Thoreau’s Life Without Principle

It’s been a while since I’ve read any Thoreau so when I discovered a link to his essay “Life Without Principle” while in the process of deleting old bookmarks from Safari I decided it might be a good/easy place to try to restart my brain. Considering how well-known the essay is, I was surprised that I hadn’t encountered it before; but if I had, I had no recollection of it.

I wasn’t too surprised that I immediately agreed with many of his ideas for I had the same reaction when I first met them in college in an American Lit class. If anything, I am probably more in agreement with some of his ideas now than I was when I first met them. After all, as a freshman in college I planned on eventually getting a well-paid job in business, so I doubt I would have been entirely convinced by this opening argument:

This World is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! I am awaked almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work. I cannot easily buy a blank-book to write thoughts in; they are commonly ruled for dollars and cents. An Irishman, seeing me making a minute in the fields, took it for granted that I was calculating my wages. If a man was tossed out of a window when an infant, and so made a cripple for life, or seared out of his wits by the Indians, it is regretted chiefly because he was thus incapacitated for business! I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.

However, the longer I worked the more I began to feel that work was something you did so you could really live when you weren’t working. In fact, I became convinced that there wasn’t anything in the world I could do that turning it into a job wouldn’t ruin. Heck, I turned a delightful hobby, woodworking, into a nightmare by trying to make money from it, even though I got more requests than I had time to fulfill. My daughter is convinced I should try to make money from my photography; I’m convinced that I’m having too much fun taking pictures to waste time trying to sell them.

I hadn’t spent much time walking in the woods until well after I’d graduated from college, but I really identify with this passage:

If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down!

Having become more rabid about the environment as I’ve seen more and more of it destroyed in recent years, I’ve become convinced that businesses won’t be satisfied until they’ve destroyed all vestiges of Old Growth Forests. We’ve entered Brave New Worlds when it comes to the enjoyment of nature, whether it’s State owned or Federally owned lands.

Ideally, like Thoreau, I would have spent most of my time out in nature, and I certainly arranged my life so that I could do so as much as possible. Having summers off to hike and backpack was probably the only thing that kept me teaching at times. I took early retirement at a considerable pay cut so that I could spend even more time in the mountains. I got more pleasure from hiking than I ever got from most of the things that money could buy for me.

That said, I was still offended when I read this passage:

Perhaps I am more than usually jealous with respect to my freedom. I feel that my connection with and obligation to society are still very slight and transient. Those slight labors which afford me a livelihood, and by which it is allowed that I am to some extent serviceable to my contemporaries, are as yet commonly a pleasure to me, and I am not often reminded that they are a necessity. So far I am successful. But I foresee that if my wants should be much increased, the labor required to supply them would become a drudgery. If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing left worth living for. I trust that I shall never thus sell my birthright for a mess of pottage.

Perhaps if I had chosen not to get married and have children I might have been able to get by working half time or less, like some of the young ski instructors or river guides I at times envied, but I can’t imagine ever having thought that those who made other choices had sold their “birthright for a mess of pottage.” Not known for my humility, I still can’t imagine ever passing judgement on anyone else like that.

Just about the time you start to disagree with Thoreau, though, he suddenly seems right on target again:

I do not know but it is too much to read one newspaper a week. I have tried it recently, and for so long it seems to me that I have not dwelt in my native region. The sun, the clouds, the snow, the trees say not so much to me. You cannot serve two masters. It requires more than a day's devotion to know and to possess the wealth of a day.

Most of my life I’ve felt obliged to read the newspaper daily, to keep up with the news to be an informed voter. Lately, though, I find it necessary to spend more time outdoors and less time reading the news, almost to the point where the only news I get is through the Daily Show or Colbert Report. Unfortunately, you don’t have to be too informed to choose the lesser of two evils when it comes to voting, and that’s about the only opportunity I’ve had most of my life.

I also agree with Thoreau when he argues ...

the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality. Our very intellect shall be macadamized, as it were- its foundation broken into fragments for the wheels of travel to roll over; and if you would know what will make the most durable pavement, surpassing rolled stones, spruce blocks, and asphaltum, you have only to look into some of our minds which have been subjected to this treatment so long.

If we never ask the big questions, never question where are lives are going or where we want them to go but merely focus on the mundane issues that arise in our daily existence it seems impossible to control our own lives. Meanwhile, businesses and advertisers are more than happy to tell you what you should do to be happy.

It’s clear that Thoreau considers politics “trivial:”

What is called politics is comparatively something so superficial and inhuman, that practically I have never fairly recognized that it concerns me at all. The newspapers, I perceive, devote some of their columns specially to politics or government without charge; and this, one would say, is all that saves it; but as I love literature and to some extent the truth also, I never read those columns at any rate. I do not wish to blunt my sense of right so much. I have not got to answer for having read a single President's Message. A strange age of the world this, when empires, kingdoms, and republics come a-begging to a private man's door, and utter their complaints at his elbow! I cannot take up a newspaper but I find that some wretched government or other, hard pushed and on its last legs, is interceding with me, the reader, to vote for it ...

Considering that “Civil Disobedience” is one of his most famous works, I’m not sure that Thoreau really considered politics as trivial as he implies here, but I’m sure if he were living today he would reaffirm what he says here. Considering the state of Congress at the moment, it’s hard not to offer an “Amen.”

In the end, though, Thoreau’s main argument seems to be that we should be contemplating “the Eternities,” not simply worrying about the mundane details of ordinary life that threaten to overwhelm us:

Read not the Times. Read the Eternities. Conventionalities are at length as bad as impurities. Even the facts of science may dust the mind by their dryness, unless they are in a sense effaced each morning, or rather rendered fertile by the dews of fresh and living truth. Knowledge does not come to us by details, but in flashes of light from heaven. ... Have we no culture, no refinement- but skill only to live coarsely and serve the Devil?- to acquire a little worldly wealth, or fame, or liberty, and make a false show with it, as if we were all husk and shell, with no tender and living kernel to us?

Thoreau’s essay reminds me of Vicktor Frankl’s message in Man’s Search for Meaning. In fact, if Thoreau had entitled his speech Life Without Meaning I would probably have been more receptive to what he says here. I’m always a little suspicious when I hear the word “principle” because many people define principle as: “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.” Phrases like “flashes of light from heaven” and “serve the devil” make me equally nervous. Still, I think all of us are apt to get caught up in the daily grind and lose sight of those things that are most important in our lives, those things that, in the end, will most contribute to our happiness.

Thoreau’s “Walking”

In the not-too-distant past several people recommended Thoreau’s essay “Walking,” a work I’d never read before. Since Walden was one of my favorite works, I couldn’t resist dopwnloading it, especially since it’s free. I’ll have to admit, though, that at first I was less enamored of it than I thought I would be. I found the style, particularly at the beginning, tough to wade through though perhaps I should have been more tolerant of the style considering Thoreau’s opening statement:

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school committee and every one of you will take care of that.

However, I prefer understatement to hyperbole and have at some point apparently lost my taste for allusions to Greek Mythology, the Bible, and Medieval History, though historically they have been mainstays of literature. Passages like this

To come down to my own experience, my companion and I, for I sometimes have a companion, take pleasure in fancying ourselves knights of a new, or rather an old, order—not Equestrians or Chevaliers, not Ritters or Riders, but Walkers, a still more ancient and honorable class, I trust. The Chivalric and heroic spirit which once belonged to the Rider seems now to reside in, or perchance to have subsided into, the Walker—not the Knight, but Walker, Errant. He is a sort of fourth estate, outside of Church and State and People.

don’t have much appeal to me any longer I’m afraid. After the first three pages I was ready to give up on it.

However, something strange happened when I looked back over passages I had marked as I read it. I found that I agreed with virtually all of Thoreau’s main points. For instance, even though I don’t spend an average of four hours a day outside walking, I agreed with the sentiment of:

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that— sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements

As I’ve noted here before, I consider walking, or birding, as something much more than exercise:

But the walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours—as the Swinging of dumb-bells or chairs; but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day. If you would get exercise, go in search of the springs of life. Think of a man’s swinging dumbbells for his health, when those springs are bubbling up in far-off pastures unsought by him!

Like Thoreau, I’m bothered when I’m out walking to find that I’m still thinking about political problems or things I need to get done at home rather than focusing on the walking itself:

I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to Society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is—I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods? I suspect myself, and cannot help a shudder when I find myself so implicated even in what are called good works—for this may sometimes happen.

My walking time is too precious to spend it worrying about other things. I manage to do that more than enough already.

This passage seems rather timely since it seems to foreshadow the founding of National Parks:

At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only—when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the PUBLIC road, and walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities, then, before the evil days come.

I doubt Thoreau could have anticipated the kind of growth America has experienced in the last hundred years, but certainly public land is much more precious now than it was in his time.

I love Thoreau’s reminder of the root of recreation suggested here:

When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest woods the thickest and most interminable and, to the citizen, most dismal, swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place,—a sanctum sanctorum. There is the strength, the marrow, of Nature. The wildwood covers the virgin mould,—and the same soil is good for men and for trees. A man’s health requires as many acres of meadow to his prospect as his farm does loads of muck. There are the strong meats on which he feeds. A town is saved, not more by the righteous men in it than by the woods and swamps that surround it. A township where one primitive forest waves above while another primitive forest rots below —such a town is fitted to raise not only corn and potatoes, but poets and philosophers for the coming ages. In such a soil grew Homer and Confucius and the rest, and out of such a wilderness comes the Reformer eating locusts and wild honey.

Too often our forms of recreation fail to re-create us, but, rather, compound problems we already have. Excessive drinking or excessive eating, no matter how pleasurable, and I won’t argue they’re not pleasurable, do nothing to make us feel better in the long run. Thankfully, walking or hiking are good for both your health and your sense of well-being.

And, like Thoreau, I find nature a constant source of wonder,

My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant. The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence. I do not know that this higher knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called Knowledge before— a discovery that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. It is the lighting up of the mist by the sun. Man cannot KNOW in any higher sense than this, any more than he can look serenely and with impunity in the face of the sun: “You will not perceive that, as perceiving a particular thing,” say the Chaldean Oracles.

Any frequent visitor here will recognize my constant source of amazement and wonder at what I observe in nature. The more I learn, the more amazed I am at how very little I really know.

I’m not sure I really agree with this,

So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn.

but on this Sun-day,at least, it feels like you’re heading toward the Promised Land with Mt. Rainier showing the way.

Mt. Rainier

This Above All Else: to thine self be true

Surprisingly, “Conclusion” has little to do with Walden Pond and the external world that Thoreau has explored during his two-year stay. Instead, it turns inward to the spiritual journey that Thoreau has made during those two years. It is in one sense a call for self-reliance, but to a far greater extent it is a call for self-exploration.

Thoreau argues that we set arbitrary limits on ourselves because of the world’s rules and restrictions, but if we look inward we find the challenges and opportunities are endless:

"Direct your eye right inward, and you'll find
A thousand regions in your mind
Yet undiscovered.
Travel them, and be
Expert in home-cosmography."

Another common mistake according to Thoreau is to sacrifice our own truths to a false sense of patriotism:

Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthly empire of the Czar is but a petty state, a hummock left by the ice. Yet some can be patriotic who have no self-respect, and sacrifice the greater to the less. They love the soil which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with the spirit which may still animate their clay. Patriotism is a maggot in their heads. What was the meaning of that South-Sea Exploring Expedition, with all its parade and expense, but an indirect recognition of the fact that there are continents and seas in the moral world to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one's being alone.

Isn’t there a saying that says that the more things change, the more they stay the same? It’s hard to imagine that this essay wasn’t written yesterday, not nearly a hundred and fifty years ago.

Thoreau also agrees with Emerson that "Society is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members:”

A saner man would have found himself often enough "in formal opposition" to what are deemed "the most sacred laws of society," through obedience to yet more sacred laws, and so have tested his resolution without going out of his way. It is not for a man to put himself in such an attitude to society, but to maintain himself in whatever attitude he find himself through obedience to the laws of his being, which will never be one of opposition to a just government, if he should chance to meet with such.

This conspiracy, unless we are aware of it, prevents us from truly discovering ourselves. We simply go along with the crowd, never bothering to discover our own truths, the only possible truths. Only when we are not afraid to be different, not afraid to follow our own truths, can we truly hope to find truth.

Another barrier to self-discovery is dull, endless repetition:

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct.

No matter how rewarding a job or experience may seem, it can become a trap, cutting us off from possible new experiences. We must be willing to shed these restraints, no matter how comfortable, in order to seek greater truths.

If we advance confidently, though, we can begin to fulfill our dreams:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.

Believing in our dreams is the first step toward fulfilling them. Without that first step, it is impossible to attain them. After taking that first step, we begin to pass invisible barriers and with new hope are on the way to attaining them.

According to Thoreau, simplifying our life and shedding the unnecessary makes it easier to fulfill our dreams:

In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

When things no longer possess us, we can begin to see what is really important to us and, having gained that insight, begin to make our dreams come true.

Too often people dismiss their dreams because they’re “foolish” or “impractical:”

Why level downward to our dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense? The commonest sense is the sense of men asleep, which they express by snoring.

Judging from my thirty years of teaching, “common sense,” or even uncommon sense, is commonly missing. No reason to be embarrassed about following an impractical dream, very few people have a clue about what they’re doing or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Do the best you can and that’s good enough.

Nor should you limit your dreams because you’re just an ordinary guy:

Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy that he can? Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made.

Be the best you you can be, and that should be good enough for anyone.

Still, many people seem desperate to be “successful:”

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

If “success” were really defined in their own terms, there would be little shame in feeling a need to succeed, but when it is defined in society’s terms it assures most people will be frustrated. Far better to set your own goals and attempt to live up to them.

Even if you don’t have much, you can be successful and happy:

However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse.

Unless you love yourself, unless you have a positive self-image, it’s unlikely you’ll ever be successful. No matter what your station, you can be happy because happiness is internal, not external. An infinite amount of “things” cannot make you happy:

Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts. God will see that you do not want society. If I were confined to a corner of a garret all my days, like a spider, the world would be just as large to me while I had my thoughts about me.

As long as you control your own thoughts, you control yourself. Our thoughts are more important than any material possessions.

If you live the simple life, you will have to focus on the most important things because that is what you have:

It is life near the bone where it is sweetest. You are defended from being a trifler. No man loses ever on a lower level by magnanimity on a higher. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.

If money were required to buy a single necessity of the soul why would so many religious orders require vows of poverty? Wealth is more likely to bring distractions than clarity to one’s life:

I delight to come to my bearings -- not walk in procession with pomp and parade, in a conspicuous place, but to walk even with the Builder of the universe, if I may -- not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, but stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by.

If Thoreau found the Nineteenth Century “restless, nervous, bustling, trivial” can you imagine how he would feel about Twentieth Century Boston?

As Thoreau points out, most of us do not live up to our true potential:

We know not where we are. Beside, we are sound asleep nearly half our time. Yet we esteem ourselves wise, and have an established order on the surface. There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dulness. I need only suggest what kind of sermons are still listened to in the most enlightened countries. There are such words as joy and sorrow, but they are only the burden of a psalm, sung with a nasal twang, while we believe in the ordinary and mean.

We sleep walk through life, bored by our expensive toys, unable to realize that we can be truly happy if we would but ignore the Country Western songs that would convince us that life is full of cheating hearts. (I know, I know, but what else could Thoreau have meant by “nasal twang?”)

Perhaps today is the day of our dreams, but:

Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.

The ultimate barrier to fulfilling our dreams is simply our inability to recognize the opportunities. Believe in yourself and your possibilities and you have the potential to be another Thoreau.

Loren

You can find many excellent references to Thoreau's Walden on the web. Here are a few sites I liked:

Henry D Thoreau Home Page
Walden
Thoreau Reader
Walden Woods Project

Walden, The Conclusion

The Cosmos in a Drop of Pond Water

As I finished reading Walden, I asked myself in my best school teacher voice, “So, Diane, what did you learn from reading Walden?”

Thoreau had spent two years at Walden Pond, living alone in a cabin, recording his observations which were much more profound than the ice on the pond or the robins of spring.

Thoreau’s philosophy emphasized and completed the thinking of a most interesting man, one certainly who would be welcome at any dinner table in any century.

Certainly Nature was his teacher and in the last chapter Thoreau passes along the lessons he learned, using the imperative for emphasis.

This is what I learned.

Lesson One--Forget seeking knowledge from other people and places. Explore thyself.

Lesson Two-- Dare to dream, follow your own path.

Lesson Three--Seek the truth.

Lesson Four--Live your life, no matter how meager it is.

Lesson Five--Live a simple and humble life.

Lesson Six--Understand we cannot know the future nor should we praise ourselves too much for our accomplishments in the past. The present is all we can know. This goes for nations as well as individuals.

Lesson Seven--Life’s lessons and smart people’s advice can be accepted only when we are ready to receive them.


Lesson One--Forget seeking knowledge from other people and places. Explore thyself.

Upon the recommendation of doctors the sick are often advised to seek a change in their surroundings to effect better health.

Thoreau would argue that enlightenment is closer at hand, indeed is within walking distance if one would only recognize the worth of his home place. It is not necessary or even helpful to seek understanding in locations outside the self. The knowledge one seeks can be found within.

Yet we should oftener look over the tarrerel of our craft, like curious passengers, and not make the voyage like stupid sailors picking oakum. The other side of the globe is but the home of our correspondent. Our voyage is only great circle-sailing, and the doctors prescribe for diseases of the skin merely.

How many millions of dollars are spent in psychotherapy to learn about the self? Foolish reliance on others to help us permits little progress. In the end we are the ones who must create change. If only we were strong enough to heed Thoreau’s suggestion that we are all capable of exploring our own “streams and oceans.”

Be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clarke and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes,--with shiploads of preserved meats to support you, if they be necessary; and pile the empty can sky-high for a sign. Were preserved meats invented to preserve meat merely? Nay, be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought. Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthy empire of the Czar is but a petty state, a hummock left by the ice.

One’s own country can lead her away from exploring the self. The individual, not the group or nationality, is the most important. We need to understand and respect ourselves before we support our nation’s causes in the name of patriotism which may be damaging to others. For example, bombing Afghanistan to protect America is not the reasonable action of self-respecting individuals.

Here is a line so apropos for this Fourth of July. Instead of the cheap American flag flying from the windows of the SUVs, I’d like to see the last line of this quotation on a bumper sticker.

Yet some can be patriotic who have no self-respect, and sacrifice the greater to the less. They love the soil which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with the spirit which may still animate their clay. Patriotism is a maggot in their heads.

I have traveled my share of the world, ostensibly learning about other cultures and climes so Thoreau’s remonstrance to “Explore thyself” instead has a great impact on me.

If you would learn to speak all tongues and conform to the customs of all nations, if you would travel farther than all travellers, be naturalized in all climes, and cause the sphinx to dash her head against a stone, even obey the precept of the old philosopher, and Explore thyself. Herein are demanded the eye and the nerve. Only the defeated and deserters go to the wars, cowards that run away and enlist. Start now on the farthest western way, which does not pause at the Mississippi or the Pacific, nor conduct toward a worn-out China or Japan, but leads on direct a tangent to this sphere, summer and winter, day and night, sun down, moon down, and at last earth down too.

Exploring his own condition, then, Thoreau knew when his experiment should end, and without any sense of defeat, he returned to the village. The lesson had been learned.

Lesson Two-- Dare to dream; follow your own path.

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advanced confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavored to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws by expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the licenser of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; this is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

Why level down ward to our dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense.

Some are dinning in our ears that we Americans, and moderns generally, are intellectual dwarfs compared with the ancients, or even the Elizabethan men. But what is that to the purpose?A living dog is better than a dead lion. Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy that he can? Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made.

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

Each of us has our own sense of what we need to accomplish. If we create one thing to our satisfaction in our lifetime that is sufficient . Thoreau recalls a story of a man from Kouroo who chose to make the perfect staff even if took his entire life to do so.

Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life.

Lesson Three--Seek the truth

No face which we can give to a matter will stead us so well at last as the truth. This alone wears well...Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe.

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.

Love, fortune, and fame not based on truth will provide little comfort. Just ask Robert Blake, Ken Lay, and OJ Simpson.

Lesson Four--Live your life, no matter how meager it is.

The true sources of happiness are available to everyone, regardless of wealth. We all have access to the warmth of the sun, the love of family, lasting friendship.

However meager your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The faultfinder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring.

Lesson Five--Live a simple and humble life.

Living simply was the most fundamental tenet of Thoreau’s thinking. Life ‘near the bone” would free us to take delight in nature, be creative, develop talents most important to us. If we would reduce the acquisition of superfluous goods we then have to take care of, think how much more time we would have to spend doing the things that count. Of course, even Thoreau would advocate providing for basic necessities such as food, warmth, health, and literacy.

Cultivate poverty like a gardener, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts. ..the philosopher said: ‘From the army of three divisions one can take away its general, and put it in disorder; from the man the most abject and vulgar one cannot take away his thought.’

Do not seek so anxiously to be developed, to subject yourself to many influences to be played on; it is all dissipation. Humility like darkness reveals the heavenly lights.

It is life near the bone where it is sweetest. You are defended from being a trifler. No man loses ever on a lower level by magnanimity on a higher. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.

This leads me to my latest rant about the wealthy’s handling of their “disposable income.” Chicago millionaire Steve Fossett has just spent millions of dollars to complete successfully his sixth attempt to circumnavigate the earth in a hot air balloon named “Spirit of Freedom.” How much freedom from hunger, disease, and illiteracy would those millions have provided for the impoverished? How many millions will rock stars pay to fly in the Russian Mir Space Station? Why can’t these people get a clue? Spending money on such selfish foolishness is obscene.

I delight to come to my bearings;--not walk in procession with pomp and parade, in a conspicuous place, but to walk even with the Builder of the Universe, if I may,--not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, but stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by.

If Thoreau found the Nineteenth Century trivial...

Lesson Six--Understand we cannot know the future nor should we praise ourselves too much for our accomplishments in the past. The present is all we can know. This goes for nations as well as individuals.

We see ourselves as the end of a glorious progression of learned men, invention and discovery only because we are so very short sighted and egomaniacal.

We know not where we are. Besides, we are sound asleep nearly half our time. Yet we esteem ourselves wise, and have an established order on the surface. Truly, we are deep thinkers, we are ambitious spirits! As I stand over the insect crawling amid the pine needles on the forest floor, and endeavoring to conceal itself from my sight, and ask myself why it will cherish those humble thoughts and hide its head from me who might, perhaps, be its benefactor and impart to its race some cheering information, I am reminded of the greater Benefactor and Intelligence that stands over the human insect.

We know only the present during which we must trust in the beneficence of God.

There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dulness. I need only suggest what kind of sermons are still listened to in the most enlightened countries. There are such words as joy and sorrow, but they are only the burden of a psalm, sung with a nasal twang, while we believe in the ordinary and mean. We think that we can change our clothes only. It is said that the British Empire is very large and respectable, and that the United States are a first-rate power. We do not believe that a tide rises and falls behind every man which can float the British Empire like a chip, if he should ever harbor it in his mind. Who knows what sort of seventeen-year locust will next come out of the ground? The government of the world I live in was not framed, like that of Britain, in after-dinner conversations over the wine

The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands; even this may be the eventful year, which will drown out all our muskrats.

Lesson Seven--Life’s lessons and smart people’s advice can be accepted only when we are ready to receive them.

These lessons can be learned only when we are ready to recognize their value. Most of us, being human, have to work through some mistaken thinking to get to the good stuff. Perhaps that is why the wisdom of Walden is so often wasted on the young.

I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.

Henry David Thoreau died of tuberculosis May 6, 1862. He was 44 years old.

Diane McCormick

The Tonic of Wilderness

In “Spring” Thoreau continues the vital job of reconciling science with his poetic vision of the world. He finds “life” even in Walden Pond itself:

Who would have suspected so large and cold and thick-skinned a thing to be so sensitive? Yet it has its law to which it thunders obedience when it should as surely as the buds expand in the spring. The earth is all alive and covered with papillae. The largest pond is as sensitive to atmospheric changes as the globule of mercury in its tube.

What scientists merely refer to as the laws of physics, Thoreau sees as a sign of a life force. In Thoreau’s world everything has a life of its own.

Most of us would surely see sand as inert matter, but he even finds signs of life in the patterns formed in the sand when hit by the sun:

What makes this sand foliage remarkable is its springing into existence thus suddenly. When I see on the one side the inert bank -- for the sun acts on one side first -- and on the other this luxuriant foliage, the creation of an hour, I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me -- had come to where he was still at work, sporting on this bank, and with excess of energy strewing his fresh designs about. I feel as if I were nearer to the vitals of the globe, for this sandy overflow is something such a foliaceous mass as the vitals of the animal body. You find thus in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf. No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant by it.

What most of us would probably only see as an interesting pattern, Thoreau sees as a basic principle of the operation of Nature:

Thus it seemed that this one hillside illustrated the principle of all the operations of Nature. The Maker of this earth but patented a leaf. What Champollion will decipher this hieroglyphic for us, that we may turn over a new leaf at last? This phenomenon is more exhilarating to me than the luxuriance and fertility of vineyards.

These patterns in the earth begin to take forms similar to trees and the veins of leaves, and Thoreau finds in this pattern signs of Nature, signs of the Oversoul.

We tend to think of the physical world as “dead” compared to the world of plants and animals, but not Thoreau:

The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit -- not a fossil earth, but a living earth; compared with whose great central life all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic. Its throes will heave our exuviae from their graves. You may melt your metals and cast them into the most beautiful moulds you can; they will never excite me like the forms which this molten earth flows out into. And not only it, but the institutions upon it are plastic like clay in the hands of the potter.

Spoken like a true geologist! Ironically, his view of the world is much closer to the view of modern scientists, at least those who subscribe to the theory of plate tectonics, than his contemporaries would have been. In a very real sense, the earth is “alive” with forces constantly at work shaping and reshaping our planet’s geography.

It’s not surprising that someone who can get so caught up in geology would greet spring even more excitedly:

The first sparrow of spring! The year beginning with younger hope than ever! The faint silvery warblings heard over the partially bare and moist fields from the bluebird, the song sparrow, and the red-wing, as if the last flakes of winter tinkled as they fell! What at such a time are histories, chronologies, traditions, and all written revelations? The brooks sing carols and glees to the spring. The marsh hawk, sailing low over the meadow, is already seeking the first slimy life that awakes.

One can only suspect that spending a whole Eastern winter in a small cabin heated by a woodstove would make anyone excited about the onset of Spring, an effect not unknown to we who live through the long, cloudy, wet falls and winters of the Pacific Northwest.

And though I live in the Evergreen state and grass probably has a slightly different connotation for those of us foolish enough to plant expansive lawns, I, too, still look forward to the green grass of spring:

The grass flames up on the hillsides like a spring fire -- "et primitus oritur herba imbribus primoribus evocata" -- as if the earth sent forth an inward heat to greet the returning sun; not yellow but green is the color of its flame; -- the symbol of perpetual youth, the grass-blade, like a long green ribbon, streams from the sod into the summer, checked indeed by the frost, but anon pushing on again, lifting its spear of last year's hay with the fresh life below. It grows as steadily as the rill oozes out of the ground. It is almost identical with that, for in the growing days of June, when the rills are dry, the grass-blades are their channels, and from year to year the herds drink at this perennial green stream, and the mower draws from it betimes their winter supply. So our human life but dies down to its root, and still puts forth its green blade to eternity.

This paean to grass must surely call to mind the equally famous transcendentalist Walt Whitman, does it not? Published nearly a year before Whitman first published Leaves of Grass, it certainly makes us wonder how Whitman was affected by Thoreau’s powerful work or whether his ideas developed independently, especially considering that at various times Emerson considered both of them as potential American Scholars.

Thoreau expands the metaphor, or symbol as it were, to the general sense of rebirth that spring often symbolizes:

A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty. We loiter in winter while it is already spring. In a pleasant spring morning all men's sins are forgiven. Such a day is a truce to vice. While such a sun holds out to burn, the vilest sinner may return. Through our own recovered innocence we discern the innocence of our neighbors. You may have known your neighbor yesterday for a thief, a drunkard, or a sensualist, and merely pitied or despised him, and despaired of the world; but the sun shines bright and warm this first spring morning, recreating the world, and you meet him at some serene work, and see how it is exhausted and debauched veins expand with still joy and bless the new day, feel the spring influence with the innocence of infancy, and all his faults are forgotten. There is not only an atmosphere of good will about him, but even a savor of holiness groping for expression, blindly and ineffectually perhaps, like a new-born instinct, and for a short hour the south hill-side echoes to no vulgar jest.

It seems it is in this sense of rebirth that Thoreau’s optimism is founded. It is the Christian concept of forgiveness, and consequent rebirth, recast in a transcendentalist metaphor

This optimism, though, is balanced against the realization that most people never take advantage of this new opportunity to redeem themselves:


A return to goodness produced each day in the tranquil and beneficent breath of the morning, causes that in respect to the love of virtue and the hatred of vice, one approaches a little the primitive nature of man, as the sprouts of the forest which has been felled. In like manner the evil which one does in the interval of a day prevents the germs of virtues which began to spring up again from developing themselves and destroys them.

According to this view, virtue and evil cannot coexist. Perhaps that explains why so much of the grass that began so vigorously in spring has often turned yellow by this time of year.

Thoreau’s observation of a graceful hawk again reminds me of Whitman’s barbaric yawp:

On the 29th of April, as I was fishing from the bank of the river near the Nine-Acre-Corner bridge, standing on the quaking grass and willow roots, where the muskrats lurk, I heard a singular rattling sound, somewhat like that of the sticks which boys play with their fingers, when, looking up, I observed a very slight and graceful hawk, like a nighthawk, alternately soaring like a ripple and tumbling a rod or two over and over, showing the under side of its wings, which gleamed like a satin ribbon in the sun, or like the pearly inside of a shell. This sight reminded me of falconry and what nobleness and poetry are associated with that sport. The Merlin it seemed to me it might be called: but I care not for its name. It was the most ethereal flight I had ever witnessed. It did not simply flutter like a butterfly, nor soar like the larger hawks, but it sported with proud reliance in the fields of air; mounting again and again with its strange chuckle, it repeated its free and beautiful fall, turning over and over like a kite, and then recovering from its lofty tumbling, as if it had never set its foot on terra firma. It appeared to have no companion in the universe -- sporting there alone -- and to need none but the morning and the ether with which it played. It was not lonely, but made all the earth lonely beneath it. Where was the parent which hatched it, its kindred, and its father in the heavens? The tenant of the air, it seemed related to the earth but by an egg hatched some time in the crevice of a crag; -- or was its native nest made in the angle of a cloud, woven of the rainbow's trimmings and the sunset sky, and lined with some soft midsummer haze caught up from earth? Its eyry now some cliffy cloud.

Though he has never claims it as his own symbol, it seems that this falcon could well serve as a symbol of Thoreau himself coming near the end of Walden. One could almost imagine Thoreau his “eyry now some cliffy cloud” looking down at we mortals wondering why we have yet learned to fly, still clinging to our possessions here on earth, weighted down, unable to even get off the ground.

Strangely enough we, too, can experience this exhilaration:

Ah! I have penetrated to those meadows on the morning of many a first spring day, jumping from hummock to hummock, from willow root to willow root, when the wild river valley and the woods were bathed in so pure and bright a light as would have waked the dead, if they had been slumbering in their graves, as some suppose. There needs no stronger proof of immortality. All things must live in such a light. O Death, where was thy sting? O Grave, where was thy victory, then?

But first we have to escape the confines of our offices and our homes to experience the light directly and not merely in a book or on a CRT screen, where life itself seems virtual.

Thoreau even instructs us on how to recapture this joy:

Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness -- to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.

Little wonder environmental activists have adopted Thoreau as the head of their movement, for he, better than any other writer, seems able to articulate the spiritual basis for the environmental movement while capturing the joy that all of us who have trekked the wilderness have felt at one moment or another and relating it to our spiritual growth.

Loren

Winter Animals and the Pond in Winter


Winter provides time for reflection and Thoreau continues to spend his days, making careful notes about his experiment, living on Walden Pond. He is entertained by the animals who visit; he concentrates on his waking thoughts, the fishermen and the mystery of the depth of the lake. Workers come to harvest ice to preserve for the summer months; hints of unrequited love and thoughts on the waters of Walden Pond appear on the pages.

The Critters of Concord

Geese, the whooping of the ice in the pond, “the foxes as they ranged over the snow crust,” attract Thoreau’s attention.

I threw out half a bushed of ears of sweet-corn, which had not got ripe, on to the snow crust by my door, and was amused by watching the motions of the various animals which were baited by it.

Red squirrels, jays, chickadees in flocks, sparrows, partridges, a pack of hounds, mice, and hares roam the fields. A fox nearly escapes the hunter and his dogs.

For a moment compassion restrained the latter’s arm; but that was a short-lived mood, and as quick as thought can follow thought his piece was levelled, and whang! --the fox rolling over the rock lay dead on the ground....At length the old hound burst into view with muzzle to the ground, and snapping the air as if possessed, and ran directly to the rock; buy spying the dead fox she suddenly ceased her hounding, as if struck dumb with amazement, and walked round and round him in silence...

Larger animals once inhabited the wilderness of Concord, providing hunters their raison d’etre.

...could remember one Sam Nutting, who used to hunt bears on Fair-Haven Ledges, and exchange their skins for rum in Concord village; who told him even, that he had seen a moose there.

Credit is given for deerskins also, and they were daily sold.

The hunters were formerly a numerous and merry crew here.

Concord Massachusetts was hardly the frontier for the West had been open for 40 years. My great grandfather traveled the Oregon Trail to homestead in Oregon the same year Thoreau wrote Walden, but still Concord was more wilderness than settlement.

What is a country without rabbits and partridges?

It is hardly as if you had seen a wild creature when a rabbit or a partridge bursts away, only a natural one, as much to be expected as rustling leaves.

Reflections at Dawn

Thoreau returns as philosopher in a reflection upon waking one winter morning.

After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, ...But there was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in at my broad windows with serene satisfied face, and no question on her lips. I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and daylight. Forward! nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask. ‘O Prince, our eyes contemplate with admiration and transmit to the soul the wonderful and varied spectacle of this universe. The night veils without doubt a part of this glorious creation; but day comes to reveal to us this great work, which extends from earth even into the plains of the ether.’

The Fishermen

Philosophy soon must make way for the necessities of life--the acceptance and performance of his ”morning work”--picking up his axe and pail to retrieve water from the pond.

Thoreau never tires of the pond and often reminisces about the fishermen who come.

... men come with fishing reels and slender lunch, ...to take pickerel and perch.

One such man he remembers well and comments as he has earlier that men who live outdoors are more knowledgeable than the so called experts.

His life itself passes deeper in nature than the studies of the naturalist penetrate; himself a subject for the naturalist.

What follows is a poetic summary of the food chain.

The perch swallows the grubworm, the pickerel swallows the perch, and the fisherman swallows the pickerel; and so all the chinks in the scale of being are filled.

A Mystery Solved

Scientific curiosity leads Thoreau to plumb the lake. A myth has been created by the stories the natives tell that the lake is bottomless. Thoreau strikes out to prove the myth wrong.

As I was desirous to recover the long-lost bottom of Walden Pond,...the undoubted source of the Styx and entrance to the Infernal Regions from these parts....but I can assure my readers that Walden has a reasonably tight bottom at a not unreasonable, though at an unusual, depth.

The greatest depth was exactly one hundred and two feet; to which may be added the five feet which it has risen since, making one hundred and seven...While man believe in the infinite some ponds will be thought to be bottomless.

When I had mapped the pond by the scale of ten rods to an inch, and put down the soundings, more than a hundred in all,...

Inspired by his ability to determine and plot the lake’s bottom, Thoreau transfers his methods, speculating that his math could be used to determine the bottom of the sea or the heights of the mountains.

If we knew all the laws of Nature, we should need only one fact, or the description of one actual phenomenon, to infer all the particular results at that point. Now we know only a few laws, and our result is vitiated, not, of course, by any confusion or irregularity in Nature, but by our ignorance of essential elements in the calculation. Our notions of law and harmony are commonly confined to these instances which we detect;

Again transferring information from one subject to another, certainly the mark of an intelligent man, Thoreau suggests one can apply his methods of determining the depth of the lake to determining the depth of a man’s character.

What I have observed of the pond is no less true in ethics. It is the law of average. Such a rule of the two diameters not only guides us toward the sun in the system and the heart in man; but draw lines through the length and breadth of the aggregate of a man’s particular daily behaviors and waves of life into his coves and inlets, and where they intersect will be the height or depth of his character.

Even after much study, however, Walden Pond seems completely contained.

As for the inlet or outlet of Walden, I have not discovered any but rain and snow and evaporation...

The Icemen Cometh

Then come the icemen and a wonderful account of man’s desire to regulate the temperature of his world.

While yet it is cold January, and snow and ice are thick and solid, the prudent landlord comes from the village to get ice to cool his summer drink; impressively, even pathetically wise, to foresee the heat and thirst of July now in January...It may be that he lays up no treasures in this world which will cool his summer drink in the next.

In the winter of ‘46-47 there came a hundred men of Hyperborean extraction swoop down on to our pond one morning, with many car-loads of ungainly-looking farming tools, sleds, ploughs, drill-barrows, turf-knives, spades, saws, rakes, and each man was armed with a double-pointed pike-staff, such as is not described in the New England Farmer or the Cultivator.

...A hundred Irishmen, with Yankee overseers, came from Cambridge every day to get out the ice.

I cannot imagine a stack of ice blocks as high as a three story building. Is Thoreau exaggerating? How was the ice stacked that high?

They stacked up the cakes thus in the open air in a pile thirty-five feet high on one side and six or seven rods square, putting hay between the outside layers to exclude the air; for when the wind, though never so cold, finds a passage through, it will wear large cavities, leaving slight supports or studs only here and there, and finally topple it down.

This heap, made in the winter of ‘46-7 and estimated to contain ten thousand tons, was finally covered with hay and boards; and though it was unroofed the following July, and a part of it carried off, the rest remaining exposed to the sun, it stood over that summer and the next winter, and was not quite melted till September, 1848. Thus the pond recovered the greater part.

A Lost Love

A hint of Thoreau’s feelings about emotion compared to the mind is told in the following passage.

They told me that they had some in the ice-houses at Fresh Pond five years old which was as good as ever. Why is it that a bucket of water soon becomes putrid, but frozen remains sweet forever. It is commonly said that this is the difference between the affections and the intellect.

Thoreau knew something of affection. In his journals he wrote of his first love for Ellen Sewall whom he had met in 1839. five days after meeting Miss Sewall Thoreau wrote “There is no remedy for love but to love more.” A little over a year later he continued:

I thought that the sun of our love should have risen as noiselessly as the sun out of the sea, and we sailors have found ourselves steering between the tropics as if the broad day had lasted forever. You know how the sun comes up from the sea when you stand on the cliff, and doesn’t startle you, but everything, and you too are helping it.

Thoreau proposed marriage, but Miss Sewall said no. Biographers report other loves in Thoreau’s life, but shortly before he died in 1862, Thoreau said to his sister, Sophia, “I have always loved her.” What a difference marriage would have made for him.

A World of Water

Still a bachelor, Thoreau at Walden Pond expands upon the significance of the waters of the pond.

Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well. In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial;

I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Brahmin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug.

The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.

Diane McCormick

No Wonder I Love a Rainy Night

Thoreau’s ability as a naturalist emerges more in the chapters entitled “Winter Animals” and “The Pond in Winter” than it has in previous chapters. “Winter Animals” describes in some detail the hooting owls, foxes, red squirrels, blue jays, chickadees, partridges, squirrels, wild mice, and hares that he observed during the winter. I suspect that these might have been more interesting to a generation who hadn’t been raised on nature specials on PBS. “The Pond in Winter” focuses on Thoreau’s attempts to measure Walden Pond using his considerable surveying skills. What seems most remarkable in the chapter, though, are Thoreau’s attempts to unite his scientific interests with his transcendental beliefs, a difficult, if not impossible, task. Perhaps this attempt is mirrored by the opening lines of the chapter where Scientific questions like “what -- how -- when -- where?” are met by the morning light:

After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, as what -- how -- when -- where? But there was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in at my broad windows with serene and satisfied face, and no question on her lips. I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and daylight.

Thoreau’s love of nature transcends any scientific answers that may be offered, though the two are not necessarily exclusive. In fact, one would hope that environmental scientists’ attempts to understand nature would be driven by just such a love of nature, just as you would hope that a psychologist’s attempts to understand human nature would be driven by a love of people. While studying the depth of Walden Pond, Thoreau cuts a hole in the ice to take measurements:

Standing on the snow-covered plain, as if in a pasture amid the hills, I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where, kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlor of the fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants. Heaven is under our feet is well as over our heads.

Thoreau may be attempting a scientific measurement, but he does so with an awareness that transcends any measurement of time or place. Even when he does take an exact, scientific measurement he extrapolate from it:

The greatest depth was exactly one hundred and two feet; to which may be added the five feet which it has risen since, making one hundred and seven. This is a remarkable depth for so small an area; yet not an inch of it can be spared by the imagination. What if all ponds were shallow? Would it not react on the minds of men? I am thankful that this pond was made deep and pure for a symbol. While men believe in the infinite some ponds will be thought to be bottomless.

Walden Pond may, indeed, only be one hundred and seven feet deep, but because of Thoreau’s book it has symbolic depth that belies its actual depth. Thoreau seems to sound a little like Einstein in the following passage:

If we knew all the laws of Nature, we should need only one fact, or the description of one actual phenomenon, to infer all the particular results at that point. Now we know only a few laws, and our result is vitiated, not, of course, by any confusion or irregularity in Nature, but by our ignorance of essential elements in the calculation. Our notions of law and harmony are commonly confined to those instances which we detect; but the harmony which results from a far greater number of seemingly conflicting, but really concurring, laws, which we have not detected, is still more wonderful. The particular laws are as our points of view, as, to the traveller, a mountain outline varies with every step, and it has an infinite number of profiles, though absolutely but one form. Even when cleft or bored through it is not comprehended in its entireness.

This idea of a “unified theory” seems to be the driving force behind science, the attempt to “know all,” just as it has been the driving force of philosophers and poets, though it takes very different forms in different hands. It’s clear that for Thoreau this unified theory will encompass a vision of Nature:

In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges. With favoring winds it is wafted past the site of the fabulous islands of Atlantis and the Hesperides, makes the periplus of Hanno, and, floating by Ternate and Tidore and the mouth of the Persian Gulf, melts in the tropic gales of the Indian seas, and is landed in ports of which Alexander only heard the names.

This vision of Nature and its “holy water” almost seems to look forward to those outer space shots of Earth where we are most clearly revealed as the “Water Planet,” because water is the great unifying force that ties us all together. Indeed, water is the essence of life itself, making up 65% of our bodies, and covering 70% of the earth. What better symbol, then, of life’s unity and universality than water? Perhaps waterfalls inspire us so because they, like the surge of ocean waves, make us feel the full force of the life running through us. Loren