Thoreau describes the remarkable clarity of Walden Pond, the water of which was “so transparent that the bottom can easily be discerned at the depth of twenty-five or thirty feet.”
It’s one thing to say that. It’s quite another to show it and make it vivid. Here’s how he does it:
“Once, in the winter, many years ago, when I had been cutting holes through the ice in order to catch pickerel, as I stepped ashore I tossed my axe back on to the ice, but, as if some evil genius had directed it, it slid four or five rods directly into one of the holes, where the water was twenty-five feet deep. Out of curiosity, I lay down on the ice and looked through the hole, until I saw the axe a little on one side, standing on its head, with its helve erect and gently swaying to and fro with the pulse of the pond; and there it might have stood erect and swaying till in the course of time the handle rotted off, if I had not disturbed it. Making another hole directly over it with an ice chisel which I had, and cutting down the longest birch which I could find in the neighborhood with my knife, I made a slip-noose, which I attached to its end, and, letting it down carefully, passed it over the knob of the handle, and drew it by a line along the birch, and so pulled the axe out again.”
I find this astonishing. Where I live water is never clear. It’s the difference between rocky bottomed rivers and lakes and muddy bottomed ones, with fine silt into which you’ll sink up to your knees, and have to pull your feet out with a sucking sound.
In muddy water, everything below the surface is a mystery. You can feel your way in shallow water by wading, but otherwise you have to read the water’s surface — a lost art once well-known to steamboat pilots. Ripples warned the trained eye of shoals and “snags” (submerged trees, swept from the banks muddy rivers that are forever eroding their channels and carving new ones).
I suppose I’m thinking like Henry here, finding an abstract meaning or symbolism in some part of nature. Where I live, water is mystery. It’s what you don’t know, what you can’t know. You see the ripples, you feel the thump of a large fish against your hull, or the scrape of a branch. A turtle suns itself on the log and dives off as you approach — a plunk and then you see nothing but an expanding circle of ripples.
Open your eyes underwater and all you see is dark green or brown — and that’s near the surface. Dive down in deep water and you’re swimming in chilly blackness before you’re down ten feet. You know there’s a whole dark world down there, but you can see none of it. That has its own wonder and mystery, but nevertheless I’m at times jealous of Henry and you clearwater people who can float like clouds in the sky above your underwater world, gazing down into it.
How is the water where you live?
(About “A Year in Walden”)