A world all to myself (Walden 88)

Thoreau’s cabin wasn’t far from town and Walden Pond wasn’t truly a wilderness. Even so, living there he experienced a level of solitude that is increasingly rare in today’s world.

Detail of 1852 map, showing Concord and Walden Pond. Library of Congress

Detail of 1852 map, showing Concord and Walden Pond. Library of Congress

“For what reason have I this vast range and circuit, some square miles of unfrequented forest, for my privacy, abandoned to me by men? My nearest neighbor is a mile distant, and no house is visible from any place but the hill-tops within half a mile of my own. … I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself.” Continue reading

“A delicious evening” and how to prepare for it (Walden 87)

sunset, Holmes Lake, NE

Sunset on Holmes Lake, Lincoln, Nebraska.

“This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself.” —Henry David Thoreau, “Solitude,” Walden Continue reading

Tr-r-r-oonk! Thoreau loves frogs (Walden 86)

Walden Pond, via Wikimedia Commons

Walden Pond, via Wikimedia Commons

Go down by the water at night and you’ll hear them. You don’t even have to get very close — they’re loud, and probably never more playfully described than here. To set the mood with some mostly North American frogs, go to Animal Diversity Web’s frog call page (University of Michigan Museum of Zoology). Or listen to samples from Smithsonian Folkways’ 1958 LP Sounds of North American Frogs. Now read on: Continue reading

Why is it pleasant to listen to a mournful-sounding owl? (Walden 85)

Sounds of the barred owl, among the weirdest and most haunting voices you’ll hear in nature, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

“I was also serenaded by a hooting owl. Near at hand you could fancy it the most melancholy sound in Nature, as if she meant by this to stereotype and make permanent in her choir the dying moans of a human being — some poor weak relic of mortality who has left hope behind, and howls like an animal, yet with human sobs, on entering the dark valley, made more awful by a certain gurgling melodiousness — I find myself beginning with the letters gl when I try to imitate it — expressive of a mind which has reached the gelatinous, mildewy stage in the mortification of all healthy and courageous thought. It reminded me of ghouls and idiots and insane howlings. But now one answers from far woods in a strain made really melodious by distance — Hoo hoo hoo, hoorer hoo; and indeed for the most part it suggested only pleasing associations, whether heard by day or night, summer or winter.”  — Henry David Thoreau, “Sounds,” Walden Continue reading

Music of the cow (Walden 84)

Near Lincoln, Nebraska, October 2013.

Near Lincoln, Nebraska, October 2013.

More about sound heard at a distance. Thoreau can be pretty serious sometimes, but he has a wry sense of humor:

“At evening, the distant lowing of some cow in the horizon beyond the woods sounded sweet and melodious, and at first I would mistake it for the voices of certain minstrels by whom I was sometimes serenaded, who might be straying over hill and dale; but soon I was not unpleasantly disappointed when it was prolonged into the cheap and natural music of the cow. I do not mean to be satirical, but to express my appreciation of those youths’ singing, when I state that I perceived clearly that it was akin to the music of the cow, and they were at length one articulation of Nature.”

Henry is doing the work of a poet and artist here. He is making the everyday and the trivial seem extraordinary simply by altering our point of view, and by making connections between things that we wouldn’t ordinarily connect. His observation is funny, but then he turns it into something profound by connecting the voices as “one articulation of Nature.”

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

Distant sound, “a vibration of the universal lyre” (Walden 83)

“All sound heard at the greatest possible distance produces one and the same effect, a vibration of the universal lyre, just as the intervening atmosphere makes a distant ridge of earth interesting to our eyes by the azure tint it imparts to it.”  — Henry David Thoreau, “Sounds,” Walden

This is another case of Henry observing a natural wonder that’s hiding in plain sight… or in this case, in plain hearing. Have you ever noticed this phenomenon? Shortly after reading this passage, I was hiking at a local prairie nature preserve, when I heard the screams and shouts of kids playing outdoor games at a nearby camp. I had the prairie all to myself that day, and you might think that all the screaming would have disturbed the day’s tranquility.

But it didn’t, and for the reason Henry explains. Though the voices were urgent, the distance reduced the sound to no more than that of the wind brushing the tallgrass, or quiet bird-chatter. Somewhere in the half mile or so between the children and me, their collected voices took on a certain tranquility.

Nine Mile Prairie, Lincoln, Nebraska

Nine Mile Prairie, Lincoln, Nebraska. (No, you can’t see the screaming kids in this shot, which is facing the wrong direction anyway. I just like this view.)

“The echo is, to some extent, an original sound, and therein is the magic and charm of it,” Henry explains. “It is not merely a repetition of what was worth repeating in the bell, but partly the voice of the wood; the same trivial words and notes sung by a wood-nymph.”

Try it the next time you’re out in a reasonably quiet place. Listen for distant sounds.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

Thoreau on technology and time (Walden 82)

The arrival of the railroad changed life in Concord, linking the town more closely to the outside world. It changed the economy, but also changed people’s sense of time. Thoreau describes the effect:

“The startings and arrivals of the cars are now the epochs in the village day. They go and come with such regularity and precision, and their whistle can be heard so far, that the farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well-conducted institution regulates a whole country. Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office? There is something electrifying in the atmosphere of the former place. …To do things “railroad fashion” is now the byword; and it is worth the while to be warned so often and so sincerely by any power to get off its track. There is no stopping to read the riot act, no firing over the heads of the mob, in this case. We have constructed a fate, an Atropos, that never turns aside.” (“Sounds,” Walden)

(Atropos, “in Greek mythology, one of the three Fates, who cuts the thread of life” according to Annotated Walden.) Continue reading