“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.”

As a young man Henry was enthralled with the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, his friend and mentor. In his 1838 essay, “Nature” — which you might call the founding document of the Transcendentalist movement — Emerson wrote that man “is placed in the centre of beings, and a ray of relation passes from every other being to him… All facts in natural history taken by themselves, have no value, but are barren like a single sex. But marry it to human history and it is full of life.” Nature’s value, he believed, was in serving as source of analogies to the human experience.

Emerson was brilliant, but in “Nature” it’s obvious (in hindsight) that in some important ways he still had a pre-scientific mind, in which all of nature orbited man just like Ptolemy’s sun orbited the earth. (Not that Emerson believed the latter, but we can hope he’d have appreciated the analogy.) I wrote more about Emerson’s “Nature” here.

Here we see just how far Thoreau had outgrown his mentor’s ideas. Though Henry loved drawing analogies from nature nearly as much as Emerson did, at some level he recognized — at least by this point in his life — that we are part of nature, but nature isn’t centered on us.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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