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Chapter 18


To the sick the doctors wisely recommend a change of air and
scenery. Thank Heaven, here is not all the world. The buckeye does
not grow in New England, and the mockingbird is rarely heard here.
The wild goose is more of a cosmopolite than we; he breaks his fast
in Canada, takes a luncheon in the Ohio, and plumes himself for the
night in a southern bayou. Even the bison, to some extent, keeps
pace with the seasons cropping the pastures of the Colorado only
till a greener and sweeter grass awaits him by the Yellowstone.

Yet we think that if rail fences are pulled down, and stone walls piled
up on our farms, bounds are henceforth set to our lives and our
fates decided. If you are chosen town clerk, forsooth, you cannot
go to Tierra del Fuego this summer: but you may go to the land of
infernal fire nevertheless. The universe is wider than our views of

Yet we should oftener look over the tafferel of our craft, like
curious passengers, and not make the voyage like stupid sailors
picking oakum. The other side of the globe is but the home of our
correspondent. Our voyaging is only great-circle sailing, and the
doctors prescribe for diseases of the skin merely. One hastens to
southern Africa to chase the giraffe; but surely that is not the
game he would be after. How long, pray, would a man hunt giraffes
if he could? Snipes and woodcocks also may afford rare sport; but I
trust it would be nobler game to shoot one's self.--

"Direct your eye right inward, and you'll find
A thousand regions in your mind
Yet undiscovered. Travel them, and be
Expert in home-cosmography."

What does Africa -- what does the West stand for? Is not our own
interior white on the chart? black though it may prove, like the
coast, when discovered. Is it the source of the Nile, or the Niger,
or the Mississippi, or a Northwest Passage around this continent,
that we would find? Are these the problems which most concern
mankind? Is Franklin the only man who is lost, that his wife should
be so earnest to find him? Does Mr. Grinnell know where he himself
is? Be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clark and Frobisher, of
your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes --
with shiploads of preserved meats to support you, if they be
necessary; and pile the empty cans sky-high for a sign. Were
preserved meats invented to preserve meat merely? Nay, be a
Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new
channels, not of trade, but of thought. Every man is the lord of a
realm beside which the earthly empire of the Czar is but a petty
state, a hummock left by the ice. Yet some can be patriotic who
have no self-respect, and sacrifice the greater to the less. They
love the soil which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with
the spirit which may still animate their clay. Patriotism is a
maggot in their heads. What was the meaning of that South-Sea
Exploring Expedition, with all its parade and expense, but an
indirect recognition of the fact that there are continents and seas
in the moral world to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet
unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousand miles
through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with
five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the
private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one's being alone.

"Erret, et extremos alter scrutetur Iberos.
Plus habet hic vitae, plus habet ille viae."

Let them wander and scrutinize the outlandish Australians.
I have more of God, they more of the road.

It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in
Zanzibar. Yet do this even till you can do better, and you may
perhaps find some "Symmes' Hole" by which to get at the inside at
last. England and France, Spain and Portugal, Gold Coast and Slave
Coast, all front on this private sea; but no bark from them has
ventured out of sight of land, though it is without doubt the direct
way to India. If you would learn to speak all tongues and conform
to the customs of all nations, if you would travel farther than all
travellers, be naturalized in all climes, and cause the Sphinx to
dash her head against a stone, even obey the precept of the old
philosopher, and Explore thyself. Herein are demanded the eye and
the nerve. Only the defeated and deserters go to the wars, cowards
that run away and enlist. Start now on that farthest western way,
which does not pause at the Mississippi or the Pacific, nor conduct
toward a wornout China or Japan, but leads on direct, a tangent to
this sphere, summer and winter, day and night, sun down, moon down,
and at last earth down too.

It is said that Mirabeau took to highway robbery "to ascertain
what degree of resolution was necessary in order to place one's self
in formal opposition to the most sacred laws of society." He
declared that "a soldier who fights in the ranks does not require
half so much courage as a footpad" -- "that honor and religion have
never stood in the way of a well-considered and a firm resolve."
This was manly, as the world goes; and yet it was idle, if not
desperate. A saner man would have found himself often enough "in
formal opposition" to what are deemed "the most sacred laws of
society," through obedience to yet more sacred laws, and so have
tested his resolution without going out of his way. It is not for a
man to put himself in such an attitude to society, but to maintain
himself in whatever attitude he find himself through obedience to
the laws of his being, which will never be one of opposition to a
just government, if he should chance to meet with such.
I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps
it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not
spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and
insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track
for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a
path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six
years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I
fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it
open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet
of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and
dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of
tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage,
but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for
there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not
wish to go below now.

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances
confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live
the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success
unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will
pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws
will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old
laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal
sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of
beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the
universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be
solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have
built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where
they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that
you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor
toadstools grow so. As if that were important, and there were not
enough to understand you without them. As if Nature could support
but one order of understandings, could not sustain birds as well as
quadrupeds, flying as well as creeping things, and hush and whoa,
which Bright can understand, were the best English. As if there
were safety in stupidity alone. I fear chiefly lest my expression
may not be extravagant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the
narrow limits of my daily experience, so as to be adequate to the
truth of which I have been convinced. Extra vagance! it depends on
how you are yarded. The migrating buffalo, which seeks new pastures
in another latitude, is not extravagant like the cow which kicks
over the pail, leaps the cowyard fence, and runs after her calf, in
milking time. I desire to speak somewhere without bounds; like a
man in a waking moment, to men in their waking moments; for I am
convinced that I cannot exaggerate enough even to lay the foundation
of a true expression. Who that has heard a strain of music feared
then lest he should speak extravagantly any more forever? In view
of the future or possible, we should live quite laxly and undefined
in front, our outlines dim and misty on that side; as our shadows
reveal an insensible perspiration toward the sun. The volatile
truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the
residual statement. Their truth is instantly translated; its
literal monument alone remains. The words which express our faith
and piety are not definite; yet they are significant and fragrant
like frankincense to superior natures.

Why level downward to our dullest perception always, and praise
that as common sense? The commonest sense is the sense of men
asleep, which they express by snoring. Sometimes we are inclined to
class those who are once-and-a-half-witted with the half-witted,
because we appreciate only a third part of their wit. Some would
find fault with the morning red, if they ever got up early enough.
"They pretend," as I hear, "that the verses of Kabir have four
different senses; illusion, spirit, intellect, and the exoteric
doctrine of the Vedas"; but in this part of the world it is
considered a ground for complaint if a man's writings admit of more
than one interpretation. While England endeavors to cure the
potato-rot, will not any endeavor to cure the brain-rot, which
prevails so much more widely and fatally?

I do not suppose that I have attained to obscurity, but I should
be proud if no more fatal fault were found with my pages on this
score than was found with the Walden ice. Southern customers
objected to its blue color, which is the evidence of its purity, as
if it were muddy, and preferred the Cambridge ice, which is white,
but tastes of weeds. The purity men love is like the mists which
envelop the earth, and not like the azure ether beyond.
Some are dinning in our ears that we Americans, and moderns
generally, are intellectual dwarfs compared with the ancients, or
even the Elizabethan men. But what is that to the purpose? A
living dog is better than a dead lion. Shall a man go and hang
himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the
biggest pygmy that he can? Let every one mind his own business, and
endeavor to be what he was made.

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such
desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his
companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let
him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple tree
or an oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer? If the condition
of things which we were made for is not yet, what were any reality
which we can substitute? We will not be shipwrecked on a vain
reality. Shall we with pains erect a heaven of blue glass over
ourselves, though when it is done we shall be sure to gaze still at
the true ethereal heaven far above, as if the former were not?
There was an artist in the city of Kouroo who was disposed to
strive after perfection. One day it came into his mind to make a
staff. Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an
ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to
himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do
nothing else in my life. He proceeded instantly to the forest for
wood, being resolved that it should not be made of unsuitable
material; and as he searched for and rejected stick after stick, his
friends gradually deserted him, for they grew old in their works and
died, but he grew not older by a moment. His singleness of purpose
and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his
knowledge, with perennial youth. As he made no compromise with
Time, Time kept out of his way, and only sighed at a distance
because he could not overcome him. Before he had found a stock in
all respects suitable the city of Kouroo was a hoary ruin, and he
sat on one of its mounds to peel the stick. Before he had given it
the proper shape the dynasty of the Candahars was at an end, and
with the point of the stick he wrote the name of the last of that
race in the sand, and then resumed his work. By the time he had
smoothed and polished the staff Kalpa was no longer the pole-star;
and ere he had put on the ferule and the head adorned with precious
stones, Brahma had awoke and slumbered many times. But why do I
stay to mention these things? When the finishing stroke was put to
his work, it suddenly expanded before the eyes of the astonished
artist into the fairest of all the creations of Brahma. He had made
a new system in making a staff, a world with full and fair
proportions; in which, though the old cities and dynasties had
passed away, fairer and more glorious ones had taken their places.
And now he saw by the heap of shavings still fresh at his feet,
that, for him and his work, the former lapse of time had been an
illusion, and that no more time had elapsed than is required for a
single scintillation from the brain of Brahma to fall on and inflame
the tinder of a mortal brain. The material was pure, and his art
was pure; how could the result be other than wonderful?
No face which we can give to a matter will stead us so well at
last as the truth. This alone wears well. For the most part, we
are not where we are, but in a false position. Through an infinity
of our natures, we suppose a case, and put ourselves into it, and
hence are in two cases at the same time, and it is doubly difficult
to get out. In sane moments we regard only the facts, the case that
is. Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is
better than make-believe. Tom Hyde, the tinker, standing on the
gallows, was asked if he had anything to say. "Tell the tailors,"
said he, "to remember to make a knot in their thread before they
take the first stitch." His companion's prayer is forgotten.

However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it
and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks
poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults
even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps
have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse.
The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as
brightly as from the rich man's abode; the snow melts before its
door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live
as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.
The town's poor seem to me often to live the most independent lives
of any. Maybe they are simply great enough to receive without
misgiving. Most think that they are above being supported by the
town; but it oftener happens that they are not above supporting
themselves by dishonest means, which should be more disreputable.
Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble
yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn
the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell
your clothes and keep your thoughts. God will see that you do not
want society. If I were confined to a corner of a garret all my
days, like a spider, the world would be just as large to me while I
had my thoughts about me. The philosopher said: "From an army of
three divisions one can take away its general, and put it in
disorder; from the man the most abject and vulgar one cannot take
away his thought." Do not seek so anxiously to be developed, to
subject yourself to many influences to be played on; it is all
dissipation. Humility like darkness reveals the heavenly lights.
The shadows of poverty and meanness gather around us, "and lo!
creation widens to our view." We are often reminded that if there
were bestowed on us the wealth of Croesus, our aims must still be
the same, and our means essentially the same. Moreover, if you are
restricted in your range by poverty, if you cannot buy books and
newspapers, for instance, you are but confined to the most
significant and vital experiences; you are compelled to deal with
the material which yields the most sugar and the most starch. It is
life near the bone where it is sweetest. You are defended from
being a trifler. No man loses ever on a lower level by magnanimity
on a higher. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money
is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.
I live in the angle of a leaden wall, into whose composition was
poured a little alloy of bell-metal. Often, in the repose of my
mid-day, there reaches my ears a confused tintinnabulum from
without. It is the noise of my contemporaries. My neighbors tell
me of their adventures with famous gentlemen and ladies, what
notabilities they met at the dinner-table; but I am no more
interested in such things than in the contents of the Daily Times.

The interest and the conversation are about costume and manners
chiefly; but a goose is a goose still, dress it as you will. They
tell me of California and Texas, of England and the Indies, of the
Hon. Mr. --- of Georgia or of Massachusetts, all transient and
fleeting phenomena, till I am ready to leap from their court-yard
like the Mameluke bey. I delight to come to my bearings -- not walk
in procession with pomp and parade, in a conspicuous place, but to
walk even with the Builder of the universe, if I may -- not to live
in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, but
stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by. What are men
celebrating? They are all on a committee of arrangements, and
hourly expect a speech from somebody. God is only the president of
the day, and Webster is his orator. I love to weigh, to settle, to
gravitate toward that which most strongly and rightfully attracts
me -- not hang by the beam of the scale and try to weigh less -- not
suppose a case, but take the case that is; to travel the only path I
can, and that on which no power can resist me. It affords me no
satisfaction to commerce to spring an arch before I have got a solid
foundation. Let us not play at kittly-benders. There is a solid
bottom everywhere. We read that the traveller asked the boy if the
swamp before him had a hard bottom. The boy replied that it had.
But presently the traveller's horse sank in up to the girths, and he
observed to the boy, "I thought you said that this bog had a hard
bottom." "So it has," answered the latter, "but you have not got
half way to it yet." So it is with the bogs and quicksands of
society; but he is an old boy that knows it. Only what is thought,
said, or done at a certain rare coincidence is good. I would not be
one of those who will foolishly drive a nail into mere lath and
plastering; such a deed would keep me awake nights. Give me a
hammer, and let me feel for the furring. Do not depend on the
putty. Drive a nail home and clinch it so faithfully that you can
wake up in the night and think of your work with satisfaction -- a
work at which you would not be ashamed to invoke the Muse. So will
help you God, and so only. Every nail driven should be as another
rivet in the machine of the universe, you carrying on the work.
Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat
at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and
obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went
away hungry from the inhospitable board. The hospitality was as
cold as the ices. I thought that there was no need of ice to freeze
them. They talked to me of the age of the wine and the fame of the
vintage; but I thought of an older, a newer, and purer wine, of a
more glorious vintage, which they had not got, and could not buy.
The style, the house and grounds and "entertainment" pass for
nothing with me. I called on the king, but he made me wait in his
hall, and conducted like a man incapacitated for hospitality. There
was a man in my neighborhood who lived in a hollow tree. His
manners were truly regal. I should have done better had I called on

How long shall we sit in our porticoes practising idle and musty
virtues, which any work would make impertinent? As if one were to
begin the day with long-suffering, and hire a man to hoe his
potatoes; and in the afternoon go forth to practise Christian
meekness and charity with goodness aforethought! Consider the China
pride and stagnant self-complacency of mankind. This generation
inclines a little to congratulate itself on being the last of an
illustrious line; and in Boston and London and Paris and Rome,
thinking of its long descent, it speaks of its progress in art and
science and literature with satisfaction. There are the Records of
the Philosophical Societies, and the public Eulogies of Great Men!
It is the good Adam contemplating his own virtue. "Yes, we have
done great deeds, and sung divine songs, which shall never die" --
that is, as long as we can remember them. The learned societies and
great men of Assyria -- where are they? What youthful philosophers
and experimentalists we are! There is not one of my readers who has
yet lived a whole human life. These may be but the spring months in
the life of the race. If we have had the seven-years' itch, we have
not seen the seventeen-year locust yet in Concord. We are
acquainted with a mere pellicle of the globe on which we live. Most
have not delved six feet beneath the surface, nor leaped as many
above it. We know not where we are. Beside, we are sound asleep
nearly half our time. Yet we esteem ourselves wise, and have an
established order on the surface. Truly, we are deep thinkers, we
are ambitious spirits! As I stand over the insect crawling amid the
pine needles on the forest floor, and endeavoring to conceal itself
from my sight, and ask myself why it will cherish those humble
thoughts, and bide its head from me who might, perhaps, be its
benefactor, and impart to its race some cheering information, I am
reminded of the greater Benefactor and Intelligence that stands over
me the human insect.

There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet
we tolerate incredible dulness. I need only suggest what kind of
sermons are still listened to in the most enlightened countries.
There are such words as joy and sorrow, but they are only the burden
of a psalm, sung with a nasal twang, while we believe in the
ordinary and mean. We think that we can change our clothes only.
It is said that the British Empire is very large and respectable,
and that the United States are a first-rate power. We do not
believe that a tide rises and falls behind every man which can float
the British Empire like a chip, if he should ever harbor it in his
mind. Who knows what sort of seventeen-year locust will next come
out of the ground? The government of the world I live in was not
framed, like that of Britain, in after-dinner conversations over the

The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this
year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched
uplands; even this may be the eventful year, which will drown out
all our muskrats. It was not always dry land where we dwell. I see
far inland the banks which the stream anciently washed, before
science began to record its freshets. Every one has heard the story
which has gone the rounds of New England, of a strong and beautiful
bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree
wood, which had stood in a farmer's kitchen for sixty years, first
in Connecticut, and afterward in Massachusetts -- from an egg
deposited in the living tree many years earlier still, as appeared
by counting the annual layers beyond it; which was heard gnawing out
for several weeks, hatched perchance by the heat of an urn. Who
does not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality
strengthened by hearing of this? Who knows what beautiful and
winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many
concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society,
deposited at first in the alburnum of the green and living tree,
which has been gradually converted into the semblance of its
well-seasoned tomb -- heard perchance gnawing out now for years by
the astonished family of man, as they sat round the festive board --
may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society's most trivial and
handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!
I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this; but
such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can
never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness
to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more
day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.


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Henry David Thoreau

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