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”:

“Ah, the pickerel of Walden! when I see them lying on the ice, or in the well which the fisherman cuts in the ice, making a little hole to admit the water, I am always surprised by their rare beauty, as if they were fabulous fishes, they are so foreign to the streets, even to the woods, foreign as Arabia to our Concord life. They possess a quite dazzling and transcendent beauty which separates them by a wide interval from the cadaverous cod and haddock whose fame is trumpeted in our streets. They are not green like the pines, nor gray like the stones, nor blue like the sky; but they have, to my eyes, if possible, yet rarer colors, like flowers and precious stones, as if they were the pearls, the animalized nuclei or crystals of the Walden water. They, of course, are Walden all over and all through; are themselves small Waldens in the animal kingdom, Waldenses. It is surprising that they are caught here — that in this deep and capacious spring, far beneath the rattling teams and chaises and tinkling sleighs that travel the Walden road, this great gold and emerald fish swims. I never chanced to see its kind in any market; it would be the cynosure of all eyes there. Easily, with a few convulsive quirks, they give up their watery ghosts, like a mortal translated before his time to the thin air of heaven.”

I’m not a fisherman, so I had to look this up. The type of pickerel known to the northeastern US is the redfin pickerel, described by the North American Native Fishes Association as “a small elusive species unknown to most fishermen.”

You can find plenty of descriptions of fish online, but I’m not aware of a fish being described so vividly and with as much reference to precious stones. I’ve never gotten the impression that Henry cared all that much for jewels or gold, except as metaphors. Give him a choice between an actual emerald and a pickerel in Walden Pond and I’m pretty sure he’d take the fish.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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