Thoreau’s Journal

January 25th, 2009

There’s a great site called The Blog of Henry David Thoreau. It’s nice to go there now and then to read Thoreau’s thoughts for a given day from his journal.

From January 24, 1856:

I have seen many a collection of stately elms which better deserved to be represented at the General Court than the manikins beneath,-than the barroom and victualling cellar and groceries they overshadowed. When I see their magnificent domes, miles away in the horizon, over intervening valleys and forests, they suggest a village, a community, there. But, after all, it is a secondary consideration whether there are human dwellings beneath them; these may have long since passed away. I find that into my idea of the village has entered more of the elm than of the human being. They are worth many a political borough. They constitute a borough. The poor human representative of his party sent out from beneath their shade will not suggest a tithe of the dignity, the true nobleness and comprehensiveness of the view, the sturdiness and independence, and the serene beneficence that they do. They look from township to township. A fragment of their bark is worth the backs of all the politicians in the union. They are free-soilers in their own broad sense. They send their roots north and south and east into many a conservative’s Kansas and Carolina, who does not suspect such underground railroads,-they improve the subsoil he has never disturbed,-and many times their length, if the support of their principles requires it. They battle with the tempests of a century. See what scars they bear, what limbs they lost before we were born! Yet they never adjourn; they steadily vote for their principles, and send their roots further and wider from the same centre. They die at their posts, and they leave a tough butt for the choppers to exercise themselves about, and a stump which serves for their monument. They attend no caucus, they make no compromise, they use no policy. Their one principle is growth. They combine a true radicalism with a true conservatism. Their radicalism is not cutting away of roots, but an infinite multiplication and extension of them under all surrounding institutions. They take a firmer hold on the earth that they may rise higher into the heavens. Their conservative heartwood, in which no sap longer flows, does not impoverish their growth, but is a firm column to support it; and when their expanding trunks no longer require it, it utterly decays. Their conservatism is a dead but solid heart-wood, which is the pivot and firm column of support to all this growth, appropriating nothing to itself, but forever by its support assisting to extend the area of their radicalism. Half a century after they are dead at the core, they are preserved by radical reforms. They do not, like men, from radicals turn conservative. Their conservative part dies out first; their radical and growing part survives. They acquire new States and Territories, while the old dominions decay, and become the habitation of bears and owls and coons.

Check out The Blog of Henry David Thoreau.  It’s a good read.


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4 Responses to “Thoreau’s Journal”



  1. Jan |

    I don’t know about that “conservative” dead wood and “radical” roots, but Thoreau sure passed on a love for stately trees and wooden puns.


  2. Tom |

    “Wooden puns.” Jeez.

    I agree with this statement: “A fragment of their bark is worth the backs of all the politicians in the union.”

    I went to Walden Pond about three decades ago. It was peaceful and fairly quiet, but the water of the pond had kind of a chemical tint from all the stuff they put in it, I guess to keep away algae and such. I tried to imagine what it must have been like back in Thoreau’s day, but it was a little difficult, being surrounded by so much modernity.


  3. doris |

    If not for radicals, there would be no change, and the radical element will always exist, no matter what, is so true. He is brilliant in this analogy. I don’t really think it was meant as a pun. The radical element is where and how freedom exists, not conservatism, which would have us all as sheep, going to slaughter.


  4. Jan |

    I think Thoreau was stretching a bit to connect the nature of trees to the nature of human politics, but I liked this line: “They combine a true radicalism with a true conservatism.” I visited Walden Pond sometime in the early 1970s, looking for inspiration. My recollection is that the nearest highway was so close, it was depressing.


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