Monthly Archives: January 2015

What we can learn from Thoreau’s testing the “bottomless” Walden Pond (Walden 182)

While measuring the depth of Walden Pond, Thoreau noticed that the point of greatest depth lay exactly at the intersection of the pond’s greatest length and its greatest width. Intrigued, he began to wonder. “I said to myself, Who knows but this hint would conduct to the deepest part of the ocean as well as of a pond or puddle? Is not this the rule also for the height of mountains, regarded as the opposite of valleys? We know that a hill is not highest at its narrowest part.”

While he never fully resolved the question, he took preliminary steps to test it.  Ecologist Daniel Botkin wrote a fascinating article about this, “Henry David Thoreau and the Depth of Walden Pond.” (adapted from his book, No Man’s Garden)

In it, Botkin explains how Thoreau’s work is a good example of using a scientific approach to answer questions. The entire piece is worth reading and goes into some of Henry’s other projects that aren’t covered in Walden, but here I will quote only the opening paragraphs: Continue reading

Belief that Walden Pond is bottomless (Walden 181)

“It is remarkable how long men will believe in the bottomlessness of a pond without taking the trouble to sound it.” — Henry David Thoreau, “The Pond in Winter,” Walden

As I wrote in an earlier post, “The hole in the bottom of Walden Pond,” there were plenty of strange stories about Walden Pond and its structure and origin. Here Henry comments that, “Many have believed that Walden reached quite through to the other side of the globe.” I don’t know if anyone actually believed that, or if that was just something they liked to say (though people have believed stranger things), but the point here — and one of the things I love about Thoreau — is that he’s the one who decided to actually find out. Here we see Henry the scientist, pursuing the raw data as he “fathomed it easily with a cod-line and a stone weighing about a pound and a half, and could tell accurately when the stone left the bottom, by having to pull so much harder before the water got underneath to help me.”  Continue reading

The Pickerel Passage (Walden 180)

Redfin pickerel. Wikimedia Commons

Redfin pickerel. Wikimedia Commons

Not only do Walden’s chapters have titles, but some passages are so well-known or commented upon that they’ve acquired their own names. This is the “Pickerel Passage”: Continue reading

The wild men (Walden 179)

“Early in the morning, while all things are crisp with frost, men come with fishing-reels and slender lunch, and let down their fine lines through the snowy field to take pickerel and perch; wild men, who instinctively follow other fashions and trust other authorities than their townsmen, and by their goings and comings stitch towns together in parts where else they would be ripped. They sit and eat their luncheon in stout fear-naughts on the dry oak leaves on the shore, as wise in natural lore as the citizen is in artificial.” — Henry David Thoreau, “The Pond in Winter,” Walden

As with the Canadian woodchopper that Henry wrote about in an earlier chapter (see this post) , he is fascinated with — and admires — men of low social standing live close to nature and are “wise in natural lore.” They are not bookish like Henry. Theirs is a world deeds and not of words — they “know and can tell much less than they have done.” They live in a material world and not an abstract one.

“His life itself passes deeper in Nature than the studies of the naturalist penetrate.”

Thoreau is himself a naturalist, of course, and recognizes that in some ways these uneducated men understand nature more deeply than he does. Cocky as he can sometimes be, he recognizes the value of other kinds learning besides books.

His goal seems to be to combine the experiential knowledge of the “wild man” with the learning of the scholar and the aesthetics of a poet.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

Heaven under our feet (Walden 178)

“Standing on the snow-covered plain, as if in a pasture amid the hills, I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where, kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlor of the fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants. Heaven is under our feet is well as over our heads.” — Henry David Thoreau, “The Pond in Winter,” Walden

“Heaven is under our feet is well as over our heads.” — another Thoreauvian epigram with multiple layers of meaning. One layer is his ongoing blurring of water and sky — the way he describes one in terms of the other, so that by now water and sky seem like natural counterparts, two faces of the same aesthetic thing.

But there’s also the idea of heaven not as “sky” but as… well, as heaven. Thoreau has little or nothing to say about an afterlife. He’s more interested in the here and now — which is exactly is point here, I think. This is heaven, not only under our feet, but under our feet in unexpected places.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

“Nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask.” (Walden 177)

We begin a new chapter, “The Pond in Winter,” and Thoreau is feeling unsettled:

“After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, as what — how — when — where? But there was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in at my broad windows with serene and satisfied face, and no question on her lips. I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and daylight. The snow lying deep on the earth dotted with young pines, and the very slope of the hill on which my house is placed, seemed to say, Forward! Nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask.” Continue reading

Animals trusted Thoreau (Walden 176)

Thoreau had been in the woods long enough — and had lived gently enough — that animals trusted him:

“They [titmice, a small gray and white songbird] were so familiar that at length one alighted on an armful of wood which I was carrying in, and pecked at the sticks without fear. I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn. The squirrels also grew at last to be quite familiar, and occasionally stepped upon my shoe, when that was the nearest way.” Continue reading