Excerpts from H.D. Thoreau’s journals (early 1859)

This is part eleven of a collection of excerpts from the journals of Henry David Thoreau concerning law, government, man in society, war, economics, duty, and conscience. This part covers Thoreau’s journals for . For other parts, see:

This collection of journal excerpts is also available as a book: The Price of Freedom: Political philosophy from Thoreau’s journals.

These are based on the journals transcribed by Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen in their The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau () and on the online journal transcripts at The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau. Footnotes are mine unless otherwise noted.


The musquash1 hunter (last night), with his increased supply of powder & shot, and boat turned up somewhere on the bank, now that the river is rapidly rising, dreaming of his exploits today in shooting musquash, of the great pile of dead rats that will weigh down his boat before night, when he will return wet & weary & weather beaten to his hut with an appetite for his supper & for much sluggish (punky) social intercourse with his fellows — even he, dark, dull, and battered flint as he is, is an inspired man to his extent now, perhaps the most inspired by this freshet of any, & the Musketaquid meadows cannot spare him. There are poets of all kinds & degrees, little known to each other. The lake school2 is not the only or the principal one. They love various things: some love beauty & some love rum, some go to Rome & some go a-fishing & are sent to the house of correction once a month. They keep up their fires by means unknown to me. I know not their coming & goings. How can I tell what violets they watch for? I know them wild & ready to risk all when their muse invites. The most sluggish will be up early enough then, & face any amount of wet & cold. I meet those gods of the river & woods with sparkling faces (like Apollo’s) late from the house of correction — it may be carrying whatever mystic & forbidden bottles or other vessels concealed — while the dull regular priests are steering their parish rafts in a prose wood. What care I to see galleries full of representatives of heathen gods when I can see actual living ones, by an infinitely superior artist, without perspective tube.3

If you read the Rig veda,4 oldest of books as it were, describing a very primitive people & condition of things, you hear in their prayers of a still older more primitive & aboriginal race in their midst and roundabout, warring on them & seizing their flocks & herds, infesting their pastures. Thus is it in another sense in all communities, & hence the prisons & police.

  1. muskrat
  2. The “Lake School” was a term used to describe poets who celebrated the natural world in the manner of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey.
  3. “Perspective tube” was an old-fashioned term meaning “telescope”.
  4. Rig-veda

The hen hawk & pine are friends. The same thing which keeps the hen hawk in the woods, away from the cities, keeps me here. That bird settles with confidence on a white pine top, & not upon your weather-cock. That bird will not be poultry of yours, lays no eggs for you, forever hides its nest. Though willed — or wild1 — it is not willfull in its wilderness. The unsympathizing man regards the wildness of some animals, their strangeness to him, as a sin — as if all their virtue consisted in their tamableness. He has always a charge in his gun ready for their extermination. What we call wildness is a civilization other than our own. The hen hawk shuns the farmer but it seeks the friendly shelter & support of the pine. It will not consent to walk in the barnyard but it loves to soar above the clouds. It has its own way & is beautiful, when we would fain subject it to our will. So any surpassing work of art is strange & wild to the mass of men, as is genius itself. No hawk that soars & steals our poultry is wilder than genius, & none is more persecuted or above persecution. It can never be poet laureate, to say “pretty Poll” & “Polly-want a cracker.”

A good book is not made in the cheap & off-hand manner of many of our Scientific Reports — ushered in by the message of the President communicating it to Congress, & the order of Congress that so many thousand copies be printed, with the letters of instruction for the Secretary of the Interior (or rather exterior), the bulk of the book being a journal of a picnic or sporting expedition by a brevet Lieutenant Colonel, illustrated by photographs of the travellers footsteps across the plains & an admirable engraving of his native village as it appeared on leaving it, & followed by an appendix on the palaeontology of the route by a distinguished savant who was not there, the last illustrated by very finely executed engravings of some broken old shells picked up on the road.

What a pitiful business is the fur trade, which has been pursued now for so many ages, for so many years by famous companies which enjoy a profitable monopoly & control a large portion of the earth’s surface, unweariedly pursuing & ferreting out small animals by the aid of all the loafing class tempted by rum & money, that you may rob some little fellow creature of its coat to adorn or thicken your own, that you may get a fashionable covering in which to hide your head, or a suitable robe in which to dispense justice to your fellow men! Regarded from the philosopher’s point of view, it is precisely on a level with rag & bone picking in the streets of the cities. The Indian led a more respectable life before he was tempted to debase himself so much by the white man. Think how many musquash1 & weasel skins the Hudson Bay Company2 pile up annually in their ware houses, leaving the bare red carcasses on the banks of the streams throughout all British America — & this it is, chiefly, which makes it British America. It is the place where Great Britain goes a mousing. We have heard much of the wonderful intelligence of the beaver, but that regard for the beaver is all a pretense, & we would give more for a beaver hat than to preserve the intelligence of the whole race of beavers.

When we see men & boys spend their time shooting & trapping musquash & mink, we cannot but have a poorer opinion of them, unless we thought meanly of them before. Yet the world is imposed on by the fame of the Hudson Bay & N.W. Fur Companies,3 who are only so many partners more or less in the same sort of business, with thousands of just such loafing men & boys in their service to abet them. On the one side is the Hudson Bay Company, on the other the company of scavengers who clear the sewers of Paris of their rats vermin. There is a good excuse for smoking out or poisoning rats which infest the house, but when they are as far off as Hudson’s Bay, I think that we had better let them alone. To such an extent do time & distance, & our imaginations, consecrate at last not only the most ordinary, but even vilest pursuits. The efforts of legislation from time to time to stem the torrent are significant as showing that there is some sense & conscience left, but they are insignificant in their effects. We will fine Abner if he shoots a singing bird, but encourage the army of Abners that compose the Hudson Bay Company.

One of the most remarkable sources of profit opened to the Yankee within a year is the traffic in skunk skins. I learn from the newspapers (as from other sources (v. Journal of Commerce in Tribune for ) — that “The traffick in skunk skins has suddenly become a most important branch of the fur trade, & the skins of an animal which 3 years ago were deemed of no value whatever, are now in the greatest demand.” … “The principal markets are Russia & Turkey, though some are sent to Germany, where they are sold at a large profit.” Furs to Russia: “The black skins are valued the most, & during the past winter the market price has been as high as 1 dollar per skin, while mottled skins brought only 70 cents.” … “Upward of 50,000 of these skins have been shipped from this city [NY] alone within the past 2 months.” Many of them “are designed for the Leipsic4 sales, Leipsic being next to Novgorod5, the most important fur entrepôt6 in Europe. The first intimation received in this market of the value of this new description of fur came from the Hudson’s Bay Company, which, having shipped a few to London at a venture, found the returns so profitable that they immediately prosecuted the business on an extensive scale. “The heaviest collections are made in the Middle & Eastern States, in some parts of which the mania for capturing these animals seems to have equaled the Western Pike’s Peak gold excitement,7 men, women, & children turning out en masse for that purpose.” & beside, “our fur dealers also receive a considerable sum for the fat of these animals”!!

Almost all smile, or otherwise express their contempt, when they hear of this or the rat catching of Paris, but what is the difference between catching & skinning the skunk & the mink? It is only in the name. When you pass the palace of one of the mangers of the Hudson Bay Company, you are reminded that so much he got for his rat skins. In such a snarl & contamination do we live that it is almost impossible to keep ones skirts clean. Our sugar & cotton are stolen from the slave, & if we jump out of the fire, it is wont to be into the frying pan at least. It will not do to be thoughtless with regard to any of our valuables or property. When you get to Europe you will meet the most tender hearted & delicately bred lady, perhaps the president of the Anti-slavery Society, or of that for the encouragement of humanity to animals, marching or presiding with the scales from a tortoise back — obtained by laying live coals on it to make them curl up — stuck in her hair, ratskin-gloves fitting as close to her fingers as erst to the rat’s, and for her cloak, trimmings perchance adorned with the spoils of a hundred skunks — poor rendered inodorous, we trust. Poor misguided woman. Could she not wear other armor in the war of humanity?

When a new country like N. America is discovered, a few feeble efforts are made to christianize the natives before they are all exterminated, but they are not found to pay in any sense. But then energetic traders of the discovering country organize themselves, or rather inevitably crystallize, into a vast ratcatching society, tempt the natives to become mere vermin-hunters & rat rum drinkers, reserving half a continent for the scene field of their labors. Savage meets savage, & the white man’s only distinction is that he is the chief.

She says to the turtle basking on the shore of a distant isle, “I want your scales to adorn my head” (though fire be used to raise them); she whispers to the rats in the wall, “I want your skins to cover my delicate fingers;” &, meeting an army of a hundred skunks in her morning walk, she says, “worthless vermin, strip off your cloaks this instant, & let me have them to adorn my robe with;” & she comes home with her hands muffled in the pelt of a gray wolf that ventured abroad to find food for its young that day.

When the question of the protection of birds comes up, the legislatures regard only a low use & never a high use; the best disposed legislators employ one, perchance, only to examine their crops & see how many grubs or cherries they contain, & never to study their dispositions, or the beauty of their plumage, or listen & report on the sweetness of their song. The legislature will preserve a bird professedly not because it is a beautiful creature, but because it is a good scavenger or the like. This, at least, is the defence set up. It is as if the question were whether some celebrated singer of the human race — some Jenny Lind8 or another — did more harm or good, should be destroyed, or not, & therefore a committee should be appointed, not to listen to her singing at all, but to examine the contents of her stomach & see if she devoured anything which was injurious to the farmers & gardeners, or which they cannot spare.

We accuse savages of worshipping only the Bad Spirit, or Devil, though they may distinguish both a Good & a Bad; but they regard only that one which they fear, & worship the Devil only. We too are savages in this, doing precisely the same thing. This occurred to me yesterday as I sat in the woods admiring the beauty of the blue butterfly. We are not chiefly interested in birds & insects, e.g., as they are ornamental to the earth & cheering to man, but we spare the lives of the former only on condition that they eat more grubs than they do cherries, & the only account of the insects which the state encourages is of the insects “injurious to vegetation.” We too admit both a good & a bad spirit, but we worship chiefly the Bad spirit whom we fear. We do not think first of the good but of the harm things will do us.

The catechism says that the chief end of man is to glorify God & enjoy him forever, which of course is applicable mainly to God as seen in his works. Yet the only account of its beautiful insects — butterflies, &c — which god has made & set before us which the state ever thinks of spending any money on is the account of those which are injurious to vegetation! This is the way we glorify God & enjoy him forever. Come out here & behold a thousand painted butterflies & other beautiful insects which people the air, then go to the libraries & see what kind of prayer & glorification of God is there recorded. Mass has published her report on “Insects Injurious to Vegetation,” & our neighbor the “Noxious Insects of NY.” We have attended to the evil & said nothing about the good. This is looking a gift horse in the mouth with a vengeance. Children are attracted by the beauty of butterflies, but their parents & legislators deem it an idle pursuit. The parents remind me of the Devil, but the children of God. Though God may have pronounced his work good, we ask, “Is it not poisonous?

I hear that some of the villagers were aroused from their sleep before light by the groans or bellowings of a bullock which an unskillful butcher was slaughtering at the slaughter house. What morning or Memnonian music was that to ring through the quiet village?1 What did that clarion sing of? What a comment on our village life: Song of the dying bullock. But no doubt those who heard it inquired, as usual, of the butcher the next day, “What have you got today?” “Sirloin, good beef steak, rattleran, &c

  1. The statue of Memnon in Thebes was said, in Greek legend, to moan when it was struck by the sun’s first rays.

, the State muster is held here. The only observation I have to make is that [Concord] is fuller of dust & more uninhabitable than I ever knew it to be before. Not only the walls, fences, & houses are thickly covered with dust, but the fields & meadows & bushes; & the pads in the river for half a mile from the village are white with it. From a mile or 2 distant you see a cloud of dust over the town & extending thence to the muster field. I went to the store the other day to buy a bolt for our front door, for, as I told the storekeeper, the Governor was coming here. “Aye,” said he, “& the Legislature too.” “Then I will take 2 bolts,” said I. He said that there had been a steady demand for bolts & locks of late, for our protectors were coming. The surface of the roads for 3 to 6 inches in depth is a light and dry powder like ashes.

How unpromising are promising men. Hardly any disgust me so much. I have no faith in them. They make gratuitous promises, & they break them gratuitously.

When an Irish woman tells me that she could not tell a lie for her life (because I appear to doubt her), it seems to me that she has already told a lie. She holds herself & the truth very cheap to say that so easily.

What troubles men lay up for want of a little energy & precision. A man who steps quickly to his mark leaves a great deal of filth behind. There’s many a well meaning fellow who thinks he has a hard time of it who will not put his shoulder to the wheel, being spell-bound — who sits about, as if he were hatching his good intentions, & every now & then his friends get up a subscription for him, & he is cursed with the praise of being “a clever fellow.” It would really be worth his while to go straight to his master the devil, if he would only shake him up when he got there. Men who have not learned the value of time, or of anything else; for whom an infant school & a birchen rod is still and forever necessary.

A man who is not prompt affects me as a creature covered with slime, crawling through mud & lying dormant a great part of the year. Think of the numbers — men & women — who want & will have & do have (how do they get it?!) what they will not earn! The non-producers. How many of these blood-suckers there are fastened to every helpful man or woman in this world! They constitute this world. It is a world full of snivelling prayers — whose very religion is a prayer! As if beggars were admirable, were respectable, to anybody!

Again and again I am surprised to observe what an interval there is, in what is called civilized life, between the shell & the inhabitant of the shell, — what a disproportion there is between the life of man & his conveniences & luxuries. The house is neatly painted, has many apartments. You are shown into the sitting room, where is a carpet & couch & mirror & splendidly bound bible, Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, photographs of the whole family even, on the mantlepiece. One could live here more deliciously & improve his diviner gifts better than in a cave surely. In these bright & costly saloon man will not be starving or freezing or contending with vermin surely, but he will be meditating a divine song, or a heroic deed, or perfuming the atmosphere by the very breath of his natural & healthy existence. As the parlor is preferable to the cave, so will the life of its occupant be more god like than that of the dweller in the cave. I called at such a house this afternoon, the house of one who in Europe would be called an operative. The woman was not in the 3d heavens,1 but in the 3d kitchen, as near the wood shed or to outdoors & to the cave as she could instinctively get, for they there she belonged — a coarse scullion or wench, not one whit superior, but in fact inferior, to the squaw in a wigwam — & the master of the house, where was he? He was drunk somewhere both on some mow or behind some stack, & I could not see him. He had been having a spree. If he had been as sober as he may be to-morrow, it would have been essentially the same; for refinement is not in him, it is only in his house — in the appliances which he did not invent. So is it in the 5th Avenue2 & all over the civilized world. There is nothing but confusion in our New England life. The hogs are in the parlor. This man & his wife (& how many like them!) should have lived in sucked their claws in some hole in a rock, or lived lurked like gypsies in the outbuildings of some diviner race. They’ve got into the wrong boxes; they rained down into these houses by mistake, as it is said to rain toads sometimes. They wear these advantages helter skelter & without appreciating them, or to satisfy a vulgar taste, just as savages wear the dress of civilized men, just as that Indian chief walked the streets of N. Orleans clad in nothing but a gaudy military coat which his Great Father had given him. Some philanthropists trust that the houses will civilize the inhabitants at last. The mass of men, just like savages, contend always for strive always after the outside, the clothes & finery of civilized life, the blue beads & tinsel & centre-tables. It is a wonder that any load ever gets moved, men are so prone to put the cart before the horse.

We do everything according to the fashion, just as the Flatheads3 flatten the heads of their children. We conform ourselves in a myriad ways & with infinite pains to the fashions of our time. We mourn for our lost relatives according to fashion, and as some nations hire professed mourners to howl, so we hire stone-masons to hammer & blast by the month & so express our grief. Or if a public character dies, we get up a regular wake with eating & drinking till midnight.

The ex-plenipotentiary refers in after dinner speeches with complacency to the time he spent abroad & the various Lords & distinguished men he met, as to a deed done & an ever memorable occasion! Of what account are titles & offices & opportunities, if you do no memorable deed?

It is remarkable what a curse seems to attach to any place which has long been inhabited by man. Vermin of various kinds abide with him. It is said that the site of Babylon is a desert where the lion & the jackal prowl. If, as here, an ancient cellar is uncovered, there springs up at once a crop of rank & noxious weeds, evidence of a certain unwholesome fertility — by which perchance the earth relieves herself of the poisonous qualities which have been imparted to her. As if what was foul, baleful, groveling, or obscene in the inhabitants had sunk into the earth & infected it.

Certain qualities are there in excess in the soil, & the proper equilibrium will not be obtained until after the sun & air have purified the spot. The very shade breeds saltpetre.

Yet men value this kind of earth highly & will pay a price for it, as if it were as good a soil for virtue as for vice.

In other places you will find Henbane & the Jamestown-weed1 & the like, in cellars — such herbs as the witches are said to put into their cauldrons.

It would be fit that the tobacco plant should spring up on the house site — aye on the grave — of almost every householder of Concord. These vile weeds are sown by vile men. When the house is gone they spring up in the corners of cellars where the cider casks stood always on tap, for murder & all kindred vices will out. And that rank crowd which lines the gutter, where the wash of the dinner dishes flows, are but more distant parasites of the host. What obscene & poisonous weeds, think you, will mark the site of a slave-state! — what kind of Jamestown-weed?

What an army of non-producers society produces — Ladies generally (old & young) & gentlemen of leisure, so called. Many think themselves well employed as charitable dispensers of wealth which some body else earned. & These who produce nothing, being of the most luxurious habits, are precisely they who want the most, & complain loudest when they do not get what they want. They who are literally paupers maintained at the public expense are the most importunate & insatiable beggars. They cling like the glutton to a living man & suck his vitals up. To every locomotive man there are 3 or 4 dead heads clinging to him,1 as if they conferred a great favor on society by living upon it. Meanwhile they fill the churches, & die & revive from time to time. They have nothing to do but sin, and repent of their sins. How can you expect such bloodsuckers to be happy?2

  1. A “deadhead” is a train car with no passengers or freight.
  2. Thoreau’s footnote: “v back, .”

24 September 1859

I have many affairs to attend to, & feel hurried these days. Great works of art have endless leisure for a back ground (as the universe has space). Time stands still while they are created. The artist cannot be in hurry. The earth moves round the sun with inconceivable rapidity, & yet the surface of the lake is not ruffled by it. It is not by a compromise, it is not by a timid & feeble repentance, that a man will save his soul & live at last. He has got to conquer a clear field, letting repentance & co go. That’s is old well meaning but weak firm that has assumed the debts of an old & worthless one. You are to fight in a field where no allowances will be made, no courteous bowing to one-handed knights.

You are expected to do your duty, not in spite of every thing but one but in spite of everything.

Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of 500 or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel — a common possession forever, for instruction & recreation. We hear of cow-commons & ministerial lots, but we want men commons & lay lots, inalienable forever.

Let us keep the new world new, preserve all the advantages of living in the country. There is meadow & pasture & wood lot for the town’s poor. Why not a forest & huckleberry field for the town’s rich? All Walden wood might have been preserved for our park forever, with Walden in its midst, & the Easterbrooks country, an unoccupied area of some 4 square miles, might have been our huckleberry field. If any owners of these tracts are about to leave the world without natural heirs who need & or deserve to be specially remembered, they will do wisely to abandon their possessions to all, & not will them to some individual who perhaps has enough already.

As some give to harvard College or another institution, why might not another give a forest or Huckleberry field to Concord? A town is an institution which deserves to be remembered. We boast of our system of Education, but why stop at school masters & school houses? We are all school masters, & our school house is the universe. To attend chiefly to the desk or school house while we neglect the scenery in which it is placed is to save at the spile & waste at the bung. If we don’t look out we shall find our fine school house standing in a cow yard at last.

Talk about learning our letters & being literate! Why, the roots of letters are things. Natural objects & phenomena are the original symbols or types which express our thoughts & feelings, & yet American scholars, having little or no root in the soil, commonly strive with all their might to confine themselves to the imported symbols alone. All the true growth & experience, the living speech, they would fain reject as “Americanisms.” It is the old error, which the church, the state, the school, ever commit, choosing darkness rather than light, holding fast to the old & to tradition. A more intimate knowledge, a deeper experience, will surely originate a word. When I really know that our river pursues a serpentine course to the Merrimac, shall I continue to describe it by referring to some other river, no older than itself, which is like it, & call it a meander? It is no more meandering than the Meander is Musketaquiding. As well sing of the nightingale here as the Meander.

What if there were a tariff on words, on language, for the encouragement of home manufactures. Have we not the genius to coin our own? Let the schoolmaster distinguish the true from the counterfeit.

Men attach a false importance to celestial phenomena as compared with terrestrial, as if it were more respectable & elevating to watch your neighbors than to mind your own affairs. The nodes of the stars are not the knots we have to untie. The phenomena of our year are one thing, those of the almanac another. Astronomy is a fashionable study, patronized by princes, but not fungi — “Royal Astronomer.” For October, for instance, instead of making the sun enter the sign of the scorpion, I would much sooner make him enter a musquash-house.1

  1. musquash = muskrat

When La Mountain and Haddock dropped down in the Canada wilderness the other day, they came near starving, or dying of cold & wet & fatigue, not knowing where to look for food, nor how to shelter themselves. Thus far have we wandered from a simple & independent life. I think that a wise & independent, self reliant man will have a complete list of the edibles to be found in a primitive country or wilderness, a bill of fare, in his waistcoat pocket at least, to say nothing of matches & warm clothing, so that he can commence a systematic search for them without loss of time. They might have had several frogs apiece if they had known how to find them. Talk about tariffs & protection of home industry, so as to be prepared for wars & hard times!! Here we are, deriving our breadstuffs from the west, our butter stuffs from Vermont, & our tea & coffee & sugar stuffs, & much more with which we stuff ourselves stuffs, from the other side of the globe. Why, a truly prudent man will carry such a list as the above, in his mind at least, even though he walk through Broadway or Quincy Market.2 He will know what are the permanent resources of the land & be prepared for the hardest of times. He will go behind cities & their police; he will see through them. Is not the wilderness of mould & dry rot forever invading & threatening them? They are but a camp abundantly supplied today, but gnawing their old shoes tomorrow.

  1. John LaMountain was an early balloonist, who took newspaper editor John Haddock on this ill-fated flight in .
  2. Broadway and Quincy Market