I THINK THAT I love society as much as most, and am ready enough tofasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-bloodedman that comes in my way. I am naturally no hermit, but might possiblysit out the sturdiest frequenter of the bar-room, if my businesscalled me thither.
I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two forfriendship, three for society. When visitors came in larger andunexpected numbers there was but the third chair for them all, butthey generally economized the room by standing up. It is surprisinghow many great men and women a small house will contain. I have hadtwenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof,and yet we often parted without being aware that we had come very nearto one another. Many of our houses, both public and private, withtheir almost innumerable apartments, their huge halls and theircellars for the storage of wines and other munitions of peace,appear to be extravagantly large for their inhabitants. They are sovast and magnificent that the latter seem to be only vermin whichinfest them. I am surprised when the herald blows his summons beforesome Tremont or Astor or Middlesex House, to see come creeping outover the piazza for all inhabitants a ridiculous mouse, which soonagain slinks into some hole in the pavement.
One inconvenience I sometimes experienced in so small a house, thedifficulty of getting to a sufficient distance from my guest when webegan to utter the big thoughts in big words. You want room for yourthoughts to get into sailing trim and run a course or two beforethey make their port. The bullet of your thought must have overcomeits lateral and ricochet motion and fallen into its last and steadycourse before it reaches the ear of the bearer, else it may plow outagain through the side of his head. Also, our sentences wanted room tounfold and form their columns in the interval. Individuals, likenations, must have suitable broad and natural boundaries, even aconsiderable neutral ground, between them. I have found it asingular luxury to talk across the pond to a companion on the oppositeside. In my house we were so near that we could not begin to bear-we could not speak low enough to be heard; as when you throw twostones into calm water so near that they break each other'sundulations. If we are merely loquacious and loud talkers, then we canafford to stand very near together, cheek by jowl, and feel eachother's breath; but if we speak reservedly and thoughtfully, we wantto be farther apart, that all animal heat and moisture may have achance to evaporate. If we would enjoy the most intimate societywith that in each of us which is without, or above, being spoken to,we must not only be silent, but commonly so far apart bodily that wecannot possibly hear each other's voice in any case. Referred tothis standard, speech is for the convenience of those who are hardof hearing; but there are many fine things which we cannot say if wehave to shout. As the conversation began to assume a loftier andgrander tone, we gradually shoved our chairs farther apart till theytouched the wall in opposite corners, and then commonly there wasnot room enough.
My "best" room, however, my withdrawing room, always ready forcompany, on whose carpet the sun rarely fell, was the pine wood behindmy house. Thither in summer days, when distinguished guests came, Itook them, and a priceless domestic swept the floor and dusted thefurniture and kept the things in order.
If one guest came he sometimes partook of my frugal meal, and it wasno interruption to conversation to be stirring a hasty-pudding, orwatching the rising and maturing of a loaf of bread in the ashes, inthe meanwhile. But if twenty came and sat in my house there wasnothing said about dinner, though there might be bread enough for two,more than if eating were a forsaken habit; but we naturallypractised abstinence; and this was never felt to be an offence againsthospitality, but the most proper and considerate course. The waste anddecay of physical life, which so often needs repair, seemedmiraculously retarded in such a case, and the vital vigor stood itsground. I could entertain thus a thousand as well as twenty; and ifany ever went away disappointed or hungry from my house when theyfound me at home, they may depend upon it that I sympathized with themat least. So easy is it, though many housekeepers doubt it, toestablish new and better customs in the place of the old. You need notrest your reputation on the dinners you give. For my own part, I wasnever so effectually deterred from frequenting a man's house, by anykind of Cerberus whatever, as by the parade one made about diningme, which I took to be a very polite and roundabout hint never totrouble him so again. I think I shall never revisit those scenes. Ishould be proud to have for the motto of my cabin those lines ofSpenser which one of my visitors inscribed on a yellow walnut leaf fora card:
"Arrived there, the little house they fill, Ne looke for entertainment where none was; Rest is their feast, and all things at their will: The noblest mind the best contentment has."
When Winslow, afterward governor of the Plymouth Colony, went with acompanion on a visit of ceremony to Massasoit on foot through thewoods, and arrived tired and hungry at his lodge, they were wellreceived by the king, but nothing was said about eating that day. Whenthe night arrived, to quote their own words- "He laid us on the bedwith himself and his wife, they at the one end and we at the other, itbeing only planks laid a foot from the ground and a thin mat uponthem. Two more of his chief men, for want of room, pressed by and uponus; so that we were worse weary of our lodging than of our journey."At one o'clock the next day Massasoit "brought two fishes that hehad shot," about thrice as big as a bream. "These being boiled,there were at least forty looked for a share in them; the most eatof them. This meal only we had in two nights and a day; and had notone of us bought a partridge, we had taken our journey fasting."Fearing that they would be light-headed for want of food and alsosleep, owing to "the savages' barbarous singing, (for they use to singthemselves asleep,)" and that they might get home while they hadstrength to travel, they departed. As for lodging, it is true theywere but poorly entertained, though what they found an inconveniencewas no doubt intended for an honor; but as far as eating wasconcerned, I do not see how the Indians could have done better. Theyhad nothing to eat themselves, and they were wiser than to thinkthat apologies could supply the place of food to their guests; so theydrew their belts tighter and said nothing about it. Another timewhen Winslow visited them, it being a season of plenty with them,there was no deficiency in this respect.
As for men, they will hardly fail one anywhere. I had morevisitors while I lived in the woods than at any other period in mylife; I mean that I had some. I met several there under more favorablecircumstances than I could anywhere else. But fewer came to see meon trivial business. In this respect, my company was winnowed by mymere distance from town. I had withdrawn so far within the great oceanof solitude, into which the rivers of society empty, that for the mostpart, so far as my needs were concerned, only the finest sedimentwas deposited around me. Beside, there were wafted to me evidencesof unexplored and uncultivated continents on the other side.
Who should come to my lodge this morning but a true Homeric orPaphlagonian man- he had so suitable and poetic a name that I am sorryI cannot print it here- a Canadian, a woodchopper and post-maker,who can hole fifty posts in a day, who made his last supper on awoodchuck which his dog caught. He, too, has heard of Homer, and,"if it were not for books," would "not know what to do rainy days,"though perhaps he has not read one wholly through for many rainyseasons. Some priest who could pronounce the Greek itself taught himto read his verse in the Testament in his native parish far away;and now I must translate to him, while he holds the book, Achilles'reproof to Patroclus for his sad countenance.- "Why are you intears, Patroclus, like a young girl?"
"Or have you alone heard some news from Phthia? They say that Menoetius lives yet, son of Actor, And Peleus lives, son of Aeacus, among the Myrmidons, Either of whom having died, we should greatly grieve."He says, "That's good." He has a great bundle of white oak barkunder his arm for a sick man, gathered this Sunday morning.- I supposethere's no harm in going after such a thing today," says he. To himHomer was a great writer, though what his writing was about he did notknow. A more simple and natural man it would be hard to find. Vice anddisease, which cast such a sombre moral hue over the world, seemedto have hardly any existance for him. He was about twenty-eightyears old, and had left Canada and his father's house a dozen yearsbefore to work in the States, and earn money to buy a farm with atlast, perhaps in his native country. He was cast in the coarsestmould; a stout but sluggish body, yet gracefully carried, with a thicksunburnt neck, dark bushy hair, and dull sleepy blue eyes, whichwere occasionally lit up with expression. He wore a flat gray clothcap, a dingy wool-colored greatcoat, and cowhide boots. He was a greatconsumer of meat, usually carrying his dinner to his work a coupleof miles past my house- for he chopped all summer- in a tin pail; coldmeats, often cold woodchucks, and coffee in a stone bottle whichdangled by a string from his belt; and sometimes he offered me adrink. He came along early, crossing my bean-field, though withoutanxiety or haste to get to his work, such as Yankees exhibit. Hewasn't a-going to hurt himself. He didn't care if he only earned hisboard. Frequently he would leave his dinner in the bushes, when hisdog had caught a woodchuck by the way, and go back a mile and a halfto dress it and leave it in the cellar of the house where heboarded, after deliberating first for half an hour whether he couldnot sink it in the pond safely till nightfall- loving to dwell longupon these themes. He would say, as he went by in the morning, "Howthick the pigeons are! If working every day were not my trade, I couldget all the meat I should want by hunting-pigeons, woodchucks,rabbits, partridges- by gosh! I could get all I should want for a weekin one day."
He was a skilful chopper, and indulged in some flourishes andornaments in his art. He cut his trees level and close to theground, that the sprouts which came up afterward might be morevigorous and a sled might slide over the stumps; and instead ofleaving a whole tree to support his corded wood, he would pare it awayto a slender stake or splinter which you could break off with yourhand at last.
He interested me because he was so quiet and solitary and so happywithal; a well of good humor and contentment which overflowed at hiseyes. His mirth was without alloy. Sometimes I saw him at his workin the woods, felling trees, and he would greet me with a laugh ofinexpressible satisfaction, and a salutation in Canadian French,though he spoke English as well. When I approached him he wouldsuspend his work, and with half-suppressed mirth lie along the trunkof a pine which he had felled, and, peeling off the inner bark, rollit up into a ball and chew it while he laughed and talked. Such anexuberance of animal spirits had he that he sometimes tumbled down androlled on the ground with laughter at anything which made him thinkand tickled him. Looking round upon the trees he would exclaim - "ByGeorge! I can enjoy myself well enough here chopping; I want no bettersport." Sometimes, when at leisure, he amused himself all day in thewoods with a pocket pistol, firing salutes to himself at regularintervals as he walked. In the winter he had a fire by which at noonhe warmed his coffee in a kettle; and as he sat on a log to eat hisdinner the chickadees would sometimes come round and alight on his armand peck at the potato in his fingers; and he said that he "liked tohave the little fellers about him."
In him the animal man chiefly was developed. In physical enduranceand contentment he was cousin to the pine and the rock. I asked himonce if he was not sometimes tired at night, after working all day;and he answered, with a sincere and serious look, "Gorrappit, Inever was tired in my life." But the intellectual and what is calledspiritual man in him were slumbering as in an infant. He had beeninstructed only in that innocent and ineffectual way in which theCatholic priests teach the aborigines, by which the pupil is nevereducated to the degree of consciousness, but only to the degree oftrust and reverence, and a child is not made a man, but kept achild. When Nature made him, she gave him a strong body andcontentment for his portion, and propped him on every side withreverence and reliance, that he might live out his threescore yearsand ten a child. He was so genuine and unsophisticated that nointroduction would serve to introduce him, more than if you introduceda woodchuck to your neighbor. He had got to find him out as you did.He would not play any part. Men paid him wages for work, and so helpedto feed and clothe him; but he never exchanged opinions with them.He was so simply and naturally humble- if he can be called humblewho never aspires- that humility was no distinct quality in him, norcould he conceive of it. Wiser men were demigods to him. If you toldhim that such a one was coming, he did as if he thought thatanything so grand would expect nothing of himself, but take all theresponsibility on itself, and let him be forgotten still. He neverheard the sound of praise. He particularly reverenced the writer andthe preacher. Their performances were miracles. When I told him that Iwrote considerably, he thought for a long time that it was merelythe handwriting which I meant, for he could write a remarkably goodhand himself. I sometimes found the name of his native parishhandsomely written in the snow by the highway, with the properFrench accent, and knew that he had passed. I asked him if he everwished to write his thoughts. He said that he had read and writtenletters for those who could not, but he never tried to write thoughts-no, he could not, he could not tell what to put first, it would killhim, and then there was spelling to be attended to at the same time!
I heard that a distinguished wise man and reformer asked him if hedid not want the world to be changed; but he answered with a chuckleof surprise in his Canadian accent, not knowing that the questionhad ever been entertained before, "No, I like it well enough." Itwould have suggested many things to a philosopher to have dealingswith him. To a stranger he appeared to know nothing of things ingeneral; yet I sometimes saw in him a man whom I had not seenbefore, and I did not know whether he was as wise as Shakespeare or assimply ignorant as a child, whether to suspect him of a fine poeticconsciousness or of stupidity. A townsman told me that when he met himsauntering through the village in his small close-fitting cap, andwhistling to himself, he reminded him of a prince in disguise.
His only books were an almanac and an arithmetic, in which last hewas considerably expert. The former was a sort of cyclopaedia tohim, which he supposed to contain an abstract of human knowledge, asindeed it does to a considerable extent. I loved to sound him on thevarious reforms of the day, and he never failed to look at them in themost simple and practical light. He had never heard of such thingsbefore. Could he do without factories? I asked. He had worn thehome-made Vermont gray, he said, and that was good. Could hedispense with tea and coffee? Did this country afford any beveragebeside water? He had soaked hemlock leaves in water and drank it,and thought that was better than water in warm weather. When I askedhim if he could do without money, he showed the convenience of moneyin such a way as to suggest and coincide with the most philosophicalaccounts of the origin of this institution, and the very derivation ofthe word pecunia. If an ox were his property, and he wished to getneedles and thread at the store, he thought it would be inconvenientand impossible soon to go on mortgaging some portion of the creatureeach time to that amount. He could defend many institutions betterthan any philosopher, because, in describing them as they concernedhim, he gave the true reason for their prevalence, and speculation hadnot suggested to him any other. At another time, hearing Plato'sdefinition of a man- a biped without feathers- and that oneexhibited a cock plucked and called it Plato's man, he thought it animportant difference that the knees bent the wrong way. He wouldsometimes exclaim, "How I love to talk! By George, I could talk allday!" I asked him once, when I had not seen him for many months, if hehad got a new idea this summer. "Good Lord"- said he, "a man thathas to work as I do, if he does not forget the ideas he has had, hewill do well. May he the man you hoe with is inclined to race; then,by gorry, your mind must be there; you think of weeds." He wouldsometimes ask me first on such occasions, if I had made anyimprovement. One winter day I asked him if he was always satisfiedwith himself, wishing to suggest a substitute within him for thepriest without, and some higher motive for living. "Satisfied!" saidhe; "some men are satisfied with one thing, and some with another. Oneman, perhaps, if he has got enough, will be satisfied to sit all daywith his back to the fire and his belly to the table, by George!"Yet I never, by any manoeuvring, could get him to take the spiritualview of things; the highest that he appeared to conceive of was asimple expediency, such as you might expect an animal to appreciate;and this, practically, is true of most men. If I suggested anyimprovement in his mode of life, he merely answered, withoutexpressing any regret, that it was too late. Yet he thoroughlybelieved in honesty and the like virtues.
There was a certain positive originality, however slight, to bedetected in him, and I occasionally observed that he was thinkingfor himself and expressing his own opinion, a phenomenon so rarethat I would any day walk ten miles to observe it, and it amountedto the re-origination of many of the institutions of society. Thoughhe hesitated, and perhaps failed to express himself distinctly, healways had a presentable thought behind. Yet his thinking was soprimitive and immersed in his animal life, that, though more promisingthan a merely learned man's, it rarely ripened to anything which canbe reported. He suggested that there might be men of genius in thelowest grades of life, however permanently humble and illiterate,who take their own view always, or do not pretend to see at all; whoare as bottomless even as Walden Pond was thought to be, though theymay be dark and muddy.
Many a traveller came out of his way to see me and the inside ofmy house, and, as an excuse for calling, asked for a glass of water. Itold them that I drank at the pond, and pointed thither, offering tolend them a dipper. Far off as I lived, I was not exempted from theannual visitation which occurs, methinks, about the first of April,when everybody is on the move; and I had my share of good luck, thoughthere were some curious specimens among my visitors. Half-witted menfrom the almshouse and elsewhere came to see me; but I endeavored tomake them exercise all the wit they had, and make their confessions tome; in such cases making wit the theme of our conversation; and so wascompensated. Indeed, I found some of them to be wiser than theso-called overseers of the poor and selectmen of the town, and thoughtit was time that the tables were turned. With respect to wit, Ilearned that there was not much difference between the half and thewhole. One day, in particular, an inoffensive, simpleminded pauper,whom with others I had often seen used as fencing stuff, standing orsitting on a bushel in the fields to keep cattle and himself fromstraying, visited me, and expressed a wish to live as I did. He toldme, with the utmost simplicity and truth, quite superior, or ratherinferior, to anything that is called humility, that he was"deficient in intellect." These were his words. The Lord had madehim so, yet he supposed the Lord cared as much for him as for another."I have always been so," said he, "from my childhood; I never had muchmind; I was not like other children; I am weak in the head. It was theLord's will, I suppose." And there he was to prove the truth of hiswords. He was a metaphysical puzzle to me. I have rarely met afellow-man on such promising ground- it was so simple and sincereand so true all that he said. And, true enough, in proportion as heappeared to humble himself was he exalted. I did not know at first butit was the result of a wise policy. It seemed that from such a basisof truth and frankness as the poor weak-headed pauper had laid, ourintercourse might go forward to something better than theintercourse of sages.
I had some guests from those not reckoned commonly among thetown's poor, but who should be; who are among the world's poor, at anyrate; guests who appeal, not to your hospitality, but to yourhospitality; who earnestly wish to be helped, and preface their appealwith the information that they are resolved, for one thing, never tohelp themselves. I require of a visitor that he be not actuallystarving, though he may have the very best appetite in the world,however he got it. Objects of charity are not guests. Men who didnot know when their visit had terminated, though I went about mybusiness again, answering them from greater and greater remoteness.Men of almost every degree of wit called on me in the migratingseason. Some who had more wits than they knew what to do with; runawayslaves with plantation manners, who listened from time to time, likethe fox in the fable, as if they heard the hounds a-baying on theirtrack, and looked at me beseechingly, as much as to say,
"O Christian, will you send me back?One real runaway slave, among the rest, whom I helped to forwardtoward the north star. Men of one idea, like a hen with one chicken,and that a duckling; men of a thousand ideas, and unkempt heads,like those hens which are made to take charge of a hundred chickens,all in pursuit of one bug, a score of them lost in every morning'sdew- and become frizzled and mangy in consequence; men of ideasinstead of legs, a sort of intellectual centipede that made youcrawl all over. One man proposed a book in which visitors should writetheir names, as at the White Mountains; but, alas! I have too good amemory to make that necessary.
I could not but notice some of the peculiarities of my visitors.Girls and boys and young women generally seemed glad to be in thewoods. They looked in the pond and at the flowers, and improvedtheir time. Men of business, even farmers, thought only of solitudeand employment, and of the great distance at which I dwelt fromsomething or other; and though they said that they loved a ramble inthe woods occasionally, it was obvious that they did not. Restlesscommitted men, whose time was an taken up in getting a living orkeeping it; ministers who spoke of God as if they enjoyed a monopolyof the subject, who could not bear all kinds of opinions; doctors,lawyers, uneasy housekeepers who pried into my cupboard and bed when Iwas out- how came Mrs.- to know that my sheets were not as clean ashers?- young men who had ceased to be young, and had concluded that itwas safest to follow the beaten track of the professions- all thesegenerally said that it was not possible to do so much good in myposition. Ay! there was the rub. The old and infirm and the timid,of whatever age or sex, thought most of sickness, and suddenaccident and death; to them life seemed full of danger- what danger isthere if you don't think of any?- and they thought that a prudentman would carefully select the safest position, where Dr. B. mightbe on hand at a moment's warning. To them the village was literallya com-munity, a league for mutual defence, and you would supposethat they would not go a-huckleberrying without a medicine chest.The amount of it is, if a man is alive, there is always danger that hemay die, though the danger must be allowed to be less in proportion ashe is dead-and-alive to begin with. A man sits as many risks as heruns. Finally, there were the self-styled reformers, the greatestbores of all, who thought that I was forever singing,
This is the house that I built; This is the man that lives in the house that I built;but they did not know that the third line was,
These are the folks that worry the man That lives in the house that I built.I did not fear the hen-harriers, for I kept no chickens; but Ifeared the men-harriers rather.
I had more cheering visitors than the last. Children comea-berrying, railroad men taking a Sunday morning walk in clean shirts,fishermen and hunters, poets and philosophers; in short, all honestpilgrims, who came out to the woods for freedom's sake, and reallyleft the village behind, I was ready to greet with- "Welcome,Englishmen! welcome, Englishmen!" for I had had communication withthat race.