IN OCTOBER I went a-graping to the river meadows, and loadedmyself with clusters more precious for their beauty and fragrance thanfor food. There, too, I admired, though I did not gather, thecranberries, small waxen gems, pendants of the meadow grass, pearlyand red, which the farmer plucks with an ugly rake, leaving the smoothmeadow in a snarl, heedlessly measuring them by the bushel and thedollar only, and sells the spoils of the meads to Boston and New York;destined to be jammed, to satisfy the tastes of lovers of Naturethere. So butchers rake the tongues of bison out of the prairie grass,regardless of the torn and drooping plant. The barberry's brilliantfruit was likewise food for my eyes merely; but I collected a smallstore of wild apples for coddling, which the proprietor and travellershad overlooked. When chestnuts were ripe I laid up half a bushel forwinter. It was very exciting at that season to roam the then boundlesschestnut woods of Lincoln- they now sleep their long sleep under therailroad- with a bag on my shoulder, and a stick to open burs within my hand, for I did not always wait for the frost, amid the rustlingof leaves and the loud reproofs of the red squirrels and the jays,whose half-consumed nuts I sometimes stole, for the burs which theyhad selected were sure to contain sound ones. Occasionally I climbedand shook the trees. They grew also behind my house, and one largetree, which almost overshadowed it, was, when in flower, a bouquetwhich scented the whole neighborhood, but the squirrels and the jaysgot most of its fruit; the last coming in flocks early in themorning and picking the nuts out of the burs before they fell, Irelinquished these trees to them and visited the more distant woodscomposed wholly of chestnut. These nuts, as far as they went, were agood substitute for bread. Many other substitutes might, perhaps, befound. Digging one day for fishworms, I discovered the groundnut(Apios tuberosa) on its string, the potato of the aborigines, a sortof fabulous fruit, which I had begun to doubt if I had ever dug andeaten in childhood, as I had told, and had not dreamed it. I had oftensince seen its crumpled red velvety blossom supported by the stemsof other plants without knowing it to be the same. Cultivation haswell-nigh exterminated it. It has a sweetish taste, much like thatof a frost-bitten potato, and I found it better boiled than roasted.This tuber seemed like a faint promise of Nature to rear her ownchildren and feed them simply here at some future period. In thesedays of fatted cattle and waving grain-fields this humble root,which was once the totem of an Indian tribe, is quite forgotten, orknown only by its flowering vine; but let wild Nature reign hereonce more, and the tender and luxurious English grains will probablydisappear before a myriad of foes, and without the care of man thecrow may carry back even the last seed of corn to the greatcornfield of the Indian's God in the southwest, whence he is said tohave brought it; but the now almost exterminated ground-nut willperhaps revive and flourish in spite of frosts and wildness, proveitself indigenous, and resume its ancient importance and dignity asthe diet of the hunter tribe. Some Indian Ceres or Minerva must havebeen the inventor and bestower of it; and when the reign of poetrycommences here, its leaves and string of nuts may be represented onour works of art.
Already, by the first of September, I had seen two or three smallmaples turned scarlet across the pond, beneath where the white stemsof three aspens diverged, at the point of a promontory, next thewater. Ah, many a tale their color told! Arid gradually from week toweek the character of each tree came out, and it admired itselfreflected in the smooth mirror of the lake. Each morning the managerof this gallery substituted some new picture, distinguished by morebrilliant or harmonious coloring, for the old upon the walls. The wasps came by thousands to my lodge in October, as to winterquarters, and settled on my windows within and on the wallsoverhead, sometimes deterring visitors from entering. Each morning,when they were numbed with cold, I swept some of them out, but I didnot trouble myself much to get rid of them; I even felt complimentedby their regarding my house as a desirable shelter. They nevermolested me seriously, though they bedded with me; and theygradually disappeared, into what crevices I do not know, avoidingwinter and unspeakable cold.
Like the wasps, before I finally went into winter quarters inNovember, I used to resort to the northeast side of Walden, whichthe sun, reflected from the pitch pine woods and the stony shore, madethe fireside of the pond; it is so much pleasanter and wholesomer tobe warmed by the sun while you can be, than by an artificial fire. Ithus warmed myself by the still glowing embers which the summer,like a departed hunter, had left.
When I came to build my chimney I studied masonry. My bricks,being second-hand ones, required to be cleaned with a trowel, sothat I learned more than usual of the qualities of bricks and trowels.The mortar on them was fifty years old, and was said to be stillgrowing harder; but this is one of those sayings which men love torepeat whether they are true or not. Such sayings themselves growharder and adhere more firmly with age, and it would take many blowswith a trowel to clean an old wiseacre of them. Many of the villagesof Mesopotamia are built of secondhand bricks of a very goodquality, obtained from the ruins of Babylon, and the cement on them isolder and probably harder still. However that may be, I was struckby the peculiar toughness of the steel which bore so many violentblows without being worn out. As my bricks had been in a chimneybefore, though I did not read the name of Nebuchadnezzar on them, Ipicked out its many fireplace bricks as I could find, to save work andwaste, and I filled the spaces between the bricks about thefireplace with stones from the pond shore, and also made my mortarwith the white sand from the same place. I lingered most about thefireplace, as the most vital part of the house. Indeed, I worked sodeliberately, that though I commenced at the ground in the morning,a course of bricks raised a few inches above the floor served for mypillow at night; yet I did not get a stiff neck for it that Iremember; my stiff neck is of older date. I took a poet to board for afortnight about those times, which caused me to be put to it for room.He brought his own knife, though I had two, and we used to scourthem by thrusting them into the earth. He shared with me the labors ofcooking. I was pleased to see my work rising so square and solid bydegrees, and reflected, that, if it proceeded slowly, it wascalculated to endure a long time. The chimney is to some extent anindependent structure, standing on the ground, and rising throughthe house to the heavens; even after the house is burned it stillstands sometimes, and its importance and independence are apparent.This was toward the end of summer. It was now November.
The north wind had already begun to cool the pond, though it tookmany weeks of steady blowing to accomplish it, it is so deep. When Ibegan to have a fire at evening, before I plastered my house, thechimney carried smoke particularly well, because of the numerouschinks between the boards. Yet I passed some cheerful evenings in thatcool and airy apartment, surrounded by the rough brown boards fullof knots, and rafters with the bark on high overhead. My house neverpleased my eye so much after it was plastered, though I was obliged toconfess that it was more comfortable. Should not every apartment inwhich man dwells be lofty enough to create some obscurity overhead,where flickering shadows may play at evening about the rafters?These forms are more agreeable to the fancy and imagination thanfresco paintings or other the most expensive furniture. I now firstbegan to inhabit my house, I may say, when I began to use it forwarmth as well as shelter. I had got a couple of old fire-dogs to keepthe wood from the hearth, and it did me good to see the soot form onthe back of the chimney which I had built, and I poked the fire withmore right and more satisfaction than usual. My dwelling was small,and I could hardly entertain an echo in it; but it seemed larger forbeing a single apartment and remote from neighbors. All theattractions of a house were concentrated in one room; it waskitchen, chamber, parlor, and keeping-room; and whateversatisfaction parent or child, master or servant, derive from living ina house, I enjoyed it all. Cato says, the master of a family(patremfamilias) must have in his rustic villa "cellam oleariam,vinariam, dolia multa, uti lubeat caritatem expectare, et rei, etvirtuti, et gloriae erit," that is, "an oil and wine cellar, manycasks, so that it may be pleasant to expect hard times; it will be forhis advantage, and virtue, and glory." I had in my cellar a firkinof potatoes, about two quarts of peas with the weevil in them, andon my shelf a little rice, a jug of molasses, and of rye and Indianmeal a peck each.
I sometimes dream of a larger and more populous house, standing in agolden age, of enduring materials, and without gingerbread work, whichshall still consist of only one room, a vast, rude, substantial,primitive hall, without ceiling or plastering, with bare rafters andpurlins supporting a sort of lower heaven over one's head-useful tokeep off rain and snow, where the king and queen posts stand out toreceive your homage, when you have done reverence to the prostrateSaturn of an older dynasty on stepping over the sill; a cavernoushouse, wherein you must reach up a torch upon a pole to see theroof; where some may live in the fireplace, some in the recess of awindow, and some on settles, some at one end of the hall, some atanother, and some aloft on rafters with the spiders, if they choose; ahouse which you have got into when you have opened the outside door,and the ceremony is over; where the weary traveller may wash, and eat,and converse, and sleep, without further journey; such a shelter asyou would be glad to reach in a tempestuous night, containing allthe essentials of a house, and nothing for house-keeping; where youcan see all the treasures of the house at one view, and everythinghangs upon its peg, that a man should use; at once kitchen, pantry,parlor, chamber, storehouse, and garret; where you can see sonecessary a thin, as a barrel or a ladder, so convenient a thing asa cupboard, and hear the pot boil, and pay your respects to the firethat cooks your dinner, and the oven that bakes your bread, and thenecessary furniture and utensils are the chief ornaments; where thewashing is not put out, nor the fire, nor the mistress, and perhapsyou are sometimes requested to move from off the trapdoor, when thecook would descend into the cellar, and so learn whether the ground issolid or hollow beneath you without stamping. A house whose insideis as open and manifest as a bird's nest, and you cannot go in atthe front door and out at the back without seeing some of itsinhabitants; where to be a guest is to be presented with the freedomof the house, and not to be carefully excluded from seven eighths ofit, shut up in a particular cell, and told to make yourself at hometherein solitary confinement. Nowadays the host does not admit youto his hearth, but has got the mason to build one for yourselfsomewhere in his alley, and hospitality is the art of keeping you atthe greatest distance. There is as much secrecy about the cooking asif he had a design to poison you. I am aware that I have been onmany a man's premises, and might have been legally ordered off, butI am not aware that I have been in many men's houses. I might visit inmy old clothes a king and queen who lived simply in such a house asI have described, if I were going their way; but backing out of amodern palace will be all that I shall desire to learn, if ever I amcaught in one.
It would seem as if the very language of our parlors would loseall its nerve and degenerate into palaver wholly, our lives pass atsuch remoteness from its symbols, and its metaphors and tropes arenecessarily so far fetched, through slides and dumbwaiters, as itwere; in other words, the parlor is so far from the kitchen andworkshop. The dinner even is only the parable of a dinner, commonly.As if only the savage dwelt near enough to Nature and Truth toborrow a trope from them. How can the scholar, who dwells away inthe North West Territory or the Isle of Man, tell what isparliamentary in the kitchen?
However, only one or two of my guests were ever bold enough tostay and eat a hasty-pudding with me; but when they saw that crisisapproaching they beat a hasty retreat rather, as if it would shake thehouse to its foundations. Nevertheless, it stood through a greatmany hasty-puddings.
I did not plaster till it was freezing weather. I brought oversome whiter and cleaner sand for this purpose from the oppositeshore of the pond in a boat, a sort of conveyance which would havetempted me to go much farther if necessary. My house had in themeanwhile been shingled down to the ground on every side. In lathing Iwas pleased to be able to send home each nail with a single blow ofthe hammer, and it was my ambition to transfer the plaster from theboard to the wall neatly and rapidly. I remembered the story of aconceited fellow, who, in fine clothes, was wont to lounge about thevillage once, giving advice to workmen. Venturing one day tosubstitute deeds for words, he turned up his cuffs, seized aplasterer's board, and having loaded his trowel without mishap, with acomplacent look toward the lathing overhead, made a bold gesturethitherward; and straightway, to his complete discomfiture, receivedthe whole contents in his ruffled bosom. I admired anew the economyand convenience of plastering, which so effectually shuts out the coldand takes a handsome finish, and I learned the various casualties towhich the plasterer is liable. I was surprised to see how thirstythe bricks were which drank up all the moisture in my plaster before Ihad smoothed it, and how many pailfuls of water it takes to christen anew hearth. I had the previous winter made a small quantity of lime byburning the shells of the Unio fluviatilis, which our river affords,for the sake of the experiment; so that I knew where my materials camefrom. I might have got good limestone within a mile or two andburned it myself, if I had cared to do so.
The pond had in the meanwhile skimmed over in the shadiest andshallowest coves, some days or even weeks before the general freezing.The first ice is especially interesting and perfect, being hard, dark,and transparent, and affords the best opportunity that ever offers forexamining the bottom where it is shallow; for you can lie at yourlength on ice only an inch thick, like a skater insect on thesurface of the water, and study the bottom at your leisure, only twoor three inches distant, like a picture behind a glass, and thewater is necessarily always smooth then. There are many furrows in thesand where some creature has travelled about and doubled on itstracks; and, for wrecks, it is strewn with the cases of caddis-wormsmade of minute grains of white quartz. Perhaps these have creasedit, for you find some of their cases in the furrows, though they aredeep and broad for them to make. But the ice itself is the object ofmost interest, though you must improve the earliest opportunity tostudy it. If you examine it closely the morning after it freezes,you find that the greater part of the bubbles, which at first appearedto be within it, are against its under surface, and that more arecontinually rising from the bottom; while the ice is as yetcomparatively solid and dark, that is, you see the water through it.These bubbles are from an eightieth to an eighth of an inch indiameter, very clear and beautiful, and you see your face reflected inthem through the ice. There may be thirty or forty of them to a squareinch. There are also already within the ice narrow oblongperpendicular bubbles about half an inch long, sharp cones with theapex upward; or oftener, if the ice is quite fresh, minute sphericalbubbles one directly above another, like a string of beads. Butthese within the ice are not so numerous nor obvious as those beneath.I sometimes used to cast on stones to try the strength of the ice, andthose which broke through carried in air with them, which formedvery large and conspicuous white bubbles beneath. One day when Icame to the same place forty-eight hours afterward, I found that thoselarge bubbles were still perfect, though an inch more of ice hadformed, as I could see distinctly by the seam in the edge of a cake.But as the last two days had been very warm, like an Indian summer,the ice was not now transparent, showing the dark green color of thewater, and the bottom, but opaque and whitish or gray, and thoughtwice as thick was hardly stronger than before, for the air bubbleshad greatly expanded under this heat and run together, and losttheir regularity; they were no longer one directly over another, butoften like silvery coins poured from a bag, one overlapping another,or in thin flakes, as if occupying slight cleavages. The beauty of theice was gone, and it was too late to study the bottom. Being curiousto know what position my great bubbles occupied with regard to the newice, I broke out a cake containing a middling sized one, and turned itbottom upward. The new ice had formed around and under the bubble,so that it was included between the two ices. It was wholly in thelower ice, but close against the upper, and was flattish, or perhapsslightly lenticular, with a rounded edge, a quarter of an inch deep byfour inches in diameter; and I was surprised to find that directlyunder the bubble the ice was melted with great regularity in theform of a saucer reversed, to the height of five eighths of an inch inthe middle, leaving a thin partition there between the water and thebubble, hardly an eighth of an inch thick; and in many places thesmall bubbles in this partition had burst out downward, and probablythere was no ice at all under the largest bubbles, which were a footin diameter. I inferred that the infinite number of minute bubbleswhich I had first seen against the under surface of the ice were nowfrozen in likewise, and that each, in its degree, had operated likea burning-glass on the ice beneath to melt and rot it. These are thelittle air-guns which contribute to make the ice crack and whoop.
At length the winter set in good earnest, just as I had finishedplastering, and the wind began to howl around the house as if it hadnot had permission to do so till then. Night after night the geesecame lumbering in the dark with a clangor and a whistling of wings,even after the ground was covered with snow, some to alight in Walden,and some flying low over the woods toward Fair Haven, bound forMexico. Several times, when returning from the village at ten oreleven o'clock at night, I heard the tread of a flock of geese, orelse ducks, on the dry leaves in the woods by a pond-hole behind mydwelling, where they had come up to feed, and the faint honk orquack of their leader as they hurried off. In 1845 Walden frozeentirely over for the first time on the night of the 22d ofDecember, Flint's and other shallower ponds and the river havingbeen frozen ten days or more; in '46, the 16th; in '49, about the31st; and in '50, about the 27th of December; in '52, the 5th ofJanuary; in '53, the 31st of December. The snow had already coveredthe ground since the 25th of November, and surrounded me suddenly withthe scenery of winter. I withdrew yet farther into my shell, andendeavored to keep a bright fire both within my house and within mybreast. My employment out of doors now was to collect the dead wood inthe forest, bringing it in my hands or on my shoulders, or sometimestrailing a dead pine tree under each arm to my shed. An old forestfence which had seen its best days was a great haul for me. Isacrificed it to Vulcan, for it was past serving the god Terminus. Howmuch more interesting an event is that man's supper who has justbeen forth in the snow to hunt, nay, you might say, steal, the fuel tocook it with! His bread and meat are sweet. There are enough fagotsand waste wood of all kinds in the forests of most of our towns tosupport many fires, but which at present warm none, and, some think,hinder the growth of the young wood. There was also the driftwood ofthe pond. In the course of the summer I had discovered a raft of pitchpine logs with the bark on, pinned together by the Irish when therailroad was built. This I hauled up partly on the shore. Aftersoaking two years and then lying high six months it was perfectlysound, though waterlogged past drying. I amused myself one winterday with sliding this piecemeal across the pond, nearly half a mile,skating behind with one end of a log fifteen feet long on my shoulder,and the other on the ice; or I tied several logs together with a birchwithe, and then, with a longer birch or alder which had a book atthe end, dragged them across. Though completely waterlogged and almostas heavy as lead, they not only burned long, but made a very hot fire;nay, I thought that they burned better for the soaking, as if thepitch, being confined by the water, burned longer, as in a lamp. Gilpin, in his account of the forest borderers of England, says that"the encroachments of trespassers, and the houses and fences thusraised on the borders of the forest," were "considered as greatnuisances by the old forest law, and were severely punished underthe name of purprestures, as tending ad terrorem ferarum- adnocumentum forestae, etc.," to the frightening of the game and thedetriment of the forest. But I was interested in the preservation ofthe venison and the vert more than the hunters or woodchoppers, and asmuch as though I had been the Lord Warden himself; and if any part wasburned, though I burned it myself by accident, I grieved with agrief that lasted longer and was more inconsolable than that of theproprietors; nay, I grieved when it was cut down by the proprietorsthemselves. I would that our farmers when they cut down a forestfelt some of that awe which the old Romans did when they came to thin,or let in the light to, a consecrated grove (lucum conlucare), thatis, would believe that it is sacred to some god. The Roman made anexpiatory offering, and prayed, Whatever god or goddess thou art towhom this grove is sacred, be propitious to me, my family, andchildren, etc.
It is remarkable what a value is still put upon wood even in thisage and in this new country, a value more permanent and universal thanthat of gold. After all our discoveries and inventions no man willgo by a pile of wood. It is as precious to us as it was to our Saxonand Norman ancestors. If they made their bows of it, we make ourgun-stocks of it. Michaux, more than thirty years ago, says that theprice of wood for fuel in New York and Philadelphia "nearly equals,and sometimes exceeds, that of the best wood in Paris, though thisimmense capital annually requires more than three hundred thousandcords, and is surrounded to the distance of three hundred miles bycultivated plains." In this town the price of wood rises almoststeadily, and the only question is, how much higher it is to be thisyear than it was the last. Mechanics and tradesmen who come inperson to the forest on no other errand, are sure to attend the woodauction, and even pay a high price for the privilege of gleaning afterthe woodchopper. It is now many years that men have resorted to theforest for fuel and the materials of the arts: the New Englander andthe New Hollander, the Parisian and the Celt, the farmer and RobinHood, Goody Blake and Harry Gill; in most parts of the world theprince and the peasant, the scholar and the savage, equally requirestill a few sticks from the forest to warm them and cook their food.Neither could I do without them.
Every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection. I love tohave mine before my window, and the more chips the better to remind meof my pleasing work. I had an old axe which nobody claimed, with whichby spells in winter days, on the sunny side of the house, I playedabout the stumps which I had got out of my bean-field. As my driverprophesied when I was plowing, they warmed me twice- once while Iwas splitting them, and again when they were on the fire, so that nofuel could give out more heat. As for the axe, I was advised to getthe village blacksmith to "jump" it; but I jumped him, and, puttinga hickory helve from the woods into it, made it do. If it was dull, itwas at least hung true.
A few pieces of fat pine were a great treasure. It is interesting toremember how much of this food for fire is still concealed in thebowels of the earth. In previous years I had often gone prospectingover some bare hillside, where a pitch pine wood had formerly stood,and got out the fat pine roots. They are almost indestructible. Stumpsthirty or forty years old, at least, will still be sound at thecore, though the sapwood has all become vegetable mould, as appears bythe scales of the thick bark forming a ring level with the earthfour or five inches distant from the heart. With axe and shovel youexplore this mine, and follow the marrowy store, yellow as beeftallow, or as if you had struck on a vein of gold, deep into theearth. But commonly I kindled my fire with the dry leaves of theforest, which I had stored up in my shed before the snow came. Greenhickory finely split makes the woodchopper's kindlings, when he hasa camp in the woods. Once in a while I got a little of this. Whenthe villagers were lighting their fires beyond the horizon, I too gavenotice to the various wild inhabitants of Walden vale, by a smokystreamer from my chimney, that I was awake.
Light-winged Smoke, Icarian bird, Melting thy pinions in thy upward flight, Lark without song, and messenger of dawn, Circling above the hamlets as thy nest; Or else, departing dream, and shadowy form Of midnight vision, gathering up thy skirts; By night star-veiling, and by day Darkening the light and blotting out the sun; Go thou my incense upward from this hearth, And ask the gods to pardon this clear flame.
Hard green wood just cut, though I used but little of that, answeredmy purpose better than any other. I sometimes left a good fire whenI went to take a walk in a winter afternoon; and when I returned,three or four hours afterward, it would be still alive and glowing. Myhouse was not empty though I was gone. It was as if I had left acheerful housekeeper behind. It was I and Fire that lived there; andcommonly my housekeeper proved trustworthy. One day, however, as I wassplitting wood, I thought that I would just look in at the windowand see if the house was not on fire; it was the only time Iremember to have been particularly anxious on this score; so Ilooked and saw that a spark had caught my bed, and I went in andextinguished it when it had burned a place as big as my hand. But myhouse occupied so sunny and sheltered a position, and its roof wasso low, that I could afford to let the fire go out in the middle ofalmost any winter day.
The moles nested in my cellar, nibbling every third potato, andmaking a snug bed even there of some hair left after plastering and ofbrown paper; for even the wildest animals love comfort and warmth aswell as man, and they survive the winter only because they are socareful to secure them. Some of my friends spoke as if I was coming tothe woods on purpose to freeze myself. The animal merely makes abed, which he warms with his body, in a sheltered place; but man,having discovered fire, boxes up some air in a spacious apartment, andwarms that, instead of robbing himself, makes that his bed, in whichhe can move about divested of more cumbrous clothing, maintain akind of summer in the midst of winter, and by means of windows evenadmit the light, and with a lamp lengthen out the day. Thus he goesa step or two beyond instinct, and saves a little time for the finearts. Though, when I had been exposed to the rudest blasts a longtime, my whole body began to grow torpid, when I reached the genialatmosphere of my house I soon recovered my faculties and prolongedmy life. But the most luxuriously housed has little to boast of inthis respect, nor need we trouble ourselves to speculate how the humanrace may be at last destroyed. It would be easy to cut their threadsany time with a little sharper blast from the north. We go on datingfrom Cold Fridays and Great Snows; but a little colder Friday, orgreater snow would put a period to man's existence on the globe.
The next winter I used a small cooking-stove for economy, since Idid not own the forest; but it did not keep fire so well as the openfireplace. Cooking was then, for the most part, no longer a poetic,but merely a chemic process. It will soon be forgotten, in thesedays of stoves, that we used to roast potatoes in the ashes, after theIndian fashion. The stove not only took up room and scented the house,but it concealed the fire, and I felt as if I had lost a companion.You can always see a face in the fire. The laborer, looking into it atevening, pulifies his thoughts of the dross and earthiness whichthey have accumulated during the day. But I could no longer sit andlook into the fire, and the pertinent words of a poet recurred to mewith new force.
"Never, bright flame, may be denied to me Thy dear, life imaging, close sympathy. What but my hopes shot upward e'er so bright? What but my fortunes sunk so low in night? Why art thou banished from our hearth and hall, Thou who art welcomed and beloved by all? Was thy existence then too fanciful For our life's common light, who are so dull? Did thy bright gleam mysterious converse hold With our congenial souls? secrets too bold? Well, we are safe and strong, for now we sit Beside a hearth where no dim shadows flit, Where nothing cheers nor saddens, but a fire Warms feet and hands- nor does to more aspire; By whose compact utilitarian heap The present may sit down and go to sleep, Nor fear the ghosts who from the dim past walked, And with us by the unequal light of the old wood fire talked."