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Henry David Thoreau

THE NARRATIVE, continued


We find Thoreau bathing again, this time after a morning spent hoeing or reading and writing. It was part of his routine to go into the village of Concord every day or two to listen to the gossip, which he found- in very small doses- to be "as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs." The villagers are a curiosity to him, yet another subject for study. The woods offer him a setting in which he can see squirrels and birds. The village offers him a setting in which he can see men and boys.

By comparison, the village emerges as a much more threatening environment than the woods. Thoreau describes a walk down a residential street lined with houses as "running the gauntlet," which means passing between two rows of men armed with sticks while they try to strike you. Even the shopkeepers' signs are a dangerous lure, appealing as they do to a man's appetite or fancy. Thoreau manages to escape the dangers either by walking boldly past them or by fixing his mind on other and higher matters. He compares himself to Orpheus, the figure in Greek mythology whose singing drowns out the sound of the sirens who were trying to lure him into dangerous waters.

His escape from the village is, not surprisingly, to the woods. He describes some of his absentminded trips through that darkness, feeling with his feet a path that his eyes cannot see. To be lost in the woods, he says, is a surprising, memorable, and valuable experience. It isn't until he's completely lost that he can appreciate how vast and strange nature is.

Discussion of the village gives Thoreau an occasion to mention his most famous visit to Concord. On that day he was arrested and jailed for refusing to pay the $1 poll tax. He says he would not "recognize the authority of the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle." In other words, he would not support a government that allowed slavery.

NOTE: It was this incident that led to the other work for which Thoreau is well known, his essay, "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience."

In all his time at Walden Pond, Thoreau isn't bothered by anyone except those representing the government. Although he is away from his cabin much of the time, he has no need to lock his door. Except for one book by Homer, nothing is ever stolen from him. It is his belief that "robbery and thieving" would disappear altogether if everyone lived as simply as he.

The subject of crime leads to the subject of punishment. The chapter ends with a quote from Confucius, addressing those who work for the government.

You who govern public affairs, what need have you to employ punishments? Love virtue, and the people will be virtuous. 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.

It is a plea to the state to govern by example. It is a very idealistic philosophy, which echoes the motto with which Thoreau opens his essay on civil disobedience- "That government is best which governs least."

NOTE: Notice how in some ways this chapter is like the chapter entitled "Visitors." In both chapters Thoreau assumes a positive stance. He claims a high regard for his subject, which in both cases is other people. Then as the chapter progresses you hear little but criticism of that subject. "Visitors" exposes the limitations of the individual, and "The Village" shows the limitations of a group of individuals or a society.


In the short section that introduces this chapter Thoreau tells us some of the activities he enjoyed when he'd had enough of people and gossip. Picking huckleberries and blueberries in the hills to the west was a favorite. The picker, and no one else, knows the flavor of these fruits, for it is lost in their trip to market. Fishing, too, is a pleasant pastime. On occasion he joins others who are fishing at Walden. At other times he fishes alone in the moonlight. Like the bean-field, the fishing line is seen as a link, another connection between spiritual and natural worlds.

It was very queer, especially in dark nights, when your thoughts had wandered to vast and cosmogonal themes [theories regarding the origin of the universe] 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.

NOTE: This will remind you of the paragraph that ends Chapter 2, which begins, "Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in."

The next section comprises about three-quarters of the chapter. It is a detailed description of the most important feature in Thoreau's landscape: a description of Walden Pond and its physical setting. Walden is a half-mile long and a mile and three-quarters around, containing an area of sixty-one-and-a-half acres. The woodland hills that surround it rise up to a height of forty to eighty feet.

The color of the pond is the subject of much discussion. In some cases the color seems to depend on the light, and reflect the sky. In others it seems to repeat the colors found on land. Thoreau's description of this phenomenon suggests again that Walden is a place between worlds, one natural and one divine: "Lying between the earth and the heavens, it partakes of the color of both." In quality, the water is pure and clear and transparent even at a depth of thirty feet. Thoreau recalls a time when he dropped his axe through a hole in the ice at Walden, and was able to find it and fish it off the bottom of the pond, the water was so clear.

Except for one or two little sandy beaches, a belt of smooth and rounded white stones make up the shore. Thoreau mentions a few of the theories of how such regular paving came about. The shore is cleanest when the water is lowest, but it is the high water that keeps it clean as if the lake were licking its lips from time to time. This rising and falling of the water level is a fluctuation that takes place over the course of years.

NOTE: In light of the metaphor of the pond for a man's spirit, you should take note of this rising and falling of the water level. It will be mentioned again in the concluding chapter of the book.

Perch, pouts, shiners, chivins, breams, eels, and three kinds of pickerel are among the fish that have been caught at Walden. While the pond is "not very fertile in fish," the fish that swim here are "cleaner, handsomer, and firmer-fleshed than those in the river and most other ponds." Its animal population includes frogs, tortoises, muskrats, minks, mud turtles, ducks, geese, white-bellied swallows, kingfishers, peetweets, fish hawks, and a single loon.

In the second half of this section Thoreau discusses the relation a body of water has to the rest of the landscape of nature. He uses the words pond and lake interchangeably to refer to Walden. As Walden is often viewed as a symbol of Thoreau's spirit in this book, you should take note of these descriptions that offer great clues to Thoreau's ideas and ideals.

In a carefully drawn image Thoreau describes the lake as the most beautiful and expressive feature of a landscape. "It is the earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. The fluviatile trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows." The image of the lake as an instrument for spiritual vision continues after a paragraph about its grassy surface, when he says:

Walden is a perfect forest mirror.... Sky water.... 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,... 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.

Again, he draws the link,

A Field of water betrays the spirit that is in the air.... It is intermediate in its nature between land and sky.

The wooded hills surrounding Walden have been cleared in places by woodchoppers. Instead of going to Walden to drink or to bathe, the villagers are now thinking of piping its water into Concord. Thoreau imagines them washing their dishes with it. The railroad- represented again as an Iron Horse, a terrible beast- has muddied a nearby bubbling spring, and here a track for it has been cleared through the woods on one shore. And yet Walden survives and is essentially unchanged: "Of all the characters I have known... Walden wears best." It is always young. What changes is Thoreau.

In the last lines of this section on Walden Thoreau reminds you that the pond had no visible inlet or outlet. He acknowledges that it must be related to Flint's Pond nearby, but despairs at the thought of the two ponds ever being reconnected. In these lines he gives us another indication that Walden is a symbol for his own spirit, when he describes it in words that you might use to describe him: "living thus reserved and austere, like a hermit in the woods, so long, it has acquired such wonderful purity."

In the last quarter of the chapter Thoreau mentions four other ponds nearby: Flint's, or Sandy Pond, in Lincoln a mile east of Walden; Goose Pond, between Concord and Lincoln; Fair-Haven, an expansion of the Concord River, one mile southeast; and White Pond, a mile and a half beyond that.

Most of what Thoreau has to say about Flint's Pond, which is bigger and has more fish, has to do with the fact that it was named for the farmer whose land was next to the pond. Thoreau questions the right of a man who does not see, love, protect, or thank God for a pond to name it after himself. In his estimation the pond would be better named for its fish or flowers. Of Goose Pond and Fair-Haven he has nothing to say. Of White Pond he says mostly that it is like Walden in its color and stony shore. He calls White and Walden ponds "crystals" on the surface of the earth, and says that if they were hardened and small enough to be picked up, they would be carried off, for sure, to crown the heads of emperors.


Thoreau's ramblings take him past the neighboring ponds, to pine groves, to cedar woods, to swamps- all places of beauty that can make the beholder forget his home. The way others might visit certain people, Thoreau visits certain trees, be they in some pasture, wood, swamp, or on a hilltop. He calls them "shrines." The image of sacred places and holiness carries over into the next paragraph, in which Thoreau describes (although with no special reverence) first standing at one end of a rainbow in a lake of rainbow light, and then his awareness of a halo of light surrounding his shadow as he walked.

The train of thought returns to Thoreau's wanderings away from Walden Pond. One afternoon he goes fishing at Fair-Haven. His path takes him through a meadow that is part of the Baker Farm. As he walks, it begins to rain and he ends up standing under a tree for half an hour. He no sooner makes his first cast into the water when the storm breaks out all over again. This time Thoreau runs for shelter to a nearby hut that had been empty for a long while. As it turns out the hut isn't empty at all, but is now the home of one John Field, his wife, and their children. Field is an Irishman who has come to America in search of opportunity and a better life. He works hard for a neighboring farmer for very low wages. He is one of those on a treadmill. It begins with eating- tea, coffee, butter, milk, and beef- which leads to having to work hard to pay for them, which leads to having to eat again after such hard work. Thoreau says, "He was discontented and wasted his life into the bargain."

NOTE: Thoreau is often criticized for his attitudes toward immigrants, especially the Irish who were in the Concord area in great numbers to work on the railroad. His portrait of John Field in this chapter is typical of his attitude.

Thoreau seizes this opportunity to profess to John Field and his wife his own theories of "economy." He tries to help the Fields with the benefit of his own experience. You hear again many of the theories you heard in the first chapter of the book, of housing and clothing and eating and working. And you hear in Thoreau's voice the confidence of a man who has lived his own philosophy and seen it work. He speaks as an American to this Irish immigrant and encourages him to abandon his "old country mode in this primitive new country," adding,

...the only true America is that country where you are at liberty to pursue such a mode of life as may enable you to do without these [tea, coffee, and meat every day], and where the state does not endeavor to compel you to sustain the slavery and war and other superfluous expenses which directly or indirectly result from the use of such things.

John Field and his wife do not seem to understand Thoreau's words, or, at least, how to apply his words to their own plight.

When the rain ends Thoreau leaves the Fields, pausing first for a drink of their water, which turns out to be muddy and warm. You cannot help but compare the muddy water of the Fields' life with the pure, fresh, cold water of Walden Pond. In the water alone we see the difference in the quality of the two ways of life.

The wildness and energy with which Thoreau bounds away from the hut are of the sort you might expect from a man escaping a terrible fate. And a terrible fate it is, that most people accept "through want of enterprise and faith." Thoreau's spirit says, Go far and wide, seek adventures, enjoy the land, while other men come home from the next field, "their shadows, morning and evening, reach farther than their daily steps."


A woodchuck crosses Thoreau's path as he comes home after fishing, and the sight of him provokes a response in Thoreau that you would probably never expect. He says he "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."

And so Thoreau admits to a conflict that has arisen in his return to a primitive life-style. While he aspires to a life that is on a high spiritual level, he also desires a harmony with a nature that sometimes has a wild side. He senses the savage within himself, and he respects that tendency as much as he respects his tendency to spiritual elevation.

To fishing and hunting, he owes his experience with nature as a boy. He knows that hunters and fishermen spend a great deal of time in a landscape that they would have little reason to know otherwise. In one sense this familiarity makes them a part of nature, and makes them better able to observe her than poets and philosophers who "approach her with expectation." It is the solitary sports of fishing and hunting that, in the United States, take the place of the games played by boys in England.

While at Walden Thoreau sometimes has a craving for fish as a way of achieving a little variety in his diet. He never pities the fishes or the worms he baits them with. He does not hunt while at Walden. He did hunt in the past when studying new and rare birds, until he decided that it was of more value to study their habits than to kill them. Hunting, even in a civilized society, is a phase that the individual passes through, but, "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."

Fishing now makes him uncomfortable. He respects himself less when he does it, although he still has the instinct to do it. He thinks there "is something essentially unclean" about a diet of fish or any flesh, and the uncleanliness is his chief objection to animal food. It certainly is not that he is squeamish, for he claims to have eaten a fried rat with relish when it was necessary. Like many people attempting to achieve a higher mental state, Thoreau avoided beef and coffee and tea, not because they didn't agree with his body, but because they didn't agree with his imagination. And, as he explains, both the body and the imagination sit down at the same table. The human race, he thinks, will stop eating meat as it becomes more civilized. This will happen in the same way that some savage tribes stopped their practice of cannibalism when educated by more advanced cultures. Likewise, "water is the only drink for a wise man." It is a man's appetite, his devotion to his sense, that defiles him.

"Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant's truce between virtue and vice." For Thoreau, this dilemma is embodied here, in a man, between his animal and his higher state, between what is natural and what is simply wild- "There is never an instant's truce." To most spiritual leaders, control over our senses and our passions is necessary in a quest for divinity. Sensuality in all forms springs from one impulse, one appetite. And so does purity. In what at first glance appears to be a puzzling and uncharacteristic statement, Thoreau remarks, "Nature is hard to be overcome, but she must be overcome." Would you have thought that you would ever hear such a statement from him? And yet Thoreau recognizes that the wildness, the savage aspects of man's instincts, must be overcome if he is to achieve a higher state and a place of harmony in the natural world.

NOTE: The dilemma in this chapter is the dilemma of a Transcendentalist. The Transcendentalists rejected the idea of knowledge through the senses in favor of knowledge through the intellect. And they believed that in nature a person can find a vehicle for spiritual growth. And yet it was in nature that Thoreau found this savage side, this desire for gratification of the senses. "Higher Laws" is his attempt and failure to reconcile these divergent impulses within himself.


The beginning of this chapter is like nothing else in the book. Thoreau first remarks that sometimes he had a fishing companion, and that catching dinner was as much of a social event as eating it. Then the narrative form is abandoned in favor of a dialogue between one character called the Hermit and another called the Poet. The hermit is Thoreau (he refers to himself with this term again later in the book). The poet is the companion who comes to fish with him. The subject of the dialogue is whether or not the hermit will go fishing with the poet or will attempt instead to regain the thread of his meditation and continue it. The conflict that you witnessed in "Higher Laws" is not yet resolved. Unable to retrace his mental steps once he is interrupted, the hermit decides to go fishing.

Thoreau then reverts to the narrative style of the rest of the book, and wonders at the animals he has for neighbors. His house is inhabited by a wild, native mouse that comes out at lunchtime to eat the crumbs, and that runs up Thoreau's sleeve and eats cheese from his hand. Birds, too, share his domestic life at the pond. A phoebe builds a nest in his shed and a robin builds a nest in a pine tree next to his cabin. The remarkable partridge allows her brood to pass by Thoreau's windows. He describes the eyes of the partridge: "An 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." Even here- so close to the village- live wild creatures undetected by human eyes: an otter the size of a small boy, the woodcock, turtle doves, the red squirrel. Even the ants- described here in battle in considerable detail and with much excitement- fall under the close scrutiny of Thoreau. He says they fight as if for some principle, like men. And the more you think about it, the more like men they seem.

His animal neighbors are not limited to wild creatures. Dogs and even cats from the village sometimes happen into the woods. Mention of cats reminds Thoreau of a "winged" cat that lived in a farmhouse in Lincoln before he lived at Walden. Making a reference to Pegasus, the winged horse of mythology, he claims that this would have been the kind of cat for him, "for why should not a poet's cat be winged as well as his horse?"

NOTE: At this point in the chapter the poet and the hermit are the same person. Perhaps this is instruction in how to view the dialogue that began the chapter. The two voices can be the two sides of one man.

In autumn his menagerie includes a loon that comes to bathe and molt at Walden. Thoreau describes a great chase on the water in which he is never able to catch the loon, which howls and laughs and is saved at last by a sudden rain that drives Thoreau away. Ducks, too, are there, "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."


"House-warming" has five sections. In the first section it is the beginning of the fall season in the woods of Lincoln. You find Thoreau competing with the red squirrels and the blue jays for chestnuts, storing them for the winter as a substitute for bread. On one occasion he finds a ground-nut, a sort of wild potato that is now all but unknown: "Cultivation has well-nigh exterminated it." For a moment Thoreau fantasizes about the revival of this native tuber and the disappearance of fatted cattle and the crops of grain raised from imported seed.

The woods, with their trees turning quickly to their autumn colors, appear like an art gallery whose manager has rearranged the paintings each day with an eye to color. As the weather cools, thousands of wasps invade the cabin and disappear into the woodwork to hibernate, to escape the winter and cold. Thoreau, too, now acts with that coming season in mind, sitting often on the northeast shore of the pond, warming himself with the "glowing embers" of the summer sun.

In the second section you find him building his chimney, a job that requires studying masonry. Because his bricks were secondhand and covered with old mortar that had to be removed, Thoreau learned more about his materials than he would have otherwise. Walden Pond is represented in this chimney and fireplace- the stones between the bricks and the white sand in the mortar are from the pond's shore. The job is a slow one, and the chimney rises only a few inches each day. Thoreau consoles himself with the thought that "if it proceeded slowly, it was calculated to endure a long time." He is reminded of the structural independence of chimneys, which often can be seen standing long after their houses have burned to the ground. The chimney is to a house what the spirit is to a man. You should keep the image in mind as you read of this man readying himself for winter at Walden Pond.

After the building of the chimney and the shingling of the house, comes the plastering. The plaster makes the house more comfortable against the cold weather, but it is not as beautiful as the rough interior of boards had been. Thoreau remembers Cato's suggestion that a man keep a store of oil and wine in his cellar in expectation of hard times. By comparison, Thoreau has a cellar full of potatoes, peas, rice, molasses, rye, and cornmeal.

The single room of his cabin is small, too small even "to entertain an echo." Thoreau dreams of a larger house, and his description so closely approximates so many of his ideals that we might think he was describing heaven. Hospitality, he says has become the art of keeping people at the greatest distance, and life is lived as far from its symbols as the parlors of homes are from their kitchens.

Toward the end of this section, showing his respect for the difficulties of plastering, Thoreau tells a story of a well-dressed man who has some bad luck when he tries his hand at the art. The section ends with the image of Thoreau christening his hearth.

The first freezing of the pond is the subject of the fourth section. It is this dark and transparent first ice that offers the best view of the bottom of the pond in shallow places. Thoreau describes looking through it as like looking at a picture behind a glass. He goes on to describe at considerable length the action of air bubbles caught in layers of freezing water.

Now winter has set in and Thoreau retreats into his shell and tries to "keep a bright fire both within my house and within my breast." He goes outside to collect dead wood to burn, and he considers the preservation of the forest. While doing this he is reminded of a time when he accidentally set the Concord woods afire while cooking fish. Throughout the ages wood has held a value to man that is even greater than gold. The stumps Thoreau clears from the land warm him twice- once when he splits them and once when he burns them. They give off more heat than any other fuel.

Smoke streaming from his chimney is a sign to other residents of Walden that Thoreau is awake, for which you might also read "alive." When he goes out for several hours, the fire- his cheerful housekeeper- stays behind; the house is never empty. For the sake of economy Thoreau uses a small stove during his second winter. But in no way does it compare with his open fireplace: cooking loses its poetic quality; the stove stinks up the room, takes up a great deal of space, and worst of all, hides the fire. Thoreau feels as if he has lost a friend- the face he always saw in the flames.


This is the first of the three chapters set in winter at Walden Pond. It divides into two sections, the first a recollection of people who formerly lived in the woods nearby; the second an accounting of Thoreau's visitors that winter.

In the first sentence Thoreau claims to have "weathered some merry snow-storms, and spent some cheerful winter evenings" at his hearth. At these times even the owl was quiet and did not hoot. But how convincing is he? When he speaks next of having to "conjure up the former occupants of these woods" he sounds rather like an imprisoned man desperate for mental stimulation.

He conjures up three slaves who, within the memory of some in Concord, lived in the woods near the road to Lincoln: Cato Ingraham, who lost his land to a speculator and whose cellar hole is now filled with sumac and goldenrod; Zilpha, a woman who sang in a loud and shrill voice as she spun linen, and whose house was set on fire by English soldiers during the war of 1812; and Brister Freeman who tended apple trees, and his wife who told fortunes. The land still shows the signs of the Stratton family. Nearer to town, the well is all that's left of Breed's house after it was burned down by mischievous boys. Another well and some lilac bushes are all that remain of people Nutting and Le Grosse.

Toward Lincoln was a potter named Wyman, and closer in time, an Irishman named Hugh Quoil, a ditcher. All that remains of these homes are dents in the earth, covered wells, and lilacs blooming next to where the doorways stood.

NOTE: In his catalogue Thoreau mentions many people, but has little to say about any of them. He speaks with less enthusiasm about each of these human beings than he did of the partridges in the chapter "Brute Neighbors." He exclaims, "Alas! how little does the memory of these human inhabitants enhance the beauty of the landscape!"

You feel the degree to which Thoreau feels trapped by winter when he speaks in the beginning of the second section of the routine to which winter reduced him. You watch him following his own tracks through the snow, taking exactly the same number of steps of exactly the same length coming and going between his house and the road. He walks for miles in any weather to visit a beech tree or a yellow birch, and spends an entire afternoon watching an owl doze on a branch.

His list of winter visitors is short. It includes a farmer who comes to talk, and a poet who makes the house ring with laughter. It also includes one of "the last of the philosophers," a man who so enhanced the beauty of the landscape that "it seemed the heavens and the earth had met together." Together the hermit and the philosopher whittle "shingles of thought" or wade so "reverently" that "the fishes of thought were not scared from the stream." At last, and in the company of the philosopher, Thoreau's spirit is lifted and rises above winter. It may come as a surprise to you that in this season it is human society, not the past or nature, that is Thoreau's salvation.


From the frozen ponds Thoreau has a view of familiar landscapes that he has never seen before. He also has new and more direct routes to many places. Walden was usually bare of snow. When it was frozen it was like a yard that he could use only in winter, which was when those in the village could not use their yards.

NOTE: When you read this chapter, you will be reminded of an earlier chapter, "Sounds." Here Thoreau describes the sounds of his winter days and nights, beginning with the familiar hooting owl, the goose, and the cat owl. In this season even the earth makes sounds, what Thoreau calls the "whooping of the ice in the pond... as if it were restless," and the cracking of the ground by frost. In this passage you can sense Thoreau's restlessness as well.

Foxes bark as they travel over the snow hunting partridge. The red squirrel runs up and down the sides of the house and over the roof. Animals come to the door of the cabin for the half-bushel of ears of corn Thoreau dumps there: rabbits; the red squirrel, whose motions "imply spectators as much as those of a dancing girl," and who drags away an ear larger than itself "like a tiger with a buffalo"; the blue jays with their discordant screams; flocks of chickadees; and sparrows who light on his shoulder.

Hounds pass by hunting with or without men. Thoreau relates a story of a pack of hounds hunting alone who chase a fox all day, and finally chase it to a hunter sitting in the woods. The hunter kills the fox and the hounds are surprised when they catch up with the fox at last and find him dead. At one time bears were hunted on the Fair Haven Ledges, where a moose has been seen, as well. In the pages of an old diary that belonged to a trader Thoreau finds records of the trading of the skins of grey fox, wild-cat, and deer, none of which inhabits the woods in his day.

Mice thin out the pitch pines around the cabin by gnawing the bark around the base. Hares come to the door to nibble potato parings, and Thoreau cannot imagine a country without rabbits and partridges. They seem to him to be not wild creatures at all, only natural ones. But you hear no ecstasy in his voice when he describes them, and he tells you nothing of a link with the spiritual. Thoreau, it seems, is truly under the spell of winter.


The first of this chapter's three sections begins with a troubled and frustrated Thoreau finding peace in nature:

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.

While he is in this frame of mind the slope of his hill and even the snow seem to urge him forward, and you meet a renewed sense of energy in the man.

As you might expect, "The Pond in Winter" is closely related to the chapter "The Ponds." In it you see many of the same sights in the light of a different season. When in the morning Thoreau goes to the pond for water you hear echoes of his earlier descriptions of Walden. He remarks that the "surface of the pond, which was so sensitive to every breath, and reflected every light and shadow, becomes solid to the depth of a foot or a foot and a half... it closes its eyelids and becomes dormant for three months or more." This is the same lake that in summer was described as the "earth's eye." The images of vision continue when he says that in cutting through the ice he gained "a window" at his feet. He reminds you, as he stands on the ice, that, "Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads."

He mentions the ice fishermen- rough men who have done more than they can even talk about. He sees nature carried out in them, an entire food chain, link by link: "The perch swallows the grub- worm, the pickerel swallows the perch, and the fisherman swallows the pickerel; and so all the chinks in the scale of being are filled." He marvels again at Walden's pickerel, fish he has never seen in any market. When they are caught, they die. "Easily, with a few convulsive quirks, they give up their watery ghosts, like a mortal translated before his time to the thin air of heaven."

In the second section Thoreau sounds Walden Pond for its bottom, disproving theories that it is bottomless. It is precisely 107 feet at its greatest depth.

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.

This passage takes on added dimension since you have seen that he often uses the pond as a metaphor for his own soul or spirit.

Through his surveying Thoreau is able to discover the shape of the bottom of the pond. He finds it is quite regular, and without any of the holes that are thought to trouble the bottoms of similar ponds. In the course of his figuring he notices that where the line showing its longest part crosses the line showing its widest part, is where it happens to be deepest. Likewise it may be with a man- that if we know his shores and his nearby country we may "infer his depth and concealed bottom."

In the third section you meet the ice cutters, a merry race: hundreds of happy men who come each day to remove the skin from Walden in the middle of winter. In a good day they say they can cut out a thousand tons. The blocks of ice piled high look to Thoreau like the "abode of Winter." A heap of ten thousand tons that was left in the winter of 1846-1847 was not quite melted by September of 1848. The pond recovered most of what it lost.

"Like the water, the Walden ice, seen near at hand, has a green tint, but at a distance is beautifully blue," says Thoreau in yet another echo of the chapter "The Ponds." The difference between water and ice is the same as the difference between the affections and the intellect. After a while water becomes putrid. When frozen, it remains sweet forever.

Thoreau's imagination wanders abroad with the ice industry, and he thinks of those in warm climates who will drink at Walden Pond, so to speak, when they receive the shipment from its shores.

NOTE: In the days before refrigeration, the ice industry was big business. Ice was cut from ponds such as Walden and shipped to South America, the Caribbean, and Africa.

To a man who studied Eastern philosophy, this was an attractive image. It was that of the servant of the high priest coming to Walden for his master's water, and of their buckets grating against each other there, in the same well.

It may still be winter, but in the pond Thoreau has found an image of spiritual vitality.


Thoreau claims that as bodies of water go, Walden is still the best indicator of "the absolute progress of the seasons." He reassures us that the actions of the ice cutters will not cause the pond to break up any earlier than would be natural that year. He describes the melting of the ice in great detail and says that in some ways, and on a small scale, "the phenomena of the year take place every day in a pond." This leads him to draw the larger conclusion that, "The day is an epitome of the year. The night is the winter, the morning and evening are the spring and fall, and the noon is the summer." In this passage you hear an echo of a line from an earlier chapter, "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," in which he says that morning is "the most memorable season of the day."

Being able to watch spring unfold was one of the main attractions of living in the woods, and as the second section of this chapter begins, Thoreau is alert to spring's first signs- the note of a bird, the lengthening day. He describes his favorite springtime phenomenon, the thawing of sand and clay on the deep sides of an embankment near the railroad tracks. The melting sand and clay flow down the sides of the bank in a formation that reminds him of lava, "of coral, of leopards' paws or birds' feet, of brains or lungs or bowels, and excrements of all kinds. It is a truly grotesque vegetation," which finally takes the shapes of leaves. You may wonder why Thoreau finds this repulsive image so attractive. One reason may be that it shows us an image of rebirth from a state of decay. This is spring, says Thoreau, and it "precedes the green and flowery spring, as mythology precedes regular poetry."

In the third section, as the ground thaws and the signs of spring mingle with the remnants of winter, you hear the first sparrow, the bluebird, the song sparrow, and a red-wing. You see the sun return, and then the grass, which like human life dies back only to the root and grows again toward eternity.

After all the chapters of winter, Walden is melting. "Walden was dead and is alive again," says Thoreau, who is beside himself with rejoicing at this "memorable crisis." The pond seems to reflect the calm and hope of a summer sky already, even though there is no such evening overhead. Thoreau listens to a robin's song and expresses his joy at hearing it with this exaggeration: it was "the first I had heard for many a thousand years... whose note I shall not forget for many a thousand more."

Thoreau says that "every season seems best to us in its turn," but you know him better than this by now. You have heard his voice in summer, fall, winter, and spring, and you know that for him, spring is best.

As happier thoughts occur to him, his prospects brighten. It is much the same process as the grass growing greener in a gentle rain. In every image Thoreau rejoices at the season, like a man liberated. This is what he needed all along:

We need the tonic of wildness.... At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed, and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.... We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.

The chapter ends abruptly, with two sentences that announce the end of Thoreau's life in the woods. He left Walden on September 6, 1847.


The conclusion of Walden begins with this sentence: "To the sick the doctors wisely recommend a change of air and scenery." For the ailing spirit Thoreau has recommendations of his own. It is not necessary to travel abroad. Thoreau uses references to explorers, routes of travel and trade, and far-off lands to tell you the folly of any search that begins outside yourself: "be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought." This is what his life at Walden was all about.

He explains why he left:

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.... I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.... If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

In one paragraph after another Thoreau speaks "like a man in a waking moment, to men in their waking moments." You remember that in his vocabulary, awake is another word for "alive." He says that in trying to make you understand, in trying to lay a foundation for his truths, he cannot exaggerate enough. In an inspirational voice, and in what reads at times like an inspired sermon, he urges you to be what you can. Ignore claims that people of modern times are "intellectual dwarfs compared with the ancients," he insists. "A living dog is better than a dead lion."

And here he utters one of his most famous remarks, his support of each person growing at his own rate. "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."

In one quotable and quoted line after another, he urges a singlemindedness of purpose, a life filled with resolution and lived according to the truth. Meet life and live it, however mean it is; "do not trouble yourself much to get new things... things do not change; we change." He urges humility which, like darkness, makes it possible to see the heavenly lights of stars.

He warns against a desire for great sums of money- more than enough money buys only more than enough. Words such as joy and sorrow belong in the vocabulary of your life, not merely in the vocabulary of prayer books.

As the chapter draws to a close Thoreau tells a story of a beautiful insect that came out of a table made of apple-wood. The egg from which the insect hatched had been laid in the living tree years before the tree was made into a table. The table itself had stood in a farmer's kitchen for sixty years when, stimulated by the warmth of an urn put on the table, the dormant insect began to gnaw its way out of the wood.

In each of us there may be such an egg, the beginning of a beautiful life, which so far has been buried under layers of dry, wooden, and dead life which is society. That beginning may some day at last gnaw its way out of some trivial furniture to enjoy a life, with wings.

In the final paragraph of the book Thoreau admits that not everyone will understand him, not everyone who reads his words will take them to heart. He leaves you with an image that is at once a warning and an expression of hope: "The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star."



ECC [Walden Contents] []

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