What Would Thoreau Write Now?

Acting a little like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, Thoreau sits in the middle of Walden Pond playing the flute:

In warm evenings I frequently sat in the boat playing the flute, and saw the perch, which I seem to have charmed, hovering around me, and the moon travelling over the ribbed bottom, which was strewed with the wrecks of the forest.

and you get the feeling in this chapter that he’s fishing for more than perch. Thoreau is doing his own kind of fishing:

It was very queer, especially in dark nights, when your thoughts had wandered to vast and cosmogonal themes in other spheres, to feel this faint jerk, which came to interrupt your dreams and link you to Nature again. It seemed as if I might next cast my line upward into the air, as well as downward into this element, which was scarcely more dense. Thus I caught two fishes as it were with one hook.

Walden Pond becomes a link between heaven and earth. His “thoughts” encompass both heaven and earth, and it is only the actual fish tugging on the line that bring him back to earth.

Walden Pond not only symbolically represents the mid-point between heaven and earth, it takes on the qualities of both:

Walden is blue at one time and green at another, even from the same point of view. Lying between the earth and the heavens, it partakes of the color of both. Viewed from a hilltop it reflects the color of the sky; but near at hand it is of a yellowish tint next the shore where you can see the sand, then a light green, which gradually deepens to a uniform dark green in the body of the pond.

It takes the blue of the heavens and the green of the earth and unites the two into one. Like Emerson’s transparent eyeball, the lake relects the earth’s soul, just as the eyes reflect the soul of a man or woman:

A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.

The lake is a microcosm of nature, and Nature is the microcosm of the Oversoul. Comprehend one, and you comprehend all.

Only a man living in the 1850’s could believe that this pristine lake was invulnerable to man’s depredations:

In such a day, in September or October, Walden is a perfect forest mirror, set round with stones as precious to my eye as if fewer or rarer. Nothing so fair, so pure, and at the same time so large, as a lake, perchance, lies on the surface of the earth. Sky water. It needs no fence. Nations come and go without defiling it. It is a mirror which no stone can crack, whose quicksilver will never wear off, whose gilding Nature continually repairs; no storms, no dust, can dim its surface ever fresh; -- a mirror in which all impurity presented to it sinks, swept and dusted by the sun's hazy brush -- this the light dust-cloth -- which retains no breath that is breathed on it, but sends its own to float as clouds high above its surface, and be reflected in its bosom still.

Still, there does seem to be something sacred about water. Holy water, the essence of life, is sacred throughout all areas of the world .

Thoreau contrasts his magical Walden Pond with “Flint’s Pond:”

Flint's Pond! Such is the poverty of our nomenclature. What right had the unclean and stupid farmer, whose farm abutted on this sky water, whose shores he has ruthlessly laid bare, to give his name to it? Some skin-flint, who loved better the reflecting surface of a dollar, or a bright cent, in which he could see his own brazen face; who regarded even the wild ducks which settled in it as trespassers; his fingers grown into crooked and bony talons from the long habit of grasping harpy-like; -- so it is not named for me. I respect not his labors, his farm where everything has its price, who would carry the landscape, who would carry his God, to market, if he could get anything for him; who goes to market for his god as it is; on whose farm nothing grows free, whose fields bear no crops, whose meadows no flowers, whose trees no fruits, but dollars; who loves not the beauty of his fruits, whose fruits are not ripe for him till they are turned to dollars. Give me the poverty that enjoys true wealth.

Little wonder that Thoreau is often seen as the patron saint of the modern ecological movement. He seems right on here. One wonders how greed can drive those who befoul the waters that all of rely on for life itself. Some things in life are too precious to have a price tag. Some things we can’t afford to sell.

Thoreau is right when he argues that these lakes are more valuable than precious stones:

White Pond and Walden are great crystals on the surface of the earth, Lakes of Light. If they were permanently congealed, and small enough to be clutched, they would, perchance, be carried off by slaves, like precious stones, to adorn the heads of emperors; but being liquid, and ample, and secured to us and our successors forever, we disregard them, and run after the diamond of Kohinoor. They are too pure to have a market value; they contain no muck. How much more beautiful than our lives, how much more transparent than our characters, are they!

Of course, it’s not just Walden Pond that Thoreau is talking about here; it’s Walden Pond as the representative of Nature itself.

According to Thoreau, no one really truly appreciates Nature:

Nature has no human inhabitant who appreciates her. The birds with their plumage and their notes are in harmony with the flowers, but what youth or maiden conspires with the wild luxuriant beauty of Nature? She flourishes most alone, far from the towns where they reside. Talk of heaven! ye disgrace earth.

In reality, most of us have cashed in on nature, have abused it, in order to attain other goals. I’m not sure how many trees went into this building I call home, but a lot more than went into Thoreau’s cabin. I like to think I pollute a lot less than most people, but sometimes it’s easier to go along with society than it is to hold on to another set of values.

Walden, Chapter nine, “The Ponds”

Thoreau truly enjoyed the tranquility of Walden, often hiking cross country to gaze upon other ponds near his cabin, picking huckleberries along the way.

But Thoreau would not live there anymore. The hubbub surrounding the lake would revolt him. Now there is no tranquility for those who sit by its shore. Mothers with babies in diapers churn the shallow waters; boats break into the horizon; teenage lovers sit thigh to thigh on the rock wall that marks the beach.

Even if Thoreau would detest the idea of sharing his pond with so many others, he would be pleased to see people still enjoying the waters of the lake that refresh themselves each year, erasing the tracks of tourists, readying itself for next season.

It is ironic that his book brought so much attention to Walden Pond that it turned it into a tourist attraction. On the other hand, without the fame, the lake would now be an inner courtyard fountain for condos. The theory of compensation lives.

Now back to 1845...

Sometimes, having had a surfeit of human society and gossip, and worn out all my village friends, I rambled still farther westward than I habitually dwell, into yet more unfrequented part of the town, ‘to fresh woods and pastures new,’ or, while the sun was setting, made my supper of huckleberries and blueberries on Fair-Haven Hill, and laid up a store for several days.

As he writes, he thinks back on the times he has shared the lakes with a deaf man, silently fishing together for their suppers.

In warm evenings I frequently sat in the boat playing the flute, and saw the perch, which I seemed to have charmed, hovering around me, and the moon travelling over the ribbed bottom, which was strewed with the wrecks of the forest.

“After staying in a village parlor till the family had all retired” he would spend some midnight hours fishing by moonlight, listening to the owls and foxes.

In fact, this chapter captures the serenity Thoreau must have felt, living his life as he chose. He really had the best of both worlds; he could be social when he chose, staying late to talk with friends, then retreating to the woods to surround himself with the subtle sounds of the other inhabitants of his world.

The dimensions of the Walden Pond are given in this chapter, identifying it as “scenery on a humble scale.”

It is a clear and deep green well, half a mile long and a mile and three quarters in circumference, and contains about sixty-one and a half acres; a perennial spring in the midst of pine and oak woods, without any visible inlet or outlet except by the clouds and evaporation.

Readers of this chapter sense the serene mood of Thoreau as he wrote. The descriptions of the chain of ponds is slow, detailed, emotional. He leisurely identifies the various colors of the waters, noting the changes which occur in different kinds of weather.

Time passes and Thoreau thinks back on others who have walked the shores of the ponds.

Yet perchance the first who came to this well have left some trace of their footsteps...the feet of aboriginal hunters...

Thoreau is a follower of zen who honestly feels himself a part of nature and a mark on the continuum of human existence. So much comfort spills from such thought. No wonder he never felt lonely. He saw himself surrounded by life past and present. On good days I know how he felt.

Walden Pond was such a lovely place 157 years ago...

In such a day in September or October, Walden is a perfect forest mirror, set round with stones as precious to my eye as if fewer or rarer. Nothing so fair, so pure, and at the same time so large, as a lake, perchance, lies on the surface of the earth. Sky water. It needs no fence. Nations come and go without defiling it. It is a mirror which no stone can crack, whose quick-silver will never wear off, whose gilding Nature continually repairs; no storms, no dust, can dim its surface ever fresh;--a mirror in which all impurity presented to it sinks, swept and dusted by the sun’s hazy brush,--this the light dust-cloth,--which retains no breath that is breathed on it but sends its own to float as clouds high above its surface, and be reflected in its bosom still.

Even in Thoreau’s time, however, men were changing the contours of the lake. After Thoreau moved away from Walden, he noted these changes with regret.

But since I left those shores the wood-choppers have still further laid them waste, and now for many a year there will be no more rambling through the aisles of the wood, with occasional vistas through which you see the water. My Muse may be excused if she is silent henceforth. How can you expect the birds to sing when their groves are cut down?

Now the trunks of trees on the bottom, and the old log canoe, and the dark surrounding woods, are gone, and the villagers, who scarcely know where it lies, instead of going to the pond to bathe or drink, are thinking to bring its water, which should be as sacred as the Ganges at least, to the village in a pipe, to wash their dishes with!--to earn their Walden by the turning of a cock or drawing of a plug! That devilish Iron Horse, whose ear-rending neigh is heard throughout the town, has muddied the Boiling Spring with his foot, and he it is that has browsed off all the woods on Walden shore; that Trojan horse, with a thousand men in his belly, introduced by mercenary Greeks!

Yet the lake waters endure...

Though the wood-choppers have laid bare first this shore and then that, and the Irish have built their sties by it, and the railroad has infringed on its border, and the ice-men have skimmed it once, it is itself unchanged, the same water which my youthful eyes fell on; all the change is in me. It has not acquired one permanent wrinkle after all its ripples. It is perennially young, and I may stand and see a swallow dip apparently to pick an insect from its surface as of yore. It struck me again to-night, as if I had not seen it almost daily for more than twenty years,--Why, here is Walden, the same woodland lake that I discovered so many years ago; where a forest was cut down last winter another is springing up by its shore as lustily as ever; the same thought is welling up to its surface that was then; it is the same liquid joy and happiness to itself and its Maker, ay, and it may be to me.

Nature has no human inhabitant who appreciates her. The birds with their plumage and their notes are in harmony with the flowers, but what youth or maiden conspires with the wild luxuriant beauty of nature? She flourishes most alone, far from the towns where they reside. Talk of Heaven! ye disgrace earth.

Let me say I think Thoreau would be surprised and pleased how many people now make every effort to get out of the city, to go for hikes, camp, pick wild flowers in the spring. It is imperative to preserve those tranquil places for ourselves and our children.

Diane McCormick

What do you think?