Tag Archives: history

The ice men come to Walden Pond (Walden 186)

Harvesting on Lake St Clair, Michigan - circa 1905. Wikimedia Commons

Harvesting on Lake St Clair, Michigan – circa 1905. Wikimedia Commons

“To speak literally, a hundred Irishmen, with Yankee overseers, came from Cambridge every day to get out the ice. They divided it into cakes by methods too well known to require description…” — Henry David Thoreau, from “The Pond in Winter,” Walden

Today, of course, it does require description. The ice trade was a big deal in New England prior to the advent of refrigeration. Simply put, the region had bitterly cold winters and lots of lakes. Ice was cut in blocks and hauled to ice houses where they were stacked and insulated (often by being covered in sawdust), and then sold throughout the warm weather months.

Thoreau continues his description (paragraph breaks added): Continue reading


Snow at Walden (Walden 168)

2011-12 006s

OK, this isn’t snow at Walden as the headline says. It’s snow on a branch just outside my window in Nebraska. Thoreau would probably point out that you can see buds ready to open come spring. That’s one way he got through the long Massachusetts winters… by looking closely for any sign of the coming spring.

“At this season I seldom had a visitor. When the snow lay deepest no wanderer ventured near my house for a week or fortnight at a time, but there I lived as snug as a meadow mouse, or as cattle and poultry which are said to have survived for a long time buried in drifts, even without food; or like that early settler’s family in the town of Sutton, in this State, whose cottage was completely covered by the great snow of 1717 when he was absent, and an Indian found it only by the hole which the chimney’s breath made in the drift, and so relieved the family.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors,” Walden Continue reading

Is your garden a cemetery? (Walden 167)

“I am not aware that any man has ever built on the spot which I occupy. Deliver me from a city built on the site of a more ancient city, whose materials are ruins, whose gardens cemeteries. The soil is blanched and accursed there, and before that becomes necessary the earth itself will be destroyed.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors,” Walden

I have to disagree with Thoreau here. He doesn’t think anyone has built on his spot before, but in at least 13,000 years of human habitation of North America (and maybe a good deal more), is it likely that he was the first? Continue reading

Thoreau on virtue, law and order (Walden 122)

Thoreau is talking about law and order — how he was arrested for refusing to pay his poll tax (in protest of the Mexican War and of the federal government’s support of slavery), and how he habitually left his cabin unlocked and felt that if everyone lived as simply as he did, theft would be unknown. Maybe so: he had little to steal. He ends “The Village” chapter with a quote from Confucius:

“You who govern public affairs, what need have you to employ punishments? Love virtue, and the people will be virtuous. The virtues of a superior man are like the wind; the virtues of a common man are like the grass; the grass, when the wind passes over it, bends.” Continue reading

Society runs amok against Thoreau, it being the desperate party (Walden 121)

“One afternoon, near the end of the first summer, when I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler’s, I was seized and put into jail, because, as I have elsewhere related, I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle, at the door of its senate-house.”

This is Thoreau’s matter-of-fact way of describing his arrest, which prompted his famous and influential essay, “Civil Disobedience.” He writes about the issues in more depth in that piece (and I wrote about his anti-slavery activism here), so this time I’m going to focus more on an important observation that Thoreau makes about the balance of power. He continues: Continue reading

Columbus Day: How to distort the past without actually lying

Here’s a re-run from last year, which I think is apropos considering the current squabble over AP history standards. Many Americans still believe that the purpose of history is to teach patriotism. The best teachers, however, try to instill critical thinking skills and a willingness to follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if it ruins your preferred narrative.

But narratives can be tenacious, and it’s possible to cling to one in spite of overwhelming evidence. It’s possible to do so even while acknowledging that evidence. The story of Christopher Columbus shows how:

The Curious People

Replicas of Columbus’s ships at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Via Wikipedia

Columbus Day is a US holiday which is celebrated with annual arguments about the propriety of honoring Christopher Columbus with a holiday. The atrocities that he and his men committed are so well documented that you’d think it would be impossible to defend the man, but people are still doing it. Today’s post isn’t about Columbus so much as it’s about how to defend Columbus (not that I’m defending him). There’s an important lesson here about history and about the way we talk about history.

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Thoreau ridicules the militia (Walden 113)

As we saw last time (and many times before), Thoreau can wax poetic. But can he do sarcasm?

Yes he can, and vividly… especially when the local militia turns out to drill.

First, a bit of context: Henry’s stay at Walden Pond overlapped with the Mexican-American War, a shameless land grab in which the U.S. invented a pretext for stealing a huge portion of Mexico. (That, by the way, is not just my interpretation. It’s also Abraham Lincoln’s. Henry himself despised American imperialism; his famous essay “Civil Disobedience” was written partly in response to the war (and to slavery). He had ample reason to disapprove of militarism and the glorification of war. He writes: Continue reading