In early spring it’s always pleasant to see the new shoots springing up from barely-thawed soil, or sometimes poking through snow. Even before they amount to much they’re full of the promise of summer.
But who on earth spends time admiring the dead vegetation left over from the previous year?
Thoreau, of course.
“When the ground was partially bare of snow, and a few warm days had dried its surface somewhat, it was pleasant to compare the first tender signs of the infant year just peeping forth with the stately beauty of the withered vegetation which had withstood the winter — life-everlasting, goldenrods, pinweeds, and graceful wild grasses, more obvious and interesting frequently than in summer even, as if their beauty was not ripe till then…”
He has a point. Even grasses, which we often mistakenly consider weak or insubstantial, stand up remarkably well under winter conditions. Henry was most impressed with the wool-grass (Scirpus cyperinus).
“Many of the phenomena of Winter are suggestive of an inexpressible tenderness and fragile delicacy. We are accustomed to hear this king described as a rude and boisterous tyrant; but with the gentleness of a lover he adorns the tresses of Summer.”
Remember when Thoreau groused about the railroad in Chapter 2? “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” Guess where he discovered a mind-blowing natural wonder?
Naturally… in a railroad cut.
Anyone else might have walked on by without noticing. It’s just mud, Henry! Everything’s melting — it’s that ugly, sloppy time of year, the days of dirty snow and soggy brown grass. But when Henry noticed a mixture of thawing sand and clay flowing down the sides of a railroad cut like lava, he observed that “Innumerable little streams overlap and interlace one with another, exhibiting a sort of hybrid product, which obeys half way the law of currents, and half way that of vegetation. As it flows it takes the forms of sappy leaves or vines, making heaps of pulpy sprays a foot or more in depth, and resembling, as you look down on them, the laciniated, lobed, and imbricated thalluses of some lichens; or you are reminded of coral, of leopard’s paws or birds’ feet, of brains or lungs or bowels, and excrements of all kinds. It is a truly grotesque vegetation, whose forms and color we see imitated in bronze, a sort of architectural foliage more ancient and typical than acanthus, chiccory, ivy, vine, or any vegetable leaves….” Continue reading →
Sometimes when Thoreau cut holes in the ice of Walden Pond, the holes would later freeze, and still later rain fell “and finally a new freezing forms a fresh smooth ice over all, it is beautifully mottled internally by dark figures, shaped somewhat like a spider’s web, what you may call ice rosettes, produced by the channels worn by the water flowing from all sides to a centre. Sometimes, also, when the ice was covered with shallow puddles, I saw a double shadow of myself, one standing on the head of the other, one on the ice, the other on the trees or hillside.”
Where I’m from, as in the place Henry was from, most people don’t spend a lot of time in winter looking at ice with a loving eye. Ice causes accidents. You slip and fall on icy pavement and hurt yourself. Your car slides through an intersection and gets T-boned by another car. Ice breaks limbs from trees and plugs the gutters on your roof and will burst the pipes in your house if they freeze. Ice is not your friend.
What would happen if you found a great and perfect diamond, a jewel of such stunning beauty that it would surely command a huge price at auction… but, let’s say that by some magic it’s impossible for you or anyone else to take possession of it. No one can buy or sell the diamond. No one can take it away or hide it. And it rests in a spot where no one can prevent people from looking at it. It is beyond commerce and can provide no one with power or profit. What happens next?
I think what happens is that over time most people forget about it. Because the Unobtainable Diamond can have no market value, most people would cease to think of it as having any value. Oh, they might admire it if they happened to pass by, but since anyone could look at it at any time, most people wouldn’t even bother to go out of their way to see it. In today’s reading Thoreau writes: Continue reading →
I found that I didn’t have a photo quite like what Thoreau describes – but instead of “quicksilver” I’ll substitute some sunset gold from Holmes Lake, Lincoln, Nebraska.
“In such a day, in September or October, Walden is a perfect forest mirror, set round with stones as precious to my eye as if fewer or rarer. Nothing so fair, so pure, and at the same time so large, as a lake, perchance, lies on the surface of the earth. Sky water. It needs no fence. Nations come and go without defiling it. It is a mirror which no stone can crack, whose quicksilver will never wear off, whose gilding Nature continually repairs; no storms, no dust, can dim its surface ever fresh; — a mirror in which all impurity presented to it sinks, swept and dusted by the sun’s hazy brush — this the light dust-cloth — which retains no breath that is breathed on it, but sends its own to float as clouds high above its surface, and be reflected in its bosom still.”
Not a fish can leap
or an insect fall
on the pond but it is
in circling dimples,
in lines of beauty,
as it were the constant
welling up of its fountain,
the gentle pulsing of its life,
the heaving of its breast.