The Surveyor: 29 October 1857


Audio: Read by Trevor James Barker

Land surveying was Thoreau’s chief source of income when he was in his thirties and forties, and he was good at it. On one hand, the work allowed him to spend time outdoors, exercise, and listen to birdsong. On the other hand, he tended to eat poorly and neglect his personal pursuits while he was out on the job. Shortly after he turned forty, he wrote this journal entry. He had just awoken from a recurring dream of ascending a mountain, which led him to think about the true business of life. He concluded that, on balance, he had chosen the professions best suited to his temperament. “I have aspired to practice in succession all the honest arts of life,” he wrote, “that I may gather all their fruits.”

I know of no such amusement – so wholesome & in every sense profitable – for instance as to spend an hour or two in a day – picking some berries or other fruits which will be food for the winter – or collecting drift wood from the river for fuel – or cultivating the few beans or potatoes which I want – Theaters & operas – which intoxicate for a season – are nothing compared to these pursuits. And so it is with all the true arts of life – Farming & building – & manufacturing & sailing are the greatest & wholesomest amusements that were ever invented (for God invented them) & I suppose that the farmers & mechanics know it – only I think they indulge to excess generally, & so what was meant for a joy becomes the sweat of their brow. . . . It is a great amusement & more profitable than I could have invented – to go & spend an afternoon now picking cranberries– By these various pursuits your experience becomes singularly complete & founded. The novelty & significance of such pursuits are remarkable. – Such is the path by which we climb to the heights of our being – & compare the poetry which such simple pursuits have inspired – with the unreadable volumes which have been written about art.

Who is the most profitable companion – he who has been picking cranberries & chopping wood – or he who has been attending the opera all his days? I find when I have been building a fence or surveying a farm – or even collecting simples – that these were the true paths to perception & enjoyment. My being seems to have put forth new roots – to be more strongly planted. This is the true way to crack the nut of happiness. If as a poet or naturalist – you wish to explore a given neighborhood – go and live in it – i.e get your living in it – fish in its streams – hunt in its forests – gather from its waters or its woods – cultivate the ground – & pluck the wild fruits – &c &c this will be the surest & speediest way to those perceptions you covet.

Henry David Thoreau’s journal for 31 July–25 November 1857. MA 1302.30. Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1909.