Revisiting the Splendor of Thoreau's 'Autumnal Tints,' 150 Years Later

"What School of Design can vie with this?" the Transcendentalist asked in the pages of the Atlantic in 1862—words that remain resonant for anyone who visits the writer's old home today.

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John-Manuel Andriote

I visited the grave of Henry David Thoreau within Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Mass. at twilight on a brilliant and cool October Saturday. I'd spent the afternoon hiking the 1.7 miles around Walden Pond, where the philosopher, poet, pencil-maker, surveyor, and Transcendentalist had lived from July 4, 1845 to September 6, 1847, in a simple cabin in the woods he built himself.

Gaggles of camera-wielding tourists squeezed by on the narrow path. We all wanted to see for ourselves what Thoreau himself had seen, preserve it in photographs, make it our own.

But Thoreau made clear 150 years ago in Autumnal Tints, the essay he polished like a ripe apple as he lay dying of tuberculosis in early 1862, looking and seeing are very different phenomena. "Objects are concealed from our view," he wrote, "not so much because they are out of the course of our visual ray as because we do not bring our minds and eyes to bear on them; for there is no power to see in the eye itself, any more than in any other jelly."

First published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1862, Autumnal Tints is a naturalist's guide to truly seeing nature. "We have only to elevate our view a little," wrote Thoreau, "to see the whole forest as a garden." Those who merely look will observe a maple, while those who see will marvel at "a living liberty-pole on which a thousand bright flags are waving."

Instead of viewing autumn as a time of death and decay, Thoreau came to see and celebrate the season (and death itself) as nature's own way of renewing life. He believed that if we could see properly, even fallen leaves on the ground could "teach us how to die."

Like the season itself, Autumnal Tints fairly bursts with colorful description of the berries, grasses, and trees Thoreau catalogued in the fields, forests, and streets of Concord. Thoreau biographer Robert D. Richardson (Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind) writes in his forward of a beautifully illustrated sesquicentennial hardcover edition of October, or Autumnal Tints, Thoreau's preferred title (Norton 2012, ISBN 978-0-303-08188-6), "His enthusiasm, his intensity, is so great in Autumnal Tints that he needed thirty-three exclamation points and twenty-three words or phrases italicized for emphasis in the 25-page piece!"

Michael J. Frederick, executive director of The Thoreau Society, pointed out when I spoke with him at the Shop at Walden Pond, before I set out on my hike, that Thoreau was comfortable living—as he did in his two years in the woods—at the outskirts of Concord, on the margins of society. It's not surprising that the one who truly sees must "step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away," as Thoreau put it at the end of Walden.

That willingness to stand apart, to accept one's difference and marginality, to see rather than merely look, is the key to appreciating Autumnal Tints. In a death-denying culture where we no longer die but "pass away," it means, as Mike Frederick said in our interview, as Thoreau would have said, "If you're going to live joyfully, it requires this acceptance of death."

Before I left Thoreau's grave, I looked around for something to leave among the objects placed in tribute to the man whose words have comforted mourners and transformed lives. I finally chose a pinecone as most fitting: ripe with seeds, fallen in the autumn, and holding in itself the promise of a spring to come and the potential of a magnificent new tree.

Below are Thoreau's words, paired with the autumnal tints I found that, 150 years later, remain.

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We love to see any redness in the vegetation of the temperate zone. It is the color of colors. This plant speaks to our blood. It asks a bright sun on it to make it show to best advantage, and it must be seen at this season of the year.

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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 lone, it stands in vain!

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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.

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Now, too, the first of October, or later, the Elms are at the height of their autumnal beauty, great brownish-yellow masses, warm from their September oven, hanging over the highway. Their leaves are perfectly ripe. I wonder if there is any answering ripeness in the lives of the men who live beneath them. As I look down our street, which is lined with them, they remind me both by their form and color of yellowing sheaves of grain, as if the harvest had indeed come to the village itself, and we might expect to find some maturity and flavor in the thoughts of the villagers at last.

autumn tints ground 615.jpg 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 mould!--painted of a thousand hues, and fit to make the beds of us living. So they troop to their last resting place, light and frisky. They put on no weeds, but merrily they go scampering over the earth, selecting the spot, choosing a lot, ordering no iron fence, whispering all through the woods about it,--some choosing the spot where the bodies of men are mouldering beneath, and meeting them half-way. 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 the 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 gracefully and as ripe,--with such an Indian-summer serenity will shed their bodies, as they do their hair and nails.
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What School of Design can vie with this? Think how much the eyes of painters of all kinds, and of manufacturers of cloth and paper, and paper-stainers, and countless others, are to be educated by these autumnal colors. The stationer's envelopes may be of very various tints, yet not so various as those of the leaves of a single tree. If you want a different shade or tint of a particular color, you have only to look farther within or without the tree or the wood. These leaves are not many dipped in one dye, as at the dye-house, but they are dyed in light of infinitely various degrees of strength, and left to set and dry there.

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I do not see why, since America and her autumn woods have been discovered, our leaves should not compete with the precious stones in giving names to colors; and, indeed, I believe that in course of time the names of some of our trees and shrubs, as well as flowers, will get into our popular chromatic nomenclature.

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The Pine-boughs are the green calyx to their red petals. Or, as we go along a road in the woods, the sun striking endwise through it, and lighting up the red tents of the Oaks, which on each side are mingled with the liquid green of the Pines, makes a very gorgeous scene. Indeed, without the ever greens for contrast, the autumnal tints would lose much of their effect.

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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.
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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,--not a grain more. The actual objects which one man will see from a particular hill-top are just as different from those which another will see as the beholders are different.