The Naturalist: 11 November 1858


Audio: Read by Sabrina de Silva

In November 1858, one of Thoreau’s neighbors shot a hawk that had been after his chickens. Thoreau took the bird home and examined it, checking his copy of Wilson’s American Ornithology to identify the species precisely. He felt a kinship with this particular bird. “The same thing which keeps the hen hawk in the woods – away from the cities – keeps me here,” he wrote. The day he made this entry, he had gone rowing, as he often did, and taken note of all the signs of approaching winter, reveling just as much in the frost and decay as he did in the brighter signs of spring and summer. Back home, he examined the young hen hawk’s feather—an ordinary thing, rarely seen or appreciated by humans—and found such beauty in it that he made a drawing of it in his journal. Of more than eight hundred little sketches Thoreau made in his journal over the course of several decades, this is one of the most dramatic.

Snow fleas are skipping on the surface of the water at the edge & spiders running about. These become prominent now–
The waters look cold & empty of fish & most other inhabitants now. Here in the sun in the shelter of the wood – the smooth shallow water, with the stubble standing in it – is waiting for ice – indeed ice that formed last night must have recently melted in it. The sight of such water now reminds me of ice as much as of water. No doubt many fishes have gone into winter quarters. . . .
Gossamer reflecting the light – is another November phenomenon (as well as October). I see here looking toward the sun a very distinct silvery sheen from the cranberry vines – (as from a thousand other November surfaces) though looking down on them they are dark purple. . . . Coming home I have cold fingers & must row to get warm.
In the meadows the pitcher plants are bright red. This is the month of nuts and nutty thoughts – this November whose name sounds so bleak and cheerless – perhaps its harvest of thought is worth more than all the other crops of the year– Men are more serious now. . .
The tail coverts of the young hen hawk, i.e. this year’s bird at present – are white very handsomely barred or watered with dark brown in an irregular manner somewhat as above – the bars on opposite sides of the midrib – alternating in an agreeable manner– Such natural objects have suggested the “watered” figures or colors in the arts– Few mortals ever look down on the tail coverts of a young hen hawk – yet these are not only beautiful, but of a peculiar beauty – being differently marked & colored (to judge from Wilson’s ac. of the old) from those of the old bird. Thus she finishes her works above men’s sight.

Henry David Thoreau’s journal for 9 November 1858–7 April 1859. MA 1302. Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1909.