'Take long walks in stormy weather', 1856
An eloquent man of his age marks Christmas
It’s no secret that I’m obsessed with walking (mostly in Britain). I walk every day. This morning I did my regular Friday walk to a tiny, beautiful hamlet here in the Cotswolds, this time accompanied by my 12-year-old son. It was wet and squally, with a wild wind blowing across the ridge we walked on, up above a bucolic river valley – a fight at times to move forward, but happy in the knowledge that on the way back the wind would push us home to breakfast. So you would not be surprised at my delight in encountering these words this morning:
Take long walks in stormy weather, or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.
I can’t think of better advice (though there’s not much chance of deep snow in this alarmingly warm December).
The words are those of Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), American transcendentalist writer, naturalist and philosopher. You probably know a bit about his two years spent living a solitary, sort-of-self-sufficient life on the shores of Walden Pond in Massachusetts – and yes, probably too about how he took his washing home to his mum regularly (hat tip to Austin Kleon for that link – you read his Substack, right?).
Anyway, I’m not here to judge Thoreau, who was all things considered a Good Person and a beautiful writer. I’m not going to tell his life story here either – it’s Christmas, and we’re all busy. This is my fourth Christmas of writing Histories (see 2020, 2021, 2022), having started it just over three years ago – so this too is a Christmas piece, and all I’d like to do is share a couple of Thoreau’s lovely journal entries from Christmas Day. The quote above is one such, written on 25th December 1856. This is the walk that prompted his reflection on taking long walks:1
To Lee’s Cliff. A strong wind from the N.W. is gathering the snow into picturesque drifts behind the walls. As usual, they resemble shells more than anything else, sometimes the prows of vessels, also the folds of a white napkin or counterpane dropped over a bonneted head. There are no such picturesque snowdrifts as are formed behind loose and open stone walls.
Thoreau kept a journal from 1837 (prompted by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson) to 1861, accumulating some two million words of his observations and reflections. (He also wrote an essay called ‘A Winter Walk’.)
Before I leave you in his lyrical hands, two things:
Yesterday was the winter solstice, and I had the privilege of seeing a cinema screening of A Year in a Field, a profound, beautiful and moving film by Christopher Morris. It’s available to stream online. If you care at all about the environment or the simple beauty of nature, give yourself this Christmas present.
And of course, have a safe, happy and restful Christmas. Here’s to a new year of walking through history ahead!
25th December 1858
Now that the sun is setting, all its light seems to glance over the snowclad pond [i.e. Walden], and strike the rocky shore under the pitch pines at the N.E. end. Though the bare, rocky shore there is only a foot or a foot and a half high, as I look, it reflects so much light that the rocks are singularly distinct, as if the pond showed its teeth… How full of soft, pure light the western sky now, after sunset! I love to see the outlines of the pines against it. Unless you watch, you do not know when the sun goes down. It is like a candle extinguished without smoke. A moment ago you saw that glittering orb amid the dry oak leaves in the horizon and now you can detect no trace of it...
But for all voice in that serene hour, I hear an owl hoot. How glad I am to hear him rather than the most eloquent man of the age.