Henry D. Thoreau: Some Recollections and Incidents Concerning Him

Early in September, 1845, (can it be so long,) on his invitation I spent a Sunday at his lake side retreat, as pure and delightful as with my mother.

The building was not then finished, the chimney had no beginning — the sides were not battened, or the walls plastered. It stood in the open field, some thirty rods from the lake, and the “Devil’s Bar” and in full view of it.

Upon its construction he had evidently bestowed much care, and the proportions of it, together with the work, were very much better than would have been expected of a novice, and he seemed well pleased with his effort.

The entrance to the cellar was thro’ a trap door in the center of the room. The king-post was an entire tree, extending from the bottom of the cellar to the ridge-pole, upon which we descended, as the sailors do into the hold of a vessel.

His hospitality and manner of entertainment were unique, and peculiar to the time and place.

The cooking apparatus was primitive and consisted of a hole made in the earth and inlaid with stones, upon which the fire was made, after the manner at the sea-shore, when they have a clam-bake.

When sufficiently hot remove the smoking embers and place on the fish, frog, etc. Our bill of fare included roasted horn pout, com, beans, bread, salt, etc. Our viands were nature’s own, “sparkling and bright.”

I gave the bill of fare in English and Henry. rendered it in French, Latin and Greek.

The beans had been previously cooked. The meal for our bread was mixed with lake water only, and when prepared it was spread upon the surface of a thin stone used for that purpose and baked. It was according to the old Jewish law and custom of unleavened bread, and of course it was very, very primitive.

When the bread had been sufficiently baked the stone was removed, then the fish placed over the hot stones and roasted — some in wet paper and some without-and when seasoned with salt, were delicious.

He was very much disappointed in not being able to present to me one of his little companions — a mouse.

He described it to me by saying that it had come upon his back as he leaned against the wall of the building, ran down his arm to his hand, and ate the cheese while holding it in his fingers; also, when he played upon the flute, it would come and listen from its hiding place, and remain there while he continued to play the same tune, but when he changed the tune, the little visitor would immediately disappear.

Owing perhaps to some extra noise, and a stranger present, it did not put in an appearance, and I lost that interesting part of the show — but I had enough else to remember all my life.

The land where he raised his beans and other vegetables had been so continuously cropped with rye in the year–  preceding that the weeds had a stunted and sickly look: this however was favorable, as the crops needed but little cultivation.

Perhaps it was in this “field of glory,” strewn with the bones and fur of the wood-chucks and rabbits, that he took his first lessons in combativeness: as he had to contend with the woodchucks by day, and the owls (his faithful allies,) sto0d sentry by night to keep away the rabbits, (literal fact,) otherwise he would not have harvested a bean.

One of the axioms of his philosophy had been to take the life of nothing that breathed, if he could avoid it: but, it had now become a serious question with him, whether to allow the wood-chucks and rabbits to destroy his beans, or fight.

Having determined on the latter, he procured a steel trap, and soon caught a venerable old fellow to the “manor born,” and one who had held undisputed possession there for all time.

After retaining the enemy of all beans in “durance vile” for a few hours, he pressed his foot on the spring of the trap and let him go — expecting and hoping never to see him more. Vain delusion!

In a few days after, on returning from the village post-office, on looking in the direction of the bean field, to his disgust and apprehension he saw the same old grey-back disappear behind some brush just outside the field.

On a reconnoisance he discovered that the enemy had taken up a strategic position covered by some brush near his beans, and had entrenched himself by digging a “rifle pit,” and otherwise made preparations for a determined siege. Accordingly he again set the trap and again caught the thief.

Now it so happened that those old knights of the shot gun, hook and line, Wesson, Pratt and Co., were on a piscatorial visit to the “devil’s bar,” equipped with all the necessary appliances to allure the finny tribe to destruction. A council of war was held at the “Bar,” to determine what should be done with the wood-chuck.

A decision was rendered immediately by that old and popular landlord of the Middlesex, in his terse and laconic manner “knock bis brains out.”

This however was altogether too severe on the woodchuck, thought Henry; even woodchucks had some rights that “Squatter Sovereigns” should respect. Was he not the original occupant there? and had he not “jumped” the “wood-chucks claim” destroyed his home, and built his “hut” upon the ruins? After considering the question carefully he took the woodchuck in his arms and carried him some two miles away; and then with a severe admonition at the end of a good stick, he opened the trap, and again let him “depart in peace”; and he never saw him more. (Joseph Hosmer. “Henry D. Thoreau” in Concord Freeman: Thoreau Annex.  pp. 1-2)