielding of the ground under the feet. They have from three to seven or eight young in the spring.
Frequently, in the morning or evening, a long ripple is seen in the still water, where a muskrat is crossing the stream, with only its nose above the surface, and sometimes a green bough in its mouth to build its house with. When it finds itself observed, it will dive and swim five or six rods under water, and at length conceal itself in its hole, or the weeds. It will remain under water for ten minutes at a time, and on one occasion has been seen, when undisturbed, to form an air-bubble under the ice, which contracted and expanded as it breathed at leisure. When it suspects danger on shore, it will stand erect like a squirrel, and survey its neighborhood for several minutes, without moving.
In the fall, if a meadow intervene between their burrows and the stream, they erect cabins of mud and grass, three or four feet high, near its edge. These are not their breeding-places, though young are sometimes found in them in late freshets, but rather their hunting-lodges, to which they resort in the winter with their food, and for shelter. Their food consists chiefly of flags and fresh-water mussels, the shells of the latter being left in large quantities around their lodges in the spring.
The Penobscot Indian wears the entire skin of a muskrat, with the legs and tail dangling, and the head caught under his girdle, for a pouch, into which he puts his fishing-tackle, and essences to scent his traps with.
The bear, wolf, lynx, wildcat, deer, beaver, and marten have disappeared; the otter is rarely if ever seen here at present; and the mink is less common than formerly.
Perhaps of all our untamed quadrupeds, the fox has obtained the widest and most familiar reputation, from the time of Pilpay and Æsop to the present day. His recent tracks still give variety to a winter’s walk. I tread in the steps of the fox that has gone before me by some hours, or which perhaps I have started, with such a tiptoe of expectation as if I were on the trail of the Spirit itself which resides in the wood, and expected soon to catch it in its lair. I am curious to know what has determined its graceful curvatures, and how surely they were coincident with the fluctuations of some mind. I know which way a mind wended, what horizon it faced, by the setting of these tracks, and whether it moved slowly or rapidly, by their greater or less intervals and distinctness; for the swiftest step leaves yet a lasting trace. Sometimes you will see the trails of many together, and where they have gamboled and gone through a hundred evolutions, which testify to a singular listlessness and leisure in nature.
When I see a fox run across the pond on the snow, with the carelessness of freedom, or at intervals trace his course in the sunshine along the ridge of a hill, I give up to him sun and earth as to their true proprietor. He does not go in the sun, but it seems to follow him, and there is a visible sympathy between him and it. Sometimes, when the snow lies light and but five or six inches deep, you may give chase and come up with one on foot. In such a case he will show a remarkable presence of mind, choosing only the safest direction, though he may lose ground by it. Notwithstanding his fright, he will take no step which is not beautiful. His pace is a sort of leopard canter, as if he were in no wise impeded by the snow, but were husbanding his strength all the while. When the ground is uneven, the course is a series of graceful curves, conforming to the shape of the surface. He runs as though there were not a bone in his back. Occasionally dropping his muzzle to the ground for a rod or two, and then tossing his head aloft, when satisfied of his course. When he comes to a declivity, he will put his fore feet together, and slide swiftly down it, shoving the snow before him. He treads so softly that you would hardly hear it from any nearness, and yet with such expression that it would not be quite inaudible at any distance.
Of fishes, seventy-five genera and one hundred and seven species are described in the Report. The fisherman will be startled to learn that there are but about a dozen kinds in the ponds and streams of any inland town; and almost nothing is known of their habits. Only their names and residence make one love fishes. I would know even the number of their fin-rays, and how many scales compose the lateral line. I am the wiser in respect to all knowledges, and the better qualified for all fortunes, for knowing that there is a minnow in the brook. Methinks I have need even of his sympathy, and to be his fellow in a degree.
I have experienced such simple delight in the trivial matters of fishing and sporting, formerly, as might have inspired the muse of Homer or Shakespeare; and now, when I turn the pages and ponder the plates of the Angler’s Souvenir, I am fain to exclaim,—
“Can such things be,
And overcome us like a summer’s cloud?”
Next to nature, it seems as if man’s actions were the most natural, they so gently accord with her. The small seines of flax stretched across the shallow and transparent parts of our river are no more intrusion than the cobweb in the sun. I stay my boat in mid-current, and look down in the sunny water to see the civil meshes of his nets, and wonder how the blustering people of the town could have done this elvish work. The twine looks like a new river-weed, and is to the river as a beautiful memento of man’s presence in nature, discovered as silently and delicately as a footprint in the sand.
When the ice is covered with snow, I do not suspect the wealth under my feet; that there is as good as a mine under me wherever I go. How many pickerel are poised on easy fin fathoms below the loaded wain! The revolution of the seasons must be a curious phenomenon to them. At length the sun and wind brush aside their curtain, and they see the heavens again.
Early in the spring, after the ice has melted, is the time for spearing fish. Suddenly the wind shifts from north-east and east to west and south, and every icicle, which has tinkled on the meadow grass so long, trickles down its stem, and seeks its level unerringly with a million comrades. The steam curls up from every roof and fence.
I see the civil sun drying earth’s tears,
Her tears of joy, which only faster flow.
In the brooks is heard the slight grating sound of small cakes of ice, floating with various speed, full of content and promise, and where the water gurgles under a natural bridge, you may hear these hasty rafts hold conversation in an undertone. Every rill is a channel for the juices of the meadow. In the ponds the ice cracks with a merry and inspiriting din, and down the larger streams is whirled grating hoarsely, and crashing its way along, which was so lately a highway for the woodman’s team and the fox, sometimes with the tracks of the skaters still fresh upon it, and the holes cut for pickerel. Town committees anxiously inspect the bridges and causeways, as if by mere eye-force to intercede with the ice and save the treasury.
The river swelleth more and more,
Like some sweet influence stealing o’er
The passive town; and for a while
Each tussock makes a tiny isle,
Where, on some friendly Ararat,
Resteth the weary water-rat.
No ripple shows Musketaquid,
Her very current e’en is hid,
As deepest souls do calmest rest
When thoughts are swelling in the breast,
And she that in the summer’s drought
Doth make a rippling and a rout,
Sleeps from Nahshawtuck to the Cliff,
Unruffled by a single skiff.
But by a thousand distant hills
The louder roar a thousand rills,
And many a spring which now is dumb,
And many a stream with smothered hum,
Doth swifter well and faster glide,
Though buried deep beneath the tide.
Our village shows a rural Venice,
Its broad lagoons where yonder fen is;
As lovely as the Bay of Naples
Yon placid cove amid the maples;
And in my neighbor’s field of corn
I recognize the Golden Horn.
Here Nature taught from year to year,
When only red men came to hear,—
Methinks ’t was in this school of art
Venice and Naples learned their part;
But still their mistress, to my mind,
Her young disciples leaves behind.
The fisherman now repairs and launches his boat. The best time for spearing is at this season, before the weeds have begun to grow, and while the fishes lie in the shallow water, for in summer they prefer the cool depths, and in the autumn they are still more or less concealed by the grass. The first requisite is fuel for your crate; and for this purpose the roots of the pitch pine are commonly used, found under decayed stumps, where the trees have been felled eight or ten years.
With a crate, or jack, made of iron hoops, to contain your fire, and attached to the bow of your boat about three feet from the water, a fish-spear with seven tines and fourteen feet long, a large basket or barrow to carry your fuel and bring back your fish, and a thick outer garment, you are equipped for a cruise. It should be a warm and still evening; and then, with a fire crackling merrily at the prow, you may launch forth like a cucullo into the night. The dullest soul cannot go upon such an expedition without some of the spirit of adventure; as if he had stolen the boat of Charon and gone down the Styx on a midnight expedition into the realms of Pluto. And much speculation does this wandering star afford to the musing night-walker, leading him on and on, jack-o’-lantern-like, over the meadows; or, if he is wiser, he amuses himself with imagining what of human life, far in the silent night, is flitting moth-like round its candle. The silent navigator shoves his craft gently over the water, with a smothered pride and sense of benefaction, as if he were the phosphor, or light-bringer, to these dusky realms, or some sister moon, blessing the spaces with her light. The waters, for a rod or two on either hand and several feet in depth, are lit up with more than noonday distinctness, and he enjoys the opportunity which so many have desired, for the roofs of a city are indeed raised, and he surveys the midnight economy of the fishes. There they lie in every variety of posture; some on their backs, with their white bellies uppermost, some suspended in mid-water, some sculling gently along with a dreamy motion of the fins, and others quite active and wide awake,—a scene not unlike what the human city would present. Occasionally he will encounter a turtle selecting the choicest morsels, or a muskrat resting on a tussock. He may exercise his dexterity, if he sees fit, on the more distant and active fish, or fork the nearer into his boat, as potatoes out of a pot, or even take the sound sleepers with his hands. But these last accomplishments he will soon learn to dispense with, distinguishing the real object of his pursuit, and find compensation in the beauty and never-ending novelty of his position. The pines growing down to the water’s edge will show newly as in the glare of a conflagration; and as he floats under the willows with his light, the song sparrow will often wake on her perch, and sing that strain at midnight which she had meditated for the morning. And when he has done, he may have to steer his way home through the dark by the north star, and he will feel himself some degrees nearer to it for having lost his way on the earth.
The fishes commonly taken in this way are pickerel, suckers, perch, eels, pouts, breams, and shiners,—from thirty to sixty weight in a night. Some are hard to be recognized in the unnatural light, especially the perch, which, his dark bands being exaggerated, acquires a ferocious aspect. The number of these transverse bands, which the Report states to be seven, is, however, very variable, for in some of our ponds they have nine and ten even.
It appears that we have eight kinds of tortoises, twelve snakes,—but one of which is venomous,—nine frogs and toads, nine salamanders, and one lizard, for our neighbors.
I am particularly attracted by the motions of the serpent tribe. They make our hands and feet, the wings of the bird, and the fins of the fish seem very superfluous, as if Nature had only indulged her fancy in making them. The black snake will dart into a bush when pursued, and circle round and round with an easy and graceful motion, amid the thin and bare twigs, five or six feet from the ground, as a bird flits from bough to bough, or hang in festoons between the forks. Elasticity and flexibleness in the simpler forms of animal life are equivalent to a complex system of limbs in the higher; and we have only to be as wise and wily as the serpent, to perform as difficult feats without the vulgar assistance of hands and feet.
In May, the snapping turtle (Emysaurus serpentina) is frequently taken on the meadows and in the river. The fisherman, taking sight over the calm surface, discovers its snout projecting above the water, at the distance of many rods, and easily secures his prey through its unwillingness to disturb the water by swimming hastily away, for, gradually drawing its head under, it remains resting on some limb or clump of grass. Its eggs, which are buried at a distance from the water, in some soft place, as a pigeon-bed, are frequently devoured by the skunk. It will catch fish by daylight, as a toad catches flies, and is said to emit a transparent fluid from its mouth to attract them.
Nature has taken more care than the fondest parent for the education and refinement of her children. Consider the silent influence which flowers exert, no less upon the ditcher in the meadow than the lady in the bower. When I walk in the woods, I am reminded that a wise purveyor has been there before me; my most delicate experience is typified there. I am struck with the pleasing friendships and unanimities of nature, as when the lichen on the trees takes the form of their leaves. In the most stupendous scenes you will see delicate and fragile features, as slight wreaths of vapor, dew-lines, feathery sprays, which suggest a high refinement, a noble blood and breeding, as it were. It is not hard to account for elves and fairies; they represent this light grace, this ethereal gentility. Bring a spray from the wood, or a crystal from the brook, and place it on your mantel, and your household ornaments will seem plebeian beside its nobler fashion and bearing. It will wave superior there, as if used to a more refined and polished circle. It has a salute and a response to all your enthusiasm and heroism.
In the winter, I stop short in the path to admire how the trees grow up without forethought, regardless of the time and circumstances. They do not wait as man does, but now is the golden age of the sapling. Earth, air, sun, and rain are occasion enough; they were no better in primeval centuries. The “winter of their discontent” never comes. Witness the buds of the native poplar standing gayly out to the frost on the sides of its bare switches. They express a naked confidence. With cheerful heart one could be a sojourner in the wilderness, if he were sure to find there the catkins of the willow or the alder. When I read of them in the accounts of northern adventurers, by Baffin’s Bay or Mackenzie’s River, I see how even there, too, I could dwell. They are our little vegetable redeemers. Methinks our virtue will hold out till they come again. They are worthy to have had a greater than Minerva or Ceres for their inventor. Who was the benignant goddess that bestowed them on mankind?
Nature is mythical and mystical always, and works with the license and extravagance of genius. She has her luxurious and florid style as well as art. Having a pilgrim’s cup to make, she gives to the whole—stem, bowl, handle, and nose—some fantastic shape, as if it were to be the ear of some fabulous marine deity, a Nereus or Triton.
In the winter, the botanist need not confine himself to his books and herbarium, and give over his outdoor pursuits, but may study a new department of vegetable physiology, what may be called crystalline botany, then. The winter of 1837 was unusually favorable for this. In December of that year, the Genius of vegetation seemed to hover by night over its summer haunts with unusual persistency. Such a hoar-frost as is very uncommon here or anywhere, and whose full effects can never be witnessed after sunrise, occurred several times. As I went forth early on a still and frosty morning, the trees looked like airy creatures of darkness caught napping; on this side huddled together, with their gray hairs streaming, in a secluded valley which the sun had not penetrated; on that, hurrying off in Indian file along some watercourse, while the shrubs and grasses, like elves and fairies of the night, sought to hide their diminished heads in the snow. The river, viewed from the high bank, appeared of a yellowish-green color, though all the landscape was white. Every tree, shrub, and spire of grass, that could raise its head above the snow, was covered with a dense ice-foliage, answering, as it were, leaf for leaf to its summer dress. Even the fences had put forth leaves in the night. The centre, diverging, and more minute fibres were perfectly distinct, and the edges regularly indented. These leaves were on the side of the twig or stubble opposite to the sun, meeting it for the most part at right angles, and there were others standing out at all possible angles upon these and upon one another, with no twig or stubble supporting them. When the first rays of the sun slanted over the scene, the grasses seemed hung with innumerable jewels, which jingled merrily as they were brushed by the foot of the traveler, and reflected all the hues of the rainbow, as he moved from side to side. It struck me that these ghost leaves, and the green ones whose forms they assume, were the creatures of but one law; that in obedience to the same law the vegetable juices swell gradually into the perfect leaf, on the one hand, and the crystalline particles troop to their standard in the same order, on the other. As if the material were indifferent, but the law one and invariable, and every plant in the spring but pushed up into and filled a permanent and eternal mould, which, summer and winter forever, is waiting to be filled.
This foliate structure is common to the coral and the plumage of birds, and to how large a part of animate and inanimate nature. The same independence of law on matter is observable in many other instances, as in the natural rhymes, when some animal form, color, or odor has its counterpart in some vegetable. As, indeed, all rhymes imply an eternal melody, independent of any particular sense.
As confirmation of the fact that vegetation is but a kind of crystallization, every one may observe how, upon the edge of the melting frost on the window, the needle-shaped particles are bundled together so as to resemble fields waving with grain, or shocks rising here and there from the stubble; on one side the vegetation of the torrid zone, high-towering palms and wide-spread banyans, such as are seen in pictures of oriental scenery; on the other, arctic pines stiff frozen, with downcast branches.
Vegetation has been made the type of all growth; but as in crystals the law is more obvious, their material being more simple, and for the most part more transient and fleeting, would it not be as philosophical as convenient to consider all growth, all filling up within the limits of nature, but a crystallization more or less rapid?
On this occasion, in the side of the high bank of the river, wherever the water or other cause had formed a cavity, its throat and outer edge, like the entrance to a citadel, bristled with a glistening ice-armor. In one place you might see minute ostrich-feathers, which seemed the waving plumes of the warriors filing into the fortress; in another, the glancing, fan-shaped banners of the Lilliputian host; and in another, the needle-shaped particles collected into bundles, resembling the plumes of the pine, might pass for a phalanx of spears. From the under side of the ice in the brooks, where there was a thicker ice below, depended a mass of crystallization, four or five inches deep, in the form of prisms, with their lower ends open, which, when the ice was laid on its smooth side, resembled the roofs and steeples of a Gothic city, or the vessels of a crowded haven under a press of canvas. The very mud in the road, where the ice had melted, was crystallized with deep rectilinear fissures, and the crystalline masses in the sides of the ruts resembled exactly asbestos in the disposition of their needles. Around the roots of the stubble and flower-stalks, the frost was gathered into the form of irregular conical shells, or fairy rings. In some places the ice-crystals were lying upon granite rocks, directly over crystals of quartz, the frostwork of a longer night, crystals of a longer period, but, to some eye unprejudiced by the short term of human life, melting as fast as the former.
In the Report on the Invertebrate Animals, this singular fact is recorded, which teaches us to put a new value on time and space: “The distribution of the marine shells is well worthy of notice as a geological fact. Cape Cod, the right arm of the Commonwealth, reaches out into the ocean, some fifty or sixty miles. It is nowhere many miles wide; but this narrow point of land has hitherto proved a barrier to the migrations of many species of Mollusca. Several genera and numerous species, which are separated by the intervention of only a few miles of land, are effectually prevented from mingling by the Cape, and do not pass from one side to the other…. Of the one hundred and ninety-seven marine species, eighty-three do not pass to the south shore, and fifty are not found on the north shore of the Cape.”
That common mussel, the Unio complanatus, or more properly fluviatilis, left in the spring by the muskrat upon rocks and stumps, appears to have been an important article of food with the Indians. In one place, where they are said to have feasted, they are found in large quantities, at an elevation of thirty feet above the river, filling the soil to the depth of a foot, and mingled with ashes and Indian remains.
The works we have placed at the head of our chapter, with as much license as the preacher selects his text, are such as imply more labor than enthusiasm. The State wanted complete catalogues of its natural riches, with such additional facts merely as would be directly useful.
The reports on Fishes, Reptiles, Insects, and Invertebrate Animals, however, indicate labor and research, and have a value independent of the object of the legislature.
Those on Herbaceous Plants and Birds cannot be of much value, as long as Bigelow and Nuttall are accessible. They serve but to indicate, with more or less exactness, what species are found in the State. We detect several errors ourselves, and a more practiced eye would no doubt expand the list.
The Quadrupeds deserved a more final and instructive report than they have obtained.
These volumes deal much in measurements and minute descriptions, not interesting to the general reader, with only here and there a colored sentence to allure him, like those plants growing in dark forests, which bear only leaves without blossoms. But the ground was comparatively unbroken, and we will not complain of the pioneer, if he raises no flowers with his first crop. Let us not underrate the value of a fact; it will one day flower in a truth. It is astonishing how few facts of importance are added in a century to the natural history of any animal. The natural history of man himself is still being gradually written. Men are knowing enough after their fashion. Every countryman and dairy-maid knows that the coats of the fourth stomach of the calf will curdle milk, and what particular mushroom is a safe and nutritious diet. You cannot go into any field or wood, but it will seem as if every stone had been turned, and the bark on every tree ripped up. But, after all, it is much easier to discover than to see when the cover is off. It has been well said that “the attitude of inspection is prone.” Wisdom does not inspect, but behold. We must look a long time before we can see. Slow are the beginnings of philosophy. He has something demoniacal in him, who can discern a law or couple two facts. We can imagine a time when “Water runs down hill” may have been taught in the schools. The true man of science will know nature better by his finer organization; he will smell, taste, see, hear, feel, better than other men. His will be a deeper and finer experience. We do not learn by inference and deduction and the application of mathematics to philosophy, but by direct intercourse and sympathy. It is with science as with ethics,—we cannot know truth by contrivance and method; the Baconian is as false as any other, and with all the helps of machinery and the arts, the most scientific will still be the healthiest and friendliest man, and possess a more perfect Indian wisdom.
* Reports—on the Fishes, Reptiles, and Birds; the Herbaceous Plants and Quadrupeds; the Insects Injurious to Vegetation; and the Invertebrate Animals of Massachusetts. Published agreeably to an Order of the Legislature, by the Commissioners on the Zoölogical and Botanical Survey of the State.
* A white robin and a white quail have occasionally been seen. It is mentioned in Audubon as remarkable that the nest of a robin should be found on the ground; but this bird seems to be less particular than most in the choice of a building-spot. I have seen its nest placed under the thatched roof of a deserted barn, and in one instance, where the adjacent country was nearly destitute of trees, together with two of the phœbe, upon the end of a board in the loft of a sawmill, but a few feet from the saw, which vibrated several inches with the motion of the machinery.
* This bird, which is so well described by Nuttall, but is apparently unknown by the author of the Report, is one of the most common in the woods in this vicinity, and in Cambridge I have heard the college yard ring with its trill. The boys call it “yorrick,” from the sound of its querulous and chiding note, as it flits near the traveler through the underwood. The cowbird’s egg is occasionally found in its nest, as mentioned by Audubon.
A WINTER WALK
Thoreau culled most of the material for this essay from his 1841 journal. It was edited for The Dial by Emerson, who wrote to the author that he “had some hesitation about it, notwithstanding its faithful observation and its fine sketches of the pickerel-fisher and of the woodchopper, on account of mannerism, an old charge of mine,—as if, by attention, one could get the trick of the rhetoric; for example, to call a cold place sultry, a solitude public, a wilderness domestic (a favorite word), and in the woods to insult over cities, whilst the woods, again, are dignified by comparing them to cities, armies, etc. By pretty free omissions, however, I have removed my principal objections.”
In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers Thoreau wrote that “books of natural history aim commonly to be hasty schedules, or inventories of God’s property, by some clerk. They do not in the least teach the divine view of nature, but the popular view, or rather the popular method of studying nature, and make haste to conduct the persevering pupil only into that dilemma where the professors always dwell.” In this pre-Walden essay Thoreau had already begun to present a divine view of nature.
First published in The Dial (October 1843) and collected in Excursions (1863).
A WINTER WALK
The wind has gently murmured through the blinds, or puffed with feathery softness against the windows, and occasionally sighed like a summer zephyr lifting the leaves along, the livelong night. The meadow mouse has slept in his snug gallery in the sod, the owl has sat in a hollow tree in the depth of the swamp, the rabbit, the squirrel, and the fox have all been housed. The watch-dog has lain quiet on the hearth, and the cattle have stood silent in their stalls. The earth itself has slept, as it were its first, not its last sleep, save when some street-sign or wood-house door has faintly creaked upon its hinge, cheering forlorn nature at her midnight work,—the only sound awake ’twixt Venus and Mars,—advertising us of a remote inward warmth, a divine cheer and fellowship, where gods are met together, but where it is very bleak for men to stand. But while the earth has slumbered, all the air has been alive with feathery flakes descending, as if some northern Ceres reigned, showering her silvery grain over all the fields.
We sleep, and at length awake to the still reality of a winter morning. The snow lies warm as cotton or down upon the window-sill; the broadened sash and frosted panes admit a dim and private light, which enhances the snug cheer within. The stillness of the morning is impressive. The floor creaks under our feet as we move toward the window to look abroad through some clear space over the fields. We see the roofs stand under their snow burden. From the eaves and fences hang stalactites of snow, and in the yard stand stalagmites covering some concealed core. The trees and shrubs rear white arms to the sky on every side; and where were walls and fences, we see fantastic forms stretching in frolic gambols across the dusky landscape, as if Nature had strewn her fresh designs over the fields by night as models for man’s art.
Silently we unlatch the door, letting the drift fall in, and step abroad to face the cutting air. Already the stars have lost some of their sparkle, and a dull, leaden mist skirts the horizon. A lurid brazen light in the east proclaims the approach of day, while the western landscape is dim and spectral still, and clothed in a sombre Tartarean light, like the shadowy realms. They are Infernal sounds only that you hear,—the crowing of cocks, the barking of dogs, the chopping of wood, the lowing of kine, all seem to come from Pluto’s barnyard and beyond the Styx,—not for any melancholy they suggest, but their twilight bustle is too solemn and mysterious for earth. The recent tracks of the fox or otter, in the yard, remind us that each hour of the night is crowded with events, and the primeval nature is still working and making tracks in the snow. Opening the gate, we tread briskly along the lone country road, crunching the dry and crisped snow under our feet, or aroused by the sharp, clear creak of the wood-sled, just starting for the distant market, from the early farmer’s door, where it has lain the summer long, dreaming amid the chips and stubble; while far through the drifts and powdered windows we see the farmer’s early candle, like a paled star, emitting a lonely beam, as if some severe virtue were at its matins there. And one by one the smokes begin to ascend from the chimneys amid the trees and snows.
The sluggish smoke curls up from some deep dell,
The stiffened air exploring in the dawn,
And making slow acquaintance with the day
Delaying now upon its heavenward course,
In wreathèd loiterings dallying with itself,
With as uncertain purpose and slow deed
As its half-wakened master by the hearth,
Whose mind still slumbering and sluggish thoughts
Have not yet swept into the onward current
Of the new day;—and now it streams afar,
The while the chopper goes with step direct,
And mind intent to swing the early axe.
First in the dusky dawn he sends abroad
His early scout, his emissary, smoke,
The earliest, latest pilgrim from the roof,
To feel the frosty air, inform the day;
And while he crouches still beside the hearth,
Nor musters courage to unbar the door,
It has gone down the glen with the light wind,
And o’er the plain unfurled its venturous wreath,
Draped the tree-tops, loitered upon the hill,
And warmed the pinions of the early bird;
And now, perchance, high in the crispy air,
Has caught sight of the day o’er the earth’s edge,
And greets its master’s eye at his low door,
As some refulgent cloud in the upper sky.
We hear the sound of wood-chopping at the farmers’ doors, far over the frozen earth, the baying of the house-dog, and the distant clarion of the cock,—though the thin and frosty air conveys only the finer particles of sound to our ears, with short and sweet vibrations, as the waves subside soonest on the purest and lightest liquids, in which gross substances sink to the bottom. They come clear and bell-like, and from a greater distance in the horizon, as if there were fewer impediments than in summer to make them faint and ragged. The ground is sonorous, like seasoned wood, and even the ordinary rural sounds are melodious, and the jingling of the ice on the trees is sweet and liquid. There is the least possible moisture in the atmosphere, all being dried up or congealed, and it is of such extreme tenuity and elasticity that it becomes a source of delight. The withdrawn and tense sky seems groined like the aisles of a cathedral, and the polished air sparkles as if there were crystals of ice floating in it. As they who have resided in Greenland tell us that when it freezes “the sea smokes like burning turf-land, and a fog or mist arises, called frost-smoke,” which “cutting smoke frequently raises blisters on the face and hands, and is very pernicious to the health.” But this pure, stinging cold is an elixir to the lungs, and not so much a frozen mist as a crystallized midsummer haze, refined and purified by cold.
The sun at length rises through the distant woods, as if with the faint clashing, swinging sound of cymbals, melting the air with his beams, and with such rapid steps the morning travels, that already his rays are gilding the distant western mountains. Meanwhile we step hastily along through the powdery snow, warmed by an inward heat, enjoying an Indian summer still, in the increased glow of thought and feeling. Probably if our lives were more conformed to nature, we should not need to defend ourselves against her heats and colds, but find her our constant nurse and friend, as do plants and quadrupeds. If our bodies were fed with pure and simple elements, and not with a stimulating and heating diet, they would afford no more pasture for cold than a leafless twig, but thrive like the trees, which find even winter genial to their expansion.
The wonderful purity of nature at this season is a most pleasing fact. Every decayed stump and moss-grown stone and rail, and the dead leaves of autumn, are concealed by a clean napkin of snow. In the bare fields and tinkling woods, see what virtue survives. In the coldest and bleakest places, the warmest charities still maintain a foothold. A cold and searching wind drives away all contagion, and nothing can withstand it but what has a virtue in it, and accordingly, whatever we meet with in cold and black places, as the tops of mountains, we respect for a sort of sturdy innocence, a Puritan toughness. All things beside seem to be called in for shelter, and what stays out must be part of the original frame of the universe, and of such valor as God himself. It is invigorating to breathe the cleansed air. Its greater fineness and purity are visible to the eye, and we would fain stay out long and late, that the gales may sigh through us, too, as through the leafless trees, and fit us for the winter,—as if we hoped so to borrow some pure and steadfast virtue, which will stead us in all seasons.
There is a slumbering subterranean fire in nature which never goes out, and which no cold can chill. It finally melts the great snow, and in January or July is only buried under a thicker or thinner covering. In the coldest day it flows somewhere, and the snow melts around every tree. This field of winter rye, which sprouted late in the fall, and now speedily dissolves the snow, is where the fire is very thinly covered. We feel warmed by it. In the winter, warmth stands for all virtue, and we resort in thought to a trickling rill, with its bare stones shining in the sun, and to warm springs in the woods, with as much eagerness as rabbits and robins. The steam which rises from swamps and pools is as dear and domestic as that of our own kettle. What fire could ever equal the sunshine of a winter’s day, when the meadow mice come out by the wall-sides, and the chickadee lisps in the defiles of the wood? The warmth comes directly from the sun, and is not radiated from the earth, as in summer; and when we feel his beams on our backs as we are treading some snowy dell, we are grateful as for a special kindness, and bless the sun which has followed us into that by-place.
This subterranean fire has its altar in each man’s breast; for in the coldest day, and on the bleakest hill, the traveler cherishes a warmer fire within the folds of his cloak than is kindled on any hearth. A healthy man, indeed, is the complement of the seasons, and in winter, summer is in his heart. There is the south. Thither have all birds and insects migrated, and around the warm springs in his breast are gathered the robin and the lark.
At length, having reached the edge of the woods, and shut out the gadding town, we enter within their covert as we go under the roof of a cottage, and cross its threshold, all ceiled and banked up with snow. They are glad and warm still, and as genial and cheery in winter as in summer. As we stand in the midst of the pines in the flickering and checkered light which straggles but little way into their maze, we wonder if the towns have ever heard their simple story. It seems to us that no traveler has ever explored them, and notwithstanding the wonders which science is elsewhere revealing every day, who would not like to hear their annals? Our humble villages in the plain are their contribution. We borrow from the forest the boards which shelter and the sticks which warm us. How important is their evergreen to the winter, that portion of the summer which does not fade, the permanent year, the unwithered grass! Thus simply, and with little expense of altitude, is the surface of the earth diversified. What would human life be without forests, those natural cities? From the tops of mountains they appear like smooth-shaven lawns, yet whither shall we walk but in this taller grass?
In this glade covered with bushes of a year’s growth, see how the silvery dust lies on every seared leaf and twig, deposited in such infinite and luxurious forms as by their very variety atone for the absence of color. Observe the tiny tracks of mice around every stem, and the triangular tracks of the rabbit. A pure elastic heaven hangs over all, as if the impurities of the summer sky, refined and shrunk by the chaste winter’s cold, had been winnowed from the heavens upon the earth.
Nature confounds her summer distinctions at this season. The heavens seem to be nearer the earth. The elements are less reserved and distinct. Water turns to ice, rain to snow. The day is but a Scandinavian night. The winter is an arctic summer.
How much more living is the life that is in nature, the furred life which still survives the stinging nights, and, from amidst fields and woods covered with frost and snow, sees the sun rise!
“The foodless wilds
Pour forth their brown inhabitants.”
The gray squirrel and rabbit are brisk and playful in the remote glens, even on the morning of the cold Friday. Here is our Lapland and Labrador, and for our Esquimaux and Knistenaux, Dog-ribbed Indians, Novazemblaites, and Spitzbergeners, are there not the ice-cutter and woodchopper, the fox, muskrat, and mink?
Still, in the midst of the arctic day, we may trace the summer to its retreats, and sympathize with some contemporary life. Stretched over the brooks, in the midst of the frost-bound meadows, we may observe the submarine cottages of the caddis-worms, the larvæ of the Plicipennes; their small cylindrical cases built around themselves, composed of flags, sticks, grass, and withered leaves, shells, and pebbles, in form and color like the wrecks which strew the bottom,—now drifting along over the pebbly bottom, now whirling in tiny eddies and dashing down steep falls, or sweeping rapidly along with the current, or else swaying to and fro at the end of some grass-blade or root. Anon they will leave their sunken habitations, and, crawling up the stems of plants, or to the surface, like gnats, as perfect insects henceforth, flutter over the surface of the water, or sacrifice their short lives in the flame of our candles at evening. Down yonder little glen the shrubs are drooping under their burden, and the red alder-berries contrast with the white ground. Here are the marks of a myriad feet which have already been abroad. The sun rises as proudly over such a glen as over the valley of the Seine or the Tiber, and it seems the residence of a pure and self-subsistent valor, such as they never witnessed,—which never knew defeat nor fear. Here reign the simplicity and purity of a primitive age, and a health and hope far remote from towns and cities. Standing quite alone, far in the forest, while the wind is shaking down snow from the trees, and leaving the only human tracks behind us, we find our reflections of a richer variety than the life of cities. The chickadee and nuthatch are more inspiring society than statesmen and philosophers, and we shall return to these last as to more vulgar companions. In this lonely glen, with its brook draining the slopes, its creased ice and crystals of all hues, where the spruces and hemlocks stand up on either side, and the rush and sere wild oats in the rivulet itself, our lives are more serene and worthy to contemplate.
As the day advances, the heat of the sun is reflected by the hillsides, and we hear a faint but sweet music, where flows the rill released from its fetters, and the icicles are melting on the trees; and the nuthatch and partridge are heard and seen. The south wind melts the snow at noon, and the bare ground appears with its withered grass and leaves, and we are invigorated by the perfume which exhales from it, as by the scent of strong meats.
Let us go into this deserted woodman’s hut, and see how he has passed the long winter nights and the short and stormy days. For here man has lived under this south hillside, and it seems a civilized and public spot. We have such associations as when the traveler stands by the ruins of Palmyra or Hecatompolis. Singing birds and flowers perchance have begun to appear here, for flowers as well as weeds follow in the footsteps of man. These hemlocks whispered over his head, these hickory logs were his fuel, and these pitch pine roots kindled his fire; yonder fuming rill in the hollow, whose thin and airy vapor still ascends as busily as ever, though he is far off now, was his well. These hemlock boughs, and the straw upon this raised platform, were his bed, and this broken dish held his drink. But he has not been here this season, for the phœbes built their nest upon this shelf last summer. I find some embers left as if he had but just gone out, where he baked his pot of beans; and while at evening he smoked his pipe, whose stemless bowl lies in the ashes, chatted with his only companion, if perchance he had any, about the depth of the snow on the morrow, already falling fast and thick without, or disputed whether the last sound was the screech of an owl, or the creak of a bough, or imagination only; and through his broad chimney-throat, in the late winter evening, ere he stretched himself upon the straw, he looked up to learn the progress of the storm, and, seeing the bright stars of Cassiopeia’s Chair shining brightly down upon him, fell contentedly asleep.
See how many traces from which we may learn the chopper’s history! From this stump we may guess the sharpness of his axe, and from the slope of the stroke, on which side he stood, and whether he cut down the tree without going round it or changing hands; and, from the flexure of the splinters, we may know which way it fell. This one chip contains inscribed on it the whole history of the woodchopper and of the world. On this scrap of paper, which held his sugar or salt, perchance, or was the wadding of his gun, sitting on a log in the forest, with what interest we read the tattle of cities, of those larger huts, empty and to let, like this, in High Streets and Broadways. The eaves are dripping on the south side of this simple roof, while the titmouse lisps in the pine and the genial warmth of the sun around the door is somewhat kind and human.
After two seasons, this rude dwelling does not deform the scene. Already the birds resort to it, to build their nests, and you may track to its door the feet of many quadrupeds. Thus, for a long time, nature overlooks the encroachment and profanity of man. The wood still cheerfully and unsuspiciously echoes the strokes of the axe that fells it, and while they are few and seldom, they enhance its wildness, and all the elements strive to naturalize the sound.
Now our path begins to ascend gradually to the top of this high hill, from whose precipitous south side we can look over the broad country of forest and field and river, to the distant snowy mountains. See yonder thin column of smoke curling up through the woods from some invisible farmhouse, the standard raised over some rural homestead. There must be a warmer and more genial spot there below, as where we detect the vapor from a spring forming a cloud above the trees. What fine relations are established between the traveler who discovers this airy column from some eminence in the forest and him who sits below! Up goes the smoke as silently and naturally as the vapor exhales from the leaves, and as busy disposing itself in wreaths as the housewife on the hearth below. It is a hieroglyphic of man’s life, and suggests more intimate and important things than the boiling of a pot. Where its fine column rises above the forest, like an ensign, some human life has planted itself,—and such is the beginning of Rome, the establishment of the arts, and the foundation of empires, whether on the prairies of America or the steppes of Asia.