Brain Pickings

Thoreau on What Skunk-Cabbage Can Teach Us About Optimism and the Meaning of Human Life

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“There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.”

Even though our brains are wired for optimism, our cultural conditioning is to worry about everything. Long before modern psychology shed light on how our minds affect our bodies, one of humanity’s greatest thinkers drew from nature a subtle yet powerful metaphor for the vital importance of cultivating an optimistic outlook about the future.

From The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — the same treasure trove of wisdom that gave us Thoreau on what success really means, the greatest gift of growing old, friendship and sympathy, and why not to quote Thoreau — comes a beautiful meditation on what winter plants, and skunk-cabbage in particular, can teach us about melancholy, optimism, and the ebb and flow of human life.

Writing in a diary entry on the last day of October in 1857 — a time when climate change hadn’t yet rendered the latter part of New England autumn mild and frostless — Thoreau marvels at the sight of two swamp ferns, still green this late in the year:

You are inclined to approach and raise each frond in succession, moist, trembling, fragile greenness. What means this persistent vitality, invulnerable to frost and wet? They stay as if to keep up the spirits of the cold-blooded frogs which have not yet gone into the mud; that the summer may die with decent and graceful moderation, gradually. Even in them I feel an argument for immortality. Death is so far from being universal. The same destroyer does not destroy all. How valuable they are (with the lycopodiums) for cheerfulness.

Illustration from 'Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

But the greatest source of cheerfulness and hopefulness comes from the skunk-cabbage, a prophet of perseverance and optimism:

If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year. Their gravestones are not bespoken yet. Is it the winter of their discontent? Do they seem to have lain down to die, despairing of skunk-cabbagedom? “Up and at ’em,” “Give it to ’em,” “Excelsior,” “Put it through,” — these are their mottoes. Mortal human creatures must take a little respite in this fall of the year; their spirits do flag a little. There is a little questioning of destiny, and thinking to go like cowards to where the “weary shall be at rest.” But not so with the skunk-cabbage. Are these false prophets? Is it a lie or a vain boast underneath the skunk-cabbage bud, pushing it upward and lifting the dead leaves with it? They rest with spears advanced; they rest to shoot! …

See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau is a soul-stretching read in its entirety. Complement it with Henry Builds a Cabin and Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, two charming picture-books adapting Thoreau’s philosophy for children.

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