by Henry David Thoreau

Previous Chapter

July 9, 1852 - July 10, 1860

July 9, 1852. 4 a. m. To Cliffs. . . . An aurora fading into a general saffron color. At length the redness travels over partly from east to west, before sunrise, and there is little color in the east. The birds all unite to make the morning choir, sing rather faintly, not prolonging their strains. The crickets appear to have received a reinforcement during the sultry night.

There is no name for the evening red corresponding to aurora. It is the blushing foam about the prow of the sun's boat, and at eve, the same in its wake.—I do not often hear the blue bird now except at dawn.—I think we have had no clear winter skies, no skies the color of a robin's egg and pure amber . . . for some months.—These blueberries on Fair Haven have a very innocent, ambrosial taste, as if made of the ether itself, as they plainly are colored with it.

How handsome the leaves of the shrub oak, so clear and unspotted a green, so firm and enduring, glossy, uninjured by the wind, meed for mighty conquerors, lighter on the under-side, which contrast is important. . . . It must be the cuckoo that makes that half-throttled sound at night, for I saw one while he made it this morning, as he flew from an apple-tree when I disturbed him.—Those white water-lilies, what boats! I toss one into the pan half unfolded, and it floats upright like a boat. It is beautiful when half open, and also when fully expanded.

Morton, in his "Crania Americana," says, referring to Wilkinson as his authority, that vessels of porcelain of Chinese manufacture have of late been repeatedly found in the catacombs of Thebes in Egypt, some as old as the Pharaonic period, and the inscriptions on them "have been read with ease by Chinese scholars, and in three instances record the following legend, "The flower opens, and lo! another year." There is something sublime in the fact that some of the oldest written sentences should thus celebrate the coining in of spring. How many times have the flowers opened and a new year begun! Hardly a more cheering sentence could have come down to us. How old is spring, a phenomenon still so fresh! Do we perceive any decay in Nature? How much evidence is contained in this short and simple sentence respecting the former inhabitants of this globe! It is a sentence to be inscribed on vessels of porcelain, suggesting that so many years had gone before, an observation as fit then as now.

3 p. m. To Clematis Brook. The heat of to-day, as yesterday, is furnace-like. It produces a thickness almost amounting to vapor in the near horizon. The railroad men cannot work in the Deep Cut, but have come out on to the cause way, where there is a circulation of air. They tell, with a shudder, of the heat reflected from the rails, yet a breezy wind, as if it were born of the heat, rustles all leaves.—Those piles of clouds in the north, assuming interesting forms of unmeasured rocky mountains or unfathomed precipices, light-colored and even downy above, but with watery bases, portend a thunder-shower before night. Well, I can take shelter in some barn or under a bridge. It shall not spoil my afternoon.—I have scarcely heard one strain from the telegraph harp this season. Its string is rusted and slackened, relaxed, and now no more it encourages the walker. So is it with all sublunary things. Every poet's lyre loses its tension. It cannot bear the alternate contraction and expansion of the seasons.—How intense and suffocating the heat under some sunny woodsides where no breeze circulates!

The red lily with its torrid color and sun-freckled spots, dispensing, too, with the outer garment of a calyx, its petals so open and wide apart that you can see through it in every direction, tells of hot weather. It is of a handsome bell shape, so upright, and the flower prevails over every other part. It belongs not to spring.

It is refreshing to see the surface of Fair Haven rippled with wind. The waves break here quite as on the sea shore, and with like effects. This little brook makes great sands comparatively at its mouth, which the waves of the pond wash up and break upon like a sea. Bathing is an undescribed luxury. To feel the wind blow on your body, and the water flow upon you and lave you, is a rare physical enjoyment this hot day. . . .

Low hills or even hillocks which are stone-capped (have rocky summits), as this near James Baker's, remind me of mountains, which in fact they are on a small scale,—the brows of earth, round which the trees and bushes trail like the hair of eyebrows, outside bald places, templa, primitive places where lichens grow. I have some of the same sensations as if I sat on the top of the Rocky Mountains. Some low places thus give a sense of elevation.

July 9, 1854. . . . Examined a lanceolate thistle which has been pressed and has lain by a year. The papers being taken off, its head sprang up more than an inch, and the downy seeds began to fly off.

July 9, 1857. . . . p. m. Up Assabet with S———. There is now but little black willow down left on the trees. I think I see how this tree is propagated by its seeds. Its countless, minute, brown seeds, just perceptible to the naked eye in the midst of their cotton, are wafted with the cotton to the water (most abundantly about a fortnight ago), and then they drift and form a thick white scum together with other matter, especially against some alder or other fallen or drooping shrub where there is less current than usual. There within two or three days a great many germinate and show their two little roundish leaves, more or less tinging with green the surface of the scum, somewhat like grass seed in a tumbler of cotton. Many of these are drifted in amid the button-bushes, willows, and other shrubs, and the sedge along the river side, and the water falling just at this time when they have put forth little fibres, they are deposited on the mud just left bare in the shade, and thus probably a great many of them have a chance to become perfect plants. But if they do not drift into sufficiently shallow water, and are not left on the mud just at the right time, probably they perish. The mud in many such places is now green with them, though perhaps the seed has often blown thither directly through the air.—I am surprised to see dense groves of young maples an inch or more high from seed of this year. They have sprung in pure sand where the seed has been drifted and moisture enough supplied, at the water's edge. The seed, now effete, commonly lies on the surface, having sent down its rootlet into the sand.

July 10, 1840. To myself I am as pliant as an osier, and my courses seem not so easy to be calculated as that of Encke's comet, but I am powerless to bend the character of another. He is like iron in my hands. I could tame a hyena more easily than my friend. He is material which no tool of mine will work. A naked savage will fell an oak with a firebrand, and wear a hatchet out of the rock, but I cannot hew the smallest chip out of the character of my fellow to beautify or deform it.

Nothing was ever so unfamiliar and startling to me as my own thoughts.

We know men through their eyes. You might say that the eye was always original and unlike another. It is the feature of the individual, and not of the family; in twins, still different. All a man's privacy is in his eye, and its expression he cannot alter more than he can alter his character. So long as we look a man in the eye, it seems to rule the other features, and make them too original. When I have mistaken one person for another, observing only his form and carriage and inferior features, the unlikeness seemed of the least consequence, but when I caught his eye and my doubts were removed, it seemed to pervade every feature. The eye revolves on an independent pivot which we can no more control than our own will. Its axle is the axle of the soul, as the axis of the earth is coincident with the axis of the heavens.

July 10-12, 1841. . . . A slight sound at evening lifts me up by the ears, and makes life seem inexpressibly serene and grand. It may be in Uranus, or it may be in the shutter. It is the original sound of which all literature is the echo. It makes all fear superfluous. Bravery comes from further than the sources of fear.

July 10, 1851. A gorgeous sunset after rain, with horizontal bars of cloud, red sashes to the western window, barry clouds hanging like a curtain over the window of the west, damask. First there is a low arch of the storm clouds, under which is seen the clearer, fairer, serener sky and more distant sunset clouds, and under all, on the horizon's edge, heavier, massive dark clouds not to be distinguished from the mountains. How many times I have seen this kind of sunset, the most gorgeous sight in Nature. From the hill behind Minot's I see the birds flying against this red sky; one looks like a bat. Now between two stupendous mountains of the low stratum under the evening red, clothed in slightly rosaceous, amber light, through a magnificent gorge, far, far away, as perchance may occur in pictures of the Spanish coast viewed from the Mediterranean, I see a city, the eternal city of the West, the phantom city, in whose streets no traveler has trod, over whose pavement the horses of the sun have already hurried, some Salamanca of the imagination. But it lasts only for a moment, for now the changing light has wrought such changes in it that I see the resemblance no longer. A softer amber sky than in any picture. The swallows are improving this short day, twittering as they fly, the huckleberry-bird repeats his jingling strain, and I hear the notes of the song-sparrow more honest-sounding than most.—I am always struck by the centrality of the observer's position. He always stands fronting the middle of the arch, and does not suspect at first that a thousand observers from a thousand hills behold the sunset sky from equally favorable positions.

And now I turn and observe the dark masses of the trees in the east, not green, but black. While the sun was setting in the west, the trees were rising in the east.

I perceive that the low stratum of dark clouds under the red sky all dips one way, and to a remarkable degree presents the appearance of the butt ends of cannons slanted towards the sky. Such uniformity on a large scale is unexpected, and pleasant to detect, evincing the simplicity of the laws of their formation. Uniformity in the shapes of clouds of a single stratum is always to be detected, the same wind shaping clouds of the same consistency and in like positions. No doubt an experienced observer could discover the states of the upper atmosphere by studying the forms and characters of the clouds. I traced the distinct form of the cannon in seven instances, stretching over the whole length of the cloud many a mile in the horizon.

July 10, 1852. Another day, if possible, still hotter than the last. We have already had three or four such, and still no rain. The soil under the sward in the yard is dusty as an ash-heap for a foot in depth, and the young trees are suffering and dying.

2 p. m. To the North River, in front of Major Bassett's. It is with a suffocating sensation, and a slight pain in the head, that I walk the Union Turnpike where the heat is reflected from the road. The leaves of the elms on the dry highways begin to roll up. I have to lift my hat to let the air cool my head. But I find a refreshing breeze from over the river and meadow. In the hottest day you can be comfortable in the shade on the open shore of a pond or river, where a zephyr comes over the water sensibly cooled by it; that is, if the water is deep enough to cool it. I find the white melilot, Melilotus leucantha, a fragrant clover, in blossom by the roadside. We turn aside by a large rye-field near the old Lee place. The rye-fields are now quite yellow and ready for the sickle. Already there are many flavous colors in the landscape, much maturity of small seeds. The nodding heads of the rye make an agreeable maze to the eye. I hear now the huckleberry bird, the red eye, and the oven-bird. The robin, methinks, is oftener heard of late, even at noon. . . . The long, narrow, open intervals in the woods near the Assabet are quite dry now, in some parts yellow with the upright loosestrife. One of these meadows, a quarter of a mile long, by a few rods wide, narrow and winding, and bounded on all sides by maples showing the under-sides of their leaves, swamp white-oaks, with their glossy dark-green leaves, birches, etc., and full of meadow-sweet just coming into bloom, and cranberry vines, and a dry kind of grass, is a very attractive place to walk in. We undressed on this side, carried our clothes down in the stream a considerable distance, and finally bathed in earnest from the opposite side. The heat tempted us to prolong this luxury. . . . I made quite an excursion up and down the river in the water, a fluvial . . . walk. It seemed the properest highway for this weather, now in water a foot or two deep, now suddenly descending through valleys up to my neck, but all alike agreeable. Sometimes the bottom looked as if covered with large, flat, sharp-edged rocks. I could break off cakes three or four inches thick, and a foot or two square. It was a conglomeration . . . of sand and pebbles, as it were cemented with oxide of iron (?), quite red with it, iron colored to the depth of an inch on the upper-side, a hard kind of pan covering or forming the bottom in many places. . . . There are many interesting objects of study, as you walk up and down a clear river like this in the water, where you can see every inequality in the bottom, and every object on it. The breams' nests are interesting and even handsome, and the shallow water in them over the sand is so warm to my hand that I think their ova will soon be hatched; also, the numerous heaps of stones, made I know not certainly by what fish, many of them rising above the surface. There are weeds on the bottom which remind you of the sea; the radical leaves of the floating heart which I have never seen mentioned, very large, five inches long and four wide, dull claret (and green when freshest), pellucid, with waved edges, in large tufts or dimples on the bottom, oftenest without the floating leaves, like lettuce, or some kelps, or carrageen moss (?). The bottom is also scored with furrows made by the clams moving about, sometimes a rod long, and always the clam lies at one end. So this fish can change its position, and get into deeper and cooler water. I was in doubt before whether the clam made these furrows; for one, apparently fresh, that I examined, had a "mud clam" at the end, but these, which were very numerous, had living clams.—There are but few fishes to be seen. They have, no doubt, retreated to the deepest water. In one somewhat muddier place close to the shore I came upon an old pout cruising with her young. She dashed away at my approach, but the fry remained. They were of various sizes, from one third of an inch to one and a half inches, quite black and pout-shaped, except that the head was most developed in the smallest. They were constantly moving about in a somewhat circular or rather lenticular school, about fifteen or eighteen inches in diameter, and I estimated that there were at least one thousand of them. Presently the old pout came back and took the lead of her brood, which followed her, or rather gathered about her, like chickens about a hen; but this mother had so many children she didn't know what to do. Her maternal yearnings must be on a great scale. When one half of the divided school found her out they came down upon her and completely invested her like a small cloud. She was soon joined by another smaller pout, apparently her mate, and all, both old and young, began to be very familiar with me. They came round my legs and felt them with their feelers, and the old pouts nibbled my toes, while the fry half concealed my feet. Probably if I had been standing on the bank, with my clothes on, they would have been more shy. Ever and anon the old pouts dashed aside to drive away a passing bream or perch. The larger one kept circling about her charge as if to keep them together within a certain compass. If any of her flock were lost or drowned she would hardly have missed them. I wondered if there was any calling of the roll at night; whether she, like a faithful shepherdess, ever told her tale under some hawthorn in the river dales. Ever ready to do battle with the wolves that might break into her fold. The young pouts are protected then for a season by the old. Some had evidently been hatched before the others. One of these large pouts had a large velvet black spot which included the right pectoral fin,—a kind of disease which I have often observed on them.—I wonder if any Roman emperor ever indulged in such a luxury as this—of walking up and down a river in torrid weather with only a hat to shade the head. What were the baths of Caracalla to this? Now we traverse a long watery plain some two feet deep; now we descend into a dark river valley, where the bottom is lost sight of arid the water rises to our armpits; now we go over a hard iron pan; now we stoop and go under a low bough of the Salix nigra; now we slump into soft mud, amid the pads of the Nymphœa odorata, at this hour shut. On this road there is no other traveler to turn out for. We finally return to the dry land and recline in the shade of an apple-tree on a bank overlooking the meadow. When I first came out of the water the short, wiry grass was burning hot to my feet, and my skin was soon parched and dry in the sun.—I still hear the bobolink. . . . The stones lying in the sun on this hillside, where the grass has been cut, are as hot to the hand as an egg just boiled, and very uncomfortable to hold; so do they absorb the heat. Every hour do we expect a thunder-shower to cool the air, but none conies. We say they are gone down the river.

. . . St. John's-wort is perhaps the prevailing flower now. Many fields are very yellow with it. In one such I was surprised to see rutabaga turnips growing well and showing no effects of drouth, and still more surprised when the farmer . . . showed me, with his hoe, that the earth was quite fresh and moist there only an inch beneath the surface. This he thought was the result of keeping the earth loose by cultivation.

July 10, 1853. . . . The bream poised over its sandy nest on waving fin—how aboriginal! So it was poised here and watched its ova before the new world was known to the old. Still I see the little cavities of their nests along the shore.

July 10, 1854. . . . The singing birds at present are (villageous) robin, chip-bird, warbling vireo, swallows; (rural) song-sparrow, seringo, flicker, king-bird, goldfinch, link of bobolink; cherry-bird; (sylvan) red-eye, tanager, wood-thrush, chewink, veery, oven-bird, all even at mid-day, cat-bird (full strain), whippoorwill, crows.

July 10, 1856. . . . 5 p. m. Up Assabet. As I was bathing under the swamp white-oaks art; 6 p. m. heard a suppressed sound, often repeated, like perhaps the working of beer through a bunghole, which I already suspected to be produced by owls. I was uncertain whether it was far or near. Proceeding a dozen rods up stream on the south side, toward where a cat-bird was incessantly mewing, I found myself suddenly within a rod of a gray screech-owl, sitting on an alder bough, with horns erect, turning its head from side to side, and up and down, and peering at me in that same ludicrously solemn and complacent way that I had noticed in one in captivity. Another, more red, also horned, repeated the same warning sound, an apparent call to its young, about the same distance off, in another direction, on an alder. When they took to flight, they made some noise with their wings. With their short tails and squat figures they looked very clumsy, all head and shoulders. Hearing a fluttering under the alders, I drew near and found a young owl, a third smaller than the red, all gray, without obvious horns, only four or five feet distant. It flitted along two rods, and I followed it. I saw at least two or more young. . . . These birds kept opening their eyes when I moved, as if to get a clearer sight of me. The young were very quick to notice any motion of the old, and so betrayed their return by looking in that direction when they returned, though I had not heard it. Though they permitted me to come near with so much noise, as if bereft of half their senses, they at once noticed the coming and going of the old birds, even when I did not. There were four or five owls in all. I have heard a somewhat similar note further off, and louder, in the night.

July 10, 1860. . . . This cloudy, cool afternoon I was exhilarated by the mass of cheerful, bright yellowish light reflected from the sedge, Carex Pennsylvanica growing densely on hillsides laid bare within a year or two. It is of a distinct, cheerful, yellow color, even this overcast day, as if it were reflecting a bright sunlight, though no sun is visible. It is surprising how much this will light up a hillside, or upland hollow or plateau, and when, in a clear day, you look toward the sun over it late in the afternoon, the scene is incredibly bright and elysian.


Previous Chapter      

Return to the Summer Summary Return to the Henry David Thoreau Library

© 2022