Thoreau’s Journal (Part III)

Extracts from the transcendentalist author’s personal writings

This is part three in a five-part series.
Read part one here, part two here, part four here, and part five here.


A family in which there was singing in the morning. To hear a neighbor singing! All other speech sounds thereafter like profanity. A man cannot sing falsehood or cowardice; he must sing truth and heroism to attune his voice to some instrument. It would be noblest to sing with the wind. I have seen a man making himself a viol, patiently and fondly paring the thin wood and shaping it, and when I considered the end of the work he was ennobled in my eyes. He was building himself a ship in which to sail to new worlds. I am much indebted to my neighbor who will now and then in the intervals of his work draw forth a few strains from his accordion. Though he is but a learner, I find, when his strains cease, that I have been elevated.

I have an uncle who once, just as he stepped on to the dock at New York from a steamboat, saw some strange birds in the water and called to [a] Gothamite to know what they were. Just then his hat blew off into the dock, and the man answered by saying, “Mister, your hat is off;” whereupon my uncle, straightening himself up, asked again with vehemence, “Blast you, sir, I want to know what those birds are.” By the time that he had got this information, a sailor had recovered his hat.

* * *

November 9.

It is a pleasant surprise to walk over a hill where an old wood has recently been cut off, and on looking round to see, instead of dense ranks of trees almost impermeable to light, distant well-known blue mountains in the horizon, and perchance a white village over an expanded open country. I now take this in preference to all my old familiar walks. So a new prospect and walks can be created where we least expected it. The old men have seen other prospects from these hills than we do. There was the old Kettell place, now Watt’s, which I surveyed for him last winter and lotted off, where twenty-five years ago I played horse in the paths of a thick wood and roasted apples and potatoes in an old pigeon-place1 and gathered fruit at the pie-apple tree. A week or two after I surveyed it, it now being rotten and going to waste, I walked there and was surprised to find the place and prospect which I have described.

* * *

It is pleasant to observe any growth in a wood. There is the pitch pine field northeast of Beck Stow’s swamp, where some years ago I went a-blackberrying, and observed that the pitch pines were beginning to come in, and I have frequently noticed since how fairly they grew, dotting the plain as evenly as if dispersed by art. To-day I was aware that I walked in a pitch pine wood, which ere-long, perchance, I may survey and lot off for a wood auction and see the choppers at their work. There is also the old pigeon-place field by the Deep Cut. I remember it as an open grassy field. It is now one of our most pleasant woodland paths. In the former place, near the edge of the old wood, the young pines line each side of the path like a palisade, they grow so densely. It never rains but it pours, and so I think when I see a young grove of pitch pines crowding each other to death in this wide world. These are destined for the locomotive’s maw. These branches which it has taken so many years to mature are regarded even by the woodman as “trash.”

* * *

November 11.

I am attracted by a fence made of white pine roots. There is, or rather was, one (for it has been tipped into the gutter this year) on the road to Hubbard’s Bridge which I can remember for more than twenty years. It is almost as indestructible as a wall, and certainly requires fewer repairs. It is light, white, and dry withal, and its fantastic forms are agreeable to my eye. One would not have believed that any trees had such snarled and gnarled roots. In some instances you have a coarse network of roots as they interlaced on the surface, perhaps, of a swamp, which, set on its edge, really looks like a fence, with its paling crossing at various angles and root repeatedly growing into root, — a rare phenomenon above ground, — so as to leave open spaces, square and diamond-shaped and triangular, quite like a length of fence. It is remarkable how white and clean these roots are, and that no lichens or very few grow on them, so free from decay are they. The different branches of the roots continually grow into one another, so as to make grotesque figures, sometimes rude harps whose resonant strings of roots give a sort of musical sound when struck, such as the earth spirit might play on. Sometimes the roots are of a delicate wine-color here and there, an evening tint. No line of fence could be too long for me to study each individual stump. Rocks would have been covered with lichens by this time. Perhaps they are grown into one another that they may stand more firmly.

* * *

November 16.

I love my friends very much, but I find that it is of no use to go to see them. I hate them commonly when I am near them. They belie themselves and deny me continually.

* * *

I was pleased to-day to hear a great noise and trampling in the woods produced by some cows which came running toward their homes, which apparently had been scared by something unusual, as their ancestors might have been by wolves. I have known sheep to be scared in the same [way] and a whole flock to run bleating to me for protection.

What shall we do with a man who is afraid of the woods, — their solitude and darkness? Hat salvation is there for him? God is silent and mysterious.

* * *

November 20.

It is a common saying among country people that if you eat much fired hasty pudding it will make your hair curl. My experience, which was considerable, did not confirm this assertion.

Horace Hosmer was picking out to-day half a bushel or more of a different and better kind of cranberry, as he thought, separating them from the rest. They are very dark red, shaded with lighter; harder and more oblong, somewhat like the fruit of the sweetbriar or a Canada red plum, though I have no common cranberry to compare with them. He says that they grow apart from the others. I must see him about it. It may prove to be one more of those instances in which the farmer detects a new species and takes use of the knowledge from year to year in his profession, while the botanist expressly devoted to such investigation has failed to observe it.

The farmer, in picking over many bushels of cranberries year after year, finds at length, or has forced upon his observation a new species of that berry, and avails himself thereafter of his discovery for many years before the naturalist is aware of the fact.

* * *

December 16.

I am stuck with the difference between my feet and my hands. My feet are much nearer to foreign or inanimate matter or nature than my hands; they are more brute, they are more like the earth they tread on, they are more clod-like and lumpish, and I scarcely animate them.


January 4.

The longest silence is the most pertinent question most pertinently put. Emphatically silent. The most important questions, whose answers concern us more than any, are never put in any other way.

It is difficult for two strangers mutually well disposed so truly to bear themselves toward each other that a feeling of falseness and hollowness shall not soon spring up between them. The least anxiety to behave truly vitiates the relation. I think of those to whom I am at the moment truly related, with a joy never expressed and never to be expressed, before I fall asleep at night, though I am hardly on speaking terms with them these years. When I think of it, I am truly related to them.

It is an important difference between two characters that the one is satisfied with a happy but level success, but the other as constantly elevates his aim. Though my life is low, if my spirit looks upward habitually at an elevated angle, it is as it were redeemed. When the desire to be better than we are is really sincere, we are instantly elevated, and so far better already.

I lose my friends, of course, as much by my own ill treatment and ill valuing of them, prophaning of them, cheapening of them, as by their cheapening of themselves, till at last, when I am prepared to [do] them justice, I am permitted to deal only with memories of themselves, their ideals still surviving in me, no longer with their actual selves.

It is something to know when you are addressed by divinity and not by a common traveler. I went down cellar just now to get an armful of wood, and, passing the brick piers with my wood and candle, I heard, methought, a commonplace suggestion, but when, as it were by accident, I reverently attended to the hint, I found that it was the voice of a god who had followed me down cellar to speak to me. How many communications may we not lose through inattention.

It is remarkable how few passages, comparatively speaking, there are in the best literature of the day which betray any intimacy with nature.

* * *

February 13.

As for antiquities, one of our old deserted country roads, marked only by the parallel fences and cellar-hold with its bricks where the last inhabitant died, the victim of intemperance, fifty years ago, with its bare and exhausted fields stretching around, suggests to me an antiquity greater and more remote from the America of the newspapers than the tombs of Etruria. I insert the rise and fall of Rome in the interval. This is the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

* * *

Tuesday, February 18.

If it were not that I desire to do something here, — accomplish some work, — I should certainly prefer to suffer and die rather than be at the pains to get a living by the modes men propose.

I wish my neighbors were wilder.

* * *

April 22.

It is not the invitation which I hear, but which I feel, that I obey.

* * *

May 10.

Heard the snipe over the meadows this evening.

* * *

Wednesday, May 21.

I think that we are not commonly aware that man is our contemporary, — that in this strange, outlandish world, so barren, so prosaic, fit not to live in but merely to pass through, that even here so divine a creature as man does actually live. Man, the crowning fact, the god we know. While the earth supports so rare an inhabitant, there is somewhat to cheer us. Who shall say that there is no God, if there is a just man. It is only within a year that it has occurred to me that there is such a being actually existing on the globe. Now that I perceive that it is so, many questions assume a new aspect. We have not only the idea and vision of the divine ourselves, but we have brothers, it seems, who have this idea also. Methinks my neighbor is better than I, and his thought is better than mine. There is a representative of the divinity on earth, of [whom] all things fair and noble are to be expected. We have the material of heaven here. I think that the standing miracle to man is man. Behind the paling yonder, come rain or shine, hope or doubt, there dwells a man, an actual being who can sympathize with our sublimest thoughts.

The revelations of nature are infinitely glorious and cheering, hinting to us of a remote future, of possibilities untold; but startlingly near to us some day we find a fellow man.

The frog had eyed the heavens from his marsh, until his mind was filled with visions, and he saw more than belongs to this fenny earth. He mistrusted that he was become a dreamer and a visionary. Leaping across the swamp to his fellow, what was his joy and consolation to find that he too had seen the same sights in the heavens, he too had dreamed the same dreams!

From nature we turn astonished to this near but supernatural fact.

* * *

Friday, May 23.

Distantly related things are strangely near in fact, brush one another with their jackets. Perchance this window-seat in which we sit discoursing Transcendentalism, with only Germany and Greece stretching behind our minds, was made so deep because this was a few years ago a garrison-house, with thick log walls, bullet-proof, behind which men sat to escape the wild red man’s bullet and the arrow and the tomahawk, and bullets fired by Indians are now buried in its walls. Pythagoras seems near compared with them.

* * *

Saturday, May 24.

Our most glorious experiences are a kind of regret. Our regret is so sublime that we may mistake it for triumph. It is the painful, plaintively sad surprise of our Genius remembering our past lives and contemplating what is possible. It is remarkable that men commonly never refer to, never hint at, any crowning experiences when the common laws of their being were unsettled and the divine and eternal laws prevailed in them. Their lives are not revolutionary; they never recognize any other than the local and temporal authorities. It is a regret so divine and inspiring, so genuine, based on so true and distinct a contrast, that it surpasses our proudest boasts and the fairest expectations.

My most sacred and memorable life is commonly on awaking in the morning. I frequently awake with an atmosphere about me as if my unremembered dreams had been divine, as if my spirit had journeyed to its native place, and, in the act of reentering its native body, had diffused an elysian fragrance around.

The Genius says, “Ah! That is what you were! That is what you may yet be!” It is glorious for us to be able to regret even such an existence.

A sane and growing man revolutionizes every day. What institutions of man can survive a morning experience? A single night’s sleep, if we have indeed slumbered and forgotten anything and grown in our sleep, puts them behind us like the river Lethe. It is no unusual thing for him to see the kingdoms of this world pass away.

* * *

I am struck by the fact that, though any important individual experience is rare, though it is so rare that the individual is conscious of a relation to his maker transcending time and space and earth, though any knowledge of, or communication from, “Providence” is the rarest thing in the world, yet men very easily, regarding themselves in the gross, speak of carrying out the designs of Providence, as if he had some knowledge of Providence and his designs. Men allow themselves to associate Providence with their dull prosaic every-day thoughts of all things. That language is usurped by the stalest and deadest prose which can only report the most choice poetic experience. This “Providence” is the stalest jest in the universe. The office-boy sweeps out his office “by the leave of Providence.”

* * *

May 23.

A fine, freshening air, a little hazy, that bathes and washes everything, saving the day from extreme heat. Walked to the hills south of Wayland by the road by Deacon Farrar’s. First vista just beyond Merron’s (?) looking west down a valley, with a verdant-columned elm at the extremity of the vale and the blue hills and horizon beyond. These are the resting-places in a walk. We love to see any part of the earth tinged with blue, cerulean, the color of the sky, the celestial color. I wonder that houses are not oftener located mainly that they may command particular rare prospects, every convenience yielding to this. The farmer would never suspect what it was you were buying, and such sites would be the cheapest of any. A site where you might avail yourself of the art of nature for three thousand years, which could never be materially changed or taken from you, a noble inheritance for your children. The true sites for human dwellings are unimproved. They command no price in the market. Men will pay something to look into a travelling showman’s box, but not to look upon the fairest prospects on the earth. A vista where you have the near green horizon contrasted with the distant blue one, terrestrial with celestial earth. The prospect of a vast horizon must be accessible in our neighborhood. Where men of enlarged views may be educated. An unchangeable kind of wealth, a real estate.

* * *

Now at 8.30 o’clock p.m., I hear the dreaming of the frogs.2 So it seems to me and so significantly passes my life away. It is like the dreaming of frogs in a summer evening.

* * *

May 27.

I saw an organ-grinder this morning before a rich man’s house, thrilling the street with harmony, loosening the very paving-stones and tearing the routine of life to rags and tatters, when the lady of the house shoved up a window and in a semi-philanthropic tone inquired if he wanted anything to eat. But he, very properly, it seems to me, kept on grinding and paid no attention to her question, feeding her ears with melody unasked for. So the world shoves up its window and interrogates the poet and sets him to gauging ale casks in return. It seemed to me that the music suggested that the recompense should be as fine as the gift. It would be much nobler to enjoy the music though you paid no money for it than to presume always a beggarly relation. It is, after all, perhaps the best instrumental music that we have.

* * *

June 7.

It is certain faeryland where we live. You may walk out in any direction over the earth’s surface, lifting your horizon, and everywhere your path, climbing the convexity of the globe, leads you between heaven and earth, not away from the light of the sun and stars and the habitations of men. I wonder that I ever get five miles on my way, the walk is so crowded with events and phenomena. How many questions there are which I have not put to the inhabitants!

* * *

June 29.

I am interested to observe how old-country methods of farming resources are introduced among us. The Irish laborer, for instance, seeing that his employer is contemplating some agricultural enterprise, as ditching or fencing, suggests some old-country mode with [which] he has been familiar from a boy, which is often found to be cheaper as well as more ornamental than the common; and Patrick is allowed to accomplish the object his own way, and for once exhibits some skill and has not to be shown, but, working with a will as well as with pride, does better than ever in the old country. Even the Irishman exhibits what might be mistaken for a Yankee knack, exercising a merely inbred skill derived from the long teachings and practice of his ancestors.

I saw an Irishman building a bank of sod where his employer had contemplated building a bank wall, piling up very neatly and solidly with his spade and a line the sod taken from the rear, and coping the face at a very small angle from the perpendicular, intermingling the sods with bushes as they came to hand, which would grow and strengthen the whole. It was much more agreeable to the eye as well as less expensive, than stone would have been, and he thought that it would be equally effective as a fence and no less durable. But it is true only experience will show when the same practice may be followed in the climate and in Ireland, — whether our atmosphere is not too dry to admit of it. At any rate it was wise in the farmer thus to avail himself of any peculiar experience which his hired laborer possessed. That was what he should buy.

This is part three in a five-part series.
Read part one here, part two here, part four here, and part five here.
  1. A place where wild pigeons were netted.
  2. Thoreau afterwards learned that this was the summer note of the common toad, a sound which is harsh and discordant to most ears.