Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Cows in the river

‘I find many strawberries deep in the grass of the meadow near this Hosmer Spring; then proceed on my way with reddened and fragrant fingers, till it gets washed off at new springs. It is always pleasant to go over the bare brow of Lupine Hill and see the river and meadows thence. It is exceedingly sultry this afternoon, and few men are abroad. The cow’s stand up to their bellies in the river, lashing their sides with their tails from time to time.’ This is the great American philosopher naturalist, Henry D. Thoreau, born two centuries ago today, waxing lyrical in his daily journal. Much of the material in all 47 diaries he left behind were published in 1906 in 14 volumes (freely available online). However, a new and fully annotated edition of all the diary material is being published by Princeton University Press, albeit rather slowly. In the interim, however, images of many of the journal manuscripts have been made available online, along with transcripts.

Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on 12 July 1817. He studied at Harvard but left with an undistinguished record. On returning to Concord, he and his brother John set up a progressive school. It operated for several years until John, having contracted tetanus from a cut, died in 1842. Some years earlier, in 1837, Thoreau had been introduced to the distinguished poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson who had moved to Concord, and he had allowed Thoreau to use his library. It was Emerson who encouraged young Thoreau in his writing, and who introduced him to other local writers and thinkers, many of whom followed Transcendentalism, a philosophy of finding insight through personal intuition rather than religious doctrine. Some of Thoreau’s first writings appeared in the Transcendentalist magazine, The Dial. In 1841, Thoreau moved into the Emerson house, acting as a caretaker and children’s tutor.

In 1845, with permission from Emerson, Thoreau cut down some trees on Emerson’s land, Walden Pond, and built a timber hut. There he lived for more than two years in a simple manner, occasionally working at his family’s pencil factory or as a land surveyor, but generally devoting his time to philosophical and literary interests, in particular a a memoir about a canoe trip he had taken with his brother John (published in 1849 as A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers). Thoreau returned to Emerson’s house for a couple of years, and then lived in his parent’s house, but the period at Walden Pond was to prove a formative experience for him. In 1854, he published Walden; or, Life in the Woods, in which he recommended simple living in natural surroundings, closely in touch with nature. Though a modest success at the time, the book has since become an American classic.

In his later years, Thoreau became far more focused on botany than on Transcendentalism. He also was outspoken against slavery, and helped with a clandestine network that helped escaped slaves make their way to Canada. He died relatively young, in 1862, of tuberculosis. Further biographical information is readily available online at The Thoreau Society, The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau (the library of University of California, Santa Barbara), The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The Poetry Foundation, or Wikipedia.

It was on Emerson’s advice that Thoreau, soon after meeting the older man, began keeping a journal. (Indeed, Emerson was also a diarist - see The drollest mushroom with diary extracts by Ralph Waldo Emerson on Thoreau). Thereafter, Thoreau’s journal became something of a life’s work. He left behind 47 volumes. According to the Thoreau Edition website: his ‘Journal that began as a conventional record of ideas, grew into a writer’s notebook, and eventually became the principal imaginative work of his career. The source of much of his published writing, the Journal is also a record of both his interior life and his monumental studies of the natural history of his native Concord.’

Substantial parts of Thoreau’s diary were published by Houghton Mifflin in 1906 as part of the 20 volume edition of The Writings of Henry David Thoreau. The journals - which took up volumes 7-20 - were edited by Bradford Torrey. All volumes are freely available online, at Internet Archive: Volume 7 - 1837-1846Volume 8 - 1850-1851Volume 9 - 1851-1852Volume 10 - 1852-1853Volume 11 - 1853Volume 12 - 1853-1854Volume 13 - 1854-1855Volume 14 - 1955-1956Volume 15 - 1956-1957;  Volume 16 - 1857-1858Volume 17 - 1858-1859Volume 18 - 1859Volume 19 - 1859-1860Volume 20 - 1860-1861). They can also be found online at the Thoreau Institute’s Walden Woods Project (which claims to maintain ‘the preeminent collection of works by and about Henry David Thoreau’).

Meanwhile, The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau (also known as the Princeton Edition or the Thoreau Edition) is slowly compiling a complete annotated edition of all of Thoreau’s writings including 16 printed volumes of the journals. To date, eight volumes have appeared (covering the manuscripts dated from 1837 to 1854), the first in 1981 and the most recent (volume 8) in 2002. Both the manuscripts themselves and their transcripts for all the remaining years, i.e. 1854 to 1861, have been digitised and put online by the Thoreau Edition in advance of the printed volumes. Further information about the process, and links to the manuscripts and transcripts can be found on the website. Here, though, are several extracts from Thoreau’s diary taken from the original Houghton Mifflin edition (plus a screenshot from the Thoreau Edition of the actual manuscript page for the last diary entry below).

11 January 1852
‘What need to travel? There are no sierras equal to the clouds in the sunset sky. And are not these substantial enough? In a low or level country, perchance, the forms of the clouds supply the place of mountains and precipices to the eye, the grosser atmosphere makes a mountainous country in the sky.

The glory of these afternoons, though the sky may be mostly overcast, is in the ineffably clear blue, or else pale greenish-yellow, patches of sky in the west just before sunset. The whole cope of heaven seen at once is never so elysian. Windows to heaven, the heavenward windows of the earth. The end of the day is truly Hesperian.

R. W. E. showed me yesterday a letter from H. Greenough, the sculptor, on architecture, which he liked very much. Greenough’s idea was to make architectural ornaments have a core of truth, a necessity and hence a beauty. All very well, as I told R. W. E., from Greenough’s point of view, but only a little better than the common dilettantism. I was afraid I should say hard things if I said more.

We sometimes find ourselves living fast, - unprofitably and coarsely even, - as we catch ourselves eating our meals in unaccountable haste. But in one sense we cannot five too leisurely. Let me not live as if time was short. Catch the pace of the seasons; have leisure to attend to every phenomenon of nature, and to entertain every thought that comes to you. Let your life be a leisurely progress through the realms of nature, even in guest-quarters.

This reminds me that the old Northman kings did in fact board round a good part of the time, as schoolmasters sometimes with us.

But as for Greenough, I felt as if it was dilettantism, and he was such a reformer in architecture as Channing in social matters. He began at the cornice. It was only how to put a core of truth within the ornaments, that every sugar-plum might in fact have an almond or carroway seed in it, and not how the inhabitant, the in-dweller, might be true and let the ornaments take care of themselves. He seemed to me to lean over the cornice and timidly whisper this half truth to the rude indwellers, who really knew it more interiorly than he. What of architectural beauty I now see, I know has gradually grown from within outward, out of the character and necessities of the indweller and builder, without even a thought for mere ornament, but an unconscious nobleness and truthfulness of character and life; and whatever additional beauty of this kind is destined to be produced will be preceded and accompanied, aye, created, by a like unconscious beauty of life. One of the most beautiful buildings in this country is a logger’s hut in the woods, and equally beautiful will be the citizen’s suburban box, when the life of the indweller shall be as simple and as agreeable to the imagination, and there is as little straining after effect in the style of his dwelling. Much it concerns a man, forsooth, how a few sticks are slanted under him or over him, what colors are daubed upon his box! One man says, in his despair, “Take up a handful of the earth at your feet, and paint your house that color!” What an abundance of leisure he must have on his hands! An enterprise to improve the style of cottage architecture! Grow your own house, I say. Build it after an Orphean fashion. When R. W. E. and Greenough have got a few blocks finished and advertised, I will look at them. When they have got my ornaments ready I will wear them. What do you take up a handful of dirt for? Why don’t you paint your house with your blood? with your sweat? Thin not the paint with spirits of turpentine. There’s a deal of nonsense abroad.

The question is not where did the traveller go? what places did he see? - it would be difficult to choose between places - but who was the traveller? how did he travel? how genuine an experience did he get? For travelling is, in the main, like as if you stayed at home, and then the question is how do you live and conduct yourself at home? What I mean is that it might be hard to decide whether I would travel to Lake Superior, or Labrador, or Florida. Perhaps none would be worth the while, if I went by the usual mode. But if I travel in a simple, primitive, original manner, standing in a truer relation to men and nature, travel away from the old and commonplace, get some honest experience of life, if only out of my feet and homesickness, then it becomes less important whither I go or how far. I so see the world from a new and more commanding point of view. Perhaps it is easier to live a true and natural life while travelling,  as one can move about less awkwardly than he can stand still.’

24 February 1857
‘A fine spring morning. The ground is almost completely bare again. There has been a frost in the night. Now, at 8.30, it is melted and wets my feet like a dew. The water on the meadow this still, bright morning is smooth as in April. I am surprised to hear the strain of a song sparrow from the riverside, and as I cross from the causeway to the hill, thinking of the bluebird, I that instant hear one’s note from deep in the softened air. It is already 40°, and by noon is between 50° and 60°. As the day advances I hear more bluebirds and see their azure flakes settling on the fence-posts. Their short, rich, crispy warble curls through the air. Its grain now lies parallel to the curve of the bluebird’s warble, like boards of the same lot. It seems to be one of those early springs of which we have heard but have never experienced. Perhaps they are fabulous. I have seen the probings of skunks for a week or more. I now see where one has pawed out the worm-dust or other chankings from a hole in base of a walnut and torn open the fungi, etc., there, exploring for grubs or insects. They are very busy these nights.

If I should make the least concession, my friend would spurn me. I am obeying his law as well as my own.

Where is the actual friend you love ? Ask from what hill the rainbow’s arch springs! It adorns and crowns the earth.

Our friends are our kindred, of our species. There are very few of our species on the globe.

Between me and my friend what unfathomable distance! All mankind, like motes and insects, are between us.

If mv friend says in his mind, I will never see you again, I translate it of necessity into ever. That is its definition in Love’s lexicon.

Those whom we can love, we can hate; to others we are indifferent.

P. M. - To Walden. The railroad in the Deep Cut is dry as in spring, almost dusty. The best of the sand foliage is already gone. I walk without a greatcoat. A chickadee with its winter lisp flits over, and I think it is time to hear its phebe note, and that instant it pipes it forth. Walden is still covered with thick ice, though melted a foot from the shore.

The French (in the Jesuit Relations) say fil de l’eau for that part of the current of a river in which any floating thing would be carried, generally about equidistant from the two banks. It is a convenient expression, for which I think we have no equivalent.’

Get my boat out the cellar.

12 July 1857
‘To Equisetum hyemale.

Those little minnows, a third or half inch long or more, which I catch when bathing, hovering over open sandy spaces, as here at Clamshell, appear to be little shiners. When left dry on my hand, they can toss themselves three or four inches with a spring of their tails, and so often get into the water again. Small as they are, it is rather difficult to catch them, they dodge your hands so fast.

I drink at every cooler spring in my walk these afternoons and love to eye the bottom there, with its pebbly caddis-cases, or its white worms, or perchance a luxurious frog cooling himself next my nose. Sometimes the farmer, foreseeing haying, has been prudent enough to sink a tub in one, which secures a clear deep space. It would be worth the while, methinks, to make a map of the town with all the good springs on it, indicating whether they were cool, perennial, copious, pleasantly located, etc. The farmer is wont to celebrate the virtues of some one on his own farm above all others. Some cool rills in the meadows should be remembered also, for some such in deep, cold, grassy meadows are as cold as springs. I have sometimes drank warm or foul water, not knowing such cold streams were at hand. By many a spring I know where to look for the dipper or glass which some mower has left. When a spring has been allowed to fill up, to be muddied by cattle, or, being exposed to the sun by cutting down the trees and bushes, to dry up, it affects me sadly, like an institution going to decay. Sometimes I see, on one side the tub, - the tub overhung with various wild plants and flowers, its edge almost completely concealed even from the searching eye, - the white sand freshly cast up where the spring is bubbling in. Often I sit patiently by the spring I have cleaned out and deepened with my hands, and see the foul water rapidly dissipated like a curling vapor and giving place to the cool and clear. Sometimes I can look a yard or more into a crevice under a rock, toward the sources of a spring in a hillside, and see it come cool and copious with incessant murmuring down to the light. There are few more refreshing sights in hot weather.

I find many strawberries deep in the grass of the meadow near this Hosmer Spring; then proceed on my way with reddened and fragrant fingers, till it gets washed off at new springs. It is always pleasant to go over the bare brow of Lupine Hill and see the river and meadows thence. It is exceedingly sultry this afternoon, and few men are abroad. The cow’s stand up to their bellies in the river, lashing their sides with their tails from time to time.

A strong and wholesome fragrance now from the vegetation as I go by overgrown paths through the swamp west of Nut Meadow. Equisetum hyemale has been out a good while; is mostly effete, but some open yet. Some have several flower-spikes on the sides near the top, but most one at top, of the last year’s plant. This year’s shoots a foot high, more or less. All the Pyrola secunda I can find is out of bloom. The Chimaphila umbellata flower-buds make a very pretty umbel, of half a dozen small purple balls surmounted by a green calyx. They contrast prettily with the glossy green leaves.
A song sparrow’s nest in a small clump of alder, two feet from ground! Three or four eggs.

I hear the occasional link note from the earliest bobolinks of the season, - a day or two.’

19 August 1860
‘Examine now more at length that smooth, turnip-scented brassica which is a pest in some grain-fields. Formerly in Stow’s land; this year in Warren’s, on the Walden road. To-day I see it in Minot Pratt’s, with the wild radish, which is a paler yellow and a rougher plant. I thought it before the B. campestris, but Persoon puts that under brassicas with siliquis tetraedris, which this is not, but, for aught that appears, it agrees with his B. Napus, closely allied, i. e. wild rape. Elliot speaks of this as introduced here. Vide Patent Office Report for 1853 and “Vegetable Kingdom,” page 179. The B. campestris also is called rape.

Leersia (cut-grass) abundantly out, apparently several days.’

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