Tag Archives: science

Thoreau objects to a “ridiculous demand”: speaking so they understand you (Walden 202)

“It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor toadstools grow so. As if that were important, and there were not enough to understand you without them. As if Nature could support but one order of understandings…”

I think this is one of the funnier passages in Walden. Is Thoreau aware that he is sometimes ambiguous or difficult to understand? Yes he is. Does he see this as a problem? Not at all! Over the years many readers have read Thoreau in a lot of different ways, and have drawn different lessons from him. Not that all readings are equally well-supported by context, but there’s no denying that Henry seems uninterested in communicating a narrow and precise meaning. In these posts I’ve made much of his growing scientific awareness, but Walden is not a scientific treatise. You won’t find this in a scientific paper: Continue reading


What we can learn from Thoreau’s testing the “bottomless” Walden Pond (Walden 182)

While measuring the depth of Walden Pond, Thoreau noticed that the point of greatest depth lay exactly at the intersection of the pond’s greatest length and its greatest width. Intrigued, he began to wonder. “I said to myself, Who knows but this hint would conduct to the deepest part of the ocean as well as of a pond or puddle? Is not this the rule also for the height of mountains, regarded as the opposite of valleys? We know that a hill is not highest at its narrowest part.”

While he never fully resolved the question, he took preliminary steps to test it.  Ecologist Daniel Botkin wrote a fascinating article about this, “Henry David Thoreau and the Depth of Walden Pond.” (adapted from his book, No Man’s Garden)

In it, Botkin explains how Thoreau’s work is a good example of using a scientific approach to answer questions. The entire piece is worth reading and goes into some of Henry’s other projects that aren’t covered in Walden, but here I will quote only the opening paragraphs: Continue reading

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.”  Continue reading

The hole in the bottom of Walden Pond (Walden 129)

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

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

There is something deeply strange about Walden Pond. “The pond rises and falls,” Thoreau wrote, “but whether regularly or not, and within what period, nobody knows, though, as usual, many pretend to know.”

What’s weird is that the water level doesn’t seem to vary with local rainfall. It rises and falls for no apparent reason. Henry said “I can remember when it was a foot or two lower, and also when it was at least five feet higher, than when I lived by it.”

The Concord Magazine reprinted a fascinating 1971 article by Eugene Walker, a geologist and local resident. Walker writes, “Tales are told around town of the hole in the bottom of and the stream that comes through it, connected perhaps to a river that is rumored to run underground from somewhere in the White Mountains, perhaps Lake Winnipesaukee, southward to Cape Cod.”

But the truth, Walker explains, is that the pond’s water level varies exactly with the water table in the sand and gravel that surrounds the lake. In other words the lake bed is apparently porous: Continue reading