When first I took up my abode in the woods,
that is, began to spend my nights as well as days there, which, by accident, was on Independence Day, or the Fourth of July,
1845, my house was not finished for winter, but was merely a defence against the rain, without plastering or chimney, the
walls being of rough, weather-stained boards, with wide chinks, which made it cool at night. The upright white hewn studs
and freshly planed door and window casings gave it a clean and airy look, especially in the morning, when its timbers were
saturated with dew, so that I fancied that by noon some sweet gum would exude from them….
I was seated by the shore of a small pond,
about a mile and a half south of the village of Concord and somewhat higher than it, in the midst of an extensive wood between
that town and Lincoln, and about two miles south of that our only field known to fame, Concord Battle Ground; but I was so
low in the woods that the opposite shore, half a mile off, like the rest, covered with wood, was my most distant horizon.
For the first week, whenever I looked out on the pond it impressed me like a tarn high up on the side of a mountain, its bottom
far above the surface of other lakes, and, as the sun arose, I saw it throwing off its nightly clothing of mist, and here
and there, by degrees, its soft ripples or its smooth reflecting surface was revealed, while the mists, like ghosts, were
stealthily withdrawing in every direction into the woods, as at the breaking up of some nocturnal conventicle. The very dew
seemed to hang upon the trees later into the day than usual, as on the sides of mountains….
I went to the woods because I wished to
live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not,
when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I
wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to
live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive
life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine
meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give
a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it
is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to "glorify God
and enjoy him forever."(14)
Still we live meanly, like ants; though
the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, and
clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness. Our life is frittered
away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes,
and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a
thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping
sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a
man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must
be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one;
instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion….
Why should we live with such hurry and
waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. Men say that a stitch in time saves nine, and so they
take a thousand stitches today to save nine tomorrow. As for work, we haven't any of any consequence. We have the Saint Vitus' dance,(18) and cannot possibly keep our heads still. If I should only give a few pulls at the parish bell-rope,
as for a fire, that is, without setting the bell, there is hardly a man on his farm in the outskirts of Concord, notwithstanding
that press of engagements which was his excuse so many times this morning, nor a boy, nor a woman, I might almost say, but
would forsake all and follow that sound, not mainly to save property from the flames, but, if we will confess the truth, much
more to see it burn, since burn it must, and we, be it known, did not set it on fire — or to see it put out, and have
a hand in it, if that is done as handsomely; yes, even if it were the parish church itself. Hardly a man takes a half-hour's
nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, "What's the news?" as if the rest of mankind had stood
his sentinels. Some give directions to be waked every half-hour, doubtless for no other purpose;
and then, to pay for it, they tell what they have dreamed. After a night's sleep the news is as indispensable as the breakfast.
"Pray tell me anything new that has happened to a man anywhere on this globe" — and he reads it over his coffee and
rolls, that a man has had his eyes gouged out this morning on the Wachito River;(19) never dreaming the while that he lives in the dark unfathomed mammoth cave of this world, and has but
the rudiment of an eye himself.
For my part, I could easily do without
the post-office. I think that there are very few important communications made through it. To speak critically, I never received
more than one or two letters in my life — I wrote this some years ago — that were worth the postage. The penny-post
is, commonly, an institution through which you seriously offer a man that penny for his thoughts which is so often safely
offered in jest. And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered,
or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western
Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter — we never need read of another. One is enough….
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.
I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity
remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first
letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. The intellect is a cleaver;
it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things. I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary.
My head is hands and feet. I feel all my best faculties concentrated in it. My instinct tells me that my head is an organ
for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills.
I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining-rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will
begin to mine.
THIS IS A delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense,
and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself. As I walk along
the stony shore of the pond in my shirt-sleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy, and I see nothing special
to attract me, all the elements are unusually congenial to me. The bullfrogs trump to usher in the night, and the note of
the whip-poor-will is borne on the rippling wind from over the water. Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves
almost takes away my breath; yet, like the lake, my serenity is rippled but not ruffled. These small waves raised by the evening
wind are as remote from storm as the smooth reflecting surface. Though it is now dark, the wind still blows and roars in the
wood, the waves still dash, and some creatures lull the rest with their notes. The repose is never complete. The wildest animals
do not repose, but seek their prey now; the fox, and skunk, and rabbit, now roam the fields and woods without fear. They are
Nature's watchmen — links which connect the days of animated life….
Men frequently say to me, "I should think
you would feel lonesome down there, and want to be nearer to folks, rainy and snowy days and nights especially." I am tempted
to reply to such — This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the two
most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I
feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way? This which you put seems to me not to be the most important question. What
sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of the
legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another.