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Henry David Thoreau : Mind and Nature

Extract from :

Henry David Thoreau

Journal / Letters

"There is, no doubt, a perfect analogy between the life of the human and that of the vegetable, both of the body and the mind.

The botanist Gray says:

The organs of plants are of two sorts: — 1. Those of Vegetation,

which are concerned in growth — by which the plant takes in the

aërial and earthy matters on which it lives, and elaborates them

into the materials of its own organized substance; 2. Those of

Fructification or Reproduction, which are concerned with the

propagation of the species.

So it is with the human being. I am concerned first to come to my Growth, intellectually and morally (and physically, of course, as a means to this, for the body is the symbol of the soul), and then to bear my Fruit, do my Work, propagate, not only physically but morally, not only in body but in mind.

The organs of vegetation are the Root, Stem, and Leaves. The Stem

is the axis and original basis of the plant. The first point of the stem

preëxists in the embryo (i.e. in the rudimentary plantlet contained

within the seed): it is here called the radicle.

Such is the rudiment of mind, already partially developed, more than a bud, but pale, never having been exposed to the light, and slumbering coiled up, packed away in the seed, unfolded.

Consider the still pale, rudimentary, infantine, radicle-like thoughts of some students, which who knows what they might expand to, if they should ever come to the light and air, if they do not become rancid and perish in the seed. It is not every seed that will survive a thousand years. Other thoughts, further developed, but yet pale and languid, like shoots grown in a cellar.

The plant . . . develops from the first in two opposite directions,

viz. upwards [to expand in the light and air] to produce and

continue the stem (or ascending axis), and downwards [avoiding

the light] to form the root (or descending axis). The former is

ordinarily or in great part aërial, the latter subterranean.

So the mind develops from the first in two opposite directions: upwards to expand in the light and air; and downwards avoiding the light to form the root. One half is aërial, the other subterranean. The mind is not well balanced and firmly planted, like the oak, which has not as much root as branch, whose roots like those of the white pine are slight and near the surface. One half of the mind's development must still be root — in the embryonic

state, in the womb of nature, more unborn than at first. For each successive new idea or bud, a new rootlet in the earth. The growing man penetrates yet deeper by his roots into the womb of things. The infant is comparatively near the surface, just covered from the light; but the man sends down a tap-root to the centre of things.

The mere logician, the mere reasoner, who weaves his arguments as a tree its branches in the sky — nothing equally developed in the roots — is overthrown by the first wind.


The thought that comes to light, that pierces the empyrean on the other side, is wombed and rooted in darkness, a moist and fertile darkness — its roots in Hades like the tree of life. No idea is so soaring but it will readily put forth roots. Wherever there is an air-and-light-seeking bud about to expand, it may become in the earth a darkness-seeking root. Even swallows and birds-of-paradise can walk on the ground.

To quote the sentence from Gray entire:

"Roots not only spring from the root-end of the primary stem in

germination, but also from any subsequent part of the stem under

favorable circumstances, that is to say, in darkness and moisture,

as when covered by the soil or resting on its surface."

No thought but is connected as strictly as a flower, with the earth. The mind flashes not so far on one side but its rootlets, its spongelets, find their way instantly on the other side into a moist darkness, uterine — a low bottom in the heavens, even miasma-exhaling to such immigrants as are not acclimated. A cloud is uplifted to sustain its roots. Imbosomed in clouds as in a chariot, the mind drives through the boundless fields of space. Even there is the dwelling of Indra.

I might here quote the following, with the last — of roots:

They may even strike in the open air and light, as is seen in the

copious aërial rootlets by which the Ivy, the Poison Ivy, and the

Trumpet Creeper climb and adhere to the trunks of trees or other

bodies; and also in Epiphytes or Air-plants, of most warm

regions, which have no connection whatever with the soil, but

germinate and grow high in air on the trunks or branches of

trees, etc.; as well as in some terrestrial plants, such as the Banian

and Mangrove, that send off aërial roots from their trunks or

branches, which finally reach the ground.

So, if our light-and-air-seeking tendencies extend too widely for our original root or stem, we must send downward new roots to ally us to the earth.

Also there are parasitic plants which have their roots in the branches or roots of other trees, as the mistletoe, the beech-drops, etc. There are minds which so have their roots in other minds as in the womb of nature — if, indeed, most are not such ?!"

— Journal, May 20, 1851


"Most men can be easily transplanted from here there, for they have so little root — no tap-root — or their roots penetrate so little way, that you can thrust a shovel quite under them and take them up, roots and all."

— Journal, May 14, 1852


"This earth which is spread out like a map around me is but the lining of my inmost soul exposed."

— Journal, May 23, 1854


"As for the dispute about solitude and society, any comparison is impertinent. It is an idling down on the plain at the base of a mountain, instead of climbing steadily to its top. Of course you will be glad of all the society you can get to go up with. Will you go to glory

with me ? is the burden of the song. I love society so much that I swallowed it all at a gulp — that is, all that came in my way.

It is not that we love to be alone, but that we love to soar, and when we do soar, the company grows thinner and thinner till there is none at all. It is either the Tribune

on the plain, a sermon on the mount, or a very private ecstasy still higher up. We are not the less to aim at the summits, though the multitude does not ascend them. Use all the society that will abet you."

— Letter to Harrison Blake, May 21, 1856


"It is foolish for a man to accumulate material wealth chiefly, houses and land. Our stock in life, our real estate, is that amount of thought which we have had, which we have thought out. The ground we have thus created is forever pasturage for our thoughts.

I fall back on to visions which I have had. What else adds to my possessions and makes me rich in all lands ? If you have ever done any work with these finest tools, the imagination and fancy and reason, it is a new creation, independent on the world, and a possession forever. You have laid up something against a rainy day. You have to that extent cleared the wilderness."

— Journal, May 1, 1857


"How rarely I meet with a man who can be free, even in thought ! We live according to rule. Some men are bedridden; all, world-ridden. I take my neighbor, an intellectual man, out into the woods and invite him to take a new and absolute view of things, to empty clean out of his thoughts all institutions of men and start again; but he can't do it, he sticks to his traditions and his crochets. He thinks that governments, colleges, newspapers, etc., are from everlasting to everlasting."

— Journal, May 12, 1857


"If you would have the song of the sparrow inspire you a thousand years hence, let your life be in harmony with its strain today."

— Journal, May 13, 1857


"The thinker, he who is serene and self-possessed, is the brave, not the desperate soldier. He who can deal with his thoughts as a material, building them into poems in which future generations will delight, he is the man of the greatest and rarest vigor, not sturdy diggers and lusty polygamists. He is the man of energy, in whom subtle and poetic thoughts are bred.

Common men can enjoy partially; they can go a-fishing rainy days; they can read poems perchance, but they have not the vigor to beget poems. They can enjoy feebly, but they cannot create. Men talk of freedom ! How many are free to think ? free from fear, from perturbation, from prejudice ? Nine hundred and ninety-nine in a thousand are perfect slaves. How many can exercise the highest human faculties ?

He is the man truly — courageous, wise, ingeniuous — who can use his thoughts and ecstasies as the material of fair and durable creations. One man shall derive from the fisherman's story more than the fisher has got who tells it. The mass of men do not know how to cultivate the fields they traverse. The mass clear only a scanty pittance where the thinker reaps an abundant harvest. What is all your building, if you do not build with thoughts ?

No exercise implies more real manhood and vigor than joining thought to thought. How few men can tell what they have thought ! I hardly know half a dozen who are not too lazy for this. They cannot get over some difficulty, and therefore they are on the long way round. You conquer fate by thought. If you think the fatal thought of men and institutions, you need never pull the trigger. The consequences of thinking inevitably follow. There is no more Herculean task than to think a thought about this life and then get it expressed.

Horticulturalists think that they make flower-gardens, though in their thoughts they are barren and flowerless, but to the poet the earth is a flower-garden wherever he goes, or thinks. Most men can keep a horse or keep up a certain fashionable style of living, but few indeed can keep up great expectations. They justly think very meanly of themselves."

— Journal, May 6, 1858

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