If you know much about Thoreau, you are may be used to thinking of him, as I have, as a reformist philosopher, the conscientious objector who sees through the flaws of society and defends his unique views on how we should live. Recently, while I was reading Walden (in fact, while I was reading his chapter “The Ponds,” in which he discusses Walden Pond and others in the surrounding areas… for thirty pages!), I was struck by Thoreau the Naturalist, who deeply loved and paid attention to the natural world around him, as well as Thoreau the Artist, who skillfully paints with his words as he describes that world. In fact, I felt as if I was hearing him demonstrate the true why of his philosophy: the ability to truly connect with and appreciate nature.
Much of Walden is an homage to the natural beauty of Thoreau’s neighborhood, which at the time was largely rural and relatively undeveloped by human hands (certainly in comparison to now, no doubt!). In “The Ponds,” Thoreau holds nothing back in what quite possibly could be the most in depth, and most contemplatively passionate discussion of ponds ever written.
Firstly, in this chapter, as in others, Thoreau excels in description:
[Walden Pond] is a clear and deep green well, half a mile long and a mile and three quarters in circumference, and contains about sixty-one and a half acres; a perennial spring in the midst of pine and oak woods, without any visible inlet or outlet except by the clouds and evaporation. The surrounding hills rise abruptly from the water to the height of forty to eighty feet, though on the soutg-east and east they attain to about one hundred and one hundred and fifty feet respectively, within a quarter and a third of a mile. They are exclusively woodland.Walden, “The Ponds,” 187
Though Thoreau’s descriptions approach scientific exactness, they often seem motivated more by a poet’s sentiment, capturing the subjective experience of a man who deeply loves where he lives. He is definitely laying the groundwork for his deeper philosophical point, but he does it in a way which always strikes me as motivated by a desire to inspire and teach. In other words, he is communicating a vision of the beauty around him in hopes that others will adopt that vision as well. Witness the following passage about lakes:
A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. The fluviatile* trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows.“Walden,” The Ponds, 198
Though his prose is often poetic, with rich use of simile as above, Thoreau generally starts by writing about what he sees. His observations clearly demonstrate how well he pays attention to the physical world around him. Following the first passage cited above, he discusses the colors of the ponds:
All our Concord waters have two colors at least; one when viewed at a distance, and another, more proper, close at hand. The first depends more on the light, and follows the sky. In clear weather, in summer, they appear blue at a little distance, especially if agitated, and at a great distance all appear alike. In stormy weather, they are sometimes of a dark slate color. The sea, however, is said to be blue one day and green another without any perceptible change in the atmosphere. I have seen our river, when, the landscape being covered with snow, both water and ice were almost as green as grass. Some consider blue “to be the color of pure water, whether liquid or solid.” But, looking directly down into our waters from a boat, they are seen to be of very different colors. Walden is blue at one time and green at another, even from the same point of view“Walden,” The Ponds, 187
This could be the words of a landscape painter, so exact and perceptive are its observations! In fact, through descriptions such as these I feel that I have gotten a thorough picture of life in New England, and its rural environs, circa 1852 when this was written. It is as close to actual visual footage as words could be!
In this chapter, Thoreau becomes the indignant reformer only while observing how others interact with nature. The flip-side of the lover of nature is a deep and abiding skepticism over how his society operates. In the following passage, for example, he questions the naming of one pond after a man who presumably owned the land it was on but otherwise did not have any special connection to it:
Flints’ Pond! Such is the poverty of our nomenclature. What right had the unclean and stupid farmer, whose farm abutted on this sky water, whose shores he has ruthlessly laid bare, to give his name to it? Some skin-flint, who loved better the reflecting surface of a dollar, or a bright cent, in which he could see his own brazen face; who regarded even the wild ducks which settled in it as trespassers; his fingers grown into crooked and horny talons from the long habit of grasping harpy-like;–so it is not named for me. I go not there to see him nor to hear of him; who never saw it, who never bathed in it, who never loved it, who never protected it, who never spoke a good word for it, nor thanked God that He had made it. Rather let it be named from the fishes that swim in it, the wild fowl or quadrupeds which frequent it, the wild flowers which grow by its shores, or some wild man or child the thread of whose history is interwoven with its own; not from him who could show no title to it but the deed which a like-minded neighbor or legislature gave him,–him who thought only of its money value; whose presence perchance cursed all the shore.
“Walden,” The Ponds, 207
Throughout Thoreau’s work, while there is a strong dose of the social reformer and idealist, it always seems to come from a desire for a simpler and deeply satisfying life that is unhampered by excessive toil or the need to live for the approval of others.
In short, the kind of life where one could deeply contemplate ponds, and then write beautiful prose about such contemplations 🙂
*One of the unavoidable results of reading a 19th century writer of Thoreau’s level of erudition is that even I repeatedly come across words (or historical or Classical references) I don’t know . This one means “of, found in, or produced by a river.”