Chasing the loon (Walden 155)

“This was his looning — perhaps the wildest sound that is ever heard here, making the woods ring far and wide.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Brute Neighbors,” Walden

I don’t live in loon country, but the above video from New Hampshire features good loon audio (but jumpy video, unfortunately).

Thoreau writes of chasing a loon in his boat. The loon kept diving to get away from him, then popping up out of the water in unexpected places. Henry kept rowing for him, trying to guess where he would next appear, but without ever reaching him. The short video below, shot by some scuba divers, shows what wonderful divers loons are:

“I found that it was as well for me to rest on my oars and wait his reappearing as to endeavor to calculate where he would rise; for again and again, when I was straining my eyes over the surface one way, I would suddenly be startled by his unearthly laugh behind me… after an hour he seemed as fresh as ever, dived as willingly, and swam yet farther than at first.”

Loon, Wisconsin. Wikimedia Commons

Loon, Wisconsin. Wikimedia Commons

Elsewhere online I’ve read some criticism of Thoreau for this chase — a game to him but a potentially exhausting ordeal for the bird. But why then did the loon not fly away? “But why,” Henry asks, “after displaying so much cunning, did he invariably betray himself the moment he came up by that loud laugh?” It may have been a game for the loon as well.

I’ve had a similar experience with a double-crested cormorant, an enormous black bird that is also an excellent underwater swimmer. Despite paddling hard and being aided by a strong tailwind, I could bring my kayak no closer to the cormorant. Each time he dove, I counted thirteen seconds before he surfaced. I never got close enough for a picture, and I left him alone after about five dives.

Some sources suggest that chasing the loon is an allegory of Henry’s spiritual quest. Maybe so. He certainly loved to find analogies in nature. He concludes the story as follows:

“At length having come up fifty rods off, he uttered one of those prolonged howls, as if calling on the god of loons to aid him, and immediately there came a wind from the east and rippled the surface, and filled the whole air with misty rain, and I was impressed as if it were the prayer of the loon answered, and his god was angry with me; and so I left him disappearing far away on the tumultuous surface.”

Symbolic? Could be. But I wouldn’t read too much into that final sentence, which may be more witty than deep. If Henry had wanted to make a further point here it would certainly have been in character for him to do so. But I suspect that he simply wanted to the tell the story of this strange and funny and beautiful interaction with nature. It has enough of its own mystery and doesn’t need to symbolize anything beyond itself.

(End of chapter, “Brute Neighbors”)

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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