Support the Monkey! Tell All your Friends and Teachers
The first chapter of Walden is the longest in the book. You will notice that every few pages there is extra space between two paragraphs. This is a signal that Thoreau is about to change the subject and begin a new section within the chapter. There are eleven such sections within this first chapter, "Economy." In the first section Thoreau introduces the book and begins his discussion of economy, or the management of one's expenses. He goes on in the second section to consider the necessities of life. In the third section he gives you a little background on himself and about how he came to live at Walden Pond. Clothing and shelter, respectively, are the subjects of the next two sections. In the sixth section Thoreau returns to a discussion of his beginnings at the pond and mentions the building of his cabin. This leads to a consideration of architecture in section seven. The cost of architectural improvements reminds Thoreau of a man's need to earn money, which is the subject of section eight. In section nine he describes the furnishings of his cabin. Section ten is a review of his experience in "maintaining" himself on earth. And in section eleven Thoreau gives his opinion of philanthropy, or humanitarianism- acts of good will toward one's fellow man.
Most of Walden was written between July 4, 1845 and September 6, 1847. Walden Pond is a mile from the nearest neighbor in the woods between Concord and Lincoln, near Boston, Massachusetts. Thoreau built his own house on the pond and earned his living there through manual labor.
Many people were curious about Thoreau's experiment in living, and asked him questions about everything from his diet to his fear of the woods. In part, Walden is an answer to those questions. It is written in the first person, and is the account of the person he knows best- himself.
Thoreau remarks, "I have travelled a good deal in Concord." This is one of his more famous- and humorous- lines, and he means by it that any exploration might best begin at home. What he has seen at home in Concord are his neighbors working, working so hard that they appear by their labor to be repenting for some terrible sin. The sight of them reminds Thoreau of Hindu peoples who subject themselves to torture, and of the labors of the mythological Hercules. The difference is that the people of Concord never seem to get anywhere for all their work. Thoreau pities young people who have inherited property and possessions, saying that these things are harder to get rid of than they are to acquire. These people do little more than dig their own graves during their lifetimes. Thoreau describes them in pathetic images, first as burdened by the belongings that they must push ahead of themselves on the road of life, then as having hands that have grown too clumsy and rough from work to pick the fruits of life that require the most delicate handling. He sees people as being on a treadmill, leading what he calls "lives of quiet desperation." People seem resigned to their fate when, in fact, it is what a man thinks of himself that largely determines the course of his life. That is, man can determine his fate rather than be a victim of it. Thoreau warns us against taking anyone else's word for what we should do or even can do. The old, he says, speak from experience, but their experience is often one of failure. It is never too late to change.
As an example of the kind of advice that is the result of faulty reasoning and is worthless to us, Thoreau tells a story. A farmer told him that a vegetarian diet is unsound because it supplies nothing that the body can use in making bones. Thoreau adds that the farmer is saying this as he walks behind a plow drawn by his oxen whose enormously strong bones and muscles pull it through the rough ground. The oxen eat only vegetable material- so much for the farmer's reasoning! This first section ends with Thoreau quoting the Chinese philosopher Confucius, who says that true knowledge is knowing what we do and do not know.
In the second section Thoreau questions the necessities of life. By going back in time (either in practical terms by leading a more primitive life-style or in historical terms to the records left by traders and merchants) we get a sense of what is truly necessary. To some creatures it is only food; to others it is food and shelter. For man in this climate it is food, shelter, clothing, and fuel; it is not until a man has the things that he needs that he feels the freedom to consider other problems of life. Since we have outgrown the savage state we have lost our ability to live as savages, to be warm while naked. "Heat is life," says Thoreau. Our food is actually just fuel to heat our bodies; our clothing and shelter help us to retain the body heat.
Thoreau itemizes his other necessities: a knife, an axe, a spade, a wheelbarrow, lamplight, stationery, and access to a few books. Many of our comforts are like ballast weighing us down when we try to "elevate" ourselves or achieve a higher state. In many and varied cultures we find examples of philosophers who were, by our standards, very poor. But it was always by choice; they chose to do without and to lead simple lives so that nothing would distract them from their thoughts. Thoreau suggests that only from such a position of "voluntary poverty" can a person observe life fairly and with an uncluttered, unobstructed view.
In an extended metaphor for a man as a plant, Thoreau asks why would we put down roots into the earth if we were not planning to grow as far in the direction of heaven as we grow into the earth. After all, he figures, plants are valued for the fruit they produce above ground. Thoreau closes this section saying that he is speaking not to those who mind their business and take care of themselves, but to those who are discontented with their lives, especially those who are considered "wealthy" but who are imprisoned by their chains of silver and gold.
The third section is a brief account of Thoreau's life before Walden, not of specific events, but of aspects of his character and personality that made him a likely candidate for the experiment. He speaks of himself here as if he were describing a character from a fable. You understand that he has concentrated all his attention on Nature, as when he says that he tried to hear what was in the wind, or that he waited at evening for the sky to fall so that he might catch a piece of it. He claims that his position was that of "self-appointed inspector of snow-storms and rain-storms," and surveyor of ravines and forest paths. He also says that he helped the sun in rising by being there when it did. You understand how he sees himself in the grand scheme of things when he says that he is "anxious to stand at the meeting of two eternities, past and future, which is precisely the present moment."
In this almost cosmic language Thoreau raises his own life to the level of myth in an obscure but often quoted paragraph:
I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travellers I have spoken concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.
The lost creatures here are symbols of those things in life which we can never capture but are always searching for.
Section four is Thoreau's discourse on clothing. In his mind clothing serves no purpose other than retaining heat and covering nakedness. He dismisses novelty and fashion and criticizes those who care more about their clothes than about the person inside them. He warns us against new activity that requires new clothes- rather than a new "wearer of clothes." He then compares us with animals who molt. We should change our clothes at a turning point in our lives so that we will not be like new wine in old bottles. But of course simply changing our clothes will not change us.
In the fifth section Thoreau goes on to discuss his philosophy of another necessity, shelter. We should try to get by with as little shelter as possible; after all, birds do not sing in caves. It is in this section that we hear one of the basic principles of Thoreau's economy: "The cost of something is the amount of life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run," and Thoreau is sickened by the amount of life exchanged for the rental of a house or the mortgage on a farm. The solution to an economic problem is often more complex than the problem itself, as when a farmer deals in herds of cattle in order to have enough money to buy shoelaces. Housing is like clothing- it improves, but not those who are inside. Thoreau describes what we now call "keeping up with the Joneses," and complains about how possessions complicate life. He himself kept three pieces of limestone on his desk until he realized that they needed to be dusted every day, at which point he threw them away in disgust. Even on the railroad, money is spent on the wrong things- more on luxury than on safety. In a famous line Thoreau remarks that he would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to himself than be crowded on a velvet cushion.
NOTE: In this section you will notice a reference to someone named "Jonathan." In the mid 1800s this was a name used to refer to any American, and the name "John" was used to refer to any Englishman. It is similar to referring to an average person today as "John Doe." Keep this in mind, because Thoreau will make use of these names later in the book.
Halfway through the first chapter section six begins. Thoreau explains that in March of 1845 he borrowed an axe and went down to the site of his house and began to cut down timber. It is important to note that the cycle at Walden Pond begins here, in the spring. Thoreau recalls seeing a snake slip out of the leaves and into some icy water and stay there, paralyzed. He compares the snake to men who live in a spiritual winter and do not feel the effects of spring in their souls.
NOTE: The song that he sings to himself here, like all the poems that appear in the text without quotation marks, was written by Thoreau.
As they were needed, Thoreau borrowed more tools. He worked all spring on his house, framing it with boards bought and taken from the shack of one James Collins, an Irish railroad worker. The house was raised in May with help from neighbors. Thoreau moved in on the fourth of July.
Section seven alternates between Thoreau's thoughts on architecture in general and reports on his own cabin in particular. He goes back to the subject of ornaments; beauty in architecture, he says, is a function of purpose and usefulness and not appearance or ornament.
Before winter set in he was able to build his chimney, to shingle, and to plaster. The house was 10 feet wide by 15 feet long, had a garret (an attic), a closet, a large window on either side, the door at one end and the fireplace at the other. With leftover materials, he built a small woodshed out back.
For the amount a man spends on rent in one year, he could own his own shelter, says Thoreau. He discusses the high cost of room, board, and tuition at colleges, and says we learn more by doing than by studying, experience alone makes for productive time. The tragedy of our lives is that we spend our best years earning money so that we can have free time when we are old, when the time is of little value to us.
While working on his house Thoreau found himself in need of around $10 to meet expenses. To generate income, he planted beans, potatoes, corn, peas, and turnips. Not only was it cheaper to use a spade to turn the ground than to hire a team of oxen to plow, this also kept him independent. We think of men as the keeper of herds, but herds can also be keepers of men and are, in a way, much freer.
By farming ($23.44) and by doing a little carpentry and surveying ($13.34), Thoreau earned $36.78 in a year. His expenses were $61.99 and 3/4 of a cent. He made up the difference with money he already had when he started.
He admits that he is thinking more of economy than of diet when he suggests that men should eat as simply as the animals and not trouble themselves so much in getting food. If each of us could raise his own food and build his own shelter, all trade in these two necessities of life could be eliminated.
In the ninth section Thoreau itemizes the furnishings of his house, some of which he made himself: a bed, a table, a desk, three chairs, a looking glass (3" in diameter), a pair of tongs and andirons for the fire, a kettle, a skillet, a frying pan, a ladle, a washbowl, two knives, and two forks, three plates, one cup, one spoon, a jug for oil, a jug for molasses, and a lamp. Curtains were unnecessary since only the sun and moon looked in. Thoreau says in this section that if you have to drag your trap, it had better be a light one.
In section ten Thoreau speaks from his own experience in earning his living. He claims that he was able to support himself for five years by doing manual labor only six weeks a year. This left all of the winter and most of the summer free for study and reading. He lists as his greatest skill the fact that he wanted little and that he valued his freedom more than fine furniture, carpets, delicate food, or a fancy house. He has nothing to say to people who work for the sake of working. They are so enslaved that they wouldn't know what to do with more free time. Supporting ourselves should be a pastime rather than a hardship. We should live wisely and simply and in as many different ways as there are people.
The tone of the chapter's final section is sometimes puzzling and difficult to understand. You have been listening to a man tell you how to improve your life. And yet here he criticizes those who try to improve the lives of others, saying that charity is an overrated virtue. Thoreau is reacting here to a sad fact of philanthropy (good will to others) that continues today. Much "goodness" is motivated by guilt or fear and, as such, is "tainted." Thoreau says that if you want to "restore mankind by... natural means" you should be "as simple and well as Nature" herself. It is a theme you will hear again and again in the book.
2. WHERE I LIVED, AND WHAT I LIVED FOR
Chapter 2 is as straightforward as its title sounds. It first gives a description of the site of Thoreau's cabin, and then the reasons why he lived as he did. In many ways it is a shorter and more moving version of his first chapter on "Economy."
Before showing you the very spot where he built his house, Thoreau gives you a little background on his experiences in the local real estate market. He knows the countryside well. In his mind, he's bought every farm within a radius of twelve miles, and has discovered many homesites in the undeveloped landscape as well. He says, "At a certain season of our life we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house." He's telling you now of his experiences in that period of his own life.
It may surprise you to learn how close Thoreau came to buying a farm in Concord known as the Hollowell place. He remembered the farm from his first trips up the Sudbury River. He liked it for its hollow apple trees, its dilapidated fences, its run-down gray house, and its location two miles from the village and a half mile from any neighbor. The farmer's wife changed her mind about selling at the last minute, just before Thoreau had been given a deed to the property. All this happened before Thoreau decided to go to Walden Pond. If the deal had not fallen through, the commitment of owning and operating a big farm might have kept Thoreau from his experiment in essential living. Both his name and the name of Walden Pond might be unknown to us today. In thinking back on how close he'd come to owning a farm of his own, Thoreau offers a bit of wisdom: you live free and uncommitted as long as possible, because in the long run it doesn't matter if you are trapped by your responsibilities or by the county jail. And in any event, it isn't actually necessary to own a piece of land in order to gain the spiritual joys it has to offer.
Thoreau claims it was quite by accident that he began his life in the woods on Independence Day. When he began spending his nights there, the house was not yet finished. It was little more than a shelter from the rain. The walls were not plastered, but were rough boards with wide spaces in between through which air passed, keeping the cabin cool in the summer evenings. The hewn wood of the studs and the planed door and window casings gave the place a clean look, and the unfinished nature of the inside gave the cabin a sketchy quality. There was no need for Thoreau to go outside to get air because the atmosphere inside was still so fresh. (You will see him make the place fit for the winter in the chapter called "House-Warming.") He felt that he had caged himself nearer the birds whose songs were familiar to him, and to those that were never heard in the village.
Thoreau describes the setting of his cabin in the woods. The cabin was by the shore of Walden, a small pond. It was situated at such a low point that the opposite shore of Walden Pond was the most distant horizon- Thoreau could see nothing past that. He describes the water in the pond during a break in a rainstorm in August, when the surface is smooth and full of light and reflection. It seems suspended like a heaven hanging lower than the sky. Although from a certain nearby hilltop Thoreau could see distant peaks ranging from a near green to a distant blue, and some portion of the village, in other directions he could not see over or beyond the woods.
You might feel crowded or confined by the restricted view. But for Thoreau it was as if he had entered a warp in time and space. He felt as far away from the life he'd left behind as if he were in a constellation in the night sky seen only by astronomers- a new and untouched place in the universe. He seemed closer to times past, times in history that had always appealed to him. The heroic ages seemed revived even in his daily practice of awakening early and bathing in the pond- a ritual of renewal recommended since the time of Confucius.
Many writers have praised morning; Thoreau joins them, calling it "the most memorable season of the day." For him it is a magical time, a time when you have an intelligence or consciousness that you have at no other time of the day. For him the words awake and alive have the same meaning. The atmosphere of morning, the atmosphere of hope and infinite expectation, is one you should try to carry with you, making the rest of your life worthy of these best hours.
It was just this sort of striving- a striving to improve his life by living as simply as possible- that led Thoreau to the woods. He hoped to learn from that simplicity what is essential in life, and to experience it. You know what Thoreau means when he says "life is frittered away by detail." Life, in his view, has become like a country growing up without a plan into a cluttered and unwieldy mess. People are in too much of a hurry, and are always wasting time. They're concerned with news that is little more than gossip, instead of trying to learn more about more abiding truths. In our more unhurried moments we have a better perspective from which to evaluate what is important and what is petty in life. Thoreau urges you to spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be distracted from that task by anything but reality. Back to basics.
The chapter ends with one of the book's better-known and often-quoted passages:
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.
NOTE: This is a good example of the more difficult but exciting passages in Walden. It uses metaphor to push a thought as far as it can be imagined. It is a passage that must and can be read again and again, and even once you understand it, you would have a hard time explaining it exactly to someone else. This is why it is exciting- because it remains mysterious.
In this chapter you learn Thoreau's thoughts about reading. It is a short chapter, and all of a piece. No sights or sounds filter in from the outdoors to distract Thoreau from the theme at hand.
We learn right away, in the first paragraph, that when Thoreau says "reading" he means the serious reading of serious books. It occurs to him that all people would probably become students if they thought about it long enough, because one thing that all people share is a desire to learn the truth. In trying to satisfy this desire (through reading) we achieve a kind of immortality that we cannot achieve by acquiring property or by starting a family or, even, by building a reputation. This desire for truth, as he describes it, acts almost as an independent force, and connects all people. He makes it sound like a single thread running through everyone. In a haunting and exotic metaphor for writing and reading, Thoreau describes an ancient philosopher "raising a corner of the veil from the statue of divinity." The veil remains raised so Thoreau can see the statue in the way the philosopher did. The desire for truth is the same in both of these men, and it is what makes them do what they do: it makes the philosopher think and write about wisdom and knowledge, and it makes the student read the philosopher's writings.
Completing his house, and having to hoe his fields all the time, kept Thoreau from doing any serious reading during his first summer at Walden Pond. But the spot was a good one for reading and thinking, and Thoreau kept a copy of Homer's Iliad on the table all the while. It served as a reminder of what he had to look forward to when the greater part of his manual labor was done.
But you must not misunderstand him here, he does not think of reading as an easy activity that entertains you after you have spent the better part of your energy and attention on something else. Thoreau considers reading one of the most demanding endeavors a person can undertake. He says that "to read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise." He compares the training it requires to the training that athletes undergo. And he recommends that books be read as carefully as they were written.
NOTE: One of the biggest problems we have in understanding the classics comes from having to read them in English translation. Thoreau suggests that every student learn even a few words of an ancient language, if only to get a taste of its special flavor. When we read books that have been translated from another language, we should keep that fact in mind and try to imagine what larger meaning the words might have had in other times and in other places. It is not enough to be able to speak in the original language, for there is a world of difference between a language as it is spoken and that same language as it is written.
Thoreau's opinion of this difference between the spoken and the written word is summed up in two similes, or comparisons. Words that are spoken are like clouds. They are fleeting; they don't last. Written words, on the other hand, are like the stars- fixtures in the heavens. They can be studied and commented on forever by anyone who can understand them.
The written word is the work of art that's closest to life itself. It doesn't need marble or canvas in order to exist. It can even escape the confines of paper, and exist in human breath itself (that is, we can read it and repeat it aloud), and in every language. Writers become influential in all societies. For evidence that intellectual culture is desirable, you have only to look at your own society. Uneducated people who make a great deal of money in business are not satisfied to be admitted to wealthy and fashionable circles. They want still more. They want their children to attend the very best schools so that they may someday be admitted to the still higher circles of intellectual culture. Thoreau emphasizes this idea of ascending when he claims that the classics and scriptures of the many nations of the earth are the prizes and trophies of the centuries. He imagines these volumes stacked up like a flight of stairs that may lead us to heaven, at last.
He returns to his image of written words as stars in the heavens when he talks about the works of the great poets. Reading them is more like astrology, the occult study of the influence the stars might have on our horoscopes, than like astronomy, which is a serious science of the heavenly bodies. We read, he says, for the sake of convenience. We do this in the same way that we learn and remember just enough math so that we won't be cheated when we buy things. We seem satisfied to read books that don't require much thought, or to read condensed versions of stories or romances about characters with such unlikely names as Zebulon and Sophronia. He gets quite carried away mimicking the ridiculous story line that such romances follow.
Even good readers, Thoreau complains, don't read the best books. The person who has just finished reading an English classic can't find anyone to talk to about it. These classics are golden words and no one goes near them. But every one of you would go out of your way to pick up a silver dollar.
Living with great books and not reading them isn't much different from living next door to someone and never meeting that person. And if those of you who can read don't read, then you are no different from those who can't read at all. You probably "soar but little higher in [your] intellectual flights than the columns of the daily paper."
"Not all books are as dull as their readers," he continues. If you could understand them, there are some books that address your condition exactly and may at times mean more to you than morning or spring itself. How often have you begun an explanation with the words, "I don't know how to say this..."? Chances are there is a book somewhere that says it for you. Because the same questions come up again and again, in each age different authors offer answers in their own words.
The problem of being undereducated and illiterate is not one that Thoreau sees as beginning and ending with the individual. The village of Concord does as little for its culture as any one man does for his own intellectual growth. If progress were measured by amounts of money spent on school systems, then there would be little sign of progress in the nineteenth century. People stop their formal education as soon as they stop being children. Villages should be like universities, or take the place of the noblemen of Europe as patrons of the arts. This is a familiar complaint in our age. "This town has spent seventeen thousand dollars on a town-house, thank fortune or politics, but probably it will not spend so much on living wit... in a hundred years."
In closing Thoreau suggests some town planning that would make the changes possible: "If it is necessary, omit one bridge over the river, go round a little there, and throw one arch at least over the darker gulf of ignorance which surrounds us."
This chapter has three distinct sections. In the first Thoreau, being a true Transcendentalist, urges you to experience life directly, through nature, rather than chiefly through books. In the second you find him interrupted by the sound of the railroad, trying to integrate that unnatural sound with his natural world. In the third the sound of the railroad dies away and Thoreau is left, very much alone, with the sounds and the language of nature.
If you wanted to know if a person could understand the Spanish language, you would probably ask, "Do you speak Spanish?" All over the world the term to speak a language is used to mean to understand. But in order to understand a language we must also be able to listen.
What worries Thoreau is that people are forgetting the language of Nature. After all he has just said about the importance of reading books, it's as if he now wants to add, "But don't get me wrong, books are not the best source of knowledge." More important than any course in history or poetry is the ability to see what is to be seen, simply to be aware of the world around you. This, too, requires study.
His own method of study was simple: he sat in his doorway and listened, unaware of the passing of time. This was his work. The townspeople thought he was lazy, but Thoreau preferred to be judged not by the standards of other men, but by the standards of birds and flowers. He says, "The natural day is very calm, and will hardly reprove his indolence."
Unlike most people, Thoreau didn't feel as if he had to go to the theater, for instance, and to be around other people in order to have a good time. He seemed to have a good time no matter what he was doing; most people would call it looking on the bright side of things. But Thoreau even enjoyed cleaning out his little cabin. He enjoyed seeing his table and chairs out on the grass amid the trees. He thought they seemed glad to get outside. It seemed right to have the natural forms returned to the natural surroundings that inspired them.
While Thoreau is sitting at his window he hears the rattle of railroad cars, the sound coming and going in the air like the sound of a wingbeat. It is the Fitchburg Railroad, which runs about a hundred yards from his cabin. Its tracks are the path that he follows into town.
NOTE: When you read his descriptions of the railroad, note his vision, his way of looking at the world. Everything he looks at he sees in terms of natural imagery. When he describes the train it appears first as a comet visiting our solar system. Then it is a magnificent iron horse, snorting thunder and breathing fire and smoke. For him the railroad is like the sun; it is as regular in its motions. Farmers set their clocks by the sound of its whistle. Men are more punctual because of it. Life is faster because of it. This single industry influences the whole country, but interferes with the life of no one. It is like a powerful creature with a mind of its own.
The coming of the railroad is the coming of a commerce that braves the gravest weather in its exchange of exotic palm leaf, hemp, and coconut husks from foreign land for lumber, rags, and fish from New England. And when the cattle train passes, it sounds like a whole valley going by.
But all the natural images in the world cannot conceal Thoreau's true feelings about the railroad. In any disguise it is still a symbol of the commerce and industry that signals the end of an agricultural society. It signifies the end of a harmony between man and the natural world. It is still a symbol of the Industrial Revolution, of factory work and low wages for some and a new breed of materialism for others. The sense we have after reading this passage is one of sadness, for the cattle herders who are left without a job. We also mourn our own "pastoral life whirled past and away."
You have probably noticed how quiet it seems when a very loud noise suddenly stops. In that hush, when Thoreau can no longer hear the railroad cars and feel their rumbling, he feels more alone than ever. He hears only the faint rattle of a far-off carriage or team of horses, or on Sundays the churchbells from neighboring towns. But note the quality of that sound coming from such a great distance: it speaks of each leaf and pine needle it passes on its way to you. As it travels it becomes the voice of the woods.
The lowing of a cow, the evening prayer of the whip-poor-wills, the wail of the screech owl (Oh-o-o- o-o that I never had been bor-r-r-r-n!"), and the changing howls of the hooting owls give a voice to the dismal twilight woods. The evening has another voice: the rumble of distant wagons over bridges, the baying of dogs, and the trumpeting questions of bullfrogs ("tr-r-r-oonk, tr-r-r-oonk, tr-r-r- oonk!") and their answer ("troonk").
What he doesn't remember hearing is the sound of a cock, whose note is the most remarkable of any bird. It is his fantasy that this once wild bird might live as a native in these woods, filling the air with his song. But like so many other domestic sounds- the sounds of dogs, cats, hens, pigs, even tea kettles- the note of the cock is missing from Thoreau's yard. In fact, he has no yard. There is only the wilderness growing up around him.
NOTE: When reading about the absence of the cock or chanticleer, you might want to think back to the epigraph of the book in which Thoreau says, "I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up."
It is still evening when this next chapter begins, and you can still hear the bullfrogs and the whip- poor-wills. Thoreau describes a freedom that he feels in Nature, which gives him the sense of being a part of Nature herself.
Returning to his cabin after a walk, Thoreau can always tell when someone has stopped by in his absence. If not from a calling card, a note, or a bunch of flowers, he can tell by the bended twigs or grass, by a footprint, or by the lingering odor of cigar or pipe smoke.
His nearest neighbor is only a mile away; the railroad passes on one side of Walden Pond, and the woodland road between Concord and Lincoln on the other. Yet he feels as solitary there as if he were on the prairies. He may as well be in Africa or Asia; he has the sun, moon, and stars all to himself. At night he gets no more traffic past his house than if he were the first or last man on earth.
He admits that there was one time, just a few weeks after arriving at Walden, when he felt lonely. He says he wondered then if close neighbors were a requirement for a healthy and serene life. The feeling lasted about an hour. Then, suddenly, in everything he could see and hear, even in the drops of rain, he sensed what he calls an "unaccountable friendliness." He felt befriended even by the little pine needles of the woods. At that moment his feeling of loneliness vanished. Human neighbors no longer mattered, and they haven't mattered since.
If you had met Thoreau while he was living at Walden Pond you might have been one of the many people who asked if he felt lonely, especially when it rained or snowed. Thoreau answers this question with another question. What sort of space is it that separates one person from another? Is it physical space? There is no physical movement that can bring together two minds that have a difference of opinion. We are often more lonely among others than we are when we stay alone in our rooms. "Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are." This closeness, this frequency, Thoreau says, makes us lose respect for each other.
No matter where he is, a person who's working or thinking is always alone. Thinking, in fact, creates distance in two ways- distance from others and distance from ourselves. You have no doubt worked in a crowded and busy library or study hall. You have probably noticed that no matter how many other people surrounded you, in your thoughts you are essentially alone. In thinking you also achieve a distance from yourself. You can consciously stand apart from your actions and their consequences. There is a part of you, no matter how intense the experience, that is always the spectator. That part of you does not share in, but merely notes the experience.
As a part of nature Thoreau felt great harmony with his surroundings. And as a part of nature he was no more lonely than a loon in a pond is lonely. He was no more lonely than a dandelion, a horsefly, the North Star, the South wind, an April shower, or Walden Pond itself.
You have already noticed how Thoreau uses one chapter to balance another. This chapter on "Visitors" acts to balance the chapter on "Solitude." It does so in the same way that the chapter on "Sounds" acted to balance the chapter on "Reading."
Thoreau claims to love society as much as the next person. He says that he is not a hermit by nature. In the chapter entitled "Economy" he told us that he had three chairs in his cabin. Here he tells us what each of the three chairs symbolizes in his life: "one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society." When he was visited in greater numbers (sometimes by twenty-five or thirty people at once) everyone stood. On the subject of being part of a large group, he has a thought that is probably familiar to you. He says that after being together, "we often parted without being aware that we had come very near to one another." You hear repeated a theme from "Solitude"- that we are often most alone when among others.
In a small space you complain of feeling "on top of one another." Thoreau describes this feeling he has when he is confined with other people. But his reasons for this feeling are probably different from yours. For him a conversation is the unfolding of thoughts. In his mind these thoughts need room to travel and come to rest before being appreciated by others. It is as if he imagines thoughts as things that can be visualized, like paintings. You know how hard it is to see a large painting if you are standing up close to it. He describes two people speaking thoughtfully in a small space as two stones thrown into a pool of still water, thrown so close together that they interfere with each other's radiating waves.
NOTE: In the mid-1800s every house had a drawing room- a room that we might now call a living room- where guests were entertained. Thoreau, on the other hand, had what he called his "withdrawing room." It was the pine wood behind the cabin, and it was always ready for guests, its floor swept and furniture dusted by the wind.
More people came to visit Thoreau while he was at Walden Pond than at any other time in his life. Many were simply curious, although the numbers were kept down by his distance from the village.
One of the people he encountered often was a Canadian woodchopper and post maker, a man who fascinated Thoreau. He was so humble that humility did not seem a distinct quality in him. He was not at all sophisticated. Thoreau says that he would no more think of introducing this man to his neighbor than he would think of introducing a woodchuck to his neighbor- he had to be found out. In his quiet, solitary, and humble life, this man was happy. Thoreau says that a "more natural man would be hard to find." And yet, it seems, his natural man had a flaw. Thoreau defines it by saying that "the intellectual and spiritual man in him were slumbering, like an infant." He remained no more than a highly developed animal- although close to nature, still no ideal man.
Thoreau briefly mentions other visitors: the poor, children, the mentally disturbed, a runaway slave, ministers, doctors, lawyers, and reformers, "the greatest bores of all." Thoreau welcomes them all, but nowhere do we find the same enthusiasm he expressed in his own company. Perhaps we must think again of his claim that he is no hermit, after all.
7. THE BEAN-FIELD
In the second paragraph in this chapter Thoreau recalls the day he first saw Walden Pond. It was when he was four years old. His family was living in Boston at the time, and returned to Concord, the town of Henry's birth, for a visit. They passed through the very woods where he would later live, and went to the pond. The sight of it is a scene he remembers well; it is one of the oldest stamped on his memory. In this chapter he reviews that scene, the same pines, almost the same johnswort. What's changed is that he can now see his influence, the result of his presence on the landscape, and this is the bean-field.
His is the only cultivated field for quite a stretch in every direction. It is the subject of comments from passersby on the woodland road. It is two and a half acres in size. The rows of beans, measured end-to-end and added together, are seven miles long. His helpers are the fertility of the soil and the rain and dew that water the soil. He uses no manure. His only tool is a hoe. His enemies are woodchucks, worms, and cold days. Using primitive methods he's slower than most farmers, but closer to the earth. Husbandry- that is, planting, hoeing, harvesting, threshing, picking over, and selling the beans- was his "curious labor all summer." He harvested twelve bushels and made a profit of $8.71 1/2. And he was wildly happy doing so.
NOTE: Working the bean-field made Thoreau not unlike Antaeus, the mythological figure who derived his strength from touching the earth, and who was killed when Hercules held him off the ground. As he hoes, Thoreau overturns arrowheads and bits of pottery, the remains of other, earlier farmers and hunters. Ancient poetry tells us that husbandry was once a sacred art. Now the farmer has the meanest of lives.
The bean-field at Walden Pond is a "connecting link between wild and cultivated fields." Thoreau's labor affords him a long acquaintanceship with the land, and his kinship with nature is accompanied by the music of his hoe tinkling against the stones, the song of the brown thrasher, and the sound of the heavens rent by a swooping hawk.
In many ways the bean-field is a symbol for Thoreau himself. He embodies and enjoys the wildness of nature and the discipline and cultivation of civilization. He lives in a state that we might call "human nature," if that term hadn't come to mean something else entirely.
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