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Artist/Naturalist Pages
Henry David Thoreau
(1817 - 1862)


Writer and wise thinker Henry David Thoreau lived in tumultuous 19th century America in the years leading up to the Civil War. Although he was regarded as unimportant during his lifetime, his writings have been a large influence on the 20th century. He was an anti-slavery advocate, and helped escaped slaves on the Underground Railway.

Thoreau's essay Civil Disobedience, in which he advocated passive resistance to unjust authority, strongly influenced the thought and tactics of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Thoreau's best-known legacy is his book Walden, the story of how he simplified his life by living for two years in a little cabin he built on Walden Pond outside Concord, Massachusets. For most of his adult life Thoreau spent a large part of each day observing the plants and animals of near Concord. He walked the woods and countryside for at least twelve miles a day, came home and wrote in his Journals. Thoreau kept his Journals for most of his life--when they were published after he died they filled fourteen books. His essay "Succession of Forest Trees" (1860) is a major contribution to science. Thoreau was the first to describe ecological succession in natural communities.


Thoreau suffered from tuberculosis for years, and traveled to Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota in 1861 in search of a cure, which did not restore his health. He returned to Concord and died in 1862, at the age of forty-two. At the time of his death he was studying and writing about fruits native to his Massachusetts locale. This last manuscript, Wild Fruits, was published in 1999 after being lost for some hundred and forty years.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was Thoreau's Concord neighbor and close friend. His comment on Thoreau:

He was bred to no profession, he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to the State; he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun. He chose, wisely no doubt for himself, to be the bachelor of thought and Nature . . . It was a pleasure and a privilege to walk with him. He knew the country like a fox or a bird, and passed through it as freely by paths of his own.


Excerpts from Thoreau's Journals

We need the tonic of wildness, to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground.

In wildness is the preservation of the world.

We are made happy when reason can discover no occasion for it.

You must not blame me if I talk to the clouds.

One of the most attractive things about the flowers is their beautiful reserve.

Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.

• It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see.

• We shall see but a little way if we require to understand what we see.

• Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?

• Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.

He approaches the study of mankind with great advantages who is accustomed to the study of nature.

In mid-summer we are of the earth—confounded with it—and covered with its dust. Now we begin to erect ourselves somewhat and walk upon its surface. I am not so much reminded of former years as of existence prior to years.

How much is written about Nature as somebody has portrayed her, how little about Nature as she is, and chiefly concerns us, i.e. how much prose, how little poetry.

Measure your health by your sympathy with morning and spring. If there is no response in you to the awakening of nature—if the prospect of an early morning walk does not banish sleep, if the warble of the first bluebird does not thrill you—know that the morning and spring of your life are passed. Thus may you feel your pulse.

It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know. I do not get nearer by a hair's breadth to any natural object so long as I presume that I have an introduction to it from some learned man. To conceive of it with a total apprehension I must for the thousandth time approach it as something totally strange. If you would make acquaintance with the ferns you must forget your botany. You must get rid of what is commonly called knowledge of them. Not a single scientific term or distinction is the least to the purpose, for you would fain perceive something, and you must approach the object totally unprejudiced. You must be aware that no thing is what you have taken it to be. In what book is this world and its beauty described ? Who has plotted the steps toward the discovery of beauty? You have got to be in a different state from common. Your greatest success will be simply to perceive that such things are, and you will have no communication to make to the Royal Society.

I seek acquaintance with Nature--to know her moods and manners. Primitive Nature is the most interesting to me. I take infinite pains to know all the phenomena of the spring, for instance, thinking that I have here the entire poem, and then, to my chagrin, I hear that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess and have read, that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages, and mutilated it in many places. I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best of the stars. I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth. All the great trees and beasts, fishes and fowl are gone. The streams, perchance, are somewhat shrunk. (1859)

Excerpts from his Journals

Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.

Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.

When it is time to die, let us not discover that we never lived.

Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.

Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.

The perception of beauty is a moral test.

To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning.

As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.

If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment.

It is usually the imagination that is wounded first, rather than the heart; it being much more sensitive.

Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence.

There is no remedy for love but to love more.

Our life is frittered away by detail... simplify, simplify.

My desire for knowledge is intermittent; but my desire to commune with the spirit of the universe, to be intoxicated with the fumes, call it, of that divine nectar, to bear my head through atmospheres and over heights unknown to my feet, is perennial and constant.

In human intercourse the tragedy begins, not when there is misunderstanding about words, but when silence is not understood.

If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer. But if he spends his days as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is deemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.

If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.

What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook.

Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.

Be true to your work, your word, and your friend.

Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you've imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them

If you would convince a man that he does wrong, do right. Men will believe what they see.

Men have become the tools of their tools.

What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?

Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.

Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.

A man is wise with the wisdom of his time only, and ignorant with its ignorance.

A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.

As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.

Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe.

Even the best things are not equal to their fame.

Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.


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