“A wisdom clarified by experience” – partridge chicks (Walden 152)

Thoreau is done philosophizing about food and “this slimy, beastly life, eating and drinking.” In the next chapter, “Brute Neighbors,” he celebrates the animals that live in and around his house. Nothing wrong with their beastly lives, not even the mice that live beneath his floor. In describing them, it’s obvious that he enjoys their physicality and animality.

But before getting to Henry’s neighbors, let’s remember that Walden is a very carefully structured book that went through many drafts over several years. Is it an accident that Thoreau places the chapters “Higher Laws” and “Brute Neighbors” (my emphasis) right next to each other?

He finds wonder and beauty in the instincts of young partridges:

“The young suddenly disperse on your approach, at a signal from the mother, as if a whirlwind had swept them away, and they so exactly resemble the dried leaves and twigs that many a traveler has placed his foot in the midst of a brood, and heard the whir of the old bird as she flew off, and her anxious calls and mewing, or seen her trail her wings to attract his attention, without suspecting their neighborhood. …I have held them in my open hand at such a time, and still their only care, obedient to their mother and their instinct, was to squat there without fear or trembling. So perfect is this instinct, that once, when I had laid them on the leaves again, and one accidentally fell on its side, it was found with the rest in exactly the same position ten minutes afterward.”

Other species of birds do this too. Living in Nebraska, I’m reminded of naturalist and photographer Frank Shoemaker, who in 1911 found a killdeer chick hiding in hoof prints in the Nebraska Sandhills. Like Thoreau, he tested the bird’s instinct: “Finally I went a few yards away, then turned and walked rapidly back, the last step bringing my foot directly over the bird. Still it remained perfectly quiet; if I had finished that last step I would have finished the killdeer. Then we picked it up to see if it was really alive, and it was, very much so, and forthwith found its voice, inherited from a long line of vociferous ancestors.” (Shoemaker’s photos and illustrated journal are here. Scroll down to p. 8, photos on 9-11. If Thoreau had had a camera, I think his journal would’ve looked like Shoemaker’s.)

Getting back to Henry’s partridges, he waxes poetic about the young bird’s eyes:

“The remarkably adult yet innocent expression of their open and serene eyes is very memorable. All intelligence seems reflected in them. They suggest not merely the purity of infancy, but a wisdom clarified by experience. Such an eye was not born when the bird was, but is coeval with the sky it reflects. The woods do not yield another such a gem.”

What to make of the suggestive language? He surely doesn’t mean that the bird actually possesses a “wisdom clarified by experience,” only the eyes remind him of that. On the other hand, the survival instincts actually do represent a kind of experience-borne wisdom, being shaped by natural selection (not that he would know that concept yet; Darwin’s On the Origin of Species came out five years after Walden.)

But what of “coeval with the sky it reflects”? Again, Henry is writing in a pre-Darwinian world, but in his writings he seems well aware of the patterns and common themes of nature. The individual, he seems to be telling us, is remarkable, but even more remarkable is the way the individual is part of a much larger, much more ancient whole.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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