Out and Around Myself, H.D. Thoreau on Perception
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Out and Around Myself, H.D. Thoreau on Perception
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Seeing Anew: Exploring Perception

From the Writings of Henry David Thoreau

First of all a man must see, before he can say.
Journal, November 1, 1851

Simply to see a distant horizon through clean air… is wealth enough for one afternoon.

The noblest feature, the eye, is the fairest-colored, the jewel of the body. Journal, October 24, 1858

The senses of children are unprofaned. Their whole body is one sense; they take a physical pleasure in riding on a rail, they love to teeter. So does the unviolated, the unsophisticated mind derive an inexpressible pleasure from the simplest exercise of thoughts.
Journal, July 7, 1851

I suspect that the child plucks its first flower with an insight into its beauty and significance which the subsequent botanist never retains.
Journal, February 5, 1852

A child loves to strike on a tin pan or other ringing vessel with a stick, because the child's ears being fresh, sound, attentive, and percipient, a child detects the finest music in the sound, at which all nature assists.

So clear and unprejudiced ears hear the sweetest and most soul-stirring melody in tinkling cowbells and the like as in dogs baying at the moon, not to be referred to association, but intrinsic in the sound itself; those cheap and simple sounds which adults despise because their ears are dull and debauched.

Ah, that I were so much a child that I could unfailingly draw music from a quart pot! The child's small ears tingle with the melody. To a child there is music in sound alone.
July 16, 1851

...I think that no experience which I have today comes up to, or is comparable with, the experiences of my boyhood.

And not only this is true, but as far back as I can remember I have unconsciously referred to the experience of a previous state of existence. "For life is a forgetting," etc.

Formerly, methought, Nature developed as I developed, and grew up with me. My life was ecstasy. In youth, before I lost any of my senses, I can remember that I was alive, and inhabited my body with inexpressive satisfaction; both its weariness and its refreshment were sweet to me.

This earth was the most glorious musical instrument, and I was audience to its strains. To have such sweet impressions made on us, such ecstasies begotten of the breezes!

I can remember how I was astonished. I said to myself - I said to others -"There comes into my mind such an indescribable, infinite, all-absorbing, divine, heavenly pleasure, a sense of elevation and expansion, and [I] have had naught to do with it. I perceive that I am dealt with by superior powers.

This is a pleasure, a joy, an existence which I have not procured myself. I speak as a witness on the stand, and tell what I have perceived." The morning and the evening were sweet to me, and I led a life aloof from society of men.

I wondered if a mortal had ever known what I knew. I looked in books for some recognition of a kindred experience, but, strange to say, I found none.

Indeed, I was slow to discover that other men had had this experience, for it had been possible to read books and associate with men on other grounds. The maker of me was improving me. When I detected this interference I was profoundly moved.

For year I marched as to a music in comparison with which the military music of the streets is noise and discord. I was daily intoxicated, and yet no man could call me intemperate. With all your science can you tell me how it is, and whence it is, that light comes into the soul?

The laws of the universe are not indifferent, but are forever on the side of the most sensitive.

Objects are concealed from our view not so much because they are out of the course of our visual ray as because there is no intention of the mind and eye toward them.

Goodness is one, though appreciated in different ways, or by different senses. In beauty we see it, in music we hear it, in fragrance we scent it, in the palatable the pure palate tastes it, and in rare health the whole body feels it"
Journal, October 24, 1858

Me thinks the scent is a more primitive inquisition than the eye, more oracular and trustworthy. When I criticize my own writing, I go by the scent, as it were. The scent reveals, of course, what is concealed from the other senses. By it I detect earthiness.
Journal, May 8, 1852

I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one, -- that my body might, -- but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them.

What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature, --daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, --rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?
Maine Woods, "Katahdin"

I get away a mile or two from the town into the stillness and solitude of nature, with rocks, trees, weeds, snow about me. I enter some glade in the woods, perchance, where a few weeds and dry leaves alone lift themselves above the surface of the snow, and it is as if I had come to an open window. I see out and around myself...This stillness, solitude, wildness of nature is a kind of thoroughwort, or boneset, to my intellect. This is what I go out to seek.
Journal, January 7, 1857

There is some advantage, intellectually and spiritually, in taking wide views with the bodily eye and not pursuing an occupation which holds the body prone.

There is some advantage, perhaps, in attending to the general features of the landscape over studying the particular plants and animals which inhabit it. One may walk abroad and no more see the sky than if one walked under a shed.

The poet is more in the air than the naturalist, though they may walk side by side. Granted that you are out-of-doors; but what if the outer door is open, if the inner door is shut!

You must walk sometimes perfectly free, not prying nor inquisitive, not bent upon seeing things. Throw away a whole day for a single expansion, a single inspiration of air. August 21st, 1851

I must walk with more frees senses. It as bad to "study" stars and clouds as flowers and stones. I must let my senses wander as my thoughts, my eyes see without looking. I have the habit of attention to such excess that my senses get no rest, but suffer from a constant strain. Be not preoccupied with looking. Go not to the object; let it come to you.

When I have found myself ever looking down and confining my gaze to the flowers, I have thought it might be well to get into the habit of observing the clouds as a corrective; but no! that study would be just as bad. What I need is not to look at all, but a true sauntering of the eye!
September 13th, 1852

On Heywood's Peak by Walden - The surface is not perfectly smooth, on account of the zephyr, and the reflections of the woods are a little indistinct and blurred.

How soothing to sit on a stump on this height, overlooking the pond, and study the dimpling circles which are incessantly inscribed and again erased on the smooth and otherwise invisible surface, amid the reflected skies!

The reflected sky is of a deeper blue. How beautiful that over this vast expanse there can be no disturbance, but it is thus at once gently smoothed away and assuaged, as, when a vase of water is jarred, the trembling circles seek the shore and all is smooth again!

Not a fish can leap or an insect fall on it but it is reported in lines of beauty, in circling dimples, as it were the constant welling up of its fountain, the gentle pulsing of life, the heaving of it breast.

The thrills of joy and those of pain are indistinguishable. How sweet the phenomena of the Lake! Everything that moves on its surface produces a sparkle. The peaceful pond! The works of men shine as in the spring. The motion of an oar or an insect produces a flash of light; and if an oar falls, how sweet the echo!
Journal, September 20th, 1852

Nature has looked uncommonly bare and dry to me for a day or two. With our senses applied to the surrounding world we are reading our own physical and corresponding moral revolutions.

Nature was so shallow all at once I did not know what had attracted me all my life. I was therefore encouraged when, going through a field this evening. I was unexpectedly struck with the beauty of an apple tree. The perception of beauty is a moral test.
June 21st, 1852

My pulse must beat with Nature. After a hard day's work without a thought, turning my very brain into a mere tool, only in the quiet of the evening do I so far recover my senses as to hear the cricket, which in fact has been chirping all day.

We live but a fraction of our life. Why do we not let on the flood, raise the gates, and set all our wheels in motion? Those that hath ears to hear, let them hear. Employ your senses.

See, hear, smell, taste,.... while all the senses are fresh and pure as in a late evening when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. We must store up none of the life in our gift; it is as fatal as to husband our breath. We must live all of our life.

I love the nature, I love the landscape - it is cheerfully, musically earnest. I love to see a sandy road cutting through a pitch pine wood, I love to hear the wind howl, I love the sweet fragrance of clover, I love to drink the water of the meadow or the river I pass the day on, I love to sit on the withered grass.

Let Nature feel your pulse" to see "if your sensuous existence is sound "Feel your senses with the best that the land affords "what your senses hourly perceive, commonest events, every-day phenomena.

Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air. drink the drink, taste the fruit, and open yourself to the influences of each. Whatever addresses them, as the flavor of these berries, or the lowing of that cow... each sight and sound and scent and flavor -- intoxicates with a healthy intoxication Let them be your only diet drink.

Be blown on by all the winds. Open all your pores and bathe in all the tides of Nature, in all her streams and oceans, at all seasons. We must store up none of the life in our gift; it is as fatal as to husband our breath. We must live all of our life.

I wish to hear the silence of the night, for the silence is something positive and to be heard. I cannot walk with my ears covered. I must stand still and listen with open ears, far from the noises of the village, that the night may make its impression on me.

The laws of the universe are not indifferent, but are forever o the side of the sensitive.

Do what you love. Know your own bone. Circle it. Gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it and gnaw it still. We must get our living from loving.

When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall? Of course it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods, if they do not carry us thither.

I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society.

But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is, - I am out of my senses.

In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods? I suspect myself, and cannot help a shudder, when I find myself so implicated even in what are called good works, - for this may sometimes happen.

Surely joy is the condition of life. Think of the young fry that leap on ponds, the myriads of insects ushered into being on a summer evening, the incessant note of the hyla with which the woods ring in the spring, the nonchalance of the butterfly carrying accident and change painted in a thousand hues upon its wings, the brook minnow stoutly stemming the current, or a sunset, nature's most gorgeous sight.

It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know. I do not get nearer by a hair's breadth to any natural object so long as I presume I have an introduction to it from some learned man.

To conceive of it with total apprehension I must for the thousandth time approach it as something totally strange. If you would make acquaintance with the ferns you must forget your botany. You must get rid of what is commonly called knowledge of them.

You must be aware that no thing is what you have taken it to be. In what book is this world and its beauty described? Who has plotted the steps toward the discovery of beauty?

You have got to be in a different state from common. Your greatest success will be simply to perceive that such things are, and you will have no communication to make to the Royal Society. Journal, October 4th, 1859

There is a season for everything, and we do not notice a give phenomenon except at that season, if, indeed, it can be called the same phenomenon at any other season.

There is a time to watch the ripples on Ripple Lake, to look for arrowheads, to study the rocks and lichens, a time to walk on sandy deserts; and the observer of nature must improve these seasons as much as the farmer his.

So boys fly kites and play ball or hawkie at particular times all over the State. A wise man will know what game to play to-day and play it. We must not be governed by rigid rules, as by the almanac, but let the season rule us.

The moods and thoughts of man are revolving just as steadily and incessantly as nature's. Nothing must be postponed. Take time by the forelock. Now or never!

You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this, or the like of this. Where the good husbandman is, there is good soil.

Take any other course, and life will be a succession of regrets. Let us see vessels sailing prosperously before the wind, and not simply stranded barks. There is not world for the penitent and regretful.
Journal, April 13rd, 1859

February 3, 1851 The write must to some extent inspire himself. Most of his sentences may at first lie dead in his essay, but when all are arranged, some life and color will be reflected on them from the mature and successful lines; they will appear to pulsate with fresh life, and he will be enabled to eke out their slumbering sense, and make them worthy of their neighborhood.

In his first essay on a given theme, he produces scarcely more than a frame and groundwork for his sentiment and poetry. Each clear thought that he attains to draws in its train many divided thoughts of perceptions.

The writer has much to do even to create a theme for himself. Most that is first written on any subject is a mere groping after it, mere rubble-stone and foundation.

It is only when many observations of different periods have been brought together that he begins to grasp his subject and can make one pertinent and just observations.

March 11th, 1859 Find out as soon as possible what are the best things in your composition, and then shape the rest to fit them. The former will be the midrib and veins of the leaf.

There is always some accident in the best things, whether thoughts of expressions or deeds. The memorable thought, the happy expression, the admirable deed are only partly ours.

The thought came to us because we were in a fit mood; also we were unconscious and did not know that we had said or done a good thing. We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success.

What we do best or most perfectly is what we have most thoroughly learned by the longest practice, and at length it falls from us without our notice, as a leaf from a tree. It is the last time she shall do it, - our unconscious leavings.

Wisdom does not inspect, but behold. We must look a long time before we can see.
Excursions, "Natural History of Massachusetts.

The Universe is wider than our views of it.
Walden, Conclusion

The prosaic man sees things badly, or with the bodily sense; but the poet sees them clad in beauty, with the spiritual sense.
November 8th, 1858

Nature has many scenes to exhibit, and constantly draws a curtain over this part of that. She is constantly repainting the landscape and all surfaces, dressing up some scene for our entertainment.

Lately we had a leafy wilderness, now bare twigs begin to prevail, and soon she will surprise us with a mantle of snow. Some green she thinks so good for our eyes, like blue, that she never banishes it entirely, but has created evergreens.

It is remarkable how little any but a lichenist will observe on the bark of trees. The mass of men have but the vaguest and most indefinite notion of mosses, as a sort of shreds and fringes, and the world in which the lichenist dwells is much further from theirs than one side of this earth from the other.

They see bark as if they saw it not. These objects which, though constantly visible, are rarely looked at are sort of eye-brush.

Each phase of nature, while not invisible, is yet not too distinct and obtrusive. It is there to be found when we look for it, but not demanding our attention. It is like a silent but sympathizing companion in whose company we retain most of the advantages of solitude, with whom we can walk and talk, or be silent, naturally, without the necessity of talking in a strain foreign to the place.
Journal, Dec. 9th, 1859

November 4th, 1858 …All this you will see, and much more, if you are prepared to see it, - if you look for it.

Otherwise, regular and universal as this phenomenon is, you will think for threescore years and ten that all the wood is at this season sere and brown.

Objects are not concealed from our veiw not wo much because they are out of the course of our visual ray as because there is no intention of the mind and eye toward them. We do not realize how far and widely, or how near and narrowly, we are to look.

The greater part of the phenomena of nature are for this reason concealed to us all our lives. Here, too, as in political economy, the supply answers to the demand.

Nature does not cast pearls before swine. There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate, - not a grain more.
"Though man proposeth, God Disposeth all."

September 9th, 1858 It requires a different intention of the eye in the same locality to see different plants, as, for example, Juncaceoe and Gramineoe eve; i.e., I find that when I am looking for the former, I do not see the latter in their midst.

How much more, then, it requires different intentions of the eye and of the mind to attend to different departments of knowledge!

How differently the poet and the naturalist look at objects! A man sees only what concerns him. A botanist absorbed in the pursuit of grasses does not distinguish the grandest pasture oaks. He as it were tramples down oaks unwittingly in his wake.

To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
Walden, Where I Lived and What I Lived For

July 2, 1857 Calla Palustris (with its convolute point like the cultivated) at the south end of Gowing's Swamp. Having found this in one pace, I now find it in another.

Many an object is not seen, though it falls within the range of our visual ray, because it does not come within the range of our intellectual ray, i.e., we are not looking for it. So, in the largest sense, we find only the world we look for.

July 29, 1857 I am interested in an indistinct prospect, a distant view, a mere suggestion often, revealing an almost wholly new world to me. I rejoice to get, ad am apt to present, a new view. But I find it impossible to present my view to most people. In effect, it would seem that they do not wish to take a new view in any case.

April 23rd, 1857 How rarely a man's love for nature becomes a ruling principle with him, like a youth's affection for a maiden, but more enduring!

All nature is my bride. That nature which to one is stark and ghastly solitude is a sweet, tend, and genial society to me.

No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What's the course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen?

Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.
Walden, Sounds

"We need pray for no higher heaven than the pure senses can furnish, a purely sensuous life. Our present senses are but the rudiments of what they are destined to become.
A Week, "Friday"

April 4, 1839
Drifting in a sultry day on the sluggish waters of the pond, I almost cease to live and begin to be.

A boatman stretched on the deck of his craft and dallying with the noon would be as apt an emblem of eternity for me as the serpent with his tail in his mouth. I am never so prone to lose my identity. I am dissolved in the haze.
August 13, 1838

If with closed ears and eyes I consult consciousness for a moment, immediately are all walls and barriers dissipated, earth rolls from under me, and I float, by the impetus derived from the earth and the system, a subjective, heavily laden thought, in the midst of an unknown and infinite sea, or else heave and swell like a vast ocean of thought, without rock or headland, where are all riddles solved, all straight lines making there their two ends to meet, eternity and space gamboling familiarly through my depths.

I am from the beginning, knowing no end, no aim. No sun illumines me, for I dissolve all lesser lights in my own intenser and steadier light. I am a restful kernel in the magazine of the universe.


August 17, 1851
For a day or two it has been quite cool, a coolness that was felt even when sitting by an open window in a thin coat on the west side of the house in the morning, and you naturally sought the sun at that hour.

The coolness concentrated your thought, however. As I could not command a sunny window, I went abroad on the morning of the fifteenth and lay in the sun in the fields in my thin coat, though it was rather cool even there.

I feel as if the coolness would do me good. If it only makes my life more pensive! Why should pensiveness be akin to sadness? There is a certain fertile sadness which I would not avoid, but rather earnestly seek.

It is positively joyful to me. It saves my life from being trivial. My life flows with a deeper current, no longer as a shallow and brawling stream, parched and shrunken by the summer heats.

This coolness comes to condense the dews and clear the atmosphere. The stillness seems more deep and significant. Each sound seems to come from out a greater thoughtfulness in nature, as if nature had acquire some character and mind.

The cricket, the gurgling stream, the rushing wind amid the trees, all speak to me soberly yet encouragingly of the steady onward progress of the universe.

My heart leaps into my mouth at the sound of the wind in the woods. I, whose life was but yesterday so desultory and shallow, suddenly recover my spirits, my spirituality, through my hearing.

I see a goldfinch go twittering through the still, louring day, and am reminded of the peeping flowch which will soon herald the thoughtful season.

Ah! if I could so live that there should be no desultory moment in all my life! that in the trivial season, when small fruits are ripe, my fruits might be ripe also! that I could match nature always with my moods! that in each season when some part of nature especially flourishes, then a corresponding part of me may not fail to flourish!


Ah, I would walk, I would sit and sleep, with natural piety! What if I could pray aloud or to myself as I went along by the brooksides a cheerful prayer like the birds! For joy I could embrace the earth; I shall delight to be buried in it.

And then to think of those I love among men, who will know that I love them though I tell them not!

I sometimes feel as if I were rewarded merely for expecting better hours. I did not despair of worthier moods, and now I have occasion to be grateful for the flood of life that flowing over me.

I am not so poor: I can smell the ripening apples; the very rills are deep; the autumnal flowers, the Tichostem dichotomum- not only its bright blue flower above the sand, but its strong wormwood scent which belongs to the season - feed my spirit, endear the earth to me, make me value myself and rejoice; the quivering of pigeons' wings reminds me of the tough fibre of the air which they rend.

I thank you, God. I do not deserve anything. I am unworthy of the least regard; and yet I am made to rejoice. I am impure and worthless, and yet the world is gilded for my delight and holidays are prepared for me, and my path is strewn with flowers.

It seems to me that I am more rewarded for my expectations than for anything I do or can do. Ah, I would not tread on a cricket in whose song is such a revelation, so soothing and cheering to my ear! Oh, keep my senses pure!
October, 1851

The witchhazel, here is in full blossom on this magical hillside, while its broad yellow leaves are falling.

Some bushes are completely bare of leaves, and leather-colored they strew the ground. It is an extremely interesting plant--October and November's child, and yet reminds me of the very earliest spring.

Its blossoms smell like the spring, like the willow catkins; by their color as well as fragrance they belong to the saffron dawn of the year, suggesting amid all these signs of Nature, by which she eternally flourishes, is untouched.

It stands here in the shadow on the side of the hill, while the sunlight from over the top of the hill lights up its topmost sprays and yellow blossoms. Its spray, so jointed and angular, is not to be mistaken for any other. I lie on my back with joy under its boughs. While its leaves fall, its blossoms spring.

The noblest feature, the eye, is the fairest-colored, the jewel of the body.
Maine Woods, "Katahdin"

Nature is a mutable cloud which is always and never the same.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

O for a man who is a man, and, as my neighbor says, has a bone in his back which you cannot pass your hand through!
Miscellanies, "Civil Disobedience"

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. Walden, "Conclusion"

A man doth best when he is most himself.
Journal, January 21st, 1852

For a man to act himself, he must be perfectly free; otherwise he is in danger of losing all sense of responsibility or of self-respect.
Correspondence to Helen Thoreau, October 27th, 1837

Go not to any foreign theater for spectacles, but consider first that there is nothing which can delight or astonish the eyes, but you may discover it all in yourselves.
Reform Papers, "Reform and Reformers"

It is easier to discover another such a new world as Columbus did, than to go within one fold of this which we appear to know so well.
A Week, "Friday"

Every man has to learn the points of compass again as often as he awakes, whether from sleep or any abstraction. Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.
Walden, "Conclusion"

There is a stronger desire to be respectable to one’s neighbors than to one’s self. Journal 1845-47, undated

Do not speak for other men, speak for yourself.
Journal, December 25, 1851

Tell me some truth about society and you will annihilate it. Reform papers, Reform and the Reformers

If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there should be nothing left worth living for. I trust that I shall never thus sell my birthright for a mess of pottage.
Miscellanies, "Life Without Principle"

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