Winter Animals and the Pond in Winter

Winter provides time for reflection and Thoreau continues to spend his days, making careful notes about his experiment, living on Walden Pond. He is entertained by the animals who visit; he concentrates on his waking thoughts, the fishermen and the mystery of the depth of the lake. Workers come to harvest ice to preserve for the summer months; hints of unrequited love and thoughts on the waters of Walden Pond appear on the pages.

The Critters of Concord

Geese, the whooping of the ice in the pond, “the foxes as they ranged over the snow crust,” attract Thoreau’s attention.

I threw out half a bushed of ears of sweet-corn, which had not got ripe, on to the snow crust by my door, and was amused by watching the motions of the various animals which were baited by it.

Red squirrels, jays, chickadees in flocks, sparrows, partridges, a pack of hounds, mice, and hares roam the fields. A fox nearly escapes the hunter and his dogs.

For a moment compassion restrained the latter’s arm; but that was a short-lived mood, and as quick as thought can follow thought his piece was levelled, and whang! –the fox rolling over the rock lay dead on the ground….At length the old hound burst into view with muzzle to the ground, and snapping the air as if possessed, and ran directly to the rock; buy spying the dead fox she suddenly ceased her hounding, as if struck dumb with amazement, and walked round and round him in silence…

Larger animals once inhabited the wilderness of Concord, providing hunters their raison d’etre.

…could remember one Sam Nutting, who used to hunt bears on Fair-Haven Ledges, and exchange their skins for rum in Concord village; who told him even, that he had seen a moose there.

Credit is given for deerskins also, and they were daily sold.

The hunters were formerly a numerous and merry crew here.

Concord Massachusetts was hardly the frontier for the West had been open for 40 years. My great grandfather traveled the Oregon Trail to homestead in Oregon the same year Thoreau wrote Walden, but still Concord was more wilderness than settlement.

What is a country without rabbits and partridges?

It is hardly as if you had seen a wild creature when a rabbit or a partridge bursts away, only a natural one, as much to be expected as rustling leaves.

Reflections at Dawn

Thoreau returns as philosopher in a reflection upon waking one winter morning.

After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, …But there was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in at my broad windows with serene satisfied face, and no question on her lips. I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and daylight. Forward! nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask. ‘O Prince, our eyes contemplate with admiration and transmit to the soul the wonderful and varied spectacle of this universe. The night veils without doubt a part of this glorious creation; but day comes to reveal to us this great work, which extends from earth even into the plains of the ether.’

The Fishermen

Philosophy soon must make way for the necessities of life–the acceptance and performance of his ”morning work”–picking up his axe and pail to retrieve water from the pond.

Thoreau never tires of the pond and often reminisces about the fishermen who come.

… men come with fishing reels and slender lunch, …to take pickerel and perch.

One such man he remembers well and comments as he has earlier that men who live outdoors are more knowledgeable than the so called experts.

His life itself passes deeper in nature than the studies of the naturalist penetrate; himself a subject for the naturalist.

What follows is a poetic summary of the food chain.

The perch swallows the grubworm, the pickerel swallows the perch, and the fisherman swallows the pickerel; and so all the chinks in the scale of being are filled.

A Mystery Solved

Scientific curiosity leads Thoreau to plumb the lake. A myth has been created by the stories the natives tell that the lake is bottomless. Thoreau strikes out to prove the myth wrong.

As I was desirous to recover the long-lost bottom of Walden Pond,…the undoubted source of the Styx and entrance to the Infernal Regions from these parts….but I can assure my readers that Walden has a reasonably tight bottom at a not unreasonable, though at an unusual, depth.

The greatest depth was exactly one hundred and two feet; to which may be added the five feet which it has risen since, making one hundred and seven…While man believe in the infinite some ponds will be thought to be bottomless.

When I had mapped the pond by the scale of ten rods to an inch, and put down the soundings, more than a hundred in all,…

Inspired by his ability to determine and plot the lake’s bottom, Thoreau transfers his methods, speculating that his math could be used to determine the bottom of the sea or the heights of the mountains.

If we knew all the laws of Nature, we should need only one fact, or the description of one actual phenomenon, to infer all the particular results at that point. Now we know only a few laws, and our result is vitiated, not, of course, by any confusion or irregularity in Nature, but by our ignorance of essential elements in the calculation. Our notions of law and harmony are commonly confined to these instances which we detect;

Again transferring information from one subject to another, certainly the mark of an intelligent man, Thoreau suggests one can apply his methods of determining the depth of the lake to determining the depth of a man’s character.

What I have observed of the pond is no less true in ethics. It is the law of average. Such a rule of the two diameters not only guides us toward the sun in the system and the heart in man; but draw lines through the length and breadth of the aggregate of a man’s particular daily behaviors and waves of life into his coves and inlets, and where they intersect will be the height or depth of his character.

Even after much study, however, Walden Pond seems completely contained.

As for the inlet or outlet of Walden, I have not discovered any but rain and snow and evaporation…

The Icemen Cometh

Then come the icemen and a wonderful account of man’s desire to regulate the temperature of his world.

While yet it is cold January, and snow and ice are thick and solid, the prudent landlord comes from the village to get ice to cool his summer drink; impressively, even pathetically wise, to foresee the heat and thirst of July now in January…It may be that he lays up no treasures in this world which will cool his summer drink in the next.

In the winter of ‘46-47 there came a hundred men of Hyperborean extraction swoop down on to our pond one morning, with many car-loads of ungainly-looking farming tools, sleds, ploughs, drill-barrows, turf-knives, spades, saws, rakes, and each man was armed with a double-pointed pike-staff, such as is not described in the New England Farmer or the Cultivator.

…A hundred Irishmen, with Yankee overseers, came from Cambridge every day to get out the ice.

I cannot imagine a stack of ice blocks as high as a three story building. Is Thoreau exaggerating? How was the ice stacked that high?

They stacked up the cakes thus in the open air in a pile thirty-five feet high on one side and six or seven rods square, putting hay between the outside layers to exclude the air; for when the wind, though never so cold, finds a passage through, it will wear large cavities, leaving slight supports or studs only here and there, and finally topple it down.

This heap, made in the winter of ‘46-7 and estimated to contain ten thousand tons, was finally covered with hay and boards; and though it was unroofed the following July, and a part of it carried off, the rest remaining exposed to the sun, it stood over that summer and the next winter, and was not quite melted till September, 1848. Thus the pond recovered the greater part.

A Lost Love

A hint of Thoreau’s feelings about emotion compared to the mind is told in the following passage.

They told me that they had some in the ice-houses at Fresh Pond five years old which was as good as ever. Why is it that a bucket of water soon becomes putrid, but frozen remains sweet forever. It is commonly said that this is the difference between the affections and the intellect.

Thoreau knew something of affection. In his journals he wrote of his first love for Ellen Sewall whom he had met in 1839. five days after meeting Miss Sewall Thoreau wrote “There is no remedy for love but to love more.” A little over a year later he continued:

I thought that the sun of our love should have risen as noiselessly as the sun out of the sea, and we sailors have found ourselves steering between the tropics as if the broad day had lasted forever. You know how the sun comes up from the sea when you stand on the cliff, and doesn’t startle you, but everything, and you too are helping it.

Thoreau proposed marriage, but Miss Sewall said no. Biographers report other loves in Thoreau’s life, but shortly before he died in 1862, Thoreau said to his sister, Sophia, “I have always loved her.” What a difference marriage would have made for him.

A World of Water

Still a bachelor, Thoreau at Walden Pond expands upon the significance of the waters of the pond.

Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well. In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial;

I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Brahmin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug.

The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.

Diane McCormick