Here to return to
A TEXT FROM THOREAU
“THERE is no more tempting novelty than this new November. No going to Europe or to another world is to be named with it. Give me the old familiar walk, post-office and all, with this ever new self, with this infinite expectation and faith which does not know when it is beaten. We'll go nutting once more. We’ll pluck the nut of the world and crack it in the winter evenings. Theatres and all other sight-seeing are puppet shows in comparison. I will take another walk to the cliff, another row on the river, another skate on the meadow, be out in the first snow, and associate with the winter birds. Here I am at home. In the bare and bleached crust of the earth, I recognize my friend.”
Thus bravely did Thoreau enter upon the gray month. It was in 1858, when he was forty-one years old. He wants nothing new, he assures himself. He will “take the shortest way round and stay at home.”
Think of the consummate folly of attempting to go away from here,” he says, underscoring the final word. As if whatever place a man might move to would not be “here” to him! As if he could run away from his own shadow! So I interpret the italics.
His protestations, characteristically unqualified and emphatic, imply that thoughts of travel have beset him. Probably they beset every outdoor philosopher at this short-day season. They are part of the autumnal crop. Our northern world begins to look — in cloudy moods — like a place to escape from. The birds have gone, the leaves have fallen, the year is done. “Let us arise and go also,” an inward voice seems to whisper. Not unlikely there is in us all the dormant remainder of an outworn migratory instinct. Civilization has caged us and tamed us; “hungry generations” have trodden us down; but below consciousness and memory there still persists the blind stirring of ancestral impulse. The fathers were nomads, and the children's feet are still not quite content with day's work in a treadmill.
Let our preferences be what they may, however, the greater number of us must stay where we are put, and play the hand that is dealt to us, happy if we can face the dark side of the year with a measure of philosophy. If there is a new self, as Thoreau says, there will be a new world and a new season. If we carry the tropics within us, we need not dream of Florida. And even if there is no constraint upon our going and coming, we need not be in haste to run away. We may safely wait a week or two, at least. November is often not half so bad as it is painted — not half so bad, indeed, as Thoreau himself sometimes painted it. For the eleventh month was not one of his favorites. “November Eat-Heart,” he is more than once moved to call it. The experience of it puts his equanimity to the proof. Even his bravest words about it sound rather like a defiance than a welcome, — a little as if he were whistling to keep up his courage. With the month at its worst, he confesses, he has almost to drive himself afield. He can hardly decide upon any route; “all seem so unpromising, mere surface-walking and fronting the cold wind.” “Surface-walking.” How excellent that is! Every contemplative outdoor man knows what is meant, but only Thoreau could have hit it off to such perfection in a word.
I must admit that I am not sorry to find the Walden stoic once in a long while overtaken by such a comparatively unheroic mood. He boasted so often and so well (with all the rest he boasted of his boasting) that it pleases me to hear him complain. So the weather could be too much even for him, I say to myself, with something like a chuckle. He was mortal, after all; and the day was sometimes dark, even in Concord.
Not that he ever whimpered. And had he done so, in any moment of weakness, it should never have been for me to lay a public finger upon the fact. Nobody shall be more loyal to Thoreau than I am, though others may understand him better and praise him more adequately. If he complained, he did it “man-fashion,” and was within a man's right. To say that the worst of Massachusetts weather is never to be spoken against is to say too much; it is stretching the doctrine of non-resistance to the point of absurdity. As well forbid us to carry umbrellas, or to put up lightning-rods. There is plenty of weather that deserves to be spoken against.
Only let it be done, as I say, “man-fashion;” and having said our say, let us go about our business again, making the best of things as they are — as Thoreau did. For, having owned his disrelish for what the gods provided, he quickly recovered himself, and proceeded to finish his entry in a cheerier strain. Matters are not so desperate with him, after all. He has to force himself out of doors, it is true, but once in the woods he often finds himself “unexpectedly compensated.” “The thinnest yellow light of November is more warming and exhilarating than any wine they tell of.” He meets with something that interests him, and immediately the day is as warm as July — as if the wind had shifted from northwest to south. There is the secret, in November as in May — to be interested. Then there is no longer a question of “surface walking.” The soul is concerned, and life has begun anew.
Thus far, the present November (I write on the 4th) has been unusually mild; some days have been really summer-like, too warm for comfort; but the sun has shone only by minutes — now and then an hour, at the most. Deciduous trees are nearly bare, the oaks excepted; flowers are few and mostly out of condition, though it would be easy to make a pretty high-sounding list of names; and birds are getting to be almost as scarce as in winter. There is no longer any quiet strolling in the woods. If you wish to listen for small sounds you must stand still. The ground is so thick with crackling leaves that it is impossible to go silently. Everything prophesies of the death of the year. It is almost time for the snow to fall and bury what remains of it.
Yet in warm days one may still see dragon-flies on the wing. Yesterday meadow larks were singing with the greatest abandon and in something like a chorus. I must have seen a dozen, and most if not all of them were in tune. On the 1st of the month a grouse drummed again and again; an unseasonable piece of lyrical enthusiasm, one might think; but I doubt if it was anything so very exceptional. Once, indeed, a few years ago, I heard a grouse drum repeatedly in January, on a cloudy day, when the ground in the woods was deep under snow. That, I believe, was an event much out of the common, though by no means without precedent. I wish Thoreau could have been there; he would have improved the occasion so admirably. So long as the partridge can keep his spirits up to the drumming point, why should the rest of us outdoor people pull a long face over hard times and short rations? Shall we be less manly than a bird?
The partridge will neither migrate nor hibernate, but looks winter in the eye and bids the wind whistle. It is too bad if we who command the services of coal dealers and plumbers, tailors and butchers, doctors and clergymen, cannot stand our ground with a creature that knows neither house nor fuel, and has nothing for it, summer and winter, but to live by his wits. To the partridge man must look like a weak brother, a coddler of himself, ruined by civilization and “modern improvements;” a lubber who would freeze to death where a chickadee bubbles over with the very joy of living.
With weather-braving souls like these Thoreau would associate; and so will I. It is true, what all the moralists have told us, that it is good for a man to keep company with his superiors. Not that in my own case I look for their example and tuition to make me inherently better; it is getting late for that; “nothing that happens after we are twelve counts for very much;” I shall be content if they make me happier. And so much I surely depend upon. Good spirits are contagious. It is the great advantage of keeping a dog, that he has happiness to spare, and gives to his master. So a flock of chickadees, or snowbirds, or kinglets, or tree sparrows, or goldfinches brighten a man's day. He comes away smiling. I will go out now and prove it.