Our Poet-Naturalist by James T. Fields

There are few writers who have died and left more interesting books behind them than Henry Thoreau. What more delightful reading can there be than his “Life in the Woods,” his “Excursions in Field and Forest,” his “Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers,” his “Yankee in Canada,” and his adventures in the “Maine Woods and on Cape Cod“? These books never fail to bring their own enchantment with them, and I do not wonder at the eulogies bestowed upon them by such rare judges as Emerson, Curtis, Alcott, and Channing. In summer and winter, by the fireside or in the open air,  they are sweet and invigorating companions, and they can be read over and over again with profit and pleasure. When you walk beside Thoreau you get nature at first hand. and no mere hearsay reports of shipwrecks, mountains, rivers, and animals. The birds knew him by heart, and all forest and meadow people were his intimates. You can learn from Thoreau many things you can be taught nowhere else; and so he is always a nutritious author. to young people especially.

Like Agassiz. he was a teacher in the best sense of that much-abused office. An hour’s silent talk from him is a real boon. and the more you get out of him the richer you will become.

Originality is a patent quality with him. Many modern works on natural history are made as apothecaries make a new mixture, by pouring out of several vessels into a new bottle; but Thoreau went into the open laboratories of nature and gathered what he offers with his own hands. He was one of the sharpest observers who ever lived, and whenever he went abroad among the scenes he loved to study, his eyes were never absent from his face. He took nothing for granted, and what he could not see he would never report. “Accuracy or silence” was his motto. He had a hunger and thirst for the truth in matters of information, and rested only at the fountain-head when he was hunting for a fact, believing with Charles Kingsley that it is better to know one thing than to know about a thousand things. He believed that God was always educating man, and he wished to avail himself of the situation.

When you go to Concord, in the State of Massachusetts, do not fail to visit the old-fashioned house where Thoreau was born, in the year 1817. Almost anyone you meet on the road will tell you where to find the ancient dwelling, for he is a prophet with much honor in his own birthplace, and the inhabitants love to speak of him to this day. It would be a great piece of good fortune if you should chance on Mr. Emerson, or Mr. Alcott, or Mr. Channing, during your ramble, for either of them, having on hand always a certain amount of priceless leisure to bestow on a stranger in search of Thoreau-localities, will kindly lead you perhaps to the Old Virginia Road, as it is called, and show you the sunny meadows and the old New England house you are looking for. If you evince a proper enthusiasm for the place, you will, no doubt, be taken out to Walden Pond, which will be a treat indeed, for you will get good talk all the way thither. You will see the path along which bare-footed Henry, when a boy, drove the cows to pasture, and pondered, no doubt, his juvenile lesson by the way. I remember he once described to me, on that very road, a favorite cow which he had the care of thirty years before; and if she had been his own grandmother, he could not have employed tenderer phrases about her. In youth his eyes and ears were ever on the alert, seeing and hearing what was going on in that delightful region where his first years were passed. It was his great good luck to be born in the country, and to have his ideas nurtured in the pure air of such a rural life as the one he came up in.

When he was old enough he went to Harvard College, and graduated in the year 1837. Like many other students, he taught a school in his young manhood, but he soon relinquished that employment and went to work with his father at the trade of lead-pencil making. When he had achieved the art of producing as good pencils as could be made anywhere in the world, he made his bow to that calling, and declined to do any more service in a line where he had perfected himself. He had the wise art of living contentedly on very little, and so when he needed funds for a livelihood so simple as his, he made a pause in his wood-craft studies, stepped out and built a fence, or planted a garden, or grafted a tree, and so got a sufficient sum of money to float him along comfortably for another month or two. Sufficient unto the day is the good thereof, was, no doubt, his wise reply when he was urged to lay up for the future. His skill as a surveyor gave him plenty to do when he wanted employment of that kind, and his mathematical knowledge being known and appreciated, gave him currency as a measurer of land and timber. His senses were so acute, he utilized his special faculties as few men were able to do. It is said he could pace sixteen rods more accurately than another could measure them with the chain. His feet in the wood-paths at night were surer than other people’s eyes. He was never daunted by the weather, and July and January were alike friendly to his pursuits. He had no expensive tastes, and if he wished to smoke he twisted up dry lily-stems and puffed away over his task. He knew where grapes and chestnuts could be had or nothing, and so he browsed away without a thought of table luxuries. When he was hungry a ripe apple supplied him with something to eat, and he always carried a supply in his pocket when on a tramp into the forest. A man with so few wants could bivouac contentedly over his studies two years alone in a small farm-house on the borders of Walden Pond, and never be troubled about champagne and oyster-patties outside the green world he lived in. His necessities were an old volume to press plants in, a diary for observations on country things, a spy-glass for birds, a microscope, a jack-knife, and some twine. His dress must be simple and strong, and thus equipped, he was ready for all emergencies, and could sing if this wise:

“I hearing get, who had but ears;
And sight, who had but eyes before;
I moments live, who lived but years,
And truth discern, who knew but learning’s lore.”

He was a true bard of the woods and fields, and his sayings in prose are sometimes redolent of exquisite poetry, as when he says: “The blue-bird carries the sky on his back.” He had lived so much under the open heavens that somehow he always seemed a part of outdoors. I used to think I could tell when he was in Boston by a kind of pine-tree and apple-tree odor that preceded him, and accordingly counted on a call that day from him. Sydney Smith said that a certain London cockney, when he visited the country, made all the region round about smell like Piccadilly. When Thoreau came to Boston from Concord he brought a rural fragrance with him from his native fields into our streets and lanes. Spicy odors of black birch, hickory buds, and pennyroyal lingered about his garments and made his presence welcome and sweet.

In his way, Thoreau was a wide reader, but his books were not those commonly chosen; the quotations in his published works show his quaint and careful excursions among authors. Dr. Donne, Samuel Daniel, Charles Cotton, Izaak Walton, Michael Drayton, were among his admired writers. Familiar with the classics, he made translations from Homer, Pindar, Pliny, and many other wise men of antiquity, but his teachers were the woods, the rivers, and the skies, and his communion with them was unceasing. His journals, if they are ever published, will give him a place among the keenest observers who have ever lived, and it is to be hoped some editor will be found competent to prepare them for the press. He was the poet-naturalist of America, and our literature will never be complete without his truthful records of so many years of patient observations. The works he has printed and left for our perusal teach self-reliance, courage, and love of the country. He believed that only in nature can pure health be found, and endeavored all his life to prove the doctrine he taught. “I would keep,” he says, “some book of natural history always by me as a sort of elixir, the reading of which should restore the tone of the system.” And that is just what his own writings are eminently capable of doing. A fresh, invigorating breeze is always stirring through his pages, and the reader gets the benefit of it wherever he chances to turn the leaf.

Mr. Emerson, reflecting on Thoreau’s death, which occurred on the 6th of May, 1862, says: “The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. . . . He had, in a short life, exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.”

Source: Papyrus Leaves; Poems, Stories, and Essays, edited by William fearing Gill (New York: R. Worthington, 1880) pp. 31-36.