On Oct. 26, 1852, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal:
“There are no skaters on the pond now. It is cool today & windier. The water is rippled considerably. As I stand in the boat the farther off the water the bluer it is. Looking straight down it is dark green. Hence apparently the celestial blueness of those distant river reaches – when the water is agitated – so that their surfaces reflect the sky at the right angle. It is a darker blue than that of the sky itself. When I look down on the pond from the peak, it is far less blue.
“The blue stemmed & white golden rod apparently survive till winter – push up & blossom anew – And a few oak leaves in sheltered nooks do not wither. A. undulatus [wavy-leaf aster] -- Very few crickets for a long time. At this season we seek warm sunny lees & hill sides – as that under the pitch pines by Walden shore – where we cuddle & warm ourselves in the sun as by a fire -- where we may get some of it reflected as well as direct heat.
“Coming by Hadens – I see that the sun setting its rays which yet find some vapor to lodge on in the clear cold air impart a purple tinge to the mts in the NW. Methinks it is only in cold weather I see this.
“Richard Harlan M.D. in his Fauna Americana 1825 says of man that those parts are `most hairy, which in animals are most bare, viz. the axillae and pubes.’
“Harlan says the vespertilio [parti-colored bat] catch insects during the crepusculum.
“Harlan says that when white is associated with another color on a dog’s tail that it is always terminal -- & that the observations of [Anselme Gaëtan] Desmarest [French zoologist, 1784-1838] confirm it.”
These were Thoreau’s thoughts 100 years before the day I was born. Those expecting a Yankee prig are surprised Thoreau even notices the absence of skaters. In fact, he skated enthusiastically and mentions it twice in Walden. With the painterly eye of Ruskin, he notes the effect of light on water and landscape. The man who boasted he could identify the day of the year by reading its fauna recognizes the late-autumn stalwarts (how I miss the asters and golden rod of upstate New York), and then shocks us with his choice of verb: Who would expect Thoreau to “cuddle?” Back to sunlight, then he tells us what he’s been reading: Dr. Richard Harlan (1796-1843), who was born in Philadelphia, studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and at age 25 became professor of comparative anatomy at the Philadelphia Museum. Thoreau acknowledges the existence of armpit and pubic hair, the twilight feeding habits of bats and the color of a dog’s tail.
Thoreau reminds me that the only sane response to one's birthday is gratitude. We’ve made it another year, which certainly beats the alternative, and think of how much we have left unlearned. Think of the books unread or in need of rereading. Think of the details we have missed, out of exhaustion, laziness or apathy. Think of the remarkable Dr. Harlan. A cursory web search reveals that, among other things during his 47 years [Thoreau died at 44], he translated Jean-Nicolas Gannal's History of Embalming from the French, the free online text of which is available here. With all of these gifts, how can a birthday be anything but happy?