Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors

“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.”
Abraham Lincoln

It is winter now on Walden Pond. Thoreau is cozy in his cabin, pulled close to his fire, watching the snow fall on his field.

He receives few visitors, certainly no idle hikers who might stop to talk. So on his infrequent walks, Thoreau, to keep himself company, conjures up old inhabitants who once lived near him.

These old inhabitants had been slaves, and the mention of them, Cato Ingraham, Zilpha, Brister Freeman and his wife Fenda, conjured up for me the necessity to review the approach of the Civil War during Thoreau’s life.

In 1860, 15 years after Thoreau wrote Walden and two years before his death, four million slaves inhabited the United States. That same year Abraham Lincoln was elected President; South Carolina seceded from the Union. The confederates fired upon Fort Sumter in 1861. He would have read of the battles between the Merrimack and the Monitor and discussed the battle at Shiloh.

Thus Thoreau would have known of the War, but would have been spared from experiencing it close at hand for no battles were fought in Massachusetts or neighboring states, New Hampshire and Connecticut.

Thoreau was involved, however, in one related aspect of the Civil War in that his family participated in the underground railroad. He hid slaves, drove them to the station, bought them tickets to aid their flight from their slavery, demonstrating his abolitionist views.

Besides the remains of slaves’ cabins, Thoreau ruminates about Breed’s location, the home of a demon who

first comes in the guise of a friend or hired man, and then robs and murders the whole family.

A not very comforting myth for a man living alone in a cabin isolated from the village.

Based upon “dubious tradition” a tavern also once stood near Walden Pond.

The remains of a burned hut reminds Thoreau of the night he and neighbors attempted to extinguish the flames, only to decide the cabin was too far gone and worthless. A relative of the burned out family returns to view the ashes and visits for a time with Thoreau.

Others lived beside the pond whom Thoreau mentions by name--the Nuttings and the Legrosse, Wyman the potter and an Irishman, Hugh Quoil who rumor had it had been a soldier at Waterloo.

All I know of him is tragic. He was a man of manners ...[who] wore a great coat in midsummer, being affected with the trembling delirium, and his face was the color of carmine.

Apparently Quoil reinforced the stereotypical activity of drinking too much, but Thoreau is gentle. A poignant picture is painted of the house Quoil left behind upon his death on the road at the foot of Brister’s Hill. Thoreau calls in “an unlucky castle,” sheltering Quoil’s old clothes, his now broken pipe, and his soiled cards. He continues, noting the skin tanning on the cabin’s back wall, waiting to be used to keep Quoil warm.

The skin of a woodchuck was freshly stretched upon the back of the house, a trophy of his last Waterloo; but no warm cap or mittens would he want more.

Now only a dent in the earth marks the site of these dwellings, with buried cellar stones, and strawberries, raspberries, thimble-berries, hazel bushes, and sumachs growing in the sunny sward there;

Thoreau is left to wonder why the small village attached to these ruined cabins failed to thrive while Concord grew.

But this small village, germ of something more, why did it fail while Concord keeps its ground? Were there no natural advantages,--no water privileges, forsooth? Ay, the deep Walden Pond and cool Brister’s Spring,--privilege to drink long and healthy draughts at these, all unimproved by these men but to dilute their glass. They were universally a thirsty race. Might not the basket, stable-broom, mat-making, corn parching, linen-spinning, and pottery business have thrived here, making the wilderness to blossom like the rose, and a numerous posterity have inherited the land of their fathers?

Then the passage which has followed Thoreau into the 21st century--the fact that

...no weather interfered fatally with my walks, or rather my going abroad, for I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech tree, or a yellow-birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines;

We of ‘02 have trouble imagining anyone even parking at the far end of the lot to hike to shop at Safeway, let alone 10 miles to visit a tree.

Occasionally a poet tramps through the snow to visit Thoreau. I like to think it is Emerson, but Thoreau does not identify him.

A farmer, a hunter, a soldier, a reporter, even a philosopher, may be daunted; but nothing can deter a poet, for he is actuated by pure love. Who can predict his comings and goings?

The two men entertain each other, filling the silent, snow covered field with laughter.

Broadway was still and deserted in comparison. At suitable intervals there were regular salutes of laughter, which might have been referred indifferently to the last-uttered or the forthcoming jest. We made many a ‘bran new’ theory of life over a thin dish of gruel, which combined the advantages of conviviality with the clear-headedness which philosophy requires.

Thoreau capable of a pun? Shocking...who knew?

Another visitor is welcome on winter evenings.

One of the last of the philosophers,--Connecticut gave him to the world,--he peddled first her ware, afterwards, as he declares, his brains...His words and attitude always suppose a better state of things than other men are acquainted with, and he will be the last man to be disappointed as the ages revolve.

With his optimism, the philosopher was a counter balance to Thoreau’s concern about the future.

Then follows a quoted line that pinches me a little:

‘How blind that cannot see serenity!’

Thoreau wishes the philosopher would open a “caravansary” so that he could share his good thoughts. His sign would read

‘Entertainment for man, but not for his beast. Enter ye that have leisure and a quiet mind, who earnestly seek the right road.’ He is perhaps the sanest man and has the fewest crotchets of any I chance to know; the same yesterday and to-morrow...a blue-robed man, whose fittest roof is the overarching sky which reflects his serenity. I do not see how he can ever die; Nature cannot spare him.

At times a second visitor would make his way through the snow to Thoreau’s cabin and the three of them, the hermit, the philosopher, and the old settler would carry on lively conversations.

The path to the village remained open most of the time, and Thoreau made the hike in to visit friends in the village.

I had ‘solid seasons,’ long to be remembered, at his house in the village, and who looked in upon me from time to time; but I had no more for society there.

I’m bothered by that last sentence. Was there a disagreement that strained the relationship with the village friend? Or did Thoreau find this friend less agreeable than the poet, the philosopher, or the old settler? Or does he mean he just didn’t get to town very often?

Finally, there is an allusion to Eastern philosophy and just a hint of lonesomeness, not often found in the pages of Walden.

There too, as everywhere, I sometimes expected the Visitor who never comes. The Vishnu Purana says, ‘The house-holder is to remain at eventide in his courtyard as long as it takes to milk a cow, or longer if he pleases, to await the arrival of a guest.’ I often performed this duty of hospitality, waited long enough to milk a whole herd of cows, but did not see the man approaching from the town.

Winter deepens, Thoreau looks forward to visitors, observes ruined houses which remind him of earlier inhabitants.

I wonder, will there be an early spring?

Diane McCormick

I had a hard time finding any real point to “Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors,” though it’s probably suggested by, “For human society I was obliged to conjure up the former occupants of these woods,” because the rest of the chapter, too, is about the people who visited him at Walden Pond.

His reminisces about former occupants includes his memory of a recent residence that burned down after he and others from the city were unable to extinguish the fire:

"It's Baker's barn," cried one. "It is the Codman place," affirmed another. And then fresh sparks went up above the wood, as if the roof fell in, and we all shouted "Concord to the rescue!" Wagons shot past with furious speed and crushing loads, bearing, perchance, among the rest, the agent of the Insurance Company, who was bound to go however far; and ever and anon the engine bell tinkled behind, more slow and sure; and rearmost of all, as it was afterward whispered, came they who set the fire and gave the alarm. Thus we kept on like true idealists, rejecting the evidence of our senses, until at a turn in the road we heard the crackling and actually felt the heat of the fire from over the wall, and realized, alas! that we were there.

Now to me the most interesting phrase here is “Thus we kept on like true idealists, rejecting the evidence of our senses…” Does this mean that Thoreau did not consider himself an idealist? After all, Emerson had stated in an earlier speech that what people called Transcendentalists were actually “Idealists.” Or is he merely making light of he and his friends?

Anyway, when Thoreau later returns to the smoldering returns of the farm he discovers the son of the homeowner:

He was soothed by the sympathy which my mere presence, implied, and showed me, as well as the darkness permitted, where the well was covered up; which, thank Heaven, could never be burned; and he groped long about the wall to find the well-sweep which his father had cut and mounted, feeling for the iron hook or staple by which a burden had been fastened to the heavy end -- all that he could now cling to -- to convince me that it was no common "rider." I felt it, and still remark it almost daily in my walks, for by it hangs the history of a family.

These “wells” become reminders for Thoreau of the former inhabitants because “Sometimes the well dent is visible, where once a spring oozed; now dry and tearless grass…” He even compares the act of covering up these wells to the welling up of tears: “What a sorrowful act must that be -- the covering up of wells! coincident with the opening of wells of tears. These cellar dents, like deserted fox burrows, old holes, are all that is left where once were the stir and bustle of human life.”

As if to contrast man’s transitory nature with the enduring qualities of Nature, Thoreau notes the lilacs that had been planted by earlier inhabitants:

Still grows the vivacious lilac a generation after the door and lintel and the sill are gone, unfolding its sweet-scented flowers each spring, to be plucked by the musing traveller; planted and tended once by children's hands, in front-yard plots -- now standing by wallsides in retired pastures, and giving place to new-rising forests; -- the last of that stirp, sole survivor of that family. Little did the dusky children think that the puny slip with its two eyes only, which they stuck in the ground in the shadow of the house and daily watered, would root itself so, and outlive them, and house itself in the rear that shaded it, and grown man's garden and orchard, and tell their story faintly to the lone wanderer a half-century after they had grown up and died -- blossoming as fair, and smelling as sweet, as in that first spring. I mark its still tender, civil, cheerful lilac colors.

This passage reminds me of Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” where the returning lilacs bring memories of those who have passed away. Somehow, at least in memory, people and Nature have merged.

The chapter ends with the memory of living, rather than dead, visitors. Thoreau seems fondest of

The one who came from farthest to my lodge, through deepest snows and most dismal tempests, was a poet. A farmer, a hunter, a soldier, a reporter, even a philosopher, may be daunted; but nothing can deter a poet, for he is actuated by pure love. Who can predict his comings and goings? His business calls him out at all hours, even when doctors sleep. We made that small house ring with boisterous mirth and resound with the murmur of much sober talk, making amends then to Walden vale for the long silences.

Other sources have identified this as Ellery Channing, son of the famous William Ellery Channing. The image here certainly contrasts with much of the rest of this section, and perhaps with Thoreau’s overall image itself.

Thoreau seems to save his greatest praise for Bronson Alcott:

One of the last of the philosophers -- Connecticut gave him to the world -- he peddled first her wares, afterwards, as he declares, his brains. These he peddles still, prompting God and disgracing man, bearing for fruit his brain only, like the nut its kernel. I think that he must be the man of the most faith of any alive. His words and attitude always suppose a better state of things than other men are acquainted with, and he will be the last man to be disappointed as the ages revolve. He has no venture in the present. But though comparatively disregarded now, when his day comes, laws unsuspected by most will take effect, and masters of families and rulers will come to him for advice.

and

He is perhaps the sanest man and has the fewest crotchets of any I chance to know; the same yesterday and tomorrow. Of yore we had sauntered and talked, and effectually put the world behind us; for he was pledged to no institution in it, freeborn, ingenuus. Whichever way we turned, it seemed that the heavens and the earth had met together, since he enhanced the beauty of the landscape. A blue-robed man, whose fittest roof is the overarching sky which reflects his serenity. I do not see how he can ever die; Nature cannot spare him.

And although Emerson is known to have visited Thoreau repeatedly at Walden Pond, there is barely a mention of him:

There was one other with whom I had "solid seasons," long to be remembered, at his house in the village, and who looked in upon me from time to time; but I had no more for society there.

Apparently the rift that separated the two men after Thoreau’s stay at Walden Pond was manifested in this slight of Emerson in the later publication of Walden Pond.

Loren

What do you think?