January 30, 1841

in Thoreau’s Journal:

Far over the fields, between the tops of yonder wood, I see a slight cloud not larger than the vapor from a kettle, drifting by its own inward purpose in a direction contrary to the planet. As it flits across the dells and defiles of the tree-tops, now seen, then lost beyond a pine, I am curious to know wherein its will resides, for to my eye it has no heart, nor lungs, nor brain, nor any interior and private chamber which it may inhabit.

Its motion reminds me of those lines of Milton: —

“As when far off at sea a fleet descried

Hangs in the clouds, by equinoctial winds

Close sailing from Bengala, or the isles

Of Ternate and Tidore, whence merchants bring 

Their spicy drugs; they on the trading flood,

Ply stemming nightly toward the pole.”

The snow collects upon the plumes of the pitch pine in the form of a pineapple, which if you divide in the middle will expose three red kernels like the tamarind-stone. So does winter with his mock harvest jeer at the sincerity of summer. The tropical fruits, which will not bear the rawness of our summer, are imitated in a thousand fantastic shapes by the whimsical genius of winter.

In winter the warmth comes directly from the sun, and is not radiated from the earth. In summer I forget to bless the sun for his heat; but when I feel his beams on my back as I thread some snowy dale, I am grateful as for a special kindness which would not be weary of well doing but had pursued me even into that by-place.

When the wind blows, the fine snow comes filtering down through all the aisles of the wood in a golden cloud.

The trees covered with snow admit a very plain and clean light, but not brilliant, as if through windows of ground glass; a sort of white darkness it is, all of the sun’s splendor that can be retained.

The fashions of the wood are more fluctuating than those of Paris; snow, rime, ice, green and dry leaves incessantly make new patterns. There are all the shapes and hues of the kaleidoscope and the designs and ciphers of books of heraldry in the outlines of the trees. Every time I see a nodding pine-top, it seems as if a new fashion of wearing plumes had come into vogue.

I saw a team come out of a path in the woods, as though it had never gone in, but belonged there, and only came out like Elisha’s bears. It was wholly of the village, and not at all of the wood.

These particles of snow which the early wind shakes down are what is stirring, or the morning news of the wood. Sometimes it is blown up above the trees, like the sand of the desert.

You glance up these paths, closely embowered by bent trees, as through the side aisles of a cathedral, and expect to hear a choir chanting from their depths. You are never so far in them as they are far before you.  Their secret is where you are not and where your feet can never carry you.

I tread in the tracks of the fox which has gone before me by some hours, or which perhaps I have started, with such a tiptoe of expectation as if I were on the trail of the Spirit itself which resides in these woods, and expected soon to catch it in its lair.

The snow falls on no two trees alike, but the forms it assumes are as various as those of the twigs and leaves which receive it. They are, as it were, predetermined by the genius of the tree. So one divine spirit descends alike on all, but bears a peculiar fruit in each. The divinity subsides on all men, as the snowflakes settle on the fields and ledges and takes the form of the various clefts and surfaces on which it lodges.

Here is the distinct trail of a fox stretching [a] quarter of a mile across the pond. Now I am curious to know what has determined its graceful curvatures, its greater or less spaces and distinctness, and how surely they were coincident with the fluctuations of some mind, why they now lead me two steps to the right, and then three to the left. If these things are not to be called up and accounted for in the Lamb’s Book of Life, I shall set them down for careless accountants. Here was one expression of the divine mind this morning. The pond was his journal, and last night’s snow made a tabula rasa for him. I know which way a mind wended this morning, what horizon it faced, by the setting of these tracks; whether it moved slowly or rapidly, by the greater or less intervals and distinctness, for the swiftest step leaves yet a lasting trace.

Sometimes I come out suddenly upon a high plain, which seems to be the upper level and true surface of the earth, and by its very baldness aspires and lies up nearer to the stars, —a place where a decalogue might be let down or a saint translated.

I take a horse and oxen, standing among the wood-piles in the forest, for one of them, and when at length the horse pricks his ears, and I give him another name, where’s the difference? I am startled by the possibility of such errors, and the indifference with [which] they are allowed to occur.

Fair Haven Pond is scored with the trails of foxes, and you may see where they have gamboled and gone through a hundred evolutions, which testify to a singular listlessness and leisure in nature.

Suddenly, looking down the river, I saw a fox some sixty rods off, making across to the hills on my left. As the snow lay five inches deep, he made but slow progress, but it was no impediment to me. So, yielding to the instinct of the chase, I tossed my head aloft and bounded away, snuffing the air like a fox-hound, and spurning the world and the Humane Society at each bound. It seemed the woods rang with the hunter’s horn, and Diana and all the satyrs joined in the chase and cheered me on. Olympian and Elean youths were waving palms on the hills. In the meanwhile I gained rapidly on the fox; but he showed a remarkable presence bf mind, for, instead of keeping up the face of the hill, which was steep and unwooded in that part, he kept along the slope in the direction of the forest, though he lost ground by it. Notwithstanding his fright, he took no step which was not beautiful. The course on his part was a series of most graceful curves. It was a sort of leopard canter, I should say, as if he were no-wise impeded by the snow, but were husbanding his strength all the while. When he doubled I wheeled and cut him off, bounding with fresh vigor, and Antseus-like, recovering my strength each time I touched the snow. Having got near enough for a fair view, just as he was slipping into the wood, I gracefully yielded him the palm. He ran as though there were not a bone in his back, occasionally dropping his muzzle to the snow for a rod or two, and then tossing his head aloft when satisfied of his course. When he came to a declivity he put his fore feet together and slid down it like a cat. He trod so softly that you could not have heard it from any nearness, and yet with such expression that it would not have been quite inaudible at any distance. So, hoping this experience would prove a useful lesson to him, I returned to the village by the highway of the river.

There is all the romance of my youthfulest moment in music. Heaven lies about us, as in our infancy. There is nothing so wild and extravagant that it does not make true. It makes a dreamy only real experience, and prompts faith to such elasticity that only the incredible can satisfy it. It tells me again to trust the remotest and finest, as the divinest, instinct. All that I have imagined of heroism, it reminds and reassures me of. It is a life unlived, a life beyond life, where at length my years will pass. I look under the lids.