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Chapter 11


    As I came home through the woods with my string of fish,
trailing my pole, it being now quite dark, I caught a glimpse of a
woodchuck stealing across my path, and felt a strange thrill of
savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and devour him
raw; not that I was hungry then, except for that wildness which he
represented.  Once or twice, however, while I lived at the pond, I
found myself ranging the woods, like a half-starved hound, with a
strange abandonment, seeking some kind of venison which I might
devour, and no morsel could have been too savage for me.  The
wildest scenes had become unaccountably familiar.  I found in
myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is
named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a
primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both.  I love
the wild not less than the good.  The wildness and adventure that
are in fishing still recommended it to me.  I like sometimes to take
rank hold on life and spend my day more as the animals do.  Perhaps
I have owed to this employment and to hunting, when quite young, my
closest acquaintance with Nature.  They early introduce us to and
detain us in scenery with which otherwise, at that age, we should
have little acquaintance.  Fishermen, hunters, woodchoppers, and
others, spending their lives in the fields and woods, in a peculiar
sense a part of Nature themselves, are often in a more favorable
mood for observing her, in the intervals of their pursuits, than
philosophers or poets even, who approach her with expectation.  She
is not afraid to exhibit herself to them.  The traveller on the
prairie is naturally a hunter, on the head waters of the Missouri
and Columbia a trapper, and at the Falls of St. Mary a fisherman.
He who is only a traveller learns things at second-hand and by the
halves, and is poor authority.  We are most interested when science
reports what those men already know practically or instinctively,
for that alone is a true humanity, or account of human experience.
    They mistake who assert that the Yankee has few amusements,
because he has not so many public holidays, and men and boys do not
play so many games as they do in England, for here the more
primitive but solitary amusements of hunting, fishing, and the like
have not yet given place to the former.  Almost every New England
boy among my contemporaries shouldered a fowling-piece between the
ages of ten and fourteen; and his hunting and fishing grounds were
not limited, like the preserves of an English nobleman, but were
more boundless even than those of a savage.  No wonder, then, that
he did not oftener stay to play on the common.  But already a change
is taking place, owing, not to an increased humanity, but to an
increased scarcity of game, for perhaps the hunter is the greatest
friend of the animals hunted, not excepting the Humane Society.
    Moreover, when at the pond, I wished sometimes to add fish to my
fare for variety.  I have actually fished from the same kind of
necessity that the first fishers did.  Whatever humanity I might
conjure up against it was all factitious, and concerned my
philosophy more than my feelings.  I speak of fishing only now, for
I had long felt differently about fowling, and sold my gun before I
went to the woods.  Not that I am less humane than others, but I did
not perceive that my feelings were much affected.  I did not pity
the fishes nor the worms.  This was habit.  As for fowling, during
the last years that I carried a gun my excuse was that I was
studying ornithology, and sought only new or rare birds.  But I
confess that I am now inclined to think that there is a finer way of
studying ornithology than this.  It requires so much closer
attention to the habits of the birds, that, if for that reason only,
I have been willing to omit the gun.  Yet notwithstanding the
objection on the score of humanity, I am compelled to doubt if
equally valuable sports are ever substituted for these; and when
some of my friends have asked me anxiously about their boys, whether
they should let them hunt, I have answered, yes -- remembering that
it was one of the best parts of my education -- make them hunters,
though sportsmen only at first, if possible, mighty hunters at last,
so that they shall not find game large enough for them in this or
any vegetable wilderness -- hunters as well as fishers of men.  Thus
far I am of the opinion of Chaucer's nun, who

                 "yave not of the text a pulled hen
            That saith that hunters ben not holy men."

There is a period in the history of the individual, as of the race,
when the hunters are the "best men," as the Algonquins called them.
We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more
humane, while his education has been sadly neglected.  This was my
answer with respect to those youths who were bent on this pursuit,
trusting that they would soon outgrow it.  No humane being, past the
thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature which
holds its life by the same tenure that he does.  The hare in its
extremity cries like a child.  I warn you, mothers, that my
sympathies do not always make the usual philanthropic distinctions.
    Such is oftenest the young man's introduction to the forest, and
the most original part of himself.  He goes thither at first as a
hunter and fisher, until at last, if he has the seeds of a better
life in him, he distinguishes his proper objects, as a poet or
naturalist it may be, and leaves the gun and fish-pole behind.  The
mass of men are still and always young in this respect.  In some
countries a hunting parson is no uncommon sight.  Such a one might
make a good shepherd's dog, but is far from being the Good Shepherd.
I have been surprised to consider that the only obvious employment,
except wood-chopping, ice-cutting, or the like business, which ever
to my knowledge detained at Walden Pond for a whole half-day any of
my fellow-citizens, whether fathers or children of the town, with
just one exception, was fishing.  Commonly they did not think that
they were lucky, or well paid for their time, unless they got a long
string of fish, though they had the opportunity of seeing the pond
all the while.  They might go there a thousand times before the
sediment of fishing would sink to the bottom and leave their purpose
pure; but no doubt such a clarifying process would be going on all
the while.  The Governor and his Council faintly remember the pond,
for they went a-fishing there when they were boys; but now they are
too old and dignified to go a-fishing, and so they know it no more
forever.  Yet even they expect to go to heaven at last.  If the
legislature regards it, it is chiefly to regulate the number of
hooks to be used there; but they know nothing about the hook of
hooks with which to angle for the pond itself, impaling the
legislature for a bait.  Thus, even in civilized communities, the
embryo man passes through the hunter stage of development.
    I have found repeatedly, of late years, that I cannot fish
without falling a little in self-respect.  I have tried it again and
again.  I have skill at it, and, like many of my fellows, a certain
instinct for it, which revives from time to time, but always when I
have done I feel that it would have been better if I had not fished.
I think that I do not mistake.  It is a faint intimation, yet so are
the first streaks of morning.  There is unquestionably this instinct
in me which belongs to the lower orders of creation; yet with every
year I am less a fisherman, though without more humanity or even
wisdom; at present I am no fisherman at all.  But I see that if I
were to live in a wilderness I should again be tempted to become a
fisher and hunter in earnest.  Beside, there is something
essentially unclean about this diet and all flesh, and I began to
see where housework commences, and whence the endeavor, which costs
so much, to wear a tidy and respectable appearance each day, to keep
the house sweet and free from all ill odors and sights.  Having been
my own butcher and scullion and cook, as well as the gentleman for
whom the dishes were served up, I can speak from an unusually
complete experience.  The practical objection to animal food in my
case was its uncleanness; and besides, when I had caught and cleaned
and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me
essentially.  It was insignificant and unnecessary, and cost more
than it came to.  A little bread or a few potatoes would have done
as well, with less trouble and filth.  Like many of my
contemporaries, I had rarely for many years used animal food, or
tea, or coffee, etc.; not so much because of any ill effects which I
had traced to them, as because they were not agreeable to my
imagination.  The repugnance to animal food is not the effect of
experience, but is an instinct.  It appeared more beautiful to live
low and fare hard in many respects; and though I never did so, I
went far enough to please my imagination.  I believe that every man
who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties
in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from
animal food, and from much food of any kind.  It is a significant
fact, stated by entomologists -- I find it in Kirby and Spence --
that "some insects in their perfect state, though furnished with
organs of feeding, make no use of them"; and they lay it down as "a
general rule, that almost all insects in this state eat much less
than in that of larvae.  The voracious caterpillar when transformed
into a butterfly ... and the gluttonous maggot when become a fly"
content themselves with a drop or two of honey or some other sweet
liquid.  The abdomen under the wings of the butterfly still
represents the larva.  This is the tidbit which tempts his
insectivorous fate.  The gross feeder is a man in the larva state;
and there are whole nations in that condition, nations without fancy
or imagination, whose vast abdomens betray them.
    It is hard to provide and cook so simple and clean a diet as
will not offend the imagination; but this, I think, is to be fed
when we feed the body; they should both sit down at the same table.
Yet perhaps this may be done.  The fruits eaten temperately need not
make us ashamed of our appetites, nor interrupt the worthiest
pursuits.  But put an extra condiment into your dish, and it will
poison you.  It is not worth the while to live by rich cookery.
Most men would feel shame if caught preparing with their own hands
precisely such a dinner, whether of animal or vegetable food, as is
every day prepared for them by others.  Yet till this is otherwise
we are not civilized, and, if gentlemen and ladies, are not true men
and women.  This certainly suggests what change is to be made.  It
may be vain to ask why the imagination will not be reconciled to
flesh and fat.  I am satisfied that it is not.  Is it not a reproach
that man is a carnivorous animal?  True, he can and does live, in a
great measure, by preying on other animals; but this is a miserable
way -- as any one who will go to snaring rabbits, or slaughtering
lambs, may learn -- and he will be regarded as a benefactor of his
race who shall teach man to confine himself to a more innocent and
wholesome diet.  Whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt
that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual
improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage
tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact
with the more civilized.
    If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his
genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or
even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more
resolute and faithful, his road lies.  The faintest assured
objection which one healthy man feels will at length prevail over
the arguments and customs of mankind.  No man ever followed his
genius till it misled him.  Though the result were bodily weakness,
yet perhaps no one can say that the consequences were to be
regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles.
If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and
life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more
elastic, more starry, more immortal -- that is your success.  All
nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to
bless yourself.  The greatest gains and values are farthest from
being appreciated.  We easily come to doubt if they exist.  We soon
forget them.  They are the highest reality.  Perhaps the facts most
astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man.  The
true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and
indescribable as the tints of morning or evening.  It is a little
star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.
    Yet, for my part, I was never unusually squeamish; I could
sometimes eat a fried rat with a good relish, if it were necessary.
I am glad to have drunk water so long, for the same reason that I
prefer the natural sky to an opium-eater's heaven.  I would fain
keep sober always; and there are infinite degrees of drunkenness.  I
believe that water is the only drink for a wise man; wine is not so
noble a liquor; and think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a
cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea!  Ah, how
low I fall when I am tempted by them!  Even music may be
intoxicating.  Such apparently slight causes destroyed Greece and
Rome, and will destroy England and America.  Of all ebriosity, who
does not prefer to be intoxicated by the air he breathes?  I have
found it to be the most serious objection to coarse labors long
continued, that they compelled me to eat and drink coarsely also.
But to tell the truth, I find myself at present somewhat less
particular in these respects.  I carry less religion to the table,
ask no blessing; not because I am wiser than I was, but, I am
obliged to confess, because, however much it is to be regretted,
with years I have grown more coarse and indifferent.  Perhaps these
questions are entertained only in youth, as most believe of poetry.
My practice is "nowhere," my opinion is here.  Nevertheless I am far
from regarding myself as one of those privileged ones to whom the
Ved refers when it says, that "he who has true faith in the
Omnipresent Supreme Being may eat all that exists," that is, is not
bound to inquire what is his food, or who prepares it; and even in
their case it is to be observed, as a Hindoo commentator has
remarked, that the Vedant limits this privilege to "the time of
    Who has not sometimes derived an inexpressible satisfaction from
his food in which appetite had no share?  I have been thrilled to
think that I owed a mental perception to the commonly gross sense of
taste, that I have been inspired through the palate, that some
berries which I had eaten on a hillside had fed my genius.  "The
soul not being mistress of herself," says Thseng-tseu, "one looks,
and one does not see; one listens, and one does not hear; one eats,
and one does not know the savor of food."  He who distinguishes the
true savor of his food can never be a glutton; he who does not
cannot be otherwise.  A puritan may go to his brown-bread crust with
as gross an appetite as ever an alderman to his turtle.  Not that
food which entereth into the mouth defileth a man, but the appetite
with which it is eaten.  It is neither the quality nor the quantity,
but the devotion to sensual savors; when that which is eaten is not
a viand to sustain our animal, or inspire our spiritual life, but
food for the worms that possess us.  If the hunter has a taste for
mud-turtles, muskrats, and other such savage tidbits, the fine lady
indulges a taste for jelly made of a calf's foot, or for sardines
from over the sea, and they are even.  He goes to the mill-pond, she
to her preserve-pot.  The wonder is how they, how you and I, can
live this slimy, beastly life, eating and drinking.
    Our whole life is startlingly moral.  There is never an
instant's truce between virtue and vice.  Goodness is the only
investment that never fails.  In the music of the harp which
trembles round the world it is the insisting on this which thrills
us.  The harp is the travelling patterer for the Universe's
Insurance Company, recommending its laws, and our little goodness is
all the assessment that we pay.  Though the youth at last grows
indifferent, the laws of the universe are not indifferent, but are
forever on the side of the most sensitive.  Listen to every zephyr
for some reproof, for it is surely there, and he is unfortunate who
does not hear it.  We cannot touch a string or move a stop but the
charming moral transfixes us.  Many an irksome noise, go a long way
off, is heard as music, a proud, sweet satire on the meanness of our
    We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion
as our higher nature slumbers.  It is reptile and sensual, and
perhaps cannot be wholly expelled; like the worms which, even in
life and health, occupy our bodies.  Possibly we may withdraw from
it, but never change its nature.  I fear that it may enjoy a certain
health of its own; that we may be well, yet not pure.  The other day
I picked up the lower jaw of a hog, with white and sound teeth and
tusks, which suggested that there was an animal health and vigor
distinct from the spiritual.  This creature succeeded by other means
than temperance and purity.  "That in which men differ from brute
beasts," says Mencius, "is a thing very inconsiderable; the common
herd lose it very soon; superior men preserve it carefully."  Who
knows what sort of life would result if we had attained to purity?
If I knew so wise a man as could teach me purity I would go to seek
him forthwith.  "A command over our passions, and over the external
senses of the body, and good acts, are declared by the Ved to be
indispensable in the mind's approximation to God."  Yet the spirit
can for the time pervade and control every member and function of
the body, and transmute what in form is the grossest sensuality
into purity and devotion.  The generative energy, which, when we are
loose, dissipates and makes us unclean, when we are continent
invigorates and inspires us.  Chastity is the flowering of man; and
what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, are but
various fruits which succeed it.  Man flows at once to God when the
channel of purity is open.  By turns our purity inspires and our
impurity casts us down.  He is blessed who is assured that the
animal is dying out in him day by day, and the divine being
established.  Perhaps there is none but has cause for shame on
account of the inferior and brutish nature to which he is allied.  I
fear that we are such gods or demigods only as fauns and satyrs, the
divine allied to beasts, the creatures of appetite, and that, to
some extent, our very life is our disgrace.--

            "How happy's he who hath due place assigned
             To his beasts and disafforested his mind!
                           . . . . . . .
                Can use this horse, goat, wolf, and ev'ry beast,
             And is not ass himself to all the rest!
             Else man not only is the herd of swine,
             But he's those devils too which did incline
             Them to a headlong rage, and made them worse."

    All sensuality is one, though it takes many forms; all purity is
one.  It is the same whether a man eat, or drink, or cohabit, or
sleep sensually.  They are but one appetite, and we only need to see
a person do any one of these things to know how great a sensualist
he is.  The impure can neither stand nor sit with purity.  When the
reptile is attacked at one mouth of his burrow, he shows himself at
another.  If you would be chaste, you must be temperate.  What is
chastity?  How shall a man know if he is chaste?  He shall not know
it.  We have heard of this virtue, but we know not what it is.  We
speak conformably to the rumor which we have heard.  From exertion
come wisdom and purity; from sloth ignorance and sensuality.  In the
student sensuality is a sluggish habit of mind.  An unclean person
is universally a slothful one, one who sits by a stove, whom the sun
shines on prostrate, who reposes without being fatigued.  If you
would avoid uncleanness, and all the sins, work earnestly, though it
be at cleaning a stable.  Nature is hard to be overcome, but she
must be overcome.  What avails it that you are Christian, if you are
not purer than the heathen, if you deny yourself no more, if you are
not more religious?  I know of many systems of religion esteemed
heathenish whose precepts fill the reader with shame, and provoke
him to new endeavors, though it be to the performance of rites
    I hesitate to say these things, but it is not because of the
subject -- I care not how obscene my words are -- but because I
cannot speak of them without betraying my impurity.  We discourse
freely without shame of one form of sensuality, and are silent about
another.  We are so degraded that we cannot speak simply of the
necessary functions of human nature.  In earlier ages, in some
countries, every function was reverently spoken of and regulated by
law.  Nothing was too trivial for the Hindoo lawgiver, however
offensive it may be to modern taste.  He teaches how to eat, drink,
cohabit, void excrement and urine, and the like, elevating what is
mean, and does not falsely excuse himself by calling these things
    Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the
god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by
hammering marble instead.  We are all sculptors and painters, and
our material is our own flesh and blood and bones.  Any nobleness
begins at once to refine a man's features, any meanness or
sensuality to imbrute them.
    John Farmer sat at his door one September evening, after a hard
day's work, his mind still running on his labor more or less.
Having bathed, he sat down to re-create his intellectual man.  It
was a rather cool evening, and some of his neighbors were
apprehending a frost.  He had not attended to the train of his
thoughts long when he heard some one playing on a flute, and that
sound harmonized with his mood.  Still he thought of his work; but
the burden of his thought was, that though this kept running in his
head, and he found himself planning and contriving it against his
will, yet it concerned him very little.  It was no more than the
scurf of his skin, which was constantly shuffled off.  But the notes
of the flute came home to his ears out of a different sphere from
that he worked in, and suggested work for certain faculties which
slumbered in him.  They gently did away with the street, and the
village, and the state in which he lived.  A voice said to him --
Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a
glorious existence is possible for you?  Those same stars twinkle
over other fields than these. -- But how to come out of this
condition and actually migrate thither?  All that he could think of
was to practise some new austerity, to let his mind descend into his
body and redeem it, and treat himself with ever increasing respect.

Henry David Thoreau

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