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.” 

Thoreau's map of his soundings of Walden Pond. Wikimedia Commons

Thoreau’s map of his soundings of Walden Pond. Wikimedia Commons

After more than a hundred soundings on he found the lake was 102 feet (31m) deep at its greatest depth. That’s pretty deep for a pond, but he keeps it in perspective — if drained, it would not be a great chasm but a gentle depression. “The amount of it is, the imagination give it the least license, dives deeper and soars higher than Nature goes. So, probably, the depth of the ocean will be found to be very inconsiderable compared with its breadth.”

Right again. You may have heard the claim, “If the earth was as small as a billiard ball, it would be smoother than a billiard ball.” This is actually correct. Compared with the size of the earth, even Mt. Everest and the Marianas Trench are tiny scratches on the surface.

But at the same time, Henry is also thinking about the pond in a completely different way, exclaiming, “This is a remarkable depth for so small an area; yet not an inch of it can be spared by the imagination. What if all ponds were shallow? Would it not react on the minds of men? I am thankful that this pond was made deep and pure for a symbol. While men believe in the infinite some ponds will be thought to be bottomless.”

Like his friend Emerson, Thoreau could appreciate nature as a symbol and as an inspiration. Unlike Emerson he doesn’t stop there. He’s just debunked a romantic notion of the “bottomless” pond with hard data, but he doesn’t lose the poetry. Rather than taking away his awe, or shrinking the world, this new knowledge inspires him further.

More about the “bottomless pond” next time.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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