by Henry David Thoreau

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Dec. 16, 1837 to Dec. 20, 1854

Dec. 16, 1837. The woods were this morning covered with thin bars of vapor, the evaporation of the leaves, according to Sprengel, which seemed to have been suddenly stiffened by the cold. In some places it was spread out like gauze over the tops of the trees, forming extended lawns, where elves and fairies held high tournament:—

⁠"Before each van
Prick forth the aery knights, and couch their spears,
Till thickest legions close."

The east was glowing with a narrow, but ill-defined crescent of light, the blue of the zenith mingling in all possible proportions with the salmon color of the horizon. And now the neighboring hilltops telegraph to us poor crawlers of the plain, the monarch's golden ensign in the east.

How indispensable to a correct study of Nature is a perception of her true meaning. The fact will one day flower out into a truth. The reason will mature and fructify what the understanding had cultivated.

Dec. 16, 1840. Speech is fractional, silence is integral.

Beauty is where it is perceived. When I see the sun shining on the woods across the pond, I think this side the richer which sees it.

The motion of quadrupeds is the most constrained and unnatural; it is angular and abrupt, except in those of the cat tribe, where undulation begins. That of birds and fishes is more graceful and independent. They move on a more inward pivot, the former by their weight or opposition to nature, the latter by their buoyancy or yielding to nature. Awkwardness is a resisting motion, gracefulness is a yielding motion. The line which would express the former is a tangent to the sphere, that which would express the latter a radius. But the subtlest, most ideal, and spiritual motion is undulation. It is produced by the most subtle element falling on the next subtlest. Rippling is a more graceful flight. If you consider it from the hilltop, you will detect in it the wings of birds endlessly repeated. The two waving lines which express flight seem copied from the ripple. There is something analogous to this in our most inward experience. In enthusiasm we undulate to the divine spiritus, as the lake to the wind.

Dec. 16, 1850. I noticed [last Sunday or the 14th] a bush covered with cocoons which were artfully concealed by two leaves wrapped round them, one still hanging by its stem, so that they looked like a few withered leaves left dangling. The worm, having first incased itself in another leaf, for greater protection folded more loosely around itself one of the leaves of the plant, taking care, however, to incase the leaf-stalk and the twig with a thick and strong web of silk. So far from its depending on the strength of the stalk, which is now quite brittle, the strongest fingers cannot break it, and the cocoon can only be got off by slipping it up and off the twig. There they hang themselves secure for the winter, proof against cold and the birds, ready to become butterflies when new leaves push forth.

The snow everywhere was covered with snow-fleas, like pepper. When you hold a mass in your hand, they skip and are gone before you know it. They are so small that they go through and through the new snow. Sometimes, when collected, they look like some powder which the hunter has spilled in the path.

Dec. 16, 1852. Observed the reflection of the snow on Pine Hill from Walden extending far beyond the true limits of a reflection quite across the pond. Also, less obviously, of pines. The sky overcast with thick scud, which in the reflection, the snow ran into.

Dec. 16, 1853. The elms covered with hoar frost seen in the east, against the morning light, are very beautiful. These days, when the earth is still bare and the weather is so warm as to create much vapor by day, are the best for these frost works.

Would you be well, see that you are attuned to each mood of nature.

Dec. 16, 1859. a. m. To Cambridge, where I read in Gerard's Herbal. His admirable though quaint descriptions are to my mind greatly superior to the modern more scientific ones. He describes not according to rule, but according to his natural delight in the plants. He brings them vividly before you, as one who has seen and delighted in them. It is almost as good as to see the plants themselves. It suggests that one cannot too often get rid of the assumption that is in our science. His leaves are leaves; his flowers, flowers; his fruit, fruit. They are colored and fragrant. It is a man's knowledge added to a child's delight. Modern botanical descriptions approach ever nearer to the dryness of an algebraic formula, as x + y = a love-letter. It is the keen joy and discrimination of a child who has just seen a flower for the first time, and comes running in with it to his friends. How much better to describe your object in fresh English words than in these conventional Latinisms! He has really seen, and smelled, and tasted, and reports his sensations.

Dec. 17, 1837. In all ages and nations we observe a leaning towards a right state of things. This may especially be seen in the life of the priest, which approaches most nearly to that of the ideal man. The druids paid no taxes, and "were allowed exemption from warfare and all other things." The clergy are even now a privileged class. In the last stage of civilization, poetry, religion, and philosophy will be one, and there are glimpses of this truth in the first.

Dec. 17, 1840. The practice of giving the feminine gender to all ideal excellences personified is a mark of refinement observable in the mythologies of even the most barbarous nations. Glory and victory even are of the feminine gender, but it takes manly qualities to gain them. Man is masculine, but his manliness (virtus) feminine. It is the inclination of brute force to moral power.

Dec. 17, 1850. I noticed, when the snow first came, that the days were very sensibly lengthened by the light reflected from the snow. Any work which required light could be pursued about half an hour longer, so we may well pray that the ground may not be laid bare by a thaw in these short winter days.

Dec. 17, 1851. The pitch-pine woods on the right of the Corner road. A piercing cold afternoon; wading in the snow. The pitch pines hold the snow well. It lies now in balls on their plumes, and in streaks on their branches, their low branches rising at a small angle and meeting each other. A sombre twilight comes through this roof of pine leaves and snow, yet in some places the sun streams in, producing the strongest contrasts of light and shade.

The winter morning is the time to see in perfection the woods and shrubs wearing their snowy and frosty dress. Even he who visits them half an hour after sunrise will have lost some of their most delicate and fleeting beauties. The trees wear their morning burden but coarsely after midday, and it no longer expresses the character of the tree. I observed that early in the morning every pine needle was covered with a frosty sheath, but soon after sunrise it was all gone. You walk in the pitch-pine woods as under a pent-house. The stems and branches of the trees look black by contrast. You wander zigzag through the aisles of the wood, where stillness and twilight reign. I do not know but a pine wood is as substantial and as memorable a fact as a friend. I am more sure to come away from it cheered than from those who are nearest to being my friends.

Improve every opportunity to express yourself in writing, as if it were your last.

When they who have aspired to be friends cease to sympathize, it is the part of religion to keep asunder.

To explain to a friend is to suppose you are not intelligent of one another. If you are not, to what purpose will you explain?

One of the best men I know often offends me by uttering made words, the very best words, of course, most smooth and gracious and fluent, a dash of polite conversation, a graceful bending, as if I were Master Kingsley, of promising parts, from the university. Oh, would you but be simple and downright, would you but cease your palaver. The conversation of gentlemen after dinner,—no words are so tedious. Never a natural or simple word or yawn. It produces an appearance of phlegm and stupidity in me, the auditor. I am suddenly the closest and most phlegmatic of mortals, and the conversation comes to naught.

My acquaintances sometimes wonder why I will impoverish myself by living aloof from this or that company, but greater would be the impoverishment if I should associate with them.

Dec. 17, 1853. While surveying in Lincoln, to-day, saw a great many, may be a hundred, silvery brown cocoons of some great moth, wrinkled and flattish, on young alders in a meadow, three or four inches long, fastened to the main stem and branches at the same time, with dry alder and fragments of fern leaves attached to and partially concealing them.

Dec. 17, 1856. p. m. Cold, with a piercing northwest wind and bare ground still. It is pretty poor picking outdoors to-day. There's but little comfort to be found. You go stump ing over bare frozen ground, sometimes clothed with curly, yellowish, withered grass, like the back of half-starved cattle late in the fall, now beating this ear, now that, to keep them warm. It is comparatively summer-like on the south side of woods and hills.

When I returned from the south the other day, I was greeted by withered shrub-oak leaves which I had not seen there. It was the most homely and agreeable object that met me. I found that I had no such friend as the shrub oak hereabouts. A farmer once asked me what they were made for, not knowing any use they served. But I can tell him that they do me good. They are my parish ministers, regularly settled. They never did any man harm that I know. Now you have the foliage of summer painted in brown. Go through the shrub oaks. All growth has ceased, no greenness meets the eye, except what there may be in the bark of this shrub. The green leaves are all turned to brown, quite dry and sapless, the little buds are sleeping at the base of the slender shrunken petioles. Who observed when they passed from green to brown? I do not remember the transition. But these leaves still have a kind of life in them. They are exceedingly beautiful in their withered state. If they hang on, it is like the perseverance of the saints. Their colors are as wholesome, their forms as perfect as ever. Now that the crowd and bustle of summer is passed, I have leisure to admire them. Their figures never weary my eye. Look at the few broad scallops in their sides. When was that pattern first cut? With what a free stroke the curve was struck! With how little, yet just enough, variety in their forms! Look at the fine bristles which arm each pointed lobe, as perfect now as when the wild bee hummed about them, or the chewink scratched beneath them. What pleasing and harmonious colors above and below! The smooth, delicately brown-tanned upper surface, acorn-color, and the very pale, some silvery or ashy, ribbed under side. How poetically, how like saints, or innocent and beneficent beings they give up the ghost! How spiritual! Though they have lost their sap, they have not given up the ghost. Rarely touched by worm or insect, they are as fair as ever.

Dec. 17, 1859. p. m. To Walden. I see on the pure white snow what looks like dust for half a dozen inches under a twig. Looking closely I find that the twig is hardhack, and the dust its slender, light-brown, chaffy-looking seed, which falls still in copious showers, dusting the snow, when I jar it, and here are the tracks of a sparrow which has jarred the twig, and picked the minute seeds a long time, making quite a hole in the snow. The seeds are so fine that it must have got more snow than seed at each pick. But they probably look large to its microscopic eyes. I see, when I jar it, that a meadow-sweet close by has quite similar, but larger seeds. This is the reason, then, that these plants rise so high above the snow, and retain their seed, dispersing it, on the least jar, over each successive layer of snow beneath them; or it is carried to distant places by the wind. What abundance and what variety in the diet of these small graminivorous birds, while I find only a few nuts still. These stiff weeds which no snow can break down, hold their provender. What the cereals are to men, these are to the sparrows. The only threshing they require is that the birds fly against their spikes or stalks. A little further I see the seed-box, Ludwigia, full of still smaller yellowish seeds. On the ridge, north, is the track of a partridge amid the shrubs. It has hopped up to the low clusters of smooth sumac berries, sprinkled the snow with them, and eaten all but a few. Also, here only, or where it has evidently jarred them down (whether intentionally or not, I am not sure), are the large oval seeds of the stiff-stalked lespedeza, which I suspect it ate with the sumac berries. There is much solid food in them. When the snow is deep, the birds can easily pick the latter out of the heads, as they stand in the snow.

Dec. 18, 1852. p. m. To Anursnack. Very cold, windy day. Loring's Pond beautifully frozen. (This the first skating.) So polished the surface, I took many parts of it for water. It was waved or watered with a slight dust, nevertheless. Cracked into large squares, like the faces of a reflector, it was so exquisitely polished that the sky and dun-colored scudding clouds, with mother-o'-pearl tints, were reflected in it as in the calmest water. I slid over it with a little misgiving, mistaking the ice before me for water. Still the little ruby-crowned birds about.

Dec. 18, 1856. 12 m. Start for Amherst, N. H. A very cold day. Thermometer at eight a. m., 8°, and I hear of others very much lower at an earlier hour, 2° at 11.45. The last half the route from Groton Junction to Nashua is along the Nashua river mostly. This river looks less interesting than the Concord. It appears even more open, that is, less wooded (?). At any rate, the banks are more uniform, and I notice none of our meadows on it. At Nashua, hire a horse and sleigh, and ride to Amherst, eleven miles, against a strong northwest wind, this bitter cold afternoon. At my lecture, the audience attended closely, and I was satisfied. That is all I ask or expect generally. Not one spoke to me afterward, nor needed they. I have no doubt they liked it in the main, though none of them would have dared say so, provided they were conscious of it. Generally, if I can only get the ears of an audience, I do not care whether they say they like my lecture or not. I think I know as well as they can tell. At any rate, it is none of my business, and it would be impertinent for me to inquire. The stupidity of most of these country towns, not to include the cities, is in their infantile innocence. Lectured in basement (vestry) of the orthodox church, and, I trust, helped to undermine it. I was told to stop at the United States Hotel; an old inhabitant had never heard of it, but I found the letters on a sign without help. It was the ordinary, unpretending (?), desolate-looking country tavern. The landlord apologized to me because there was to be a ball there that night, which would keep me awake, and it did.

Dec. 18, 1859. Rain. It rains but little this afternoon, though there is no sign of fair weather. It is a lichen day. The pitch pines are very inspiriting to behold. Their green is as much enlivened and freshened as that of the lichens. It suggests a sort of sunlight on them, though not even a patch of clear sky is to be seen to-day. As dry and olive or slate-colored lichens are of a fresh and living green, so the already green pine needles have acquired a far livelier tint, as if they enjoyed this moisture as much as the lichens do. They seem to be lit up more than when the sun falls on them. Their trunks and those of trees generally, being wet, are very black, and the bright lichens on them are so much the more remarkable. Apples are thawed now, and are very good. Their juice is the best kind of bottled cider that I know. They are all good in this state, and your jaws are the cider press. The oak woods a quarter of a mile off appear more uniformly red than ever. The withered leaves, being thoroughly saturated with moisture, are of a livelier color, and they are not only redder for being wet, but through the obscurity of the mist one leaf runs into another, and the whole mass makes one impression.

Dec. 19, 1837. Hell itself may be contained within the compass of a spark.

Dec. 19, 1840. This plain sheet of snow which covers the ice of the pond is not such a blankness as is unwritten, but such as is unread. All colors are in white. It is such simple diet to my senses as the grass and the sky. There is nothing fantastic in them. Their simple beauty has sufficed men from the earliest times. They have never criticised the blue sky and the green grass.

Dec. 19, 1850. The witch hazel is covered with fruit, and droops over gracefully, like a willow, the yellow foundation of its flowers still remaining.

Dec. 19, 1851. In all woods is heard now, far and near, the sound of the woodchopper's axe; a twilight sound now in the night of the year, as if men had stolen forth in the arctic night to get fuel to keep their fires a-going.

The sound of the axes far in the horizon is like the dropping of the eaves. Now the sun sets suddenly without a cloud, and with scarcely any redness following, so pure is the atmosphere, only a faint rosy blush along the horizon.

Dec. 19, 1854. p. m. Skated half mile up Assabet, and then to foot of Fair Haven Hill. This is the first tolerable skating. I am surprised to find how rapidly and easily I get along, how soon I am at this brook, or that bend in the river, which it takes me so long to reach on the bank or by water. I can go more than double the usual distance before dark.

Near the island I saw a muskrat close by, swimming in an open reach. He was always headed up stream, a great proportion of the head out of water, and his whole length visible, though the root of the tail is about level with the water. It is surprising how dry he looks, as if that back was never immersed in the water. Off Clamshell, I heard and saw a large flock of Fringilla linaria over the meadow. Suddenly they turn aside in their flight, and dash across the river to a large, white birch, fifteen rods off, which plainly they had distinguished so far. I afterward saw many more in the Potter swamp up the river. They were commonly brown, or dusky above, streaked with yellowish white or ash, and more or less white or ash beneath. Most had a crimson crown or frontlet, and a few a crimson neck and breast, very handsome. Some, with a bright crimson crown, had clean white breasts. I suspect that these were young males. They keep up an incessant twittering, varied from time to time with some mewing notes. Occasionally, for some unknown reason, they will all suddenly dash away with that universal loud note (twitter), like a bag of nuts. They are busily clustered in the tops of the birches, picking the seeds out of the catkins, and sustain themselves in all kinds of attitudes, sometimes head downwards, while about this. Common as they are now, and were winter before last, I saw none last winter.

Dec. 19, 1859. When a man is young, and his constitution and body have not acquired firmness, that is, before he has arrived at middle age, he is not an assured inhabitant of the earth, and his compensation is that he is not quite earthy. The greater uncertainty of his fate seems to ally him to a nobler race of beings, to whom he in part belongs, or with whom he is in communication. The young man is a demigod, he is but half here, he knows not the men of this world, the powers that be. They know him not. Prompted by the reminiscence of that other sphere from which he has so lately arrived, his actions are unintelligible to his seniors. He bathes in light. He is interesting as a stranger from another sphere. He really thinks and talks about a larger sphere of existence than this world. It takes him forty years to accommodate himself to the conditions of this world. This is the age of poetry. Afterward he may be the president of a bank, and go the way of all flesh. But a man of settled views, whose thoughts are few and hardened like his bones, is truly mortal, and his only resource is to say his prayers.

Dec. 20, 1840. My home is as much of nature as my heart embraces. If I only warm my house, then is that only my home. But if I sympathize with the heats and colds, the sounds and silence of nature, and share the repose and equanimity that reign around me in the fields, then are they my house, as much as if the kettle sang and fagots crackled, and the clock ticked on the wall.

I rarely read a sentence which speaks to my muse as nature does. Through the sweetness of his verse, without regard to the sense, I have communion with Burns. His plaint escapes through the flexure of his verses. It was all the record it admitted.

Dec. 20, 1851. To Fair Haven Hill and plain below. Saw a large hawk circling over a pine wood below me, and screaming, apparently that he might discover his prey by their flight. Traveling ever by wider circles, what a symbol of the thoughts; now soaring, now descending, taking larger and larger circles, or smaller and smaller. It flies not directly whither it is bound, but advances by circles, like a courtier of the skies. No such noble progress! How it comes round, as with a wider sweep of thought! But the majesty is in the imagination of the beholder, for the bird is intent on its prey. Circling and ever circling, you cannot divine which way it will incline, till perchance it drives down straight as an arrow to its mark. It rises higher above where I stand, and I see with beautiful distinctness its wings against the sky, primaries and secondaries, and the rich tracery of the outline of the latter (?), its inner wings or wing-linings, within the outer, like a great moth seen against the sky; a will-o'-the-wind, following its path through the vortices of the air; the poetry of motion, not as preferring one place to another, but enjoying each as long as possible, most gracefully thus surveying new scenes, and revisiting the old. How bravely he came round one of those parts of the wood which he had not surveyed, taking in a new segment, annexing new territories. Without "Heave yo," it trims its sail. It goes about without the creaking of a block. That America, yacht of the air, that never makes a tack, though it rounds the globe itself; takes in and shake out its reefs without a flutter, its sky-scrapers all under its control; holds up one wing, as if to admire, and sweeps off this way, then holds up the other, and sweeps off that way. If there are two concentrically circling, it is such a regatta as Southampton waters never witnessed. Flights of imagination! Coleridgean thoughts! So a man is said to rise in his thought ever to fresh woods and pastures new.

Red, white, and green, and in the distance dark brown, are the colors of the winter landscape. I view it now from the cliffs. The red shrub oaks on the white ground of the plain beneath make a pretty scene. Most walkers are pretty effectually shut up by the snow.

It is no doubt a good lesson for the woodchopper, his long day in the woods, and he gets more than his half-dollar a cord.

Say the thing with which you labor. It is a waste of time for the writer to use his talents merely. Be faithful to your genius. Write in the strain that interests you most. Consult not the popular taste.

A clump of white pines seen far westward over the shrub-oak plain which is now lit up by the setting sun, a soft feathery grove, with their gray stems indistinctly seen, like human beings come to their cabin door, standing expectant on the edge of the plain, inspires me with a mild humanity. The trees indeed have hearts. The sun seems to send its farewell ray far and level over the copses to them, and they silently receive it with gratitude, like a group of settlers with their children. The pines impress me as human. A slight vaporous cloud floats high over them, while in the west the sun goes down apace behind glowing pines and golden clouds which like mountains skirt the horizon. Nothing stands up more free from blame in this world than a pine-tree.

The dull and blundering behavior of clowns will as surely polish the writer at last, as the criticism of men of thought.

Our country is broad and rich, for here within twenty miles of Boston I can stand in a clearing in the woods, and look a mile or more over the shrub oaks to the distant pine copses and horizon of uncut woods, without a house or road or cultivated field in sight.

Go out before sunrise, or stay out till sunset. It is wonderful, wonderful, the unceasing demand that Christendom makes on you, that you speak from a moral point of view. Though you be a babe, the cry is, repent, repent. The Christian world will not admit that a man has a just perception of any truth unless at the same time he cries, "Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner."

What made the hawk mount? Did he not fill himself with air? Before you were aware of it, he had mounted by his spiral path into the heavens.

Dec. 20, 1854. 9 a. m. To Hill. Said to be the coldest morning as yet. The river appears to be frozen everywhere. Where was water last night, is a firm bridge of ice this morning. The snow which has blown upon the ice has taken the form of regular star-shaped crystals an inch in diameter. Sometimes these are arranged in the form of a spear three feet long, quite straight. I see the mother-o'-pearl tints now at sunrise on the clouds high over the eastern horizon, before the sun has risen above the low bank in the east. The sky in the eastern horizon has that same greenish, vitreous, gem-like appearance which it has at sundown, as if it were of perfectly clear glass, with the green tint of a large mass of glass. Here are some crows already seeking their breakfast in the orchard, and I hear a red squirrel's reproof. The woodchoppers are hastening to their work afar off, walking fast to keep warm, before the sun has risen, their ears and hands well covered, the dry cold snow squeaking under their feet. They will be warmer after they have been at work an hour. p. m. Skated to Fair Haven with C. C's skates are not the best, and beside, he is far from an easy skater, so that, as he said, it was killing work for him. Time and again the perspiration actually dropped from his fore head upon the ice, and it froze in long icicles on his beard. Yet he kept up his spirits and his fun. It has been a glorious winter day; its elements so simple, the sharp, clear air, the white snow everywhere covering the earth, and the polished ice. Cold as it is, the sun seems warmer on my back even than in summer, as if its rays met with less obstruction. And then the air is so beautifully still, not an insect in it, hardly a leaf to rustle. If there is a grub out, you are sure to detect it on the snow or ice. The shadows of the Clamshell hills are beautifully blue, as I look back half a mile at them, and in some places where the sun falls on it, the snow has a pinkish tinge.

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