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

Winter’s Coming, Winter’s Coming

The wide-ranging chapter “House-Warming” seems to center on the concept of leading the simple life. It begins with a discussion of a “humble root” that has been neglected in modern times:

In these days of fatted cattle and waving grain-fields this humble root, which was once the totem of an Indian tribe, is quite forgotten, or known only by its flowering vine; but let wild Nature reign here once more, and the tender and luxurious English grains will probably disappear before a myriad of foes, and without the care of man the crow may carry back even the last seed of corn to the great cornfield of the Indian's God in the southwest, whence he is said to have brought it; but the now almost exterminated ground-nut will perhaps revive and flourish in spite of frosts and wildness, prove itself indigenous, and resume its ancient importance and dignity as the diet of the hunter tribe.

Sounds a little like the argument that scientists are making even today about the reasons why it is important to keep native species from disappearing, doesn’t it?

Thoreau extends his praise of the “humble” to his own cabin:

My dwelling was small, and I could hardly entertain an echo in it; but it seemed larger for being a single apartment and remote from neighbors.

For me, at least, his description of his cabin brings to mind the huge “vacation homes” that are multiplying in the Northwest Forests. You have to wonder why people need that much house out in the forest; isn’t the point of a vacation home to get out in the woods rather than to hole up in some monstrous house watching satellite TV?

Thoreau goes from discussing his modest cabin to the ideal home:

A house whose inside is as open and manifest as a bird's nest, and you cannot go in at the front door and out at the back without seeing some of its inhabitants; where to be a guest is to be presented with the freedom of the house, and not to be carefully excluded from seven eighths of it, shut up in a particular cell, and told to make yourself at home there -- in solitary confinement.

And here I thought the idea of “great room” was contemporary. Of course, the Haida Indians in British Columbia seem to have thought of the idea even earlier than Thoreau. Still, there is something very special about a home that can foster both a sense of family and conserve resources.

It’s obvious that Thoreau shares the feelings about obscenely large houses that I expressed in an earlier entry :

I might visit in my old clothes a king and queen who lived simply in such a house as I have described, if I were going their way; but backing out of a modern palace will be all that I shall desire to learn, if ever I am caught in one.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The chapter ends with praise of the hearth fire, that mainstay of civilization:

How much more interesting an event is that man's supper who has just been forth in the snow to hunt, nay, you might say, steal, the fuel to cook it with! His bread and meat are sweet. Not many people today can take pleasure in such activities obviously, but there is certainly truth in the idea that working out in the cold enhances our pleasure of standing in front of a warm fire.

Like a true conservationist, Thoreau does not take the cutting of wood lightly:

I would that our farmers when they cut down a forest felt some of that awe which the old Romans did when they came to thin, or let in the light to, a consecrated grove (lucum conlucare), that is, would believe that it is sacred to some god.

Our constant exposure to modern conveniences has largely made modern man unaware of the sources of his power, with unexpected results:

The next winter I used a small cooking-stove for economy, since I did not own the forest; but it did not keep fire so well as the open fireplace. Cooking was then, for the most part, no longer a poetic, but merely a chemic process. It will soon be forgotten, in these days of stoves, that we used to roast potatoes in the ashes, after the Indian fashion. The stove not only took up room and scented the house, but it concealed the fire, and I felt as if I had lost a companion.

Perhaps we, too sit in front of a fire to stir old memories of distant and simpler times. Sadly enough, there is so much pressure on Western wildernesses that camp fires have been banned in many areas to prevent the destruction of the trees that people have come to experience. A camp stove is really no substitute for a roaring camp fire on a cold night. There is the disturbing sense that some things have been lost forever, never to be regained as man progresses into an unknown future.

Loren

Walden, Chapter 13 House-Warming

When we lived in the country, autumn was the time to stack wood, haul hay for the horses, fill the fruit cupboard with canned peaches, and pears, jams and jellies.

During this earth mother phase I carefully followed my grandmother’s recipes for preserving the harvest. I still use a Kerr recipe booklet written during WW II. “Bring summer freshness to winter needs” it advises.

So reading about Thoreau’s preparations for winter brings back good memories.

I picture him carefully gathering and storing some provisions against the cold winter days. He “goes a graping,” admires cranberries growing, picks up chestnuts.

These nuts, as far as they went, were a good substitute for bread.

Finding a rare ground-nut, (apios tuberosa) inspires him to comment on the power of nature to overcome cultivated fields.

...but let wild nature reign here once more, and the tender and luxurious English grains will probably disappear before a myriad of foes, and without the care of man the crow may carry back even the last seed of corn to the great cornfield of the Indian’s God in the southwest, whence he is said to have brought it; but the now almost exterminated ground-nut will perhaps revive and flourish in spite of frosts and wildness, prove itself indigenous, and resume its ancient importance and dignity as the diet of the hunter tribe....and when the reign of poetry commences here, its leaves and string of nuts may be represented on our works of art.

The autumn colors inspire Thoreau to personification.

...and gradually from week to week the character of each tree came out, and it admired itself reflected in the smooth mirror of the lake.

Then the wasps move into the cabin, but even these cause Thoreau little concern.

The wasps came...and they gradually, disappeared, into what crevices I do not know, avoiding winter and unspeakable cold.

Remember Thoreau had built his cabin and now it is time to finish the fireplace for soon he will move indoors.

When I came to build my chimney I studied masonry.

I picked out as many fireplace bricks as I could find, to save work and waste, and I filled the spaces between the bricks about the fireplace with stones from the pond shore, and also made my mortar with the white sand from the same place.

The chimney is to some extent an independent structure, standing on the ground and rising through the house to the heavens; even after the house is burned it still stands sometime, and its importance and independence are apparent.

Should every apartment in which man dwells be lofty enough to create some obscurity overhead, where flickering shadows may play at evening about the rafters? These forms are more agreeable to the fancy and imagination that fresco paintings or other the most expensive furniture. I now first began to inhabit my house, I may say, when I began to use it for warmth as well as shelter.

My dwelling was small,...but it seemed larger for being a single apartment and remote from neighbors.

Obviously Thoreau was going to be able to forage for food throughout the winter and make regular trips to the village for supplies. His cellar is not fully provisioned for the entire winter even for a light eater.


I had in my cellar a firkin (a barrel about a quarter full) of potatoes, about two quarts of peas with the weevil in them, and on my shelf a little rice, a jug of molasses, and of rye and Indian meal a peck each.

Thoreau was an advocate of the “great room,” so popular now in suburban houses. His dream house is one with a great open room that would be shared by everyone present--hardly the plan for a hermit.

I sometimes dream of a larger and more populous house, standing in a golden age, of enduring materials, and without gingerbread-work, which shall still consist of only one room, a vast, rude, substantial, primitive hall, without ceiling or plastering, with bare rafters and purlins supporting a sort of lower heaven over one’s head--useful to keep off rain and snow...


...where the weary traveller may wash, and eat, and converse, and sleep, without further journey; such a shelter as you would be glad to reach in a tempestuous night, containing all the essentials of a house, and nothing for house-keeping, where you can see all the treasures of the house at one view, and everything hangs upon its peg that a man should use;

...where to be a guest is to be presented with the freedom of the house, and not to be carefully excluded from seven eighths of it, shut up in a particular cell, and told to make yourself at home there,--in solitary confinement. Nowadays the host does not admit you to his hearth, but has got the mason to build one for yourself somewhere in his alley, and hospitality is the art of keeping you at the greatest distance.

...the parlor is so far from the kitchen and workshop.

Thoreau describes his house and his desire to finish it before it gets too cold.

I did not plaster till it was freezing weather. ...My house had in the meanwhile been shingled down to the ground on every side. In lathing I was pleased to be able to send home each nail with a single blow of the hammer, and it was my ambition to transfer the plaster from the board to the wall neatly and rapidly.

The days are not completely filled with chores, however. Thoreau spends time watching the formation of the first ice on the pond.

The first ice is especially interesting and perfect, being hard, dark, and transparent, and affords the best opportunity that ever offers for examining the bottom where it is shallow;

The pleasant days of fall grow colder.

At length the winter set in in good earnest, just as I had finished plastering, and the wind began to howl around the house as if it had not had permission to do so till then. Night after night the geese came lumbering in in the dark...

I withdrew yet farther into my shell, and endeavored to keep a bright fire both within my house and within my breast. My employment out of doors now was to collect the dead wood in the forest,...

Having a good stack of firewood is very important in the 1850s. Thoreau preferred burning it in an open fire, having little use for stoves.

It is remarkable what a value is still put upon wood even in this age and in this new country, a value more permanent and universal than that of gold . After all our discoveries and inventions no man will go by a pile of wood...the only question is, how much higher it is to be this year than it was the last.

I can answer Thoreau’s question. A cord of oak wood advertised on the Internet is going for $485. Does that price and the fact wood is for sale on the Net seem surreal to anyone else?

Every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection.

It was I and Fire that lived there;

But man’s ability to provide warm shelter for himself does free time to create.

Thus he goes a step or two beyond instinct, and saves a little time for the fine arts.

Thoreau, who lived as close to Nature as one could, is aware of man’s frailty in extreme weather. I wonder what he would say about global warming?

We go on dating from Cold Fridays and Great Snows; but a little colder Friday, or greater snow, would put a period to man’s existence on the globe.

Thoreau, who has had a stove at some point, advocates the fireplace which provides more than warmth.

It will soon be forgotten, in these days of stoves, that we used to roast potatoes in the ashes,...The stove not only took up room and scented the house, but it concealed the fire, and I felt as if I had lost a companion. You can always see a face in the fire. The laborer, looking into it at evening, purifies his thoughts of the dross and earthiness which they have accumulated during the day...

We build a fire in the fireplace, too.

Diane McCormick

A Time Spent in Quiet Observation

The charm of “Brute Neighbors” is Thoreau’s leisurely description of the visitors to Walden Pond.
On this occasion a poet (Emerson?) comes to go fishing with Thoreau.

The conversation between the visitor, the Poet, and the Hermit, as Thoreau calls himself, is recorded.

The Hermit comments on the noises that break the noon day silence. He hears a “farmer’s noon horn, calling the field hands to their dinners. According to the Hermit, men work too hard to fill their lives with superfluity. Thoreau is happy and relaxed because he is satisfied with a loaf of brown bread washed down with water from the lake.

Why will men worry themselves so?He that does not eat need not work...And oh, the housekeeping! to keep bright the devil’s doorknobs, and scour his tubs this bright day! Better not keep a house. Say, some hollow tree; and then for morning calls and dinner-parties!

I may not be able to live in a tree now, but there is not a housewife among us who doesn’t focus on the line “Better not keep a house.” My theory is we would all be great poets and musicians if we spent our time creating instead of dusting.

It always seems to happen, even to the “Hermit” Thoreau. The Poet has interrupted his meditation. Drop-in company rarely drops in when you want them.

...but I am just concluding a serious meditation. I think that I am near the end of it. Leave me alone, then, for a while...Shall I go to heaven or a-fishing? ...I was as near being resolved into the essence of things as ever I was in my life.

He fears he will not be able to continue.

My thoughts have left no track, and I cannot find the path again. What was it that I was thinking of?...There never is but one opportunity of a kind.

While the Hermit attempts to reconstruct his meditative thoughts, the Poet is advised to dig worms for the fishing expedition. A small discourse follows on the best location to find the largest worms.

The sport of digging the bait is nearly equal to that of catching the fish.

True enough, when the fisherman is responsible for acquiring the worms himself and cannot depend on a bait shop to provide them.

Here is a question for you. Does the Poet symbolize the romantic nature of man, calling him to an idyllic day spent fishing, interrupting the mystic who meditates to feed his soul? In other words, is Thoreau saying, “To heck with this meditation bit, I’m going fishing’? Is there really a Poet, or is it Thoreau himself giving in to his desire to spend time on the lake?

To have time to find pleasure in the simple tasks--digging worms, fishing, observing the mice and the song birds fill Thoreau’s days at Walden Pond. The otters and the raccoons also pay him visits.

You only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns.

Once, Thoreau seems to have spent the better part of a day, observing bellicose ants which have formed red and black armies.

It was the only battle which I have ever witnessed, the only battlefield I ever trod while the battle was raging; internecine war;--”the red republicans on the one hand, and the black imperialists on the other. On every side they were engaged in deadly combat, yet without any noise that I could hear, and human soldiers never fought so resolutely...It was evident that their battle-cry was Conquer or die. In the meanwhile there came along a single red [ant] whose mother had charged him to return with his shield or upon it. Or perchance he was some Achilles,...I was myself excited somewhat even as if they had been men. The more you think of it, the less the difference....There was not one hireling there. I have no doubt that it was a principle they fought for, as much as our ancestors, and not to avoid a three-penny tax on their tea; and the results of this battle will be as important and memorable to those whom it concerns as those of the battle of Bunker Hill, at least.

The battle between the red and black ants fascinated Thoreau so much that toward the end of his observation, he gathers up three of the ants to take home.

I took up the chip on which the three I have particularly described were struggling, carried it into my house, and placed it under a tumbler on my window-sill...

What ensues is a battle outdone only by Russell Crowe in The Gladiator.

...when I looked again the black soldier had severed the heads of his foes from their bodies, and the still living heads were hanging on either side of him like ghastly trophies at his saddle-bow, still apparently as firmly fastened as ever, and he was endeavoring with feeble struggles, being without feelers and with only the remnant of a leg, and I know not how many others wounds, to divest himself of them...

The victorious ant or at least the last one standing, falls from the window sill and Thoreau is left to wonder if he “spends the remainder of his days in some Hotel des Invalides.

The outcome of the war is never known.

I never learned which party was victorious, nor the cause of the war; but I felt for the rest of that day as if I had had my feelings excited and harrowed by witnessing the struggle, the ferocity and carnage, of a human battle before my door.

Are these the observations of a man who thinks metaphorically, who is so connected to his surroundings that he can become absorbed in watching ants fight or of a man who needs something more to do? I find it interesting that Thoreau does not conclude human wars are as insignificant as ant battles; instead, he elevates ant warfare to the level of human struggle.

Thoreau has other “brute neighbors,” some which have wandered away from the village. He watches a dog running from his master, chasing mud-turtles, sniffing out old fox burrows and woodchucks’ holes.

A cat prowls through the forest grass, looking quite at home in spite of her earlier life spent curled up on the family rug.

A loon captivates Thoreau with his diving, disappearing, resurfacing on the lake; he listens to the deliberate howls of the bird.

This was his looning,--perhaps the wildest sound that is ever heard here, making the woods ring far and wide...he uttered one of those prolonged howls, as if calling on the god of loons to aid him.

The ducks on the lake also charm Thoreau.

...they would settle down by a slanting flight of a quarter of a mile on to a distant part [of the lake] which was left free; but what besides safety they got by sailing in the middle of Walden I do not know, unless they love its water for the same reason that I do.

Diane McCormick

A Refreshing Change of Pace

After the heavy thoughts found in “Higher Laws” it was quite refreshing to find Thoreau writing light-hearted, even amusing prose in “Brute Neighbors.” Even the chapter title seems to be meant ironically, because the animal neighbors are anything but “brutes.” Despite his humorous approach, Thoreau helps to remind the reader to what an extent animals play a part in our language and communication of the world.

Thoreau begins by humorously speculating that all animals are “beasts of burden:”

Why do precisely these objects which we behold make a world? Why has man just these species of animals for his neighbors; as if nothing but a mouse could have filled this crevice? I suspect that Pilpay & Co. have put animals to their best use, for they are all beasts of burden, in a sense, made to carry some portion of our thoughts.

This punning on burden still makes it clear that animals always have carried our thoughts whether merely in phrases like “eat like a pig” or as symbols of our feelings, as in The Seattle Seahawks.

Perhaps more importantly, animals serve as representatives, or symbols, of Nature, the Oversoul, serving this function exactly as we do:

The remarkably adult yet innocent expression of their [partridge chicks] open and serene eyes is very memorable. All intelligence seems reflected in them. They suggest not merely the purity of infancy, but a wisdom clarified by experience. Such an eye was not born when the bird was, but is coeval with the sky it reflects. The woods do not yield another such a gem. The traveller does not often look into such a limpid well.

Of course, few people have ever had the privilege of looking into the eyes of a partridge chick, but we certainly see their innocence and their trust in their mother to protect them. More importantly, their eyes allow the observer to see the sky itself reflected in them.

This peaceful moment is masterfully followed by a tumultuous event:

In the meanwhile there came along a single red ant on the hillside of this valley, evidently full of excitement, who either had despatched his foe, or had not yet taken part in the battle; probably the latter, for he had lost none of his limbs; whose mother had charged him to return with his shield or upon it. Or perchance he was some Achilles, who had nourished his wrath apart, and had now come to avenge or rescue his Patroclus.

It’s hard to imagine a greater historical warrior than Achilles, but it’s a even harder to imagine “a single red ant” quite measuring up to his achievements. Still, such hyperbole worked as well in 1850 as it does today in modern cartoons.

Somehow Thoreau is even able to use this battle of the ants to make fun of how society inflates the significance of wars and battles:

I was myself excited somewhat even as if they had been men. The more you think of it, the less the difference. And certainly there is not the fight recorded in Concord history, at least, if in the history of America, that will bear a moment's comparison with this, whether for the numbers engaged in it, or for the patriotism and heroism displayed. For numbers and for carnage it was an Austerlitz or Dresden. Concord Fight! Two killed on the patriots' side, and Luther Blanchard wounded!

Strangely enough, Thoreau, even while showing how ridiculous man’s thirst for war is, is able to transform this battle into an exciting event:

Whether he finally survived that combat, and spent the remainder of his days in some Hotel des Invalides, I do not know; but I thought that his industry would not be worth much thereafter. I never learned which party was victorious, nor the cause of the war; but I felt for the rest of that day as if I had had my feelings excited and harrowed by witnessing the struggle, the ferocity and carnage, of a human battle before my door.

If you’re able to transform a red soldier ant into a modern Achilles, why stop there? Why not create a cat that can fly:

This would have been the right kind of cat for me to keep, if I had kept any; for why should not a poet's cat be winged as well as his horse?

If Pegasus is the poet’s source of inspiration, sure a flying cat would be a suitable source of inspiration for shorter poems.

The extended example of playing tag with the loon, though, is the center piece of this chapter. This mysterious interaction with the loon is both fascinating and intriguing:

But why, after displaying so much cunning, did he invariably betray himself the moment he came up by that loud laugh? Did not his white breast enough betray him? He was indeed a silly loon, I thought. .

Ah, but how could such a silly loon continue to elude Thoreau? As the chase continues,Thoreau reaches another conclusion:

I concluded that he laughed in derision of my efforts, confident of his own resources.

Thoreau moves from granting the loon “confidence in its resources” to having access to resources that are unavailable to mankind:

At length having come up fifty rods off, he uttered one of those prolonged howls, as if calling on the god of loons to aid him, and immediately there came a wind from the east and rippled the surface, and filled the whole air with misty rain, and I was impressed as if it were the prayer of the loon answered, and his god was angry with me; and so I left him disappearing far away on the tumultuous surface.

The loon is so much a part of nature that can taps into nature’s resources.

Later, observing ducks veer across the center of the lake, Thoreau notes:

… but what beside safety they got by sailing in the middle of Walden I do not know, unless they love its water for the same reason that I do.

Our love of nature causes us to share the feelings of those animals that inhabit the wild.

I imagine it’s the same love I felt for some resident ravens as I watched a flock of them drive off a much larger hawk circling their nesting areas. I sat fascinated for nearly ten minutes as the ravens dive bombed the hawk repeatedly while the hawk tried to ignore them and continue its circular hunt for food. But the flock was not to be ignored as they dove past the hawk, brushing its wings and its tail. Slowly, but inexorably the hawk swerved from its tight pattern and, when he had apparently left the ravens’ nesting area, raven after raven peeled off from the attack, seeking shelter in the tall firs that surround their nesting grounds.

If I had had just a little more imagination I imagine I could easily have conjured up images of the Red Baron being strafed by less heroic British pilots. But, alas, I was content to merely reflect on the persistence of the ravens and their ability to work together to protect their nesting area. Little wonder that I share the Northwest Indians’ admiration of these birds often lampooned as crows in less enlightened parts of the country.

This identification with animals is, of course, what all humans do and have done since our beginnings. One can only wonder how different we might be if we evolved in a world without animals, in a world where there is only mankind. Would we be the same without our dogs and cats, without Blake’s gentle lamb and fyrce
tyger?

Loren

Breaking Bread with Thoreau

Thoreau’s puritanical background becomes even clearer in the chapter entitled “Higher Laws.” It begins with a confession of an attraction to his “wild side:”

I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good. The wildness and adventure that are in fishing still recommended it to me. I like sometimes to take rank hold on life and spend my day more as the animals do. Perhaps I have owed to this employment and to hunting, when quite young, my closest acquaintance with Nature.

and

There is a period in the history of the individual, as of the race, when the hunters are the "best men," as the Algonquins called them. We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected. This was my answer with respect to those youths who were bent on this pursuit, trusting that they would soon outgrow it. No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature which holds its life by the same tenure that he does.

Having admitted to once having had such desires, he now begins to argue that these are “lower” instincts:

There is unquestionably this instinct in me which belongs to the lower orders of creation; yet with every year I am less a fisherman, though without more humanity or even wisdom; at present I am no fisherman at all. But I see that if I were to live in a wilderness I should again be tempted to become a fisher and hunter in earnest.

While I have personally given up fishing and would never have considered hunting, it’s hard for me to consider hunting and fishing as sinful. Instead, these seem to me merely to be personal choices.

I had never realized before that Thoreau was a vegetarian:

Beside, there is something essentially unclean about this diet and all flesh, and I began to see where housework commences, and whence the endeavor, which costs so much, to wear a tidy and respectable appearance each day, to keep the house sweet and free from all ill odors and sights.

I have to admit that when I’m forced to spend too much time cutting up beef or chicken for a dish I’ve been known to get a little queasy from the feel and smell of the meat. And I know if I had to kill my own food, I would probably eat only vegetables and fish. That, however, doesn’t mean I buy into Thoreau’s pseudo-scientific explanation of the superiority of a vegetarian diet:

I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind. It is a significant fact, stated by entomologists -- I find it in Kirby and Spence -- that "some insects in their perfect state, though furnished with organs of feeding, make no use of them"; and they lay it down as "a general rule, that almost all insects in this state eat much less than in that of larvae. The voracious caterpillar when transformed into a butterfly ... and the gluttonous maggot when become a fly" content themselves with a drop or two of honey or some other sweet liquid.

I really don’t think there’s much chance of my transforming into a butterfly, and I certainly try not to think of myself as a maggot.

Thoreau doesn’t futher his argument much when he says:

It is not worth the while to live by rich cookery. Most men would feel shame if caught preparing with their own hands precisely such a dinner, whether of animal or vegetable food, as is every day prepared for them by others. Yet till this is otherwise we are not civilized, and, if gentlemen and ladies, are not true men and women.

Surprisingly enough, I’ve never felt any particular shame when preparing a “rich” meal. In fact, quite the opposite. I pride myself on my cooking and on celebrating the company of good friends and family with a feast. Good food, when eaten in moderation, of course, is a joy, a celebration of life and even of Nature’s bounty when the fresh vegetables have just been harvested.

I do, however, completely agree with Thoreau when he points out that we are often unaware of our blessings and our successes:

If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal -- that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.

I am content with my life even when I seem to make only small steps toward improving it.

I’ll admit I’m fond of water, particularly when I’m hiking, but I’m not going to limit myself to water:

I would fain keep sober always; and there are infinite degrees of drunkenness. I believe that water is the only drink for a wise man; wine is not so noble a liquor; and think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea! Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them!

I consider it sinful to waste three bucks for a cup of coffee at a Starbucks, but if I ever imply that coffee and tea are sinful, it’s time to question whether aliens have taken over my body. It’s surely not me speaking.

To me, Thoreau undercuts his argument by overstating his case:

Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant's truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails.

Now, I would certainly agree “goodness is the only investment that never fails,” as long as you agree with my definition of “goodness,” but I don’t really see a world where there’s a constant war between “virtue” and “vice.”

Thoreau’s vision of two sides of human nature reminds me of the conservative Christian view that man is inherently evil and only belief in Jesus can bring salvation:

Chastity is the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, are but various fruits which succeed it. Man flows at once to God when the channel of purity is open. By turns our purity inspires and our impurity casts us down. He is blessed who is assured that the animal is dying out in him day by day, and the divine being established. Perhaps there is none but has cause for shame on account of the inferior and brutish nature to which he is allied.

He would be hard pressed to support his argument that “genius” or “heroism” are dependent on chastity, and his argument that we should all be ashamed of our “brutish nature” calls to mind Hawthorne’s delightful “The Birthmark,” which offers a rather different viewpoint.

Thoreau goes even further:

All sensuality is one, though it takes many forms; all purity is one. It is the same whether a man eat, or drink, or cohabit, or sleep sensually. They are but one appetite, and we only need to see a person do any one of these things to know how great a sensualist he is. The impure can neither stand nor sit with purity.

Enough, I refuse to be denied my right to sleep sensually! I’m surprised he doesn’t demand that we wear a hair nightshirt to bed just to insure that we never sleep too soundly. I just can’t believe we’re either pure or sensual. I’m even a little surprised that Thoreau, a would-be poet, reaches this conclusion.

Thoreau even manages to suggest that the New England work ethic is another sign of holiness:

In the student sensuality is a sluggish habit of mind. An unclean person is universally a slothful one, one who sits by a stove, whom the sun shines on prostrate, who reposes without being fatigued. If you would avoid uncleanness, and all the sins, work earnestly, though it be at cleaning a stable.

While I’ve been accused of being a Type-A workaholic, I sometimes wish I could just sit back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of my labor more. Take my word for it, it is no virtue to be driven to work.

I’ve heard devoted members of the Waldenlist dismiss Emerson’s criticism of Thoreau as petty and envious, but it’s clear to me why Emerson would say of Thoreau, “His virtues, of course, sometimes ran into extremes. It was easy to trace to the inexorable demand on all for exact truth that austerity which made this willing hermit more solitary than even he wished” and “I think the severity of his ideal interfered to deprive him of a healthy sufficiency of human society.” It is this "severity" and not his ideals per se that I, indeed, find objectionable. Instead of rejecting established religions, he seems to be endorsing the much older, monastic forms of religion.

Loren

I feel better about Thoreau today. In fact, I have included a recipe for bread that comes close to that which he baked with the exception of some ingredients not readily available to him. Fortunately for us we can pop this loaf in our ovens and not have to bake it on a shingle. Wait a minute, that sounds like fun...

Walden Wheat Corn Bread

This recipe from The Book of Bread by Judith and Evan Jones would make a nice addition to a reading of Walden in which Thoreau praises the activity of bread baking “before my fire outdoors on a shingle,” finding a dough consisting of “a mixture of rye and Indian meal most convenient and agreeable.”

1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
2 tablespoons honey or brown sugar
1 teaspoon coarse salt or 1/2 teaspoon table salt
3/4 cup corn oil
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 cups yellow corn meal
1/2 cups wheat germ
1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2-2 cups white flour, preferably unbleached
2 tablespoons butter

Makes one 12 inch round

In a large bowl let the yeast dissolve in the warm water along with the honey or brown sugar. Beat in the salt, oil, eggs, and milk. Then add the corn meal, wheat germ, whole wheat flour, and about 11/2 cups of the white flour to make a very soft dough. Cover with plastic wrap and set the bowl in a warm place for 45-60 minutes until it has swollen to about twice its volume.

Stir down the mixture and add a little more white flour if needed--you want a soft but not a runny dough. Melt the butter in a 12 inch iron skillet and when sizzling turn the dough into the pan, spreading it to even it out. Bake immediately in a preheated 425 degree oven for 20 minutes. Serve warm from the skillet.

Walden, Chapter 11, “Higher Laws”

It’s not about the Lexus

Idealism glows from every page of this chapter, and I cannot argue with the advocacy of living the simple life. I regret I find it impossible to live as Thoreau did--even Thoreau managed it for only two years.

Yesterday, I identified six “Higher Laws” which are developed in the chapter. The Laws are Become One with Nature, Outgrow Hunting, Become a Vegetarian, Learn to Love Water, Subdue Sensuality, and Take the Highest Road. Some of the Laws are simpler than others; none are easy to obey with any consistency.

BECOME ONE WITH NATURE

By now, readers, you are well aware of the wholesomeness of recognizing our places in nature. Thoreau has taken himself one step further, feeling his civilized shell slip from him.

I caught a glimpse of a woodchuck stealing across my path, and felt a strange thrill of savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw; not that I was hungry then, except for that wildness which he represented.

Once or twice, however, while I lived at the pond, I found myself ranging the woods, like a half-starved hound, with a strange abandonment, seeking some kind of venison which I might devour, and no morsel could have been too savage for me.

Before completely reverting to a more savage self, however, Thoreau makes us aware that he acknowledges his spirituality which along with the knowledge that we are mortal, sets us apart from the animals. He finds his savage and his spiritual instincts of equal value.

...an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men...and savage one, and I reverence them both.

The observation that those who live and work in the woods may know more about nature than the city expert who is sent to study the outdoors should be part of the coursework for every BLM worker.

Fishermen, hunters, wood-choppers, and other, spending their lives in the fields and woods, in a peculiar sense a part of Nature themselves, are often in a more favorable mood for observing her.

OUTGROW HUNTING

This sentiment would not have gone over well with my great grandfather, but it certainly makes sense to me. What is wrong with those people who continue to deer hunt?

I speak of fishing only now, for I had long felt differently about fowling, and sold my gun before I went to the woods.

I have been willing to omit the gun.

We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun;

No human being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature which holds its life by the same tenure that he does.

He goes thither at first as a hunter and fisher, until at last, if he has the seeds of a better life in him, he distinguishes his proper objects, as a poet or naturalist it may be, and leaves the gun and fish-pole behind.

The embryo man passes through the hunter stage of development.

...yet with every year I am less a fisherman, though without more humanity or even wisdom;

BECOME A VEGETARIAN

No doubt Thoreau found the preparation of meat and fish wearisome because he was his own butcher and he lacked refrigeration. If I didn’t have access to Albertson’s meat counter and my new Frigidaire, vegetarianism would look good to me, too.

The practical objection to animal food in my case was its uncleanness;

...a little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well, with less trouble and filth.

I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind.

I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.

LEARN TO LOVE WATER

It is amazing to me that Thoreau was so aware of dietary choices which would lead to good health. It is to our detriment that he is not more popular. Americans would not be facing the epidemic of obesity if we would read and follow Thoreau’s advice. Think how much money we would save on diet books.

I believe that water is the only drink for a wise man; wine is not so noble a liquor; and think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea! Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them!

SUBDUE SENSUALITY

In other words learn to contain desire, another example of the influence of Eastern religion upon Thoreau’s thought.

It is neither the quality not the quantity, but the devotion to sensual savors; when that which is eaten is not a viand to sustain our animal, or inspire our spiritual life, but food for the worms that possess us.

Even Thoreau admitted he would need a teacher to help him attain purity. Knowing about it and demonstrating it are two different things.

Who knows what sort of life would result if we had attained to purity. If I knew so wise a man as could teach me purity I would go to seek him forthwith.

Chastity is the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, are but various fruits which succeed it. Many flows at once to God when the channel of purity is open. By turns our purity inspires and our impurity casts us down. He is blessed who is assured that the animal is dying out in him day by day, and the divine being established.

...our very life is our disgrace...

All sensuality is one, though it takes many forms; all purity in one. It is the same whether a man eat, or drink, or cohabit, or sleep sensually. They are but one appetite, and we only need to see a person do any one of these things to know how great a sensualist he is.

If you would be chaste, you must be temperate. What is chastity? How shall a man know if he is chaste? He shall not know it.

That last sentence bothers me, but perhaps he means we may know when we are not chaste, but experiencing purity, at least, for any length of time is not possible for mortals.

TAKE THE HIGHEST ROAD

Physical labor was more a matter of ordinary living than it is now. Not very many of us work each day to exertion. That is what health clubs are for. But a hard day’s work or work out does make one feel better. Wiser? More pure? I must not be working out hard enough.

From exertion come wisdom and purity; from sloth ignorance and sensuality. In the student sensuality is a sluggish habit of mind. An unclean person is universally a slothful one, one who sits by a stove, whom the sun shines on prostrate, who reposes without being fatigued. If you would avoid uncleanness and all the sins, work earnestly, though it be at cleaning a stable.

Even during this “mean, moiling life” attempt to elevate the self above desire, above the ordinary, chaotic existence. Take care to refine yourself.

Nothing was too trivial for the Hindoo lawgiver, however offensive it may be to modern taste. He teaches how to eat, drink, cohabit, void excrement and urine, and the lie, elevating what is mean, and does not falsely excuse himself by calling these things trifles.

Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man’s features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute them.

They gently did away with the street, and the village, and the state in which he lived. A voice said to him,--Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you? Those same stars twinkle over other fields that these.--But how to come out of this condition and actually migrate thither? All that he could think of was to practice some new austerity, to let his mind descend into his body and redeem it, and treat himself with ever increasing respect.

Practice some new austerity: Recognize one’s place in the universe, eat and drink simply, and conquer desire would indeed increase self-respect. It isn’t about the new Lexus, folks.

Diane McCormick

You Sorry, Elitist S.O.B.

:: Walden, chapter 10, Baker Farm ::

Confessions over a chile relleno

or You sorry, elitist SOB...


Loren and I had lunch yesterday with a group of teacher friends who between mouthfuls of enchiladas and chile rellenos discussed this web site and the current analysis of Walden. Loren and I both confessed to some guilt over our growing annoyance with the author.

How can I say this? I have found evil in the heart of Henry Thoreau.

After telling us he wandered his neighbor’s pastures, visiting particular trees, he confides

As I walked on the railroad causeway, I used to wonder at the halo of light around my shadow, and would fain fancy myself one of the elect. One who visited me declared that the shadows of some Irishmen before him had no halo about them, that it was only natives that were so distinguished.

Whoa, Nellie... Do I detect a lack of humility here? The white man with the French name is a native? The Wampanoag Indians may take umbrage.

My suspicions are supported when Thoreau describes his meeting of an Irish family, living on the Baker Farm. A rain storm had led him to take shelter in “the nearest hut...long uninhabited...”

Showing a notable lack of concern or compassion, Thoreau proceeds to describe the John Field family,

...an Irishman, and his wife, and several children, from the broad-faced boy who assisted his father at his work, and now came running by his side from the bog to escape the rain, to the wrinkled, sibyl-like, cone-headed infant that sat upon its father’s knee as in the palaces of nobles, and looked out from its home in the midst of wet and hunger inquisitively upon the stranger, with the privilege of infancy, not knowing but it was the last of a noble line, and the hope and cynosure of the world, instead of John Field’s poor starveling brat.

Remember that in desperation the Irish had emigrated to America to escape the Irish potato famine, 1845-50, and stayed in America, joining the Army during the Civil War. Most of them were poor, uneducated, thrilled and terrified to be in a foreign country, still at the bottom of the economy, performing menial jobs for survival.

In defense of Thoreau he is writing an opinion shared by most of his beloved villagers, many of whom were recent emigrants themselves--the worst kind to extend any tolerance to others.

But then Thoreau exposes his superior complex as he continues to describe the Field family.

An honest, hard-working, but shiftless man plainly was John Field; and his wife, she too was brave to cook so many successive dinners in the recesses of that lofty stove; with round greasy face and bare breast, still thinking to improve her condition one day; with the never absent mop in one hand, and yet no effects of it visible anywhere.

Then Thoreau breaks his own rules to offer advice to John.

I tried to help him with my experience...that I lived in a tight, light, and clean house, which hardly cost more than the annual rent of such a ruin as his commonly amounts to.

Thoreau scolds: If John would get over his habits of drinking tea, coffee, and meat eating, he too could live without working. Thoreau would be happy to see fields “left in a wild state” instead of spaded or bogged, John’s only source of livelihood. Stop a moment and think of spading a field by hand to earn $10 an acre and the use of the land with manure for one year as your wages.

But Thoreau is not through...

If he and his family would live simply, they might all go a-huckleberrying in the summer for their amusement.

There is no hint of compassion or even understanding of the differences between John Field and himself. Here is Thoreau, Harvard educated, living on family funds, lecturing an emigrant who digs up pastures for a living, who has a wife and children to feed while Thoreau, the arrested adolescent, roams his neighbors’ fields to stand in awe of a tree.

He leaves the Field hut to go fishing...

my Good Genius seemed to say,--Go fish and hunt far and wide day by day,--farther and wider,--and rest thee by many brooks and hearthsides without misgiving. Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth. Rise free from care before the dawn, and seek adventures. Let the noon find thee by other lakes, and the night overtake thee everywhere at home. There are no larger fields than these,no worthier games than may here be played. Grow wild according to thy nature, like these sedges and brakes, which will never become English hay...Let not to get a living be they trade, but thy sport. Enjoy the land, but own it not. Through want of enterprise and faith men are where they are, buying and selling, and spending their lives like serfs.

Then the final brick in the Thoreau’s wall of elitism. He comes to the conclusion while fishing, that John Field is not only poor, he is also unlucky. No matter where John sat in the boat, he caught no fish while Thoreau caught “a fair string.” Apparently John was using the wrong bait, but did Thoreau offer advice now? He did not.

Thoreau's’ vision is clouded as he predicts the future for the John Fields of the world.

With his horizon all his own, yet he a poor man, born to be poor, with his inherited Irish poverty or poor life, his Adam’s grandmother and boggy ways, not to rise in this world, he nor his posterity, till their wading, webbed, bog-trotting feet get talaria to their heels.

I spent a few minutes, searching for the definition of talaria. I don’t know what it is, but it must be something painful.

I have to ask: who is making the larger contribution here, Field, the hard working Irishman or Thoreau, the Harvard educated “native” who has taken to the woods to do as he pleases.

I wish Field’s last name had been Kennedy
.

Diane McCormick

Ditto

It’s somewhat disconcerting to discover that our idols have feet of clay, isn’t it?

Looking over my analysis of this chapter of Walden, I found that I only had one quote that Diane has not previously mentioned, so I decided not to write a commentary on this chapter.

Instead, I’ll offer some personal perspective on Thoreau’s attitude toward the Irish Catholics who immigrated to Boston. My paternal grandmother came from a long line of Boston Bankers, and she, too, had considerable dislike of the Irish immigrants. In fact, she wouldn’t let my father accept a full-ride football scholarship to a Catholic School, and, as a result, he never got more than a year of college. Quite simply, she was a Boston Brahmin.

The irony of this is that, although my grandparents were originally quite wealthy, my grandfather was an architect with degrees from both Harvard and MIT, and they owned beach property in the middle of the richest estates in Seattle, the family ended up almost poverty stricken when my grandfather died of cancer when my father was very young. In fact, the oldest son had to leave high school to support the family before he graduated from high school. In turn, each of the sons left school to support the family, so none went beyond high school.

My dad grew up selling bottom fish he’d caught in Puget Sound to the wealthy neighbors who purchased the fish because they felt sorry for him -- and they promptly used the fish to fertilize their gardens.

Despite their poverty, my grandmother taught her children that they were as good as any of their rich neighbors. That might have been a little hard to believe if you lived next door to the Coleman estate in a small house, but that idea was firmly ingrained in my father. Despite her prejudice against the Irish, grandma insisted that all people were equal, and dad chose to believe that. One has to wonder how a person could emphasize equality and independence like this and still be victim of the prejudice that surrounded her. Ain’t human nature wonderful?

Though I never actually met my grandmother, I’ve always been embarrassed by her view of the Irish, and I think my dad was, too. Somehow, from all of this I’ve always felt that all people are equal. I want to be treated like everyone else, no better, no worse. I was embarrassed when officers were treated like royalty on the ships on the way to Vietnam while the men were stacked up in bunks four high and herded through the cafeteria like animals. I hated being treated like an officer and a gentleman.

The only thing I’ve hated more than being given preferential treatment was being treated as if I were a second-class citizen. As a born-again Transcendentalist, I truly believe that each of is sacred and that we should treat each other accordingly. The man who opens the door to the White House is due the same courtesy as the man who occupies it.

Loren

What Would Thoreau Write Now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Thoreau, no one really truly appreciates Nature:

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

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

Walden, Chapter nine, “The Ponds”

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

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

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

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

Now back to 1845...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet the lake waters endure...

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

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

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

Diane McCormick

Gossip and the Seeds of Disobedience

Thoreau’s discussion of “The Village” goes a long ways toward explaining why he retired to the woods and to Walden Pond:

Every day or two I strolled to the village to hear some of the gossip which is incessantly going on there, circulating either from mouth to mouth, or from newspaper to newspaper, and which, taken in homoeopathic doses, was really as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs.

It’s obvious Thoreau sees the newspaper as little more than “gossip,” and gossip seems to be as meaningless as the rustle of dry leaves. I’m not sure what these “medicinal” doses of gossip were intended to do, other than confirm his resolve to spend his time in the woods away from society.

Thoreau avoids the news because it produces “numbness and insensibility to pain:”

Some have such a vast appetite for the former commodity, that is, the news, and such sound digestive organs, that they can sit forever in public avenues without stirring, and let it simmer and whisper through them like the Etesian winds, or as if inhaling ether, it only producing numbness and insensibility to pain -- otherwise it would often be painful to bear -- without affecting the consciousness.

Even if it doesn’t produce “numbness” it’s obvious that it does little good for the men as they “sit forever in public avenues without stirring.”

Thoreau even suggests light-heartedly that he was let out through the back door to escape to the woods after hearing the news:

I was even accustomed to make an irruption into some houses, where I was well entertained, and after learning the kernels and very last sieveful of news -- what had subsided, the prospects of war and peace, and whether the world was likely to hold together much longer -- I was let out through the rear avenues, and so escaped to the woods again.

The news is so bad that he needs to escape out the back door. Of course, when we later find out that he was locked up for not paying his taxes, perhaps he wasn’t entirely joking here.

For me, the most interesting line in this chapter, and perhaps in the whole book is:

Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.

Caught up in the infinite possibilities of the world I think I entirely missed this line when I first read Walden as a college junior. Many years later, it seems to make perfect sense. It is precisely at those moments when I felt lost and “lost the world” that I truly found myself. The most dramatic of these moments was, of course, upon returning from the Vietnam War and realizing much to my dismay that my entire view of the world had changed. Everything I once believed was called into doubt, and I literally had to reinvent myself after returning, just as many other veterans must have done. After the war, though, I had a much better sense of who I was and what I believed. The same thing happened recently when I had my operation for throat cancer and was unable to eat or talk to anyone for two months. I lost more than just forty pounds in those two months. Two months of isolation, even in the room with the ones you love the most, can force you to reexamine what you believe.

Nor did I realize just how prophetic this paragraph was just two years before I was sent to Vietnam:

One afternoon, near the end of the first summer, when I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler's, I was seized and put into jail, because, as I have elsewhere related, I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle, at the door of its senate-house. I had gone down to the woods for other purposes. But, wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society.

Now, of course, it’s slavery that Thoreau is objecting to here, not our intervention in a foreign country to deny those people the right to rule themselves. Still, the idea is the same for those of us who went off to fight a war we neither understood nor supported. For a while at least, the “dirty institutions” of the American government constrained me to fight a war I did not believe in.

Thoreau’s final charge against society somehow seems equally ominous in light of recent trends in American society:

I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.

Now I’m not going to live as simply as Thoreau did. Otherwise I would have to give up my web page, and we wouldn’t want that, would we? Still he raises a number of interesting questions about trends in America. How many people do we have locked up in American prisons? Why is there an increasing disparity between the wages of the upper and lower classes? Is there a connection between these two? Duh.

And we knew this in the 1850’s and still can’t find something to do about it?

It’s funny how a "dated, overly optimistic" writer can seem so relevant today, isn’t it?

Walden, Chapter Eight, “The Village”

It would be a very natural occurrence for a well adjusted man in the mid nineteenth century to walk into town to gather news and visit with friends, and that is exactly what Thoreau did.

Every day or two I strolled to the village to hear some of the gossip which is incessantly going on there, circulating either from mouth to mouth, or from newspaper to newspaper, and which, taken in homoeopathic doses, was really as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs.

Typically, Thoreau viewed a group of people to be similar to any gathering of living things. He would feel comfortable with either group, learning from it.

...a colony of muskrats...a village of busy men...

Being human, he was drawn to his own kind, however, to keep current.

The village appeared to me a great news room...

Thoreau preferred that a certain amount of distillation occur before he listened to the village gossip. The original stories from the first speakers he thought rough and unedited.

These are the coarsest mills, in which all gossip is first rudely digested or cracked up before it is emptied into finer and more delicate hoppers within doors.

The evening visits with friends were his choice. Here he could gather news of the village and of his country all in one pleasant setting, perhaps over a cup of coffee or a digestif.

I was even accustomed to make an irruption into some houses, where I was well entertained, and after learning the kernels and very last sieve-ful of news, what had subsided, the prospects of war and peace, and whether the world was likely to hold together much longer, I was let out through the rear avenues, and so escaped to the woods again.

Returning home after dark prompted Thoreau to comment on just how dark the woods could be and how easy it was for people to lose their way. But time spent lost in the woods is not necessarily time lost if you know what I mean. Thoreau decided there was a lesson to be learned off the path.

It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable experience, to be lost in the woods any time.

...and not till we are completely lost, or turned round,...for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost,--do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of Nature.

Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.

One afternoon spent in town, retrieving a shoe from the cobbler’s, resulted in Thoreau’s being arrested for not paying a poll tax. His omission was a protest against his government which allowed slavery to exist. Unless there was another time Thoreau was arrested, this is the jail stay that prompted his writing of his most famous essay, “Civil Disobedience.”

One afternoon,...I was seized and put into jail, because, ...I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the state, which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle at the door of its senate-house.

The chapter ends with a comment on the honesty of travelers who stopped by his cabin to rest when Thoreau was not there.

Yet, though many people of every class came this way to the pond, I suffered no serious inconvenience from these sources, and I never missed anything but one small book...

I am convinced that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.

‘The virtues of a superior man are like the wind; the virtues of a common man are like the grass; the grass, when the wind passes over it, bends.’