Henry David Thoreau
and Other Natural History Essays
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers / Walden; Or, Life in the Woods / The Maine Woods / Cape Cod
Searching for Thoreau
On the Trails and Shores of Wild New England
I think it was the 18th that I first noticed snow-fleas on the surface of the river amid the weeds at its edge. Green leaves are now so scarce that the polypody at the Island rock is more conspicuous, and the terminal shield fern (?) further up.
As I paddle under the Hemlock bank this cloudy afternoon, about 3 o'clock, I see a screech owl sitting on the edge of a hollow hemlock stump about three feet high, at the base of a large hemlock.
It sits with its head drawn in, eying mw, with its eyes partly open, about twenty feet off. When it hears me move, it turns its head toward me, perhaps one eye only open, with its great glaring golden iris.
At this distance and in this light, you see only a black spot where the eye is, and the question is whether the eyes are open or not.
It sits on the lee side of the tree this raw and windy day.
You would say that this was a bird without a neck. Its short bill, which rests upon its breast, scarcely projects at all, but in a state of rest the whole upper part of the bird from the wings is rounded off smoothly, excepting the, horns, which stand up conspicuously or are slanted back.
After watching it ten minutes from the boat, I landed two rods above, and, stealing quietly up behind the hemlock, though from the windward. I looked carefully around it, and, to my surprise, saw the owl still sitting there. So I sprang round quickly, With my arm outstretched, and caught it in my hand.
It was so surprised that it offered no resistance at first, only glared at me in mute astonishment with eyes as big as saucers.
But ere long it began to snap its bill, making quite a noise, and, as I rolled it up in my handkerchief and put it in my pocket, it bit my finger slightly.
I soon took it out of my pocket and, tying the handkerchief, left it on the bottom of the boat. So I carried it home and made a small cage in which to keep it for a night.
When I took it up, it clung so tightly to my hand as to sink its claws into my fingers and bring blood.
When alarmed or provoked most, it snaps its bill and hisses. It puffs up its feathers to nearly twice its usual size, stretches out its neck, and, with wide-open eyes, stares this way and that, moving its head slowly and undulatingly from side to side with a curious motion.
While I write this evening, I see that there is ground for much superstition in it. It looks out on me from a dusky corner of its box with its great solemn eyes, so perfectly still itself.
I was surprised to find that I could imitate its note as I remember it, by a guttural whinnering.
A remarkably squat figure, being very broad in proportion to its length, with a short tail, and very catlike in the face with its horns and great eyes. Remarkably large feet and talons, legs thickly clothed with whitish down, down to the talons.
It brought blood from my fingers by clinging to them. It would lower its head, stretch out its neck, and, bending it from side to side, peer at you with laughable circumspection; from side to side, as if to catch or absorb into its eyes every ray of light, strain at you with complacent yet earnest scrutiny.
Raising and lowering its head and moving it from side to side in a slow and regular manner, at the same time snapping its bill smartly perhaps, and faintly hissing, and puffing itself up more and more - cat-like, turtle-like, both in hissing and swelling.
The slowness and gravity, not to say solemnity, of this motion are striking. There plainly is no jesting in this case.
October 28, 1855
Oct. 27. P.M. A-chestnutting down the Turnpike.
It is high time we came a-nutting, for the nuts have nearly all fallen, and you must depend on what you can fold on the ground, left by the squirrels, and cannot shake down any more to speak of.
The trees are nearly all bare of leaves as well as burrs. The wind comes cold from the northwest, as if there were snow on the earth in that direction. Larches are yellowing.
I try one of the wild apples in my desk. It is remarkable that the wild apples which I praise as so spirited and racy when eaten in the fields and woods, when brought into the house have a harsh and crabbed taste.
As shells and pebbles must be beheld on the seashore, so these October fruits must be tasted in a bracing walk amid the somewhat bracing airs of late October.
To appreciate their wild and sharp flavors, it seems necessary that you be breathing the sharp October or November air.
The outdoor air and exercise which the walker gets give a different tone to his palate, and he craves a fruit which the sedentary would call harsh and crabbed even.
The palate rejects a wild apple eaten in the house - so of laws and acorns -- and demans tamed one, for here You miss that October air which is the wine it is eaten with.
I frequently pluck wild apples of so rich and spicy a flavor that I wonder all orchardists do not get a scion from them, but when 1 have brought home my pocKets full, and taste them in the house, they are unexpectedl harsh, crude things. They must be eaten in the fields, when your system is all aglow with exercise, the frosty weather nips your fingers (in November), the wind rattles the bare boughs and rustles the leaves, and the jay is heard screaming around.
October 27, 1855
Down river to Ball's Hill in boat. Another perfect Indian-summer day.
One of my oars makes a creaking sound like a block in a harbor, such a sound as would bring tears into an old sailor's eyes. It suggests to me adventure and seeking one's fortune.
Turtles are still seen dropping into the water (Emys pitta). The white maples have mostly shed their leaves, but those which are beneath the level of the bank, protected by it, still hold on. This leafy stratum rises exactly to a level with the bank. The water for some time has been clear of weeds mostly, but looks cool for fishes.
We get into the lee of the hill near Abner Buttrick's, where is smooth water, and here it is very warm and sunny under the pitch pines, and some small bushy white asters still survive.
October 25, 1852
What men call social virtues, good fellowship, is commonly but the virtue of pigs in a litter, which lie close together to keep each other warm. It brings men together in crowds and mobs in barrooms and elsewhere, but it does not deserve the name of virtue.
October 23, 1852