Walden

Henry David Thoreau

1854

(A philosopher and naturalist returns from the woods to deliver a message: Wake Up! Think! Live Meaningfully!)

Courtesy of Walden Pond State ReservationWalden Pond (Photo courtesy of Walden Pond State Reservation)
 

The account of Thoreau’s temporary retreat from civilization and the philosophy he developed and tested during that time, is perhaps the greatest single work in American literature.  I say this not so much because he was right, not because he got the nature of the cosmos straighter than this or that thinker.  Rather, this work is great—I say perhaps the greatest our country has produced—primarily because in it we see a man who is awake.  It is not what he gets right that is earthshattering here, but rather the fact that he sees that there is a right to be gotten, so to speak, and that he bursts the strictures of convention to strive for it, and that he so eloquently exhorts us to do the same.  Thoreau here is a Crusader for examining our lives, for living well, for life itself!  In a world of so many petty tensions, so many lures into complexity and distraction which decompose any central vision or purpose in our lives, Thoreau opens his eyes, looks about him, and realizes the great harm we are slipping into unaware.  He sees the “quiet desperation” of people about him, and the empty catalog of assumptions and dry truths they (we!) harbor in place of a real, living, mission statement.  He, as if by a sudden revelation, is horrified at the masses of humans like lemmings who are content to follow the path over the cliff into the sea of meaningless existence simply because the way is worn clean and so is the easiest to tread.

One can imagine Thoreau at first laboring under this realization, wavering between joyful praise on one hand and pessimistic misanthropy on the other, deciding to remove himself from society to collect and develop his thoughts.  His first essay in the book, “Economy”, expounds the reasons why he believes such removal could aid in this project.  He shows how our lives have become too multifaceted, the heaps of superficiality wound up so tightly with the essentials that we can no longer disentangle them without a drastic change of lifestyle.  Moreover, he feels that in some sense there must be truth in simplicity.  If there is a truth to be acquired, it will not be found in the whirling confusion of civilization.  Wise men throughout time, as well as his own experience, suggest that it is in living simply that essential truths will be raised unobstructed into such relief that he will be able to notice and grasp them.  In the rest of the book he commences his search and delivers his conclusions.  He makes his argument through a defense of reading the classics, whereby we can glean all that is good from human history (in “Reading”); through an appreciation of nature—not merely in general, but in all the myriad forms and entities from the great collectives to the tiny particulars: plants, animals, sounds, the earth, the water, and the sky (as in “Sounds”, “The Ponds”, “Brute Neighbors”, “Winter Animals”, “The Pond in Winter”, and “Spring”); through a defense of being alone and searching for truth without intrusion from anything but the works of God (in “Solitude”); through a related defense for the necessity of wilderness and nature to rejuvenate our souls and bring us back to reality (as in “Economy” and “Spring”); through commentary, sometimes critical and other times compassionate, on his fellow-man, whether in particular or as a society together with its institutions (as in “Visitors”, “The Bean-Field”, “The Village”); and, most significantly, through an explicit commitment to the good and the true, and a desire that all might awake to this commitment with him (as in “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”, “Higher Laws”, and “Conclusion”).

So it is Thoreau’s outlook, the general intuition that we ought to be living more seriously, more deliberately, more honestly, more simply, more meaningfully, and more reverently, that I have taken to be by far the chief and most sublime message of Walden. One may praise a hundred other things about it, such as its value as a chronicle of New England nature and culture, its compact and lucid style, the very poetry of its presentation, or some particular glimpses at truth that it affords.  I would love to go into these.  But one may also criticize it, and rightly so, for another hundred minor and a few major flaws or omissions.  I would think it vital to recognize these as well, for a person’s being awakened to humanity’s lack of independent thought and genuine living does not necessitate that one will alight on the thoroughly correct path, even when driven by sincere reflection and ardent contemplation.  As it is, Thoreau’s metaphysics and his religion are at best dimly sketched and at worst misplaced or contradictory.  As important as any critiques, cautions, and caveats may be, they are better explored elsewhere, as to do so here would detract from the central purpose that this book serves, the serving of which is so sorely needed in our society.  If we were to take this general and central advice of Thoreau’s, and open our heart to goodness and truth and life, the author’s pleasure at our redemption from an empty living-death would not, I suspect, have been in the slightest degree lessened by his finding that we disagreed with him heartily on some philosophical or theological point.  On the contrary, an honest conflict between two vibrant, thinking, open-hearted, free individuals is itself a sign of life!

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GLEANINGS

Throughout this journey, as with most good journeys, Thoreau takes many side roads, some bearing only indirectly on his main themes, but filling them out.  Here are some examples:

  • possessions can be a curse and burden (“Economy”)
  • old age does not necessarily bring wisdom (“Economy”)
  • the particular benefits a natural way of life can bring (“Economy”)
  • a defense of small wardrobes and a decrease in emphasis on clothes (“Economy”)
  • criticism of oversheltering, overwealth, and assumptions of cultural superiority (“Economy”)
  • advice to accept the trappings of culture for expediency (“Economy”)
  • exhortation to live life rather than a semblance of it (“Economy”)
  • against the falsity of much “generosity” and “philanthropy” (“Economy”)
  • the notion of “living deliberately” (“Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”)
  • on kinship with nature (“Solitude”)
  • on the benefits of solitude and the myth of loneliness (“Solitude”)
  • on the wisdom of the “foolish” being wiser than the “wise” (“Visitors”)
  • a polemic against naming natural features after unworthy men (“The Ponds”)
  • support for living wild and free, filled with a sense of adventure (“Baker Farm”)
  • on the moral dimension of eating and the conflict that arises with meat-eating (“Higher Laws”)
  • a celebration of goodness and morality (“Higher Laws”)
  • on the desire for redemption (“Higher Laws”)
  • a dream of a perfect one-room house (“House-Warming”)
  • seeing God’s forgiveness in a spring morning (“Spring”)
  • the importance of exploring within, more than without (“Conclusion”)
  • the importance of following one’s dreams (“Conclusion”)
  • a story exhibiting the striving after moral perfection (“Conclusion”)
  • and, finally, the good of “poverty” and the simple, nontrivial life, filled with meaning, truth, and wakefulness (“Conclusion”)

TIDBITS OF SIGNIFICANCE

At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.

-”Economy”

 

I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.

-”Economy”

 

But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.

-”Economy”

 

Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine.

-”Economy”

 

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.

-”Economy”

 

It is never too late to give up our prejudices.

-”Economy”

 

One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living.

-”Economy”

 

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but 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.

-”Economy”

 

When he has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced. The soil, it appears, is suited to the seed, for it has sent its radicle downward, and it may now send its shoot upward also with confidence. Why has man rooted himself thus firmly in the earth, but that he may rise in the same proportion into the heavens above?

-”Economy”

 

But if my jacket and trousers, my hat and shoes, are fit to worship God in, they will do; will they not?

-”Economy”

 

But how do the poor minority fare? Perhaps it will be found that just in proportion as some have been placed in outward circumstances above the savage, others have been degraded below him. The luxury of one class is counterbalanced by the indigence of another. On the one side is the palace, on the other are the almshouse and “silent poor”.

-”Economy”

 

I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion. I would rather ride on earth in an ox cart, with a free circulation, than go to heaven in the fancy car of an excursion train and breathe a malaria all the way.

-”Economy”

 

The very simplicity and nakedness of man’s life in the primitive ages imply this advantage, at least, that they left him still but a sojourner in nature. When he was refreshed with food and sleep, he contemplated his journey again. He dwelt, as it were, in a tent in this world, and was either threading the valleys, or crossing the plains, or climbing the mountain-tops. But lo! men have become the tools of their tools. The man who independently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper. We now no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down upon earth and forgotten heaven. We have adopted Christianity merely as an improved method of agri-culture.

-”Economy”

 

They were pleasant spring days, in which the winter of man’s discontent was thawing as well as the earth.

-”Economy”

 

Before I had done I was more the friend than the foe of the pine tree, though I had cut down some of them, having become better acquainted with it.

-”Economy”

 

There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged? But alas! we do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other birds have built, and cheer no traveller with their chattering and unmusical notes. Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter? What does architecture amount to in the experience of the mass of men? I never in all my walks came across a man engaged in so simple and natural an occupation as building his house. We belong to the community. It is not the tailor alone who is the ninth part of a man; it is as much the preacher, and the merchant, and the farmer. Where is this division of labor to end? and what object does it finally serve? No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself.

-”Economy”

 

How much more admirable the Bhagvat-Geeta than all the ruins of the East! Towers and temples are the luxury of princes. A simple and independent mind does not toil at the bidding of any prince. Genius is not a retainer to any emperor, nor is its material silver, or gold, or marble, except to a trifling extent. To what end, pray, is so much stone hammered? In Arcadia, when I was there, I did not see any hammering stone. Nations are possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave. What if equal pains were taken to smooth and polish their manners? One piece of good sense would be more memorable than a monument as high as the moon. I love better to see stones in place. The grandeur of Thebes was a vulgar grandeur. More sensible is a rod of stone wall that bounds an honest man’s field than a hundred-gated Thebes that has wandered farther from the true end of life. The religion and civilization which are barbaric and heathenish build splendid temples; but what you might call Christianity does not. Most of the stone a nation hammers goes toward its tomb only. It buries itself alive. As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs. I might possibly invent some excuse for them and him, but I have not time for it. As for the religion and love of art of the builders, it is much the same all the world over, whether the building be an Egyptian temple or the United States Bank. It costs more than it comes to. The mainspring is vanity, assisted by the love of garlic and bread and butter. Mr. Balcom, a promising young architect, designs it on the back of his Vitruvius, with hard pencil and ruler, and the job is let out to Dobson & Sons, stonecutters. When the thirty centuries begin to look down on it, mankind begin to look up at it. As for your high towers and monuments, there was a crazy fellow once in this town who undertook to dig through to China, and he got so far that, as he said, he heard the Chinese pots and kettles rattle; but I think that I shall not go out of my way to admire the hole which he made. Many are concerned about the monuments of the West and the East,-- to know who built them. For my part, I should like to know who in those days did not build them,--who were above such trifling.

-”Economy”

 

In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we live simply and wisely; as the pursuits of the simpler nations are still the sports of the more artificial. It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.

-”Economy”

 

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.

-”Economy”

 

This was an airy and unplastered cabin, fit to entertain a travelling god, and where a goddess might trail her garments.

-”Where I Lived, and What I Lived for”

 

The morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted; but few are the ears that hear it.

-”Where I Lived, and What I Lived for”

 

The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night: Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius, but by the mechanical nudgings of some servitor, are not awakened by our own newly acquired force and aspirations from within, accompanied by the undulations of celestial music, instead of factory bells, and a fragrance filling the air—to a higher life than we fell asleep from; and thus the darkness bear its fruit, and prove itself to be good, no less than the light.

-”Where I Lived, and What I Lived for”

 

The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the eye?

-”Where I Lived, and What I Lived for”

 

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever.’

-”Where I Lived, and What I Lived for”

 

And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter,-- we never need read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications? To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea.

-”Where I Lived, and What I Lived for”

 

Shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous. If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. If we respected only what is inevitable and has a right to be, music and poetry would resound along the streets. When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality. This is always exhilarating and sublime. By closing the eyes and slumbering, and consenting to be deceived by shows, men establish and confirm their daily life of routine and habit everywhere, which still is built on purely illusory foundations.

-”Where I Lived, and What I Lived for”

 

Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they might be written and however ancient they may be. For hat are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave. We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old. To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, 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.

-”Reading”

 

However much we may admire the orator’s occasional bursts of eloquence, the noblest written words are commonly as far behind or above the fleeting spoken language as the firmament with its stars is behind the clouds. There are the stars, and they who can may read them. The astronomers forever comment on and observe them. They are not exhalations like our daily colloquies and vaporous breath. What is called eloquence in the forum is commonly found to be rhetoric in the study. The orator yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion, and speaks to the mob before him, to those who can hear him; but the writer, whose more equable life is his occasion, and who would be distracted by the event and the crowd which inspire the orator, speaks to the intellect and heart of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him.

-”Reading”

 

A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips;-- not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself. The symbol of an ancient man’s thought becomes a modern man’s speech.

-”Reading”

 

I think that having learned our letters we should read the best that is in literature, and not be forever repeating our a-b-abs, and words of one syllable, in the fourth or fifth classes, sitting on the lowest and foremost form all our lives. Most men are satisfied if they read or hear read, and perchance have been convinced by the wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading.

-”Reading”

 

Even the college-bred and so-called liberally educated men here and elsewhere have really little or no acquaintance with the English classics; and as for the recorded wisdom of mankind, the ancient classics and Bibles, which are accessible to all who will know of them, there are the feeblest efforts anywhere made to become acquainted with them.

-”Reading”

 

One who has just come from reading perhaps one of the best English books will find how many with whom he can converse about it? Or suppose he comes from reading a Greek or Latin classic in the original, whose praises are familiar even to the so-called illiterate; he will find nobody at all to speak to, but must keep silence about it.

-”Reading”

 

A man, any man, will go considerably out of his way to pick up a silver dollar; but here are golden words, which the wisest men of antiquity have uttered, and whose worth the wise of every succeeding age have assured us of;-- and yet we learn to read only as far as Easy Reading, the primers and class-books, and when we leave school, the ‘Little Reading,’ and story-books, which are for boys and beginners; and our reading, our conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikins.

-”Reading”

 

I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsman who cannot read at all and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects.

-”Reading”

 

There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book! The book exists for us, perchance, which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones. The at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered. 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.

-”Reading”

 

We spend more on almost any article of bodily aliment or ailment than on our mental aliment. It is time that we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women. It is time that villages were universities, and their elder inhabitants the fellows of universities, with leisure—if they are, indeed, so well off—to pursue liberal studies the rest of their lives. Shall the world be confined to one Paris or one Oxford forever? Cannot students be boarded here and get a liberal education under the skies of Concord?

-”Reading”

 

If it is necessary, omit one bridge over the river, go round a little there, and throw one arch at least over the darker gulf of ignorance which surrounds us.

-”Reading”

 

But while we are confined to books, though the most select and classic, and read only particular written languages, which are themselves but dialects and provincial, we are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard.

-“Sounds”

 

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? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer?

-”Sounds”

 

I believe that men are generally still a little afraid of the dark, though the witches are all hung, and Christianity and candles have been introduced.

-”Solitude”

 

There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of nature and has his senses still. There was never yet such a storm but it was Aeolian music to a healthy and innocent ear. Nothing can rightly compel a simple and brave man to a vulgar sadness.

-”Solitude”

 

Men frequently say to me, “I should think you would feel lonesome down there, and want to be nearer to folks, rainy and snowy days and nights especially.” I am tempted to reply to such, --This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way? This which you put seems to me not to be the most important question. What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another. What do we want most to dwell near to? Not to many men surely, the depot, the post-office, the bar-room, the meeting-house, the school-house, the grocery, Beacon Hill, or the Five Points, where men most congregate, but to the perennial source of our life, whence in all our experience we have found that to issue, as the willow stands near the water and sends out its roots in that direction. This will vary with different natures, but this is the place where a wise man will dig his cellar.

-”Solitude”

 

Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are. We have had to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable and that we need not come to open war. We meet at the post-office, and at the sociable, and about the fireside every night; we live thick and are in each other’s way, and stumble over one another, and I think that we thus lose some respect for one another. Certainly less frequency would suffice for all important and hearty communications.

-”Solitude”

 

One day, in particular, an inoffensive, simple-minded pauper, whom with others I had often seen used as fencing stuff, standing or sitting on a bushel in the fields to keep cattle and himself from straying, visited me, and expressed a wish to live as I did. He told me, with the utmost simplicity and truth, quite superior, or rather inferior, to anything that is called humility, that he was “deficient in intellect”. These were his words. The Lord had made him so, yet he supposed the Lord cared as much for him as for another. “I have always been so,” said he, “from my childhood; I never had much mind; I was not like other children; I am weak in the head. It was the Lord’s will I suppose.” And there he was to prove the truth of his words. He was a metaphysical puzzle to me. I have rarely met a fellow-man on such promising ground;-- it was so simple and sincere and so true all that he said. And, true enough, in proportion as he appeared to humble himself was he exalted. I did not know at first but it was the result of a wise policy. It seemed that from such a basis of truth and frankness as the poor weak-headed pauper had laid, our intercourse might go forward to something better than the intercourse of sages.

-”Visitors”

 

I could not but notice some of the peculiarities of my visitors. Girls and boys and young women generally seemed glad to be in the woods. They looked in the pond and at the flowers, and improved their time. Men of business, even farmers, thought only of solitude and employment, and of the great distance at which I dwelt from something or other; and though they said that they loved a ramble in the woods occasionally, it was obvious that they did not. Restless committed men, whose time was all taken up in getting a living or keeping it; ministers who spoke of God as if they enjoyed a monopoly of the subject, who could not bear all kinds of opinions; doctors, lawyers, uneasy housekeepers who pried into my cupboard and bed when I was out—how came Mrs. --- to know that my sheets were not as clean as hers?-- young men who had ceased to be young, and had concluded that it was safest to follow the beaten track of the professions,-- all these generally said that it was not possible to do so much good in my position. Ay! there was the rub. The old and infirm and the timid, of whatever age or sex, thought most of sickness, and sudden accident and death; to them life seemed full of danger,-- what danger is there if you don’t think of any?-- and they thought that a prudent man would carefully select the safest position, where Dr. B. might be on hand at a moment’s warning. To them the village was literally a com-munity, a league for mutual defence, and you would suppose that they would not go a-huckleberrying without a medicine chest. The amount of it is, if a man is alive, there is always danger that he may die, though the danger must be allowed to be less in proportion as he is dead-and-alive to begin with.

-”Visitors”

 

Ancient poetry and mythology suggest, at least, that husbandry was once a sacred art; but it is pursued with irreverent haste and heedlessness by us, our object being to have large farms and large crops merely. We have no festival, nor procession, nor ceremony, not excepting our cattle-shows and so-called Thanksgivings, by which the farmer expresses a sense of the sacredness of his calling, or is reminded of its sacred origin. It is the premium and the feast which tempt him. He sacrifices not to Ceres and Terrestrial Jove, but to the infernal Plutus rather. By avarice and selfishness, and a grovelling habit, from which none of us is free, of regarding the soil as property, or the means of acquiring property chiefly, the landscape is deformed, husbandry is degraded with us, and the farmer leads the meanest of lives. He knows Nature but as a robber. Cato says that the profits of agriculture are particularly pious or just (maximeque pius quaestus), and according to Varro the old Romans “called the same earth Mother and Ceres, and thought that they who cultivated it led a pious and useful life, and they alone were left of the race of King Saturn.”

We are wont to forget that the sun looks on our cultivated fields and on the prairies and forests without distinction. They all reflect and absorb his rays alike, and the former make but a small part of the glorious picture which he beholds in his daily course. In his view the earth is all equally cultivated like a garden. Therefore we should receive the benefit of his light and heat with a corresponding trust and magnanimity. What though I value the seeds of these beans, and harvest that in the fall of the year? This broad field which I have looked at so long looks not to me as the principal cultivator, but away from me to influences more genial to it, which water and make it green. These beans have results which are not harvested by me. Do they not grow for woodchucks partly? The ear of wheat (in Latin spica, obsoletely speca, from spe, hope) should not be the only hope of the husbandman; its kernal or grain (granum, from gerendo, bearing) is not all that it bears. How, then, can our harvest fail? Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds? It matters little comparatively whether the fields fill the farmers’ barns. The true husbandman will cease from anxiety, as the squirrels manifest no concerns whether the woods will bear chestnuts this year or not, and finish his labor with every day, relinquishing all claim to the produce of his fields, and sacrificing in his mind not only his first but his last fruits also.

-”The Bean-Field”

 

It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable experience, to be lost in the woods any time.

-”The Village”

 

Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.

-”The Village”

 

I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.

-”The Village”

 

But since I left those shores the woodchoppers have still further laid them waste, and now for many a year there will be no more rambling through the aisles of the wood, with occasional vistas through which you see the water. My Muse may be excused if she is silent henceforth. How can you expect the birds to sing when their groves are cut down?

-”The Ponds”

 

Talk of heaven! ye disgrace earth.

-”The Ponds”

 

...my Good Genius seemed to say,-- Go fish and hunt far and wide day by day,-- farther and wider,-- and rest thee by many brooks and hearth-sides without misgiving. Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth. Rise free from care before the dawn, and seek adventures. Let the noon find thee by other lakes, and the night overtake thee everywhere at home. There are no larger fields than these, no worthier games than may here be played. Grow wild according to thy nature, like these sedges and brakes, which will never become English hay. Let the thunder rumble; what if it threaten ruin to farmers’ crops? that is not its errand to thee. Take shelter under the cloud, while they flee to carts and sheds. Let not to get a living be thy trade, but thy sport. Enjoy the land, but own it not. Through want of enterprise and faith men are what they are, buying and selling, and spending their lives like serfs.

-”Baker Farm”

 

Men come tamely home at night only from the next field or street, where their household echoes haunt, and their life pines because it breathes its own breath over again; their shadows, morning and evening, reach farther than their daily steps. We should come home from far, from adventures, and perils and discoveries every day, with new experience and character.

-”Baker Farm”

 

I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good.

-”Higher Laws”

 

As for fowling, during the last years that I carried a gun my excuse was that I was studying ornithology, and sought only new or rare birds. But I confess that I am now inclined to think that there is a finer way of studying ornithology than this. It requires so much closer attention to the habits of the birds, that, if for that reason only, I have been willing to omit the gun.

-”Higher Laws”

 

Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man.

-”Higher Laws”

 

Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails. In the music of the harp which trembles round the world it is the insisting on this which thrills us. The harp is the travelling patterer for the Universe’s Insurance Company, recommending its laws, and our little goodness is all the assessment that we pay. Though the youth at last grows indifferent, the laws of the universe are not indifferent, but are forever on the side of the most sensitive. Listen to every zephyr for some reproof, for it is surely there, and he is unfortunate who does not hear it. We cannot touch a string or move a stop but the charming moral transfixes us. Many an irksome noise, go a long way off, is heard as music, a proud, sweet satire on the meanness of our lives.

-”Higher Laws”

 

He is blessed who is assured that the animal is dying out in him day by day, and the divine being established.

-”Higher Laws”

 

From exertion come wisdom and purity; from sloth ignorance and sensuality. In the student sensuality is a sluggish habit of mind. An unclean person is universally a slothful one, one who sits by a stove, whom the sun shines on prostrate, who reposes without being fatigued. If you would avoid uncleanness, and all the sins, work earnestly, though it be at cleaning a table. Nature is hard to be overcome, but she must be overcome. What avails it that you are Christian, if you are not purer than the heathen, if you deny yourself no more, if you are not more religious?

-”Higher Laws”

 

Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man’s features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute them.

-”Higher Laws”

 

You only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants my exhibit themselves to you by turns.

-”Brute Neighbors”

 

The one who came from farthest to my lodge, through deepest snows and most dismal tempests, was a poet. A farmer, a hunter, a soldier, a reporter, even a philosopher, may be daunted; but nothing can deter a poet, for he is actuated by pure love.

-”Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors”

 

If we knew all the laws of Nature, we should need only one fact, or the description of one actual phenomenon, to infer all the particular results at that point. Now we know only a few laws, and our result is vitiated, not, of course, by any confusion or irregularity in Nature, but by our ignorance of essential elements in the calculation. Our notions of law and harmony are commonly confined to those instances which we detect; but the harmony which results from a far greater number of seemingly conflicting, but really concurring, laws, which we have not detected, is still more wonderful. The particular laws are as our points of view, as, to the traveller, a mountain outline varies with every step, and it has an infinite number of profiles, though absolutely but one form. Even when cleft or bored through it is not comprehended in its entireness.

-”The Pond in Winter”

 

...I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me,-- had come to where he was still at work.

-”Spring”

 

We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty. We loiter in winter while it is already spring. In a pleasant spring morning all men’s sins are forgiven. Such a day is a truce to vice. While such a sun holds out to burn, the vilest sinner may return. Through our own recovered innocence we discern the innocence of our neighbors. You may have known your neighbor yesterday for a thief, a drunkard, or a sensualist, and merely pitied or despised him, and despaired of the world; but the sun shines bright and warm this first spring morning, re-creating the world, and you meet him at some serene work, and see how his exhausted and debauched veins expand with still joy and bless the new day, feel the spring influence with the innocence of infancy, and all his faults are forgotten. There is not only an atmosphere of good will about him, but even a savor of holiness groping for expression, blindly and ineffectually perhaps, like a new-born instinct, and for a short hour the south hillside echoes to no vulgar jest. You see some innocent fair shoots preparing to burst from his gnarled rind and try another year’s life, tender and fresh as the youngest plant. Even he has entered into the joy of his Lord. Why the jailer does not leave open his prison doors,-- why the judge does not dismiss his case,-- why the preacher does not dismiss his congregation! It is because they do not obey the hint which God gives them, nor accept the pardon which he freely offers to all.

-”Spring”

 

It was not lonely, but made all the earth lonely beneath it.

-of a nighthawk, “Spring”

 

Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wilderness,--to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.

-”Spring”

 

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

-”Conclusion”

 

While England endeavors to cure the potato-rot, will not any endeavor to cure the brain-rot, which prevails so much more widely and fatally?

-”Conclusion”

 

Some are dinning in our ears that we Americans, and moderns generally, are intellectual dwarfs compared with the ancients, or even the Elizabethan men. But what is that to the purpose? A living dog is better than a dead lion. 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.

-”Conclusion”

 

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple tree or an oak.

-”Conclusion”

 

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board.

-”Conclusion”

 

There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world and yet we tolerate incredible dullness. I need only suggest what kind of sermons are still listened to in the most enlightened countries. There are such words as joy and sorrow, but they are only the burden of a psalm, sung with a nasal twang, while we believe in the ordinary and mean.

-”Conclusion”

Back to Section Head

READ THIS WHEN...

...you wish to be shaken out of monotonous convention and the complications of modern existence, into an understanding of the importance of simple, sincere, perceptive, hearty life;

or,

...you are going to nature for a while, and would like some sympathetic accompaniment for the experience.

 

IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU'D ALSO LIKE...

(for the Concordian transcendentalist:)

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature  (1836)
  • Bronson Alcott, Orphic Sayings  (1840-1)
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays  (1841, 1844)
  • Henry David Thoreau, “Life Without Principle”  (1862)

(for the nature-lover:)

  • William Wordsworth, poems  (1793-1847)
  • Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle  (1839)
  • Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods  (1848-58)
  • Robert Frost, poems  (1913-1962)

 

FIND THIS BOOK:

Hardcover

The Everyman is always a safe bet:

Here is an edition annotated by a Thoreau scholar who provides notes for historical and geographical context:

 

Paperback

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