No Wonder I Love a Rainy Night

Thoreau’s ability as a naturalist emerges more in the chapters entitled “Winter Animals” and “The Pond in Winter” than it has in previous chapters. “Winter Animals” describes in some detail the hooting owls, foxes, red squirrels, blue jays, chickadees, partridges, squirrels, wild mice, and hares that he observed during the winter. I suspect that these might have been more interesting to a generation who hadn’t been raised on nature specials on PBS.

“The Pond in Winter” focuses on Thoreau’s attempts to measure Walden Pond using his considerable surveying skills. What seems most remarkable in the chapter, though, are Thoreau’s attempts to unite his scientific interests with his transcendental beliefs, a difficult, if not impossible, task. Perhaps this attempt is mirrored by the opening lines of the chapter where Scientific questions like “what — how — when — where?” are met by the morning light:

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

Thoreau’s love of nature transcends any scientific answers that may be offered, though the two are not necessarily exclusive. In fact, one would hope that environmental scientists’ attempts to understand nature would be driven by just such a love of nature, just as you would hope that a psychologist’s attempts to understand human nature would be driven by a love of people.

While studying the depth of Walden Pond, Thoreau cuts a hole in the ice to take measurements:

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

Thoreau may be attempting a scientific measurement, but he does so with an awareness that transcends any measurement of time or place.

Even when he does take an exact, scientific measurement he extrapolate from it:

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

Walden Pond may, indeed, only be one hundred and seven feet deep, but because of Thoreau’s book it has symbolic depth that belies its actual depth.

Thoreau seems to sound a little like Einstein in the following passage:

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

This idea of a “unified theory” seems to be the driving force behind science, the attempt to “know all,” just as it has been the driving force of philosophers and poets, though it takes very different forms in different hands.

It’s clear that for Thoreau this unified theory will encompass a vision of Nature:

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

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

Perhaps waterfalls inspire us so because they, like the surge of ocean waves, make us feel the full force of the life running through us.


%d bloggers like this: