As he wrote the final drafts of Walden, Thoreau lamented the changes to the pond since he moved out several years earlier. More trees had been cut down, and the town of Concord was even thinking about piping the pond’s water into town.
“Nevertheless, of all the characters I have known, perhaps Walden wears best, and best preserves its purity. Many men have been likened to it, but few deserve that honor. Though the woodchoppers have laid bare first this shore and then that, and the Irish have built their sties by it, and the railroad has infringed on its border, and the ice-men have skimmed it once, it is itself unchanged, the same water which my youthful eyes fell on; all the change is in me. It has not acquired one permanent wrinkle after all its ripples. It is perennially young….” Continue reading →
“I have spent many an hour, when I was younger, floating over its surface as the zephyr willed, having paddled my boat to the middle, and lying on my back across the seats, in a summer forenoon, dreaming awake, until I was aroused by the boat touching the sand, and I arose to see what shore my fates had impelled me to; days when idleness was the most attractive and productive industry.” — Henry David Thoreau, from “The Ponds,” Walden Continue reading →
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: Continue reading →
“A field of water betrays the spirit that is in the air. It is continually receiving new life and motion from above. It is intermediate in its nature between land and sky. On land only the grass and trees wave, but the water itself is rippled by the wind. I see where the breeze dashes across it by the streaks or flakes of light. It is remarkable that we can look down on its surface. We shall, perhaps, look down thus on the surface of air at length, and mark where a still subtler spirit sweeps over it.” — Henry David Thoreau, from “The Ponds,” Walden
I found that I didn’t have a photo quite like what Thoreau describes – but instead of “quicksilver” I’ll substitute some sunset gold from Holmes Lake, Lincoln, Nebraska.
“In such a day, in September or October, Walden is a perfect forest mirror, set round with stones as precious to my eye as if fewer or rarer. Nothing so fair, so pure, and at the same time so large, as a lake, perchance, lies on the surface of the earth. Sky water. It needs no fence. Nations come and go without defiling it. It is a mirror which no stone can crack, whose quicksilver will never wear off, whose gilding Nature continually repairs; no storms, no dust, can dim its surface ever fresh; — a mirror in which all impurity presented to it sinks, swept and dusted by the sun’s hazy brush — this the light dust-cloth — which retains no breath that is breathed on it, but sends its own to float as clouds high above its surface, and be reflected in its bosom still.”
Not a fish can leap
or an insect fall
on the pond but it is
in circling dimples,
in lines of beauty,
as it were the constant
welling up of its fountain,
the gentle pulsing of its life,
the heaving of its breast.
Today Thoreau is sitting on a hilltop staring down at the pond. That’s it. Just sitting on a stump, staring at still water. He can see almost the whole pond from where he’s at, and nothing is happening. Or rather, that’s how it might seem to the casual eye, the impatient eye, the eye that isn’t really seeing.
“From a hilltop you can see a fish leap in almost any part; for not a pickerel or shiner picks an insect from this smooth surface but it manifestly disturbs the equilibrium of the whole lake. It is wonderful with what elaborateness this simple fact is advertised — this piscine murder will out — and from my distant perch I distinguish the circling undulations when they are half a dozen rods in diameter. Continue reading →