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.

In 1920, naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921) raised the ire of a number of ardent Thoreauvians by calling nonsense on Henry’s claim in the Atlantic Monthly. The result, Burroughs wrote in a follow-up article, was “a hornet’s nest,” though he maintained, “Just how Thoreau deluded himself, I am at a loss to know. We know that, as a rule, he was not an accurate observer, and that his imagination often colored his experiences.”

While I can’t vouch for Thoreau’s accuracy, thus far in my reading I’m not aware of evidence that he was an inaccurate observer (or rather, that he was worse than anyone else), but what to make of this odd statement? Did he mean it literally?

What I found interesting about Burroughs’s follow-up article, “The Unapproachable Rainbow,” (search “Burroughs Unapproachable Rainbow” at — I don’t know how to link to it directly) is all the examples of strange experiences with light that his correspondents wrote to Burroughs about, and with which they defended Thoreau. Burroughs even tells of one of his own. But he notes that the more fantastic accounts are always from the distant past, usually from childhood, and never from yesterday.

As we learn more about cognition and memory, we’re learning more about the ways in which we tend to conflate our interpretation of an experience with the experience itself, and how memory and the retelling of a memory can alter it beyond recognition. Who knows what Henry experienced. I suspect that he’s using hyperbole here and that he assumed we wouldn’t take him literally when he’s clearly stating what we all know is a physical impossibility. He was prone to doing that for effect, and I think what he’s trying to convey here is the absolutely glorious aspect of the light. It was as if he were standing inside a rainbow. I think that would be consistent with his style.

Thoreau’s journal entry of November 5, 1857, is revealing: “I think that the man of science makes this mistake… that you should coolly give your chief attention to the phenomenon which excites you as something independent of you, and not as it is related to you. The important fact is its effect on me. He thinks that I have no business to see anything else but just what he defines the rainbow to be.” (Quoted in Robert Richardson, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind , p. 363).

The important thing about this entry is not that he refers specifically to a rainbow (Walden had been published three years earlier and he may not have had that passage in mind). What’s important is that despite his growing interest in gathering scientific data, Thoreau believed there was no such thing as a fully objective observer, and he felt that the subjective experience of observing was a worthy phenomenon in itself.

But back to the light. I can’t say I’ve ever experienced anything quite like that, but I remember many times when the light has taken on a surreal quality, when everything seems to have a heightened luminescence. Usually it’s in the evening after a thunderstorm. I live toward the northern edge of America’s “Tornado Alley,” which is prone to violent summertime storms. Sometimes the sky turns a weird greenish shade (this is not a good sign) and at other times a fast-moving storm will turn the day almost as dark as night and then gradually break open with slashing beams of sunlight. Sometimes after the storm, when the trees are dripping and the grass is littered with fallen branches, suddenly everything is bathed in warm, yellow light, and every surface sparkles and glows.

That’s how I remember it, a composite of many such stormy evenings. Is that real? Is it wholly accurate? Or is that just how I remember it? Did I just describe the reality of the land and sky, or did I describe primarily the experience of going outside after the sirens have fallen silent and the storm has passed, when you come out of the basement and look around and find yourself in a new and sublime world?

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


6 thoughts on “Standing inside a rainbow (Walden 145)

  1. buddy71

    i am glad you covered this, as it reminds me of an experience i had while on a hike in the Rockies of Colorado. it was early morning and i was entering a high mountain meadow just as the sun was hitting it. the calf high grass first sparkled like diamonds from the dew that covered the grass. but as the sun got a bit higher and i was in the middle of the meadow and all i could see were hundreds of tiny rainbows. i was in a rainbow forest or maybe in a rainbow. all in all it was a magnificent experience which my camera could not show for the photo only showed a small meadow of grass

  2. Mary Avidano

    Your essay opens readers to a more imaginative interpretation of “reality.” We can go on insisting on our unapproachable rainbows, or we can come closer to Thoreau’s heightened awareness, which he found (I am guessing) by means of his habit of solitude. I really liked this piece, David.

    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      Thanks, Mary! You make a good point–I think his habit of solitude is directly related to his heightened awareness (a skill he continued to cultivate even after he moved back to town and a more conventional lifestyle).

  3. William Thompson

    I know that standing inside a rainbow does SEEM like an impossibility, I don’t know the pysics involved needed to do so, HOWEVER in 1973 I did JUST THAT! I don’t understand how, but I was walking after a rainshower saw a rainbow in front of me and of course new it would move as I walked forward, imagine my total amazement when I actually stepped INSIDE the prism of colors. A friend was with me and asked in complete dissbelief at seeing this how I managed to do it, I told him that I was as mistyfied as he was. It was eerily beautiful and really hard to describe.


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