The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Volume VII (of 20)

Page 98 of 99

Ye do commend me to all virtue ever,

And simple truth, the law by which we live.

Methinks that I can trust your clearer sense

And your immediate knowledge of the truth.

I would obey your influence, one with fate. 480

There is a true march to the sentence, as if a man or a body of men were actually making progress there step by step, and these are not the mere disjecta membra, the dispersed and mutilated members though it were of heroes, which can no longer walk and join themselves to their comrades. They are not perfect nor liberated pieces of art for the galleries, yet they stand on the natural and broad pedestal of the living rock, but have a principle of life and growth in them still, as has that human nature from which they spring.[506]

It is a marvel how the birds contrive to survive in this world. These tender sparrows that flit from bush to bush this evening, though it is so late, do not seem improvident, [but appear] to have found a roost for the night. They must succeed by weakness and reliance, for they are not bold and enterprising, as their mode of life would seem to require, but very weak and tender creatures. I have seen a little chipping sparrow, come too early in the spring, shivering on an apple twig, drawing in its head and striving to warm it in its muffled feathers; and it had no voice to intercede with nature, but peeped as helpless as an infant, and was ready to yield up its spirit and die without any effort. And yet this was no new spring in the revolution of the seasons.

Our offense is rank, it smells to heaven. In the midst of our village, as in most villages, there is a slaughterhouse, and throughout the summer months, day and 481 night, to the distance of half a mile, which embraces the greater part of the village, the air [is] filled with such scents as we instinctively avoid in a woodland walk; and doubtless, if our senses were once purified and educated by a simpler and truer life, we should not consent to live in such a neighborhood.

George Melvin, our Concord trapper, told me that in going to the spring near his house, where he kept his minnows for bait, he found that they were all gone, and immediately suspected that a mink had got them; so he removed the snow all around and laid open the trail of a mink underneath, which he traced to his hole, where were the fragments of his booty. There he set his trap, and baited it with fresh minnows. Going again soon to the spot, he found one of the mink's fore legs in the trap gnawed off near the body, and, having set it again, he caught the mink with his three legs, the fourth having only a short bare bone sticking out.

When I expressed some surprise at this, and said that I heard of such things but did not know whether to believe them, and was now glad to have the story confirmed, said he: "Oh, the muskrats are the greatest fellows to gnaw their legs off. Why I caught one once that had just gnawed his third leg off, this being the third time he had been trapped; and he lay dead by the trap, for he couldn't run on one leg." Such tragedies are enacted even in this sphere and along our peaceful streams, and dignify at least the hunter's trade. Only courage does anywhere prolong life, whether of man or beast. 482

When they are caught by the leg and cannot get into the water to drown themselves, they very frequently gnaw the limb off. They are commonly caught under water or close to the edge, and dive immediately with the trap and go to gnawing and are quackled and drowned in a moment, though under other circumstances they will live several minutes under water. They prefer to gnaw off a fore leg to a hind leg, and do not gnaw off their tails. He says the wharf rats are very common on the river and will swim and cross it like a muskrat, and will gnaw their legs and even their tails off in the trap.

These would be times that tried men's souls, if men had souls to be tried; aye, and the souls of brutes, for they must have souls as well as teeth. Even the water-rats lead sleepless nights and live Achillean lives. There are the strong will and the endeavor. Man, even the hunter, naturally has sympathy with every brave effort, even in his game, to maintain that life it enjoys. The hunter regards with awe his game, and it becomes at last his medicine.[507]

Of Cadew or Case worms there are the Ruff-coats or Cockspurs, whose cases are rough and made of various materials, and the Piper Cadis or Straw-worm, made of reed or rush, and straight and smooth.

Carlyle's works are not to be studied,---hardly re-read. Their first impression is the truest and the deepest. There is no reprint. If you look again, you will be disappointed 483 and find nothing answering to the mood they have excited. They are true natural products in this respect. All things are but once, and never repeated. The first faint blushes of the morning gilding the mountain-tops, with the pale phosphorus and saffron-colored clouds,---they verily transport us to the morning of creation; but what avails it to travel eastward, or look again there an hour hence. We should be as far in the day ourselves, mounting toward our meridian. There is no double entendre for the alert reader; in fact the work was designed for such complete success that it serves but for a single occasion. It is the luxury of wealth and art when for every deed its own instrument is manufactured. The knife which sliced the bread of Jove ceased to be a knife when that service was rendered.

For every inferior, earthly pleasure we forego, a superior, celestial one is substituted.

To purify our lives requires simply to weed out what is foul and noxious and the sound and innocent is supplied, as nature purifies the blood if we will but reject impurities.

Nature and human life are as various to our several experiences as our constitutions are various. Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than if we should look through each other's eyes for an instant? We should live in all the ages of the world in an hour,---aye, in all the worlds of the ages. What I have read of rhapsodists, of the primitive poets, Argonautic expeditions, the life of demigods and heroes, Eleusinian mysteries, etc., suggests 484 nothing so ineffably grand and informing as this would be.

The phbe came into my house to find a place for its nest, flying through the windows.

It was a bright thought, that of man's to have bells; no doubt the birds hear them with pleasure.

To compete with the squirrels in the chestnut harvest, picking ofttimes the nuts that bear the mark of their teeth.

I require of any lecturer that he will read me a more or less simple and sincere account of his own life, of what he has done and thought,---not so much what he has read or heard of other men's lives and actions, but some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land,---and if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me,---describing even his outward circumstances and what adventures he has had, as well as his thoughts and feelings about them. He who gives us only the results of other men's lives, though with brilliant temporary success, we may in some measure justly accuse of having defrauded us of our time. We want him to give us that which was most precious to him,---not his life's blood but even that for which his life's blood circulated, what he has got by living. If anything ever yielded him pure pleasure or instruction, let him communicate it. Let the money-getter tell us how much he loves wealth, and what means he takes 485 to accumulate it. He must describe those facts which he knows and loves better than anybody else. He must not write on foreign missions. The mechanic will naturally lecture about his trade, the farmer about his farm, and every man about that which he, compared with other men, knows best. Yet incredible mistakes are made. I have heard an owl lecture with perverse show of learning upon the solar microscope, and chanticleer upon nebulous stars, when both ought to have been sound asleep, the one in a hollow tree, the other on his roost.

Free Learning Resources