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Walking Towards Walden : A Pilgrimage in Search of Place

Henry David Thoreau

If I am too cold for human friendship--I trust I shall not soon be too cold  for natural influences. It appears to be a law that you cannot have a deep  sympathy for both man & nature. Those qualities which bring you near to the one estrange you from the other.   ---H.D.Thoreau

It would be well if all our lives were a divine tragedy even,
instead of this trivial Comedy or farce. (Walking 1862)

From: Natural History of Massachusetts, 1842.

To the sick, indeed, nature is sick, but. to the well, a fountain of health. They are of sick and diseased imaginations who would toll the world's knell so soon.

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.

...the great pulse of nature vibrates by and through each instant. 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.

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.

Every pulse-beat is in exact time with the cricket's chant and the tickings of the death-watch in the wall. Alternate with these is you can.

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.

Nature has taken more care than the fondest parent for the education and refinement of her Children. I am struck with the pleasing friendships and unanimities of nature, as when the lichen on the trees takes the form of their leaves.

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. They are our little vegetable redeemers 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.

Wisdom does not inspect, but behold. We must look a long time before we can see. Slow are the beginnings of philosophy. 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...

From: A Walk to Wachusett, 1843.

Our eyes rested on no painted ceiling nor carpeted hall, but on skies of Nature's painting, and hills and forests of her embroidery. It was a place where gods might wander, so solemn and solitary, and removed from all contagion with the plain. It was thrilling to hear the wind roar over the rocks. There was a moon still above us, with Jupiter and Saturn on either hand, looking down on Wachusett., and it was a satisfaction to know that they were our fellow travelers still, as high and out of reach as our own destiny. ...So rich and lavish is that nature which can afford this superfluity of light.

From: A Winter Walk, 1840.

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. 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....Every sound is fraught with the same mysterious assurance of health.

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 eves winter genial to their expansion.

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 sight 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. This subterranean fire has its altar in each person's breast. What would human life be without forests, those natural Cities? From the tops of mountains they appear like smooth-shaven lawns, yet wither shall we walk but in this taller grass?

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!

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.

See how the woods form an amphitheater about it, and it is an arena for all the genialness of nature. All trees direct the traveler to its brink, all paths seek it out, birds fly to it, quadrupeds flee to it, and the very ground inclines toward it. ...We fancy ourselves in the interior of a larger house.

The good Hebrew Revelation takes no cognizance of all this cheerful snow. Is there no religion for the temperate and frigid zones? We know of no scripture which records the pure benignity of the gods on a New England winter night. Their praises have never been sung, only their wrath deprecated. The best scripture, after all, records but a meager faith. Its saints live reserved and austere. Let a brave, devout man spend the year in the woods of Maine or Labrador, and see if the Hebrew Scriptures speak adequately to his condition and experience, from the setting in of winter to the breaking up of the ice.

From: A Succession of Forest Trees, 1860.

In the Planting of the seeds of most trees, the best gardeners do no more than follow Nature, though they may not know it.. Would it not be well to consult with Nature in the outset? for she is the most extensive and experienced planter of us all...

Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed, --eh to me, equally mysterious origin for it. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.

From: Autumnal Tints, 1862.

I had not known by now many friends I was surrounded; I had seen then simply as grasses standing.

A man shall perhaps rush by and trample down plants as high as his head, and cannot be said to know that they exist, though he may have cut many tons of them, littered his stables with them, and fed them to his cattle for years. Yet., if he ever favorably attends to them, he may be overcome by their beauty. Each humblest plant, or weed, as we call it, stands there to express some thought or mood of ours; and yet how long it stands in vain! Beauty and true wealth are always thus cheap and despised. Heaven might be defined as the place which men avoid. I should be sorry if it were cut down.

How beautiful, when a whole tree is like one great scarlet fruit full of ripe Juices, every leaf, from lowest limb to topmost spire, all aglow, especially if you look toward the sun! What more remarkable object can there be in the landscape? Visible for miles, too fair to be believed. If such a phenomenon occurred but once, it would be handed down by tradition to posterity, and get into the mythology at last. I am thrilled at the sight of it...I go half a mile out of my way to examine it. A single tree becomes thus the crowing beauty of some meadowy vale, and the expression of the whole surrounding forest is at once more spirited for it.

It has faithfully husbanded its sap, and afforded a shelter to the wandering birds has long since ripened its seeds and committed them to the winds, and has the satisfaction of knowing, perhaps, that a thousand little well-behaved maples are already settled in life somewhere. It. deserves well of Mapledom.

At. the eleventh hour of the year, the tree which no scrutiny could have detected here when it was most industrious is thus, by the tint of its maturity, by its very blushes, revealed at last to the careless and distant traveler, and leads his thoughts away from the dusty road into those brave solitude which it. inhabits. It flashes out conspicuous with all the virtue and beauty of a maple. It's virtues not its sins, are as scarlet.

One wonders that the tithing-men and fathers of the town are not out to see what the trees mean by their high colors and exuberance of spirits, fearing that some mischief is brewing. I do not see what the Puritans did at this season, when the maples blaze out in scarlet. They certainly could not have worshipped in groves then. Perhaps that is what. they built meeting-houses and fenced them round with horse-sheds for.

Alas! I foresee [our results] will be chiefly husks and little thought, blasted pig-corn, fit only for cob-meal,--for as you sow, so shall you reap.

How they are mixed up, of all species, oak and maple and Chestnut and birch! But Nature is not cluttered with them; she is a perfect husbandman; she stores them all. The trees are not repaying the earth with interest what they have taken from it. They are discounting. They are about to add a leaf's thickness to the depth of the soil. This is the beautiful way in which Nature gets her muck...We are all the richer for their decay. It prepares the virgin mould for future corn-fields and forests, on which the earth fattens. It keeps our homestead in good heart.

It is pleasant to walk over the beds of these fresh, crisp, and rustling leaves. How beautifully they go to their graves, how gently lay themselves down and turn to mold!--painted of a thousand hues, and fit to make the beds of us living. How many flutterings before they rest quietly in their graves! They that soared so loftily, how contentedly they return to dust. again, and are laid low, resigned to lie and decay at the foot of a tree, and afford nourishment to new generations of their kind, as well as to flutter on high! They teach us how to die. One wonders if the time will ever come when men, with their boasted faith in immortality, will lie down as graceful and as ripe, with such an Indian-summer serenity will shed their bodies, as they do their hair and nails. When the leaves fall, the whole earth is a cemetery pleasant to walk in. Let us walk in the cemetery of the leaves; this is your true Greenwood Cemetery.

Leave it to Nature to appoint the days, whether the same as in neighboring States or not., and let the clergy read her proclamations, if they can understand them.

A village is not complete, unless it have these trees to mark the season in it. They are important, like the town clock. A village that has them not will not. be found to work well. It. has a screw loose, an essential part wanting.

A village needs these innocent stimulants of bright and cheering prospects to keep off melancholy and superstition. How me two villages, one embowered in trees and blazing with all the glories of October, the Other a merely trivial and treeless waste, or with only a single tree or two for suicides, and I shall be sure that in the latter will be found the most starved and bigoted religionists and the most desperate drinkers. Every wash-tub and milk can and gravestone will be exposed. The inhabitants will disappear abruptly behind their barns and houses, and I shall look to see spears in their hands. They will be ready to accept the most barren and forlorn doctrine,--as that the world is speedly coming to an end, or has already got to it, or that they themselves are turned wrong side outward. They will perchance crack their dry joints at fine another and call it a spiritual communication.

This perfectly living institution which needs no repairing nor repainting, which is continually enlarged and repaired by its growth...these maples are...preachers, permanently settled, which preach their half-century, and century, aye, and century-and-a-half sermons, with constantly increasing unction and influence, ministering to many generations of men; and the least we can do is to supply them with suitable colleagues as they grow infirm.

These [leaves], raised high on old trees, have solved the leafy problem. Lifted higher and higher, and sublimated more and more, putting off some earthiness and cultivating more intimacy with the light each year, they have at length the least possible amount of earthy matter, and the greatest spread and grasp of skyey influences. There they dance, arm in arm with the light--tripping it on fantastic points, fit partners in those aerial halls. So intimately mingled are they with it, that, what with their slenderness and their glossy surfaces, you can hardly tell at last what in the dance is leaf and what is light.

The falling leaves, all over the forest, are protecting the roots of my plants. Only look at. what is to be seen, and you will have garden enough without deepening the soil in your yard. We have only to elevate our view a little, to see the whole forest as a garden. All this you surely will see, and much more, if you are prepared to see it,--if you look for it. We do not realize how far and widely, or how near and narrowly, we are to look. The greater part of the phenomena of Nature are for this reasons concealed from us all our lives. The gardener sees only the gardener's garden. Here, too, as in political economy, the supply answers to the demand. Nature does not cast pearls before swine. There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate. The scarlet oak must, in a sense, be in your eye when you go forth. It requires different intentions of the eye and of the mind to attend to different departments of knowledge! How differently the poet and the naturalist look at Objects!

From: Wild Apples, 1862.

There is thus about all natural products a certain volatile and ethereal quality which represents their highest value, and which cannot. be vulgarized, or bought and sold. No mortal has ever enjoyed the perfect flavor of any fruit, and only the godlike among men begin to taste its ambrosial qualities. For nectar and ambrosia are only those fine flavors of every earthly fruit which our coarse palates fail to Perceive--just as we occupy the heaven of the gods without knowing it.

To appreciate the wild and sharp flavors of these October fruits, it is necessary that you be breathing the sharp October or November air. What is sour in the house a bracing walk makes sweet. Some of these apples might be labeled, 'To be eaten in the wind."

It takes a savage or wild taste to appreciate a wild fruit..

The era of the Wild Apple will soon be past. It. is a fruit which will probably become extinct in New England. I fear that he who walks over these fields a century hence will not know the pleasure of knocking off wild apples. Ah, poor soul, there are many pleasures which you will not know! ...the end of it all will be that we shall be compelled to look for our apples in a barrel.

From: Huckleberries (Notes On Fruits) Posthumous publication.

When the husk gets separated from the kernel, almost all men run after the husk and pay their respects to that. It is only the husk of Christianity that is so bruited and wide spread in this world, the kernel is still the very least and rarest of all things. There is not a single church founded on it. To obey the higher law is generally considered the last manifestation of littleness. The `severer study' they refer to was keeping their accounts. Comparatively speaking--what they call their graver pursuits and severer studies was the real trifling and misspense of life--and were they such fools as not to know it?

The last Indian of Nantucket, who died a few years ago, was very properly represented in a painting which I saw there, with a basket full of huckleberries in his hand, as if to hint at the employment of his last days. I trust that I may not outlive the last of the huckleberries.

I think that it would be will if the Indian names, were as far as possible restored and applied to the numerous species of huckleberries by our botanists instead of the very inadequate--Greek and Latin or English ones at present used. Certainly it is not the best point of view to look at this peculiarly American family as it were from the other side of the Atlantic.

This crop grows wild all over the country wholesome, bountiful and free, a real ambrosia. And yet men the foolish demons that they are, devote themselves to the Culture of tobacco, inventing slavery and a thousand other curses for that purpose--with infinite pains and inhumanity go raise tobacco all their lives, and that is the stable instead of huckleberries. Wreathes of tobacco smoke go up from this land, the only incense which its inhabitants burn in honor of their gods.

Man at. length stands in such a relation to Nature as the animals which plucks and eat as they go. The fields and hills are a table constantly spread. Diet-drinks, cordials, wines of all kinds and qualities, are bottled up in the skins of countless berries for their refreshment, and they quaff them at. every turn. They seem offered to us not so much for food as for sociality, inviting us to a picnic with Nature. We pluck and eat in remembrance of her. It is a sort of sacrament--a Communion--the not forbidden fruits, which no serpent tempts us to eat. Slight and innocent savors which relate us to Nature, make us her guests, and entitle us to her regard and protection. To think of them as fruits fit to grow on the most Olympian or heaven pointing hills.

It does not occur to you at first that where such thoughts are suggested is Mount Olympus, and that. you who taste these berries are a god. Why in his only royal moments should man abdicate his throne? Perchance we may be nicknamed huckleberry people.

There was a Young America then, which has become Old America, but its principles and motives are still the same, only applied to other things. Sometimes, just before reaching the spot--every boy rushed to the hill side and hastily selecting a spot--shouted I speak for this place, indicating its bounds, and another `I speak for that,' and so on--and this was sometimes considered good law for the huckleberry field. At any rate it is a law similar to this by which we have taken possession of the territory of Indians and Mexicans.

I found myself in a schoolroom where I could not fail to see and hear things worth seeing and hearing--where I could not help getting my lesson-for my lesson came to me.

But ah we have fallen on evil days! I hear of pickers ordered out of the huckleberry fields, and I see stakes set up with written notices forbidding any to pick them. I do not mean to blame any, but all --to bewail our fates generally. We are not grateful enough that we have lived a part of our lives before these things occurred. What becomes of the true value of country life--what, if you must go to market for it? It. has come to this, that the butcher now brings round our huckleberries in his cart. Why, it is as if the hangman were to perform the marriage ceremony. Such is the inevitable tendency of our civilization, to reduce huckleberries to a level with beef-steaks--that is to blot out four fifths of it, or the going a-huckleberrying, and leave only a pudding, that part which is the fittest accompaniment to a beef-steak. You all know what it is to go a-beef-steaking.

I suspect that the inhabitants of England and the continent of Europe have thus lost in a measure their natural rights, with the increase of population and monopolies. The wild fruits of the earth disappear before civilization or only the husks of them are to be found in large markets. The whole country becomes, as it were, a town or beaten common, and almost the only fruits left are a few hips and haws.

What sort of country is it that were the huckleberry fields are private property? When I pass such fields on the highway, my heart sinks within me. I see a blight on the land. Nature is under a veil there. I wake haste away from the accursed spot.. Nothing could deform her fair face more. I cannot think of it ever after but as the place where fair and palatable berries, are converted into money, where the huckleberry is desecrated.

It is true, we have as good right to make berries private property as to make wild grass and trees such--it is not worse than a thousand other practices which custom has sanctioned-but that is the worst of it, for it suggests how bad the rest are, and to what result our Civilization and division of labour naturally tend, to make all things venal. And now the result of this downward course will be seen in [our] labor. It will be worthless. It will have none of the spirit of the huckleberry in it, and the reading of it will be a weariness of the flesh.

So we commit the berries to the wrong hands, that is to the hands of those who cannot appreciate them. This is proved by the fact that if we do not pay them some money, these parties will at once cease to pick them. They have no other interest in berries but a pecuniary one. Such is the constitution of our society that we make a compromise and permit the berries to be degraded, to be enslaved, as it were.

All our improvements, so called, tend to convert the country into the town. But I do not see clearly that these successive losses are every quite made up to us. This suggests, as I have said, what origin and foundations many of our institutions have.

It is my own way of living that I complain of as well as yours, and therefore I trust that my remarks will come home to you. I hope that I am not so poor a shot, like most clergymen, as to fire into a crowd of a thousand men without hitting somebody--thought I do not aim at any one.

Thus we behave like oxen in a flower garden. The true fruit of Nature can only be plucked with a fluttering heart. and a delicate hand, not bribed by any earthly reward. No hired man can help us to gather that crop.

Among the Indians, the earth and its productions generally were common and free to all the tribe, like the air and water--but among us who have supplanted the Indians, the public retain only a small yard or common in the middle of the village, with perhaps a grave-yard beside it, and the right of way, by sufferance, by a particular narrow route, which is annually becoming narrower, from one such yard to another. I doubt if you can ride out five miles in any direction without coming to where some individual is tolling in the road--and he expects the time when it will all revert to him or his heirs. This is the way we civilized men have arranged it.

I am not overflowing with respect and gratitude to the fathers who thus laid out our New England villages, whatever precedent they were influenced by, for I think that a prentice hand liberated from Old English Prejudices could have done much better in this new world. If they were in earnest seeking thus far away `freedom to worship God,' as some assure us--why did they not secure a little more of it, when it was so cheap and they were about it? At the same time that they built meeting-houses why did they not preserve from desecration and destruction far grander temples not made with hands?

What are the natural features which make a township handsome and worth going far to dwell in? A river with its waterfalls, meadows, lakes, hills, cliffs or individual rocks, a forest and single ancient trees--such things are beautiful. They have a high use which dollars and cents never represent. If the inhabitants of a town were wise they would seek to preserve these things though at a considerable expense. For such things educate far more than any hired teachers or preachers, or any at present recognized system of school education.

Let us try to keep the new world new, and while we make a wary use of the city, preserve as far as possible the advantages of living in the country. Yet. the town, as a corporation, has never turned any but the most purely utilitarian eyes upon it--and has done nothing to preserve its natural beauty.

As for the trees which fringed the shore within my remembrance--where are they? and where will the remnant of them be after ten years more?

Most men, it appears to me, do not care for Nature, and would sell their share in all her beauty, for as long as they may live, for a stated and not very large sum. Thank God they cannot yet fly and lay waste the sky as well as the earth. We are safe on that side for the present. It is for the very reason that. some. do not care for these things that we need to combine to protect all form the vandalism of a few.

There may be the most beautiful landscapes in the world within a dozen miles of us, for aught we know--for their inhabitants do not value nor perceive them--and so have not made them known to others--but if a grain of gold were picked up there or a pearl found in a fresh-water claim, the whole state would resound with the news.

Thousands annually seek the White Mountains to be refreshed by their wild and primitive beauty--but when the country was discovered a similar kind of beauty prevailed all over it-- and much of this might have been preserved for our present refreshment if a little foresight and taste had been used.

Let [this noble oak forest] stand fifty years longer and men will make pilgrimages to it from all parts of the country, and for a worthier object than to shoot squirrels in it...Probably, if the history of this town is written, the historian will have omitted to say a word about this forest--the most interesting thing in it--and lay all the stress on the history of the parish. Nevertheless, [the forest] is likely to be cut within a few years for ship-timber and the like. It is too precious to be thus disposed of. I think that it would be wise for the state to purchase and preserve a few such forests.

I find that the rising generation in this town do not know what an Oak or a pine is, having seen only inferior specimens. Shall we hire a man to lecture on botany, on oaks for instance, our noblest plants-while we permit others to cut down the few best specimens of these trees that are lefty It is like teaching children Latin and Greek while we burn the books printed in those languages.

We are all schoolmasters and our schoolhouse is the universe. To attend chiefly to the desk or schoolhouse, while we neglect the scenery in which it is placed, is absurd. If we do not look out we shall find our fine schoolhouse standing in a cow yard at last.

Live in each season as it passes; breath the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each. Be blown on by all the winds. Open all your pores and breathe in all the tides of nature, in all her streams and oceans, at all seasons. Grow green with spring-yellow and ripe with autumn. Drink of each season's influence as a vial, a true panacea of all remedies mixed for your especial use. Drink the wines not of your own but of nature's bottling-not kept in a goat- or pig-skin, but in the skins of a myriad fair berries. Let Nature do your bottling, as also your pickling and preserving. For all nature is doing her best each moment to make us well. she exists for no other end. Do not resist her. Why, nature is but another name for health. Some men think that they are not well in Spring or Summer or Autumn or winter, (if you will excuse the pun) it is only because they are not indeed well, that is fairly in those seasons.

I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright. It is not indifferent to us which way we walk. There is a right way; but we are very liable from heedlessness and stupidity to take the wrong one.


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