Thoreau on Monadnock

Henry David Thoreau loved mountains. In the first version of Walden he wrote: "on the tops of mountains, as everywhere to hopeful souls, it is always morning". He thought that climbing mountains was a way of experiencing "your own higher latitudes", which "elevated and etherialized" the climber. The reason is that in the solitude of mountain vastness one can "find God in nature" and perceive the world as "living and divine"; for "mountains thus seen are worthy of worship".

The mountain Thoreau loved most was Monadnock (in this choice he perhaps influenced, or was influenced by, Emerson). While it was not the highest mountain he climbed, it impressed him above all others: "that New Hampshire bluff, that promontory of a state ... will longest haunt our dreams". Thoreau climbed Monadnock in 1844, 1852, 1858, and 1860 and recorded extensive botanical and geological observations in his journal (indeed, a bog that he studied on the mountain is named after him). However, his journal entries also hint at the spiritual meaning that the mountain held for him; here are some excerpts:

"Almost without interruption we had the mountain in sight before us,—its sublime gray mass—that antique, brownish-gray, Ararat color. Probably these crests of the earth are for the most part of one color in all lands, that gray color of antiquity, which nature loves."

Thoreau observed nighthawks on the mountain: "their dry and unmusical, yet supramundane and spirit-like, voices and sounds gave fit expression to this rocky mountain solitude. It struck the very key-note of the stern, gray, solitude. It was a thrumming of the mountain's rocky chords."

Monadnock "often reminded me of my walks on the beach, and suggested how much both depend for their sublimity on solitude and dreariness. In both cases we feel the presence of some vast, titanic power."

"Those who climb to the peak of Monadnock have seen but little of the mountain. I came not to look off from it, but to look at it. The view of the pinnacle itself from the plateau below surpasses any view which you get from the summit. It is indispensible to see the top itself and the sierra of its outline from one side.... It is remarkable what haste the visitors make to get to the top of the mountain and then look away from it."

The opening section of Thoreau's poem "With Frontier Strength Ye Stand Your Guard" also contains praise for Monadnock:

With frontier strength ye stand your guard,
With grand content ye circle round,
Tumultuous silence for all sound,
Ye distant nursery of rills,
Monadnock and the Peterborough Hills;—
Firm argument that never stirs,
Outcircling the philosophers,—
Like some vast fleet,
Sailing through rain and sleet,
Through winter's cold and summer's heat;
Still holding on upon your high emprise,
Until ye find a shore amid the skies;
Not skulking close to land,
With cargo contraband,
For they who sent a venture out by ye
Have set the Sun to see
Their honesty.
Ships of the line, each one,
Ye westward run,
Convoying clouds,
Which cluster in your shrouds,
Always before the gale,
Under a press of sail,
With weight of metal all untold,—
I seem to feel ye in my firm seat here,
Immeasurable depth of hold,
And breadth of beam, and length of running gear.
Methinks ye take luxurious pleasure
In your novel western leisure;
So cool your brows and freshly blue,
As Time had naught for ye to do;
For ye lie at your length,
An unappropriated strength,
Unhewn primeval timber,
For knees so stiff, for masts so limber;
The stock of which new earths are made,
One day to be our western trade,
Fit for the stanchions of a world
Which through the seas of space is hurled....

Of course, Thoreau was not just a naturalist but also a consummate individualist; here are some thoughts of his which seem most in alignment with our aims here at the Monadnock Review:

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not just theoretically, but practically.

Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe...till we come to the hard bottom of rocks in place, which we can call reality.

For Further Exploration

J. Parker Huber has collected many of Thoreau's mountain journal entries into Elevating Ourselves: Thoreau on Mountains. See also Elliott Allison's essay "Thoreau of Monadnock", Thoreau Journal Quarterly, October 1973.