Scenery on a humble scale (Walden 126)

Thoreau's Cove, Concord, Massachusetts. ca 1908. Wikimedia Commons

Thoreau’s Cove, Concord, Massachusetts. ca 1908. Wikimedia Commons

“The scenery of Walden is on a humble scale, and, though very beautiful, does not approach to grandeur, nor can it much concern one who has not long frequented it or lived by its shore…” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I don’t know where you live, but the above certainly applies to my part of the world — the central plains of the US. I think one of the downsides of scenic photography is that it’s given us the idea that natural beauty has to involve Scenery… meaning mountains, coastlines, waterfalls, or something spectacular. But those are landscapes that require no patience. They provide a quick payoff even to superficial seeing.

But the deep beauty of nature, as Thoreau understood, comes only to those who stick around long enough to appreciate all its subtle changes in mood, the shifting colors throughout the seasons and even throughout the day. Though I’ve never been to Walden Pond, in the photos I’ve seen it doesn’t look like a very remarkable place — pretty, but no more so than countless other places. Henry was certainly aware of this, though he praised the lake’s “depth and purity” (qualities he was predisposed to value highly).

He goes on to an extended description of the pond that makes it sound truly remarkable. Was he exaggerating? Not at all. The point was that he had to live with Walden in order to really see it. Like the prairies where I live, this little pond didn’t give up its secrets to the merely casual observer.

I’m not going to quote his entire description here, just one bit as an example. How would a superficial observer notice this?

“All our Concord waters have two colors at least; one when viewed at a distance, and another, more proper, close at hand. The first depends more on the light, and follows the sky. In clear weather, in summer, they appear blue at a little distance, especially if agitated, and at a great distance all appear alike. In stormy weather they are sometimes of a dark slate-color. The sea, however, is said to be blue one day and green another without any perceptible change in the atmosphere. I have seen our river, when, the landscape being covered with snow, both water and ice were almost as green as grass. Some consider blue ‘to be the color of pure water, whether liquid or solid.’ But, looking directly down into our waters from a boat, they are seen to be of very different colors. Walden is blue at one time and green at another, even from the same point of view. Lying between the earth and the heavens, it partakes of the color of both.”

That kind of seeing takes practice and patience. As an ability, it isn’t a trait so much as a learned skill.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


3 thoughts on “Scenery on a humble scale (Walden 126)

  1. buddy71

    there is a big difference with looking and seeing. i live on a little less than 2 acs. i often go “looking” for a subject to train my lens on. it is then i “see” the subject and try to capture what i saw with my camera. you are right, it really takes some “training” to really see.
    i really like this post.


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