Henry David Thoreau.

Autumn: from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau online

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Oct. 17, 1860. While the man that killed
my iyiix thinks, as do many others, that it came
out of a menagerie, and the naturalists call it
the Canada lynx, and at the White Mountains
they call it the Siberian lynx, in each case forget-
ting or ignoring the fact that it belongs here, I
call it the Concord lynx.

Oct. 18, 1840. The era of greatest change is
to the subject of it the condition of greatest in-
yariableness. The longer the lever, the less per-
ceptible its motion. It is the slowest pulsation
which is the most vital. I am independent of
the change I detect. My most essential progress
must be to me a state of absolute rest. So in
geology we are nearest to discovering the true
causes of the revolutions of the globe, when we
allow them to consist with a quiescent state of
the elements. We discover the causes of all
past change in the present invariable order of
the imiverse. The pulsations are so long that
in the interval there is almost a stagnation of
life. The first cause of the universe makes the
least noise. Its pulse has beat but once, is now
beating. The greatest appreciable revolutions
are the work of the light-footed air, the stealthy-
paced water, and the subterranean fire. The



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122 AUTUMN.

wind makes the desert without a rustle. To
every being, consequently, its own first cause is
an invisible and inconceivable agent.

Some questions which are put to me are as if
I should ask a bird what she will do when her
nest is built, and her brood reared.

I cannot make a disclosure. You should see
my secret. Let me open my doors never so
wide, still within and behind them, where it is
unopened, does the sun rise and set, and day
and night alternate. No fruit will ripen on the
common.

Oct. 18, 1855. How much beauty in decay !
I pick up a white-oak leaf, dry and stiff, but
yet mingled red and green, October-like, whose
pulpy part some insect has eaten, beneath, expos-
ing the delicate network of its veins. It is
very beautiful held up to the light ; such work
as only an insect eye could perform. Yet, per-
chance, to the vegetable kingdom* such a revela-
tion of ribs is as repulsive as the skeleton in the
animal kingdom. In each case, it is some little
gourmand working for another end, that reveals
the wonders of nature. There are countless oak
leaves in this condition now, and also with a
submarginal line of network exposed.

Oct. 18, 1856. Eain all night and half this
day. P. M. A-chestnutting, down turnpike and
across to Britton's. It is a rich sight, that of



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AUTUMN. 123

a large chestnut tree, with a dome-shaped top,
where the yellow leaves have been thinned out
(for most now strew the ground evenly as a car-
pet throughout the chestnut woods, and so save
some seed ), all richly rough with great brown
burrs which are opened into several segments, so
as to show the wholesome-colored nuts peeping
forth, ready to fall on the slightest jar. The in-
dividual nuts are very interesting, and of various
forms, according to the season and the number
in a burr. They are a pretty fruit, thus com-
pactly stowed away in their bristly chest. Three
is the regular number, and there is no room to
spare. The two outside nuts have each one con-
vex side without, and one flat side within. The
middle nut has two flat sides. Sometimes there
are several more in a burr, but this year the
burrs are small, and there are not commonly
more than two good nuts, very often only one,
the middle one, both sides of which will then be
convex, each bulging out into a thin, abortive,
mere reminiscence of a nut, all shell, beyond it.
The base of each nut, where it was joined to the
burr, is marked with an irregular dark figure on
a light ground, oblong or crescent-shaped, com-
monly like a spider or other insect with a dozen
legs, while the upper or small end tapers into a
little white woolly spire crowned with a star, and
the whole upper slopes of the nuts are covered



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124 AUTUMN.

with the same hoary wool which reminds you of
the frosts on whose advent they peep forth.
Within this thick, prickly burr, the nuts are
about as safe, until they are quite mature, as a
porcupine behind its spines. Yet I see where
the squirrels have gnawed through many closed
burrs, and left the pieces on the stmnps. There
are sometimes two meats within one chestnut
shell, divided transversely, and each covered by
its separate brown-ribbed skin, as if nature had
smuggled the seed of one more tree into this chest.
Men commonly exaggerate the theme. Some
themes they think are significant, and others in-
significant. I feel that my life is very homely,
my pleasures very cheap ; joy and sorrow, suc-
cess and failure, grandeur and meanness, and
indeed most words in the English language, do
not mean for me what they do for my neighbors.
I see that they look with compassion on me, that
they think it is a mean and unfortunate destiny
which makes me walk in these fields and woods
so much, and sail on this river alone. But so
long as I find here the only real elysium, I can-
not hesitate in my choice. My work is writing,
and I do not hesitate, though no subject is too
trivial for me, tried by the ordinary standards.
The theme is nothing, the life is everything.
All that interests the reader is the depth and
intensity of the life exerted. We touch our



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AUTUMN. 125

subject but by a point which has no breadth, but
the pyramid of our experience, our interest in it,
rests on us by a broader or narrower base ; that
is, man is all in all, nature nothing but as she
draws him out and reflects him. GKve me sim-
ple, cheap, and homely themes.

Oct. 18, 1859. Why can we not oftener re-
fresh one another with original thoughts? If
the fragrance of the Dicksonia fern is so grate-
ful and suggestive to us, how much more refresh-
ing and encouraging, re-creating, would be fresh
and fragrant thoughts communicated to us from
a man's experience. I want none of his pity
nor sympathy in the common sense, but that he
should emit and communicate to me his essential
fragrance, that he should not be forever repent-
ing and going to church (when not otherwise
sinning), but as it were going a-huckleberrying
in the fields of thought, and enriching all the
world with his visions and his joys.

Why flee so soon to the theatres, lecture-
rooms, and museums of the city? If you will
stay here awhile, I will promise you strange
sights. You shall walk on water. All these
brooks and rivers and ponds shall be your high-
way. You shall see the whole earth covered a
foot or more deep with purest white crystals in
which you slump or over which you glide, and
all the trees and stubble glittering in icy armor.



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126 AUTUMN.

Oct 19, 1840. My friend dwells in the east-
em horizon as rich as an eastern city there.
There he sails all lonely under the edge of the
sky ; but thoughts go out silently from me, and
belay him, till at length he rides in my road-
stead. But never does he fairly come to anchor
in my harbor. Perhaps I afford no good an-
chorage. He seems to move in a burnished
atmosphere, while I peer in upon him from sur-
rounding spaces of Cimmerian darkness. His
house is incandescent to my eye, while I have
no house, but only a neighborhood to his.

Oct 19, 1855. Talking with BeUew [?] this
evening about Fourierism and communities, I
said that I suspected any enterprise in which
two were engaged together. But, said he, it is
difficult to make a stick stand, unless you slant
two or more against it. Oh, no, I answered,
you may split its lower end into three, or drive
it single into the ground, which is the best way,
but men, when they start on a new enterprise,
not only figuratively, but really, pull up stakes.
When the sticks prop one another, none, or only
one, stands erect.

Oct 19, 1856. p. M. Conantum. Now and
for some weeks is the time for flocks of spar-
rows of various kinds flitting from bush to bush
and tree to tree (and both bushes and trees
are thinly leaved or bare), and from one seared



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AUTUMN. 127

meadow to another. They are mingled together
and their notes even, being faint, are, as well
as their colors and motions, much alike. The
sparrow youth are on the wing. They are still
further concealed by their resemblance in color
to the gray twigs and stems which are now be-
ginning to be bare.

I have often noticed the inquisitiveness of
birds, as the other day of a sparrow, whose
motions I should not have supposed had any
reference to me, if I had not watched it from
first to last. I stood on the edge of a pine and
birch wood. It flitted from seven or eight rods
distant to a pine within a rod of me, where it
hopped about stealthily and chirped awhile, then
flew as many rods the other side, and hopped
about there awhile, then back to the pine again,
as near to me as it dared, and again to its first
position, very restless all the while. Generally
I should have supposed that there was more than
one bird, or that it was altogether accidental,
that the chipping of this sparrow had no refer-
ence to me, for I could see nothing peculiar
about it. But when I brought my glass to bear
on it, I found that it was almost steadily eyeing
me, and was all alive with excitement.

Oct. 19, 1858. A remarkably warm day.
74^ + at 1 p. M. Ride to Sam Barrett's mill.
Am pleased again to see the cobweb drapery of



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128 AUTUMN.

the mill. Each fine line, hanging in festoons
from the timbers overhead, and on the sides, and
on the discarded machinery lying about, is cov-
ered and greatly enlarged by a coating of meal,
like the twigs under thin ridges of snow in
winter. It is like the tassels and dimity in a
lady's bed-chamber, and I pray that the cobwebs
may not have been brushed away from the mill
which I visit. It is as if I were aboard a man-
of-war, and this were the fine rigging, the sails
being taken in. AU things in the mill wear
this drapery, down to the miller's hat and coat.
Barrett's apprentice, it seems, makes trays of
black birch and of red maple in a dark room
imder the mill. I was pleased to see the work
done here, a wooden tray is so handsome. You
could count the circles of growth on the end
of the tray, and the dark heart of the tree was
seen at each end above, producing a semicircular
ornament. It was a satisfaction to be reminded
that we may so easily make our own trenchers
as well as fill them. To see the tree reappear
on the table instead of going to the fire or some
equally coarse use is some compensation for
having it cut down. I was the more pleased
with the sight of these trays, because the tools
used were so simple, as they were made by hand,
not by machinery. They may make equally
good pails with the hand-made ones, and cheaper



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AUTUMN. 129

as well as faster, at the pail factory, but th&t in-
terests me less because the man is turned partly
into a machine there himself. In the other
case, the workman's relation to his work is more
poetic. He also shows more dexterity and is
more of a man. You come away from the great
factory saddened, as if the chief end of man
were to make pails ; but in the case of the coun-
tryman who makes a few by hand rainy days,
the relative importance of human life and of
pails is preserved, and you come away thinking
of the simple and helpful life of the man, and
would fain go to making pails yourself. When
labor is reduced to turning a crank, it is no
longer amusing nor truly profitable. Let the
business become very profitable in a pecuniary
sense, and so be " driven," as the phrase is, and
carried on on a large scale, and the man is sunk
in it, whUe only the pail or tray floats ; we are
interested in it only in the same way as the pro-
prietor or company is.

Oct. 20, 1840. My friend is the apology for
my life. In him are the spaces which my orbit
traverses.

There is no quarrel between the good and the
bad, but only between the bad and the bad. In
the former case there is inconsistency merely, in
the latter a vicious consistency.

Men chord sometimes as the flute and the



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130 AUTUMN.

pumpkin vine, a perfect chord, a harmony, but
no melody. They are not of equal fineness of
tone. For the most part I find that in another
man and myself the keynote is not the same, so
that there are no perfect chords in our gamuts.
But if we do not chord by whole tones, never-
theless his sharps are sometimes my flats, and
so we play some very difficult pieces together,
though the sameness at last fatigues the ear.
We never rest on a full natural note, but I
sacrifice my naturalness, and he his. We play
no tune through, only chromatic strains, or trill
upon the same note till our ears ache.

Oct. 20, 1852. The clouds have lifted in the
northwest, and I see the mountains in sunshine
(aU the more attractive from the cold I feel
here), with a tinge of purple on them, вАФ a cold,
but memorable and glorious outline. This is an
advantage of mountains in the horizon; they
show you fair weather from the midst of foul.
Many a man, when I tell him that I have been
upon a mountain, asks if I took a glass with me.
No doubt I could have seen further with a glass,
and particular objects more distinctly; could
have counted more meeting-houses ; but this has
nothing to do with the peculiar beauty and
grandeur of the view which an elevated position
affords. It was not to see a few particular ob-
jects as if they were near at hand, as I had been



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AUTUMN. 131

accustomed to see them, that I ascended the
mountain, but to see an infinite variety far and
near, in their relation to each other, thus re-
duced to a single picture. The facts of science
in comparison with poetry are wont to be as
vulgar as looking from a mountain with a tele-
scope. It is a counting of meeting-houses.

Oct. 20, 1854. Saw the sun rise from the
mountain top [Wachusett]. Soon after sunrise
I saw the pyramidal shadow of the mountain
reaching quite across the State, its apex resting
on the Green or Hoosac mountains, appearing
as a deep-blue section of a cone there. It rap-
idly contracted, and its apex approached the
mountain itself. When about three miles dis-
tant, the whole conical shadow was very distinct.
The shadow of the mountain makes some min-
utes' difference in the time of sunrise to the in-
habitants of Hubbardston, a few miles west.

Oct. 20, 1855. I have collected and split up
now quite a pile of driftwood, rails and riders
and stems and stumps of trees, perhaps one half
or three fourths of a tree. It is more amusing
not only to collect this with my boat, and bring
it from the river on my back, but to split it also,
than it would be to speak to a farmer for a load
of wood, and to saw and split that. Each stick
I deal with has a history, and I read it as I am
handling it, and last of all, I remember my ad-



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182 AUTUMN.

ventures in getting it, while it is burning in the
"winter evening. That is the most interesting
part of its history. JVhen I am splitting it, I
study the effects of water on it, and, if it is a
stump, the curiously winding grain by which it
separates into so many prongs, how to take ad-
vantage of its grain, and split it most easily. I
find that a dry oak stump will split most easily
in the direction of its diameter, not at right an-
gles with it, or along its circles of growth. I
got out some good knees for a boat. Thus one
half the value of my wood is enjoyed before it
is housed, and the other half is equal to the
whole value of an equal quantity of the wood
which I buy.

Some of my acquaintances have been wonder-
ing why I took all this pains, bringing some
nearly three miles by water, and have suggested
various reasons for it. I tell them, in my de-
spair of making them imderstand me, that it is
a profound secret, which it has proved, yet I did
hint that one reason was that I wanted to get it.
I take some satisfaction in eating my food, as
well as in being nourished by it. I feel well at
dinner time, as well as after it. The world will
never find out why you don't love to have your
bed tucked up for you, why you will be so per-
verse. I enjoy more, drinking water at a clear
spring, than out of a goblet at a gentleman's



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AUTUMN. 138

table. I like best the bread which I have
baked, the garment which I have made, the
shelter I have constructed, the fuel I have gath-
ered. It is always a recommendation to me to
know that a man has ever been poor, has been
regularly bom into this world, knows the lan-
guage. I require to be assured of certain phi-
losophers that they have once been barefooted,
footsore, have eaten a crust because they had
nothing better, and know what sweetness resides
in it. I have met with some barren accom-
plished gentlemen who seemed to have been at
school all their lives, and never had a vacation
to live in. Oh, if they could only have been
stolen by the gypsies, and carried far beyond
the reach of their guardians ! They had better
have died in their infancy, and been buried un-
der the leaves, their lips besmeared with black-
berries, and cock robin for their sexton.

Oct. 20, 1856. I think that all spiders can
walk on water, for when last summer I knocked
one off my boat by chance, he ran swiftly back to
the boat and climbed up, as if more to avoid the
fishes than the water. This would account for
those long lines stretched low over the water
from one grass-stem to another. I see one of
them now, five or six feet long, and only three or
four inches above the surface. It is remarkable
that there is no perceptible sag to it, weak as
the line must be.



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134 AUTUMN.

Oct 20, 1857. p. M. To the Easterbrook
country. I had gone but little way on the old
Carlisle road when I saw Brooks Clark, who is
now about eighty, and bent like a bow, hasten-
ing along the road, barefooted as usual, with an
axe in his hand, in haste perhaps on account of
the cold wind on his bare feet. When he got
up to me, I saw that beside the axe in one hand,
he had his shoes in the other, filled with knurly
apples and a dead robin. He stopped and
talked with me a few moments; said that we
had had a noble autumn and ihight now expect
some cold weather. I asked if he had found
the robin dead. No, he said, he found it with
its wing broken, and killed it. He also added
that he had found some apples in the woods,
and as he had not anything to carry them in, he
put them in his shoes. They were queer looking
trays to carry fruit in. How many he got in
along toward the toes, I don't know. I noticed,
too, that his pockets were stuffed with them.
His old frock coat was hanging in strips about
the skirts, as were his pantaloons about his
naked feet. He appeared to have been out on a
scout this gusty afternoon to see what he could
find, as the youngest boy might. It pleased me
to see this cheery old man, with such a feeble
hold on life, bent almost double, thus enjoying
the evening of his days. Far be it from me



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AUTUMN. 136

to call it avarice or penury, this childlike de-
light in finding something in the woods or fields,
and carrying it home in the October evening, as
a trophy to be added to his winter's stores. Oh,
no, he was happy to be nature's pensioner still,
and bird-like to pick up his living. Better his
robin than your turkey, his shoes full of apples
than your barrels full. They will be sweeter,
and suggest a better tale. He can afford to tell
how he got them, and I to listen. There is an
old wife, too, at home^ to share them, and hear
how they were obtained; like an old squirrel
shuffling to his hole with a nut. Far less
pleasing to me the loaded wain, more suggestive
of avarice and of spiritual penury. THs old
man's cheeriness was worth a thousand of the
church's sacraments and memento moris. It
was better than a prayerful mood. It proves
to me old age as tolerable, as happy, as infancy.
I was glad of an occasion to suspect that this
afternoon he had not been at work^ but living
somewhat after my own fashion (though he did
not explain the axe), and been out to see what
nature had for him, and was now hastening
home to a burrow he knew of, where he could
warm his old feet. If he had been a young
man he would probably have thrown away his
apples, and put on his shoes for shame when he
saw me coming, but old age is manlier. It has



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136 AUTUMN.

learned to Kve, makes fewer apologies, like in-
fancy. This seems a very manly man. I have
known him within a few years building stone
wall by himself, barefooted.

What a wild and rich domain that Easter-
brook country 1 Not a cultivated, hardly a cul-
tivable field in it, and yet it delights all natural
persons, and feeds more still. Such great rocky
and moist tracts, which daunt the farmer, are
reckoned as unimproved land, and therefore
worth but little ; but think of the miles of huc-
kleberries, and of barberries, and of wild apples,
so fair both in flower and fruit, resorted to by
men and beasts, Clark, Brown, Melvin, and the
robins. There are barberry bushes or clumps
there, behind which I could actually pick two
bushels of berries without being seen by you on
the other side. They are not a quarter picked
at last by all creatures together. I walk for
two or three miles, and still the clumps of bar-
berries, great sheaves with their wreaths of
scarlet fruit, show themselves before me and on
every side.

Oct. 21, 1852. To Second Division Brook
and Ministerial Swamp. I find caddis -cases
with worms in Second Division Brook; and
what mean those little piles of yellow sand on
dark-colored stones at the bottom of the swift-
running water, kept together and in place by



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AUTUMN. 137

some kind of gluten, and looking as if sprin-
kled on the stones, one eighteenth of an inch
in diameter? These caddis-worms build a little
case around themselves, and sometimes attach a
few dead leaves to disguise it, and then fasten
it slightly to some swaying grass-stem or blade
at the bottom in swift water, and these are their
quarters till next spring. This reminds me that
winter does not put his rude fingers in the bot-
tom of the brooks. When you look into them,
you see various dead leaves floating or resting
on the bottom, and you do not suspect that some
are the disguises which the caddis-worms have
borrowed.

Oct. 21, 1857. I see many myrtle birds now
about the house, this forenoon, on the advent of
cooler weather. They keep flying up against
the house and the window, and fluttering there
as if they would come in, or alight on the wood-
pile or the pump. They would commonly be
mistaken for sparrows, but show more white
when they fly, beside the yellow on the rump
and sides of breast, seen near to, and two white
bars on the wings ; chubby birds.

p. M. Up Assabet. Cool and windy. Those
who have put it off thus long make haste now
to collect what apples were left out, and dig
their potatoes before the ground shall freeze
hard. Now again as in the spring we begin to



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138 AUTUMN.

look for sheltered and sunny places where we
may sit. I cannot go by a large dead swamp
white-oak log this cool evening, but with no
little exertion get it aboard, and some blackened
swamp white^ak stumps whose earthy parts are
all gone. As I am paddling home swiftly be-
fore the northwest wind, absorbed in my wooding,
I see, this cool and grayish evening, that peculiar
yellow light in the east, from the sun a little
before setting. It has just come out beneath a
great cold slate^jolored cloud that occupies most
of the western sky, as smaller ones the eastern,
and now its rays, slanting over the hill in whose
shadow I float, fall on the eastern trees and hills
with a thin yellow light like a clear yellow wine ;
but somehow it reminds me that now the hearth-
side is getting to be a more comfortable place
than out-of-doors. Before I get home the sun
has set, and a cold white light in the west suc-
, ceeded.

Is not the poet bound to write his own biog-
raphy? Is there any other work for him but
a good journal ? We do not wish to know how
his imaginary hero, but how he the actual hero,
lived from day to day.

That big swamp white-oak limb or tree which
I found prostrate in the swamp was longer than
my boat, and tipped it considerably. One whole



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