Nature Gazing: Henry David Thoreau Shows Us How to Keep Our Ordinary Surroundings Perpetually Interesting

Published: Apr 10, 2022

I’m a big AoM fan. Brett and Kate McKay know how to research the heck out of a topic then deliver a fun, engaging piece. Years ago I read their How to REALLY Avoid Living a Life of Quiet Desperation. It’s worth your time.

One story in particular from that article has always stuck with me: As a neighbor went about his day, every time he looked over, Thoreau was standing in the same spot, looking in the same place. All. Day. Long.

I love this story. Could you imagine doing this for 1 hour, or even 10 mins? (If not, we’ve got some work to do).

Thoreau’s ability to find his “ordinary” surroundings perpetually interesting was driven by the fact that he was, as a friend put it, “alive from top to toe with curiosity.” He mind was ever set to “discovery,” and he perpetually sought to find worlds within worlds — realms that only revealed themselves to the patient and persistent. For example, when he realized that the frogs which initially scattered when approaching a pond would reappear if he quietly waited long enough, he fairly camped out on its shores to observe more about their behavior. A neighbor recalled the scene with utter befuddlement:

“Why, one morning I went out in my field across there to the river, and there, beside that little old mud pond, was standing Da-a-vid Henry, and he wasn’t doin’ nothin’ but just standin’ there—lookin’ at that pond, and when I came back at noon, there he was standin’ with his hands behind him just lookin’ down into that pond, and after dinner when I come back again if there wasn’t Da-a-vid standin’ there just like as if he had been there all day, gazin’ down into that pond, and I stopped and looked at him and I says, ‘Da-a-vid Henry, what air you a-doin’?’ And he didn’t turn his head and he didn’t look at me. He kept on lookin’ down at that pond, and he said, as if he was thinkin’ about the stars in the heavens, ‘Mr. Murray, I’m a-studyin’—the habits —of the bullfrog!’ And there that darned fool had been standin’ —the livelong day—a-studyin’—the habits—of the bull-frog!”

Thoreau’s joy in the ordinary was also fueled by a boyish sense of wonder he never outgrew — a belief that nothing is truly commonplace, that “Nothing is cheap and coarse, neither dewdrops or snowflakes.” Every man was surrounded by the divine; as he exulted after an ice storm: “God exhibits himself to the walker in a frosted bush today, as much as in a burning one to Moses of old.”