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

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