Sailing above the clouds in Thoreau’s boat (Walden 138)

The French balloon Zenith during a nighttime flight in which a halo was visible around the moon. From the collection of balloonist Gaston Tissandier at the Library of Congress.

The French balloon Zenith during a nighttime flight in which a halo was visible around the moon. From the collection of balloonist Gaston Tissandier at the Library of Congress.

Among the somber colors of November, the surface of the pond all but vanished around Thoreau’s boat.

“In such transparent and seemingly bottomless water, reflecting the clouds, I seemed to be floating through the air as in a balloon, and their swimming impressed me as a kind of flight or hovering, as if they were a compact flock of birds passing just beneath my level on the right or left, their fins, like sails, set all around them.”  — “The Ponds,” Walden

As I’ve said before, my own experience with clear water is limited. And though I’ve been up in a variety of airplanes large and small, I’ve never been up in a balloon (though this didn’t stop me from writing a book about balloons). But in comparing the sensations of floating on clear water to ballooning, Henry reminds me of the most vivid description of a balloon launch that I’ve ever come across — one that eloquently captures an oft-remarked sensation among early balloonists that even though they knew they were going up, the balloon was so still and perfectly a part of the wind that it seemed to them that they remained still while the earth receded from them. But I’ll let the English writer John Poole describe it:

Poole ascended with balloonist Charles Green. The poster shown here was for an actual ascension in which Green went aloft on horseback. Library of Congress

Poole ascended with balloonist Charles Green. The poster shown here was for an actual ascension in which Green went aloft on horseback. Tissandier Collection, Library of Congress

“I do not despise you for talking about a balloon going up, for it is an error which you share in common with some millions of our fellow-creatures; and I, in the days of my ignorance, thought with the rest of you. I know better now, Tom. The fact is, we did not go up at all; but at about five minutes past six, on the evening of Friday, the 14th of September, 1838—(you want “particulars” so there they are for you) — at about that time, Vauxhall Gardens, with all the people in them, went down ! Tom—Tom—I cannot have been deceived. I speak from the evidence of my senses, founded upon repetition of the fact. Upon each of the three or four experimental trials of the powers of the balloon to enable the people to glide away from us with safety to themselves, down they all went about thirty feet—then, up they came again, and so on. There we sat quietly all the while in our wicker buck-basket, utterly unconscious of motion; till, at length, Mr. Green snapping a little iron, and thus letting loose the rope by which the earth was suspended to us — like Atropos cutting the connexion between us with a pair of shears — down it went with everything on it; and your poor, paltry, little Dutch toy of a town, (your Great Metropolis, as you insolently call it,) having been placed on casters for the occasion—I am satisfied of that—was gently rolled away from under us.” —from Crotchets in the Air; or, an (Un)Scientific Account of a Balloon-Trip (1838)

I mention this because I think Thoreau’s and Poole’s words remind us how personal and subjective perception is. I am not the center of the universe, but from the standpoint of perception I am. And so reports of feeling like you’re flying above the lake bottom or staying in place while the world falls away aren’t just poetic language — they are a subset of reality, and some people have learned to heighten their awareness of these perceptual realities.

You can too. The trick is to pay close attention to what you’re actually experiencing, as opposed to what the knowledgeable part of your brain tells you — the interpretation based on your background knowledge.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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