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