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Listen to the Sound of …

Although Thoreau describes several sounds in great detail, “Sounds” seems to be more about contemplation and isolation than it does about sounds per se:

No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.

Books may help you to see reality differently, but the proof is in the actual seeing, not in reading. We cannot waste our entire lives reading or working, at time we just have to live:

There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands.

When such moments are fully taken advantage of, they become a form of meditation:

I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works. For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished. Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune.

These moments become moments to explore himself, not to “look abroad for amusement:”

I had this advantage, at least, in my mode of life, over those who were obliged to look abroad for amusement, to society and the theatre, that my life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel. It was a drama of many scenes and without an end. If we were always, indeed, getting our living, and regulating our lives according to the last and best mode we had learned, we should never be troubled with ennui. Follow your genius closely enough, and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect every hour.

If we follow our “bliss,” we will never be bored, for we will always be closer to our true self.

Into this Edenic world suddenly comes the sound of the train, the same train, one must believe, that Thoreau described thusly, “We don’t ride on the train; it rides upon us.” The railroad is the symbol of commerce, of the industrial world, with its lures and detractions:

The Fitchburg Railroad touches the pond about a hundred rods south of where I dwell. I usually go to the village along its causeway, and am, as it were, related to society by this link. The men on the freight trains, who go over the whole length of the road, bow to me as to an old acquaintance, they pass me so often, and apparently they take me for an employee; and so I am. I too would fain be a track-repairer somewhere in the orbit of the earth.

The key idea here seems to be that Thoreau wants to be a “track-repairer,” not a track layer. He wants to help repair the damage that commerce has done to “the orbit of the earth.”

Thoreau is obviously not immune to the attraction of the railroad. “What recommends commerce to me is its enterprise and bravery.” Like Carl Sandburg later, Emerson seems to admire the sheer strength and bravado of commerce. But for all this attraction, Emerson distrusts the railroad and all it brings:

If all were as it seems, and men made the elements their servants for noble ends! If the cloud that hangs over the engine were the perspiration of heroic deeds, or as beneficent as that which floats over the farmer’s fields, then the elements and Nature herself would cheerfully accompany men on their errands and be their escort.

“If” is the key word here. “If” implies that the opposite is true. In other words, men don’t make the elements their servants for noble ends, but rather for ignoble ends. Later he says, “If the enterprise were as innocent as it is early” and, again, “If the enterprise were as heroic and commanding as it is protracted and unwearied! Commerce is not “innocent,” not “heroic and commanding,” at least not according to Thoreau.

The very idea that things must be done “railroad fashion” is the final warning:

To do things "railroad fashion" is now the byword; and it is worth the while to be warned so often and so sincerely by any power to get off its track. There is no stopping to read the riot act, no firing over the heads of the mob, in this case. We have constructed a fate, an Atropos, that never turns aside. (Let that be the name of your engine.)

According to Microsoft’s dictionary, Atropos, the Inexorable, is one of the Fates who carried shears used to cut the thread of life, an ironic image when you consider the railroad tracks that tied Thoreau’s world together.

Thoreau seems reconciled to the fact that he cannot convince most people of the dangers of the railroad:

I confess, that practically speaking, when I have learned a man’s real disposition, I have no hopes of changing it for the better or worse in this state of existence.

Modern man will be seduced by the power of the railroad and the commerce it brings with it, and there is little anyone can do about it.

But that does not mean that the individual has to be seduced by its power and attraction:

… but I cross it like a cart-path in the woods. I will not have my eyes put out and my ears spoiled by its smoke and steam and hissing. Now that the cars are gone by and all the restless world with them, and the fishes in the pond no longer feel their rumbling, I am more alone than ever. For the rest of the long afternoon, perhaps, my meditations are interrupted only by the faint rattle of a carriage or team along the distant highway.

For Thoreau, the commercial world is only a temporary distraction. He acknowledges that that world exists, but he resists its temptations and remains true to himself.

When one retreats from this commercial world, from the world of Concord, one gets an entirely new perspective on it:

All sound heard at the greatest possible distance produces one and the same effect, a vibration of the universal lyre, just as the intervening atmosphere makes a distant ridge of earth interesting to our eyes by the azure tint it imparts to it. There came to me in this case a melody which the air had strained, and which had conversed with every leaf and needle of the wood, that portion of the sound which the elements had taken up and modulated and echoed from vale to vale. The echo is, to some extent, an original sound, and therein is the magic and charm of it. It is not merely a repetition of what was worth repeating in the bell, but partly the voice of the wood; the same trivial words and notes sung by a wood-nymph.

Given the proper distance, Nature seems to moderate our view and allows us to see things in their proper perspective.

Away from the city, Thoreau revels in the sounds of cows, whip-poor-wills, owls and even roosters, for these are the sounds of nature. Finally, sounding a little like a Zen monk, Thoreau ends:

Instead of no path to the front-yard gate in the Great Snow — no gate — no front-yard — and no path to the civilized world.

Only the path to eternity. Listening to that great, resounding OM, only pausing long enough to bring that message back to his fellow men, those of us caught in the glare of the railroad’s bright light, transfixed.

Chapter 4 Sound


Just like the rest of us, Thoreau found he had other duties and desires besides reading the classics he described in chapter three.

What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer?

I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans.

There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life.

Sometimes,…I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds
sang around or flitted noiseless through the house,…

…my life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel…Follow your genius closely enough, and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect every hour.

Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune.

Thoreau seemed to find pleasure in everything he did at Walden Pond. He devoted some time describing “a pleasant pastime,” which was cleaning his cabin.

When my floor was dirty, I rose early, and, setting all my furniture out of doors on the grass, bed and bedstead making but one budget, dashed water on the floor, and sprinkled white sand from the pond on it…It was pleasant to see my whole household effects out on the grass…

Thoreau’s advantage was his ability to be in the present moment which allowed him to enjoy even the most mundane tasks. Psychologists now call this the flow theory wherein one concentrates so completely in the current activity that he seems to flow into the action, blocking out all thought of past and future or desire to be someplace else.

The detailing of the plants, birds and small animals Thoreau observed is a pleasure to read.


In my front yard grew the strawberry, blackberry, and life-everlasting, johnswort and and goldenrod, shrub-oaks and sand-cherry, blueberry and ground-nut.

Hawks, pigeons, reed-birds and a mink kept him company.

The next few pages are surprising to me in that they describe Thoreau’s reaction to the rail road that passed near his cabin. One would think he would find the train a terrible intrusion, but he actually was very impressed with “the whistle of the locomotive” and what it brought to his village.

Here come your groceries, country; your rations, countrymen! Nor is there any man so independent on his farm that he can say them nay.

The Fitchburg Railroad touched Walden Pond and Thoreau accepted the intrusion. He called it the “iron horse,” a fiery steed exchanging goods for the villagers. The railroad was a huge expansion of commerce and communication during Thoreau’s time. Such a phenomenal period of growth we can understand only if we equate it to own advancement in technology.

What recommends commerce to me is its enterprise and bravery…On this morning of the Great Snow…I hear the muffled tone of their engine bell from out the fog bank of their chilled breath, which announces that the cars are coming …

I am refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattle past me, and I smell the stores which go dispensing their odors all the way from Long Wharf to Lake Champlain, reminding me of foreign parts, of coral reefs, and Indian oceans, and tropical climes, and the extent of the globe. I feel more like a citizen of the world at the sight of the palm-leaf which will cover so many flaxen New England heads the next summer, the Manilla hemp and cocoanut husks, the old junk, gunny bags, scrap iron, and rusty nails.

The preceding quotation may contain the reason for Thoreau’s acceptance of the railroad–it brought goods and ideas from distant places into Concord, a village Thoreau feared was too provincial. The citizens could learn first hand about other parts of the country and not have to settle for merely reading about them. The railroad allowed his compatriots to live life, not just study it.

The train passes.

Now that the cars are gone by and all the restless world with them, and the fishes in the pond no longer feel their rumbling, I am more alone than ever.

I detect a note of loneliness in the above quote, but I may be reading too much into it. Surely Thoreau could not be lonesome…

He listens to the sounds of the village…the bells–”a vibration of the universal lyre…” the “natural music of the cow” which he mistakes at first as singing youths. The “whippoorwills chant their vespers;” he is serenaded by a hooting owl. The baying of dogs, a disconsolate cow, bullfrogs break the silence. “Wild cockerels crow on the trees…”

I kept neither dog, cat, cow, pig, or hens, so that you would have said there was a deficiency of domestic sounds; neither the churn, nor the spinning wheel, nor even the singing of the kettle, not the hissing of the urn, nor children crying to comfort one…No yard! but unfenced Nature reaching up to your very sills.

Instead of no path to the front-yard gate in the Great Snow,–no gate–no front-yard,–and no path to the civilized world!

Thus Thoreau was content to listen to the sounds near Walden Pond.

Diane McCormick