Standing inside a rainbow (Walden 145)

We’ve begun a new chapter, titled “Baker Farm,” and here Thoreau makes an astonishing claim:

“Once it chanced that I stood in the very abutment of a rainbow’s arch, which filled the lower stratum of the atmosphere, tinging the grass and leaves around, and dazzling me as if I looked through colored crystal. It was a lake of rainbow light, in which, for a short while, I lived like a dolphin. If it had lasted longer it might have tinged my employments and life.”

This is one of the more puzzling and tantalizing statements in Walden. An abutment is the end of an arch — Henry is claiming to have stood inside the end of a rainbow! Which, of course, is impossible. Everyone knows that rainbows recede from you as you approach — you can never reach rainbow’s end any more than a dog can catch his shadow. Continue reading

“I paid many a visit to particular trees….” (Walden 144)

Bur oak, Wilderness Park, Lincoln, Nebraska

Bur oak, Wilderness Park, Lincoln, Nebraska

“Instead of calling on some scholar, I paid many a visit to particular trees….”

Taken out of context, this is one of those quotes that makes Thoreau sound like a crazy hermit. See? He didn’t like people. He talked to trees!

It should be clear from the rest of the book that Henry didn’t lack sociability. He went into town almost every day, remember.

But he took time to visit particular trees that were favorites of his, ones “which are rare in this neighborhood, standing far away in the middle of some pasture, or in the depths of a wood or swamp, or on a Hilltop.” Continue reading

Too pure to have a market value (Walden 143)

What would happen if you found a great and perfect diamond, a jewel of such stunning beauty that it would surely command a huge price at auction… but, let’s say that by some magic it’s impossible for you or anyone else to take possession of it. No one can buy or sell the diamond. No one can take it away or hide it. And it rests in a spot where no one can prevent people from looking at it. It is beyond commerce and can provide no one with power or profit. What happens next?

I think what happens is that over time most people forget about it. Because the Unobtainable Diamond can have no market value, most people would cease to think of it as having any value. Oh, they might admire it if they happened to pass by, but since anyone could look at it at any time, most people wouldn’t even bother to go out of their way to see it. In today’s reading Thoreau writes: Continue reading

In praise of poverty? (Walden 142)

Last time Thoreau was complaining about Flint, the farmer whose name was undeservedly (in his opinion) attached to a beautiful pond on his property. Henry’s stinging indictment of Flint culminates with, “I respect not his labors, his farm where everything has its price, who would carry the landscape, who would carry his God, to market, if he could get anything for him….”

Ouch. And any of us who are opposed to the persistent idea that value can be measured only (primarily) in dollars, who are alarmed at the intrusion of commerce into every possible facet of life and culture, can cheer this rant.

But then Henry goes on to say something naive and I think rather callous. Continue reading

In which Thoreau gets all worked up about the name of Flint’s Pond (Walden 141)

What’s in a name? Does a name convey meaning, or is it just a label by which we identify a person or place? Does the source or etymology of a name even matter? I know of people who chose their children’s names from baby books based on the “meaning” of the name, by which they mean what the word meant in its original language. David is a Hebrew name meaning “beloved,” I’m told, but I’m pretty sure my parents didn’t know that. Does that make me more or less loved?

So today as we continue with the chapter “The Ponds,” Thoreau is getting worked up about the name of Flint’s Pond, another local body of water that he loved. Continue reading

“How can you expect the birds to sing when their groves are cut down?” (Walden 140)

As he wrote the final drafts of Walden, Thoreau lamented the changes to the pond since he moved out several years earlier. More trees had been cut down, and the town of Concord was even thinking about piping the pond’s water into town.

“Nevertheless, of all the characters I have known, perhaps Walden wears best, and best preserves its purity. Many men have been likened to it, but few deserve that honor. Though the woodchoppers have laid bare first this shore and then that, and the Irish have built their sties by it, and the railroad has infringed on its border, and the ice-men have skimmed it once, it is itself unchanged, the same water which my youthful eyes fell on; all the change is in me. It has not acquired one permanent wrinkle after all its ripples. It is perennially young….” Continue reading

Dreaming awake on the water (Walden 139)

2013-10 038sThis how to go boating:

“I have spent many an hour, when I was younger, floating over its surface as the zephyr willed, having paddled my boat to the middle, and lying on my back across the seats, in a summer forenoon, dreaming awake, until I was aroused by the boat touching the sand, and I arose to see what shore my fates had impelled me to; days when idleness was the most attractive and productive industry.” — Henry David Thoreau, from “The Ponds,” Walden Continue reading