Tag Archives: nature

What does Thoreau mean by “Compassion is a very untenable ground”? (Walden 197)

Thoreau believed strongly that we need to witness the power of nature, to observe how it transgresses our limits. And this includes seeing what we perceive as the darker and more grotesque side of nature. As we come to the end of the chapter “Spring,” he’s about to say something startling, something which, if taken out of context, would seem callous and offensive — we’ll get to that a little later. “We are cheered when we observe the vulture feeding on the carrion which disgusts and disheartens us, and deriving health and strength from the repast.” Are you cheered when you see vultures circling in the sky, or feasting on road kill? Continue reading

The tonic of wildness (Walden 196)

“Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness — to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” — Henry David Thoreau, from “Spring,” Walden Continue reading

Hawk in flight (Walden 195)

It was not lonely, but made all the earth lonely beneath it.

Nighthawk. Wikimedia Commons

Nighthawk. Wikimedia Commons

I observed a very slight and graceful hawk, like a nighthawk,
alternately soaring like a ripple and
a rod or two
over and over,
showing the under side of its wings,
which gleamed like a satin ribbon in the sun,
or like the pearly inside of a shell… Continue reading

A single gentle rain — “if we lived in the present always” (Walden 194)

“A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty. We loiter in winter while it is already spring.”

— Henry David Thoreau, from “Spring,” Walden

This is one of the most eloquent statements about living in the present that I have ever read. Thoreau goes on to praise the season’s power of renewal: Continue reading

Thoreau on squirrels, part 2 (Walden 192)

A squirrel stares down at you from a high perch, chirping loudly, sounding the alarm. If a squirrel could form words, what words would they be? I always imagine them swearing at me. I realize I’m being anthropomorphic, but something about squirrel behavior communicates a complete lack of respect for our human sense of dignity and superiority. Henry got a taste of this when squirrels moved in under his house.

“At the approach of spring the red squirrels got under my house, two at a time, directly under my feet as I sat reading or writing, and kept up the queerest chuckling and chirruping and vocal pirouetting and gurgling sounds that ever were heard; and when I stamped they only chirruped the louder, as if past all fear and respect in their mad pranks, defying humanity to stop them. No, you don’t — chickaree — chickaree. They were wholly deaf to my arguments, or failed to perceive their force, and fell into a strain of invective that was irresistible.”

(His earlier colorful description of squirrel behavior is here.)

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

Thoreau’s Spring, a time to admire last year’s dead vegetation (Walden 191)

In early spring it’s always pleasant to see the new shoots springing up from barely-thawed soil, or sometimes poking through snow. Even before they amount to much they’re full of the promise of summer.

But who on earth spends time admiring the dead vegetation left over from the previous year?

Thoreau, of course.

“When the ground was partially bare of snow, and a few warm days had dried its surface somewhat, it was pleasant to compare the first tender signs of the infant year just peeping forth with the stately beauty of the withered vegetation which had withstood the winter — life-everlasting, goldenrods, pinweeds, and graceful wild grasses, more obvious and interesting frequently than in summer even, as if their beauty was not ripe till then…”

He has a point. Even grasses, which we often mistakenly consider weak or insubstantial, stand up remarkably well under winter conditions. Henry was most impressed with the wool-grass (Scirpus cyperinus).

“Many of the phenomena of Winter are suggestive of an inexpressible tenderness and fragile delicacy. We are accustomed to hear this king described as a rude and boisterous tyrant; but with the gentleness of a lover he adorns the tresses of Summer.”


(About  “A Year in Walden”)

Thaw (Walden 190)


with his gentle persuasion

is more powerful than

Thor with his hammer.

The one melts,

The other but breaks in pieces.

— Henry David Thoreau, from “Spring,” Walden

(About  “A Year in Walden”)