Monthly Archives: February 2015

A change of scenery: Thoreau leaves Walden (Walden 198)

Why did Thoreau leave Walden Pond after two and a half years?

Within a month of moving out of his little “hut,” he was back living at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house. Biographer Robert Richardson says “he may have left the pond for no better reason than that Lydia Emerson had invited him to spend the winter helping out while her husband was away in Europe.” (Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, p. 185).

Even if true, of course, Henry wasn’t going to write that. Likely his reasons were complex. He was restless, and though he had accomplished much at Walden (writing his first and as yet unpublished book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, plus early drafts of Walden), his publishing credits were thin. As far as anyone else was concerned, he had little to show for his thirty years of living. He begins the Conclusion: Continue reading

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What does Thoreau mean by “Compassion is a very untenable ground”? (Walden 197)

Thoreau believed strongly that we need to witness the power of nature, to observe how it transgresses our limits. And this includes seeing what we perceive as the darker and more grotesque side of nature. As we come to the end of the chapter “Spring,” he’s about to say something startling, something which, if taken out of context, would seem callous and offensive — we’ll get to that a little later. “We are cheered when we observe the vulture feeding on the carrion which disgusts and disheartens us, and deriving health and strength from the repast.” Are you cheered when you see vultures circling in the sky, or feasting on road kill? Continue reading

The tonic of wildness (Walden 196)

“Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness — to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” — Henry David Thoreau, from “Spring,” Walden Continue reading

Hawk in flight (Walden 195)

It was not lonely, but made all the earth lonely beneath it.

Nighthawk. Wikimedia Commons

Nighthawk. Wikimedia Commons

I observed a very slight and graceful hawk, like a nighthawk,
alternately soaring like a ripple and
tumbling
a rod or two
over and over,
showing the under side of its wings,
which gleamed like a satin ribbon in the sun,
or like the pearly inside of a shell… Continue reading

A single gentle rain — “if we lived in the present always” (Walden 194)

“A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty. We loiter in winter while it is already spring.”

— Henry David Thoreau, from “Spring,” Walden

This is one of the most eloquent statements about living in the present that I have ever read. Thoreau goes on to praise the season’s power of renewal: Continue reading

The first sparrow of spring! (Walden 193)

The first sparrow of spring!

The year beginning with younger hope than ever!

The faint silvery warblings
heard over the partially bare and moist fields from
the bluebird, the song sparrow, and the red-wing,
as if the last flakes of winter tinkled as they fell!

What at such a time are histories, chronologies, traditions,
and all written revelations?

…The grass flames up on the hillsides like a spring fire…
as if the earth sent forth an inward heat to greet the returning sun;
not yellow but green is the color of its flame…

— Henry David Thoreau, from “Spring,” Walden Continue reading

Thoreau on squirrels, part 2 (Walden 192)

A squirrel stares down at you from a high perch, chirping loudly, sounding the alarm. If a squirrel could form words, what words would they be? I always imagine them swearing at me. I realize I’m being anthropomorphic, but something about squirrel behavior communicates a complete lack of respect for our human sense of dignity and superiority. Henry got a taste of this when squirrels moved in under his house.

“At the approach of spring the red squirrels got under my house, two at a time, directly under my feet as I sat reading or writing, and kept up the queerest chuckling and chirruping and vocal pirouetting and gurgling sounds that ever were heard; and when I stamped they only chirruped the louder, as if past all fear and respect in their mad pranks, defying humanity to stop them. No, you don’t — chickaree — chickaree. They were wholly deaf to my arguments, or failed to perceive their force, and fell into a strain of invective that was irresistible.”

(His earlier colorful description of squirrel behavior is here.)

(About  “A Year in Walden”)