“Already, by the first of September, I had seen two or three small maples turned scarlet across the pond, beneath where the white stems of three aspens diverged, at the point of a promontory, next the water. Ah, many a tale their color told! And gradually from week to week the character of each tree came out, and it admired itself reflected in the smooth mirror of the lake. Each morning the manager of this gallery substituted some new picture, distinguished by more brilliant or harmonious coloring, for the old upon the walls.” — Henry David Thoreau, “House Warming,” Walden
Yankee Hill Lake, near Denton, Nebraska, October 2013. There are a few cottonwoods in here, I think.
I don’t live in maple country. I live in cottonwood country. The cottonwood is a prairie tree that grows in the bottomland along streams and rivers. In the old days the uplands were bare of trees and covered with grass. Today that “grass” is mostly corn (which is actually a type of grass). Here, even by late October when these photos were taken the leaves hadn’t all turned, and fall color here means shades of yellow rather than the oranges and deep reds of New England. Such a tree can nevertheless “admire itself” in still water. The leaves are gone now, but we can remember them.
We begin a new chapter, “House Warming.” In the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” as John Keats famously called it, Thoreau roamed the woods gathering wild food.
Chestnut. Wikimedia Commons
Wild grapes. Chestnuts from “boundless chestnut woods” that “now sleep their long sleep under the railroad” (Henry’s words). Ground nuts (also known as Indian beans; Apios Americana). Continue reading →
“This was his looning — perhaps the wildest sound that is ever heard here, making the woods ring far and wide.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Brute Neighbors,” Walden
I don’t live in loon country, but the above video from New Hampshire features good loon audio (but jumpy video, unfortunately).
Thoreau writes of chasing a loon in his boat. The loon kept diving to get away from him, then popping up out of the water in unexpected places. Henry kept rowing for him, trying to guess where he would next appear, but without ever reaching him. The short video below, shot by some scuba divers, shows what wonderful divers loons are: Continue reading →
Earlier in the “Brute Neighbors” chapter Thoreau described the protectiveness of partridges with their young. Now he describes, with mock seriousness, an ant battle that shows a darker side of nature. “I was myself excited somewhat even as if they had been men,” he writes. “The more you think of it, the less the difference.” In the narrative, quoted in full below, it isn’t hard to see a good deal of contemptuous mockery of human militarism.
But it isn’t entirely funny. The battle is chilling in its mindless cruelty. And lest you think that Henry the Poet is getting pretty imaginative in his description, any number of photos and videos online will set you straight, such as these photos. Continue reading →
“It is remarkable how many creatures live wild and free though secret in the woods, and still sustain themselves in the neighborhood of towns, suspected by hunters only.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Brute Neighbors,” Walden
It bears repeating that Walden Pond was not a wilderness. A mile-and-a-half from town, it was bordered by a railroad and frequented by woodcutters and visitors from town, and was less thickly wooded than it is today. But it was rich with wildlife for Henry to enjoy. Continue reading →
Thoreau is done philosophizing about food and “this slimy, beastly life, eating and drinking.” In the next chapter, “Brute Neighbors,” he celebrates the animals that live in and around his house. Nothing wrong with their beastly lives, not even the mice that live beneath his floor. In describing them, it’s obvious that he enjoys their physicality and animality.
But before getting to Henry’s neighbors, let’s remember that Walden is a very carefully structured book that went through many drafts over several years. Is it an accident that Thoreau places the chapters “Higher Laws” and “Brute Neighbors” (my emphasis) right next to each other? Continue reading →
Following up on last time, I want to say a little more today about Thoreau’s asceticism. Individual statements taken in isolation seem to convey mixed messages. “He who distinguishes the true savor of his food can never be a glutton; he who does not cannot be otherwise,” he writes. OK, so it’s not about food, but how you enjoy it. But a little later he laments “this slimy, beastly life, eating and drinking.”
I think the key sentence occurs just a bit earlier: “Who has not sometimes derived an inexpressible satisfaction from his food in which appetite had no share?” It’s the part about satisfying a physical appetite that somehow lowers the satisfaction from some ideal state to mere animal nature. A bit later he writes, Continue reading →