Walden: From “The Pond in Winter” to “Spring”

In Samuel Beckett’s chapter of Our Exagmination Round His Factification For Incamination of Work in Progress, twelve essays looking at Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (reissued New Directions Paperbook 331, 1972), titled “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce,” Beckett says, “Words have their progressions as well as social phases. ‘Forest-cabin-village-city-academy’ is one rough progression…And every word expands with psychological inevitability.” Thus the Latin word “Lex,” originally, Beckett says, “Crop of acorns,” progresses to “Lles = Tree that produces acorns,” to “Legere = To gather,” to “Aquilex = He that gathers waters,” to “Lex” = Gathering together of peoples, public assembly,” to “Lex = Law,” to “Legere = To gather together letters into a word, to read” (10-11).

“It is the child’s mind over again,” Beckett says. “The child extends the names of the first familiar objects to other strange objects in which he is conscious of some analogy.” It is this idea of analogy that helps inform a reading of Thoreau’s Walden.

Walden seems to move quickly toward the end when Thoreau takes us from “The Pond in Winter” chapter directly into the “Spring” chapter. But this sense of quickness evaporates in his detail of observation, for we glimpse both the speed of change, as one day he wakes up and suddenly it’s spring, and the slowness of the process revealed in the close reading he gives nature.

This close reading is found, for example, in his etymological study of leaf, which progresses in the same way of Beckett’s Lex, but with Thoreau is added an extended analogy in which man is found in and of nature, finding his voice, his language, words he needs to describe his predicament:

“The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype. Internally, whether in the globe or animal body, it is a moist thick lobe, a word especially applicable to the liver and lungs and the leaves of fat (γεἱβω, labor, lapsus, to flow or slip downward, a lapsing; λοβὁς, globus, lobe, globe; also lap, flap, and many other words); externally a dry thin leaf, even as the f and v are a pressed and dried b. The radicals of lobe are lb, the soft mass of the b (single lobed, or B, double lobed), with the liquid l behind it pressing it forward. In globe, glb, the guttural g adds to the meaning the capacity of the throat. The feathers and wings of birds are still drier and thinner leaves. Thus, also, you pass from the lumpish grub in the earth to the airy and fluttering butterfly. The very globe continually transcends and translates itself, and becomes winged in its orbit. Even ice begins with delicate crystal leaves, as if it had flowed into moulds which the fronds of waterplants have impressed on the watery mirror. The whole tree itself is but one leaf, and rivers are still vaster leaves whose pulp is intervening earth, and towns and cities are the ova of insects in their axils” (286-287).

One feels the ice melting in Thoreau’s “Spring” as an analogy for the learning of language, human language, but also the language of nature, from a frozen state of the tongue, where speech is all body language, to the cacophony of the awakened spring day, the naturalist writing it all down. Beckett says, “In its first dumb form, language was gesture. If a man wanted to say ‘sea,’ he pointed to the sea…The root of any word whatsoever can be traced back to some pre-lingual symbol” (10-11). Thus Thoreau, wanting to say spring, or nature, points to Walden.

The reading reveals much of Thoreau’s general method of explicating nature, through metaphor, analogy, personification, pun: “Is not the hand [of man] a spreading palm leaf with its lobes and veins?” (287). And the function of Thoreau’s method, its purpose, is to show interconnections, not man removed from nature, but not even man in nature, but man of nature, which allows for the view that “our human life but dies down to its root, and still puts forth its green blade to eternity” (291). This is why “There is nothing inorganic” (288), and why “We can never have enough of Nature” (297). Thoreau can trace everything back to nature because everything is nature, everything comes from nature: “The root of any word….” Recall McKibben’s questions in his introduction: “How much is enough? And How do I know what I want?” (xi). The ambiguity, if any remains, is nature’s, not Thoreau’s.


Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].

On the ice with Thoreau

Reading Walden this time around, and coming near the end of the literary sojourn, the Portland east winds blowing out of the Gorge, cracking their taut, dry cheeks while I burrowed into the  “Winter Animals” and “The Pond in Winter” chapters, I reflected on where nature goes in contemporary life, for we spend sweeping resources to turn our backs to her, to hide from her, to ignore her, to close our eyes, ears, noses to her, to avoid her sound and smell and touch, to lock her out. Thoreau went out to meet with her, and he spent quality time observing her habits at close range. Why should we not comb our own urban woods, gutters and sidewalk paths, yards and parks, breezeways and carports, bridges and sidings, bushes and beaches and fields, vacant lots, and streams of rain water running down the oily streets to see if there’s anything left of the nature Thoreau observed and chronicled in Walden? Thoreau asks rhetorical questions; why should not we?

Some interest in nature is suggested by our obsession with the weather and natural disasters (many of which could be mitigated with the simplest of codes, for over 50% of the US population lives within 50 miles of a coastline, where most of the weather spends its wealth). But watching the Weather Channel or studying the sunny or cloudy day emoticons in the newspaper or on our cell phones falls short of Thoreau’s direct contact with the sun, clouds, rain, wind, ice. “But,” you say, donning jacket, scarf, hat, gloves, galoshes, and umbrella, though you’ve only a short walk from house to garage where the car is parked, “we spent a week camping out at the lake this past summer, and have the Facebook pics to show for it.”

Thoreau spends time on the ice in winter, ice-fishing, taking short-cuts across the ponds, viewing the shores from a new vantage point. He seems to have no fear of the ice. There are over one hundred references to ice in the Walden text. Thoreau had a theory, which McKibben remarks on in one of his annotations, that if the world as we know it were to succumb to some modern weather disaster, the calamity would be ice. Yet Thoreau is remarkably resourceful on the ice:

“Once, in the winter, many years ago, when I had been cutting holes through the ice in order to catch pickerel, as I stepped ashore I tossed my axe back on to the ice, but, as if some evil genius had directed it, it slid four or five rods directly into one of the holes, where the water was twenty-five feet deep. Out of curiosity, I lay down on the ice and looked through the hole, until I saw the axe a little on one side, standing on its head, with its helve erect and gently swaying to and fro with the pulse of the pond; and there it might have stood erect and swaying till in the course of time the handle rotted off, if I had not disturbed it. Making another hole directly over it with an ice chisel which I had, and cutting down the longest birch which I could find in the neighborhood with my knife, I made a slip-noose, which I attached to its end, and, letting it down carefully, passed it over the knob of the handle, and drew it by a line along the birch, and so pulled the axe out again” (“The Ponds” chapter).

Once, years ago now, never mind exactly when, I lived in a small house, for a little over a year, on Lake Oswego, a long but narrow lake fed by streams and the Tualatin River, south of Portland. I was there two winters, and both winters the lake froze over. During the first winter, I walked out onto the ice some distance and had my photo taken. It was a foolish thing to do, walking out on the ice. Unlike Thoreau, I didn’t know the thickness of the ice. The ice covered the water like a blanket with air pockets between the bottom of the ice and the surface of the unfrozen water. Thus the ice sheet moves up and down, cracks with its own weight, stretches and contracts, undulating like a monstrous, frozen jellyfish. I didn’t stay out on the ice very long. I walked out, had the photo snapped, and walked back to the boat dock. I was wearing a Navy flight jacket that I had traded a couple of years earlier for my Army field jacket. Neither would have done me much good had I fallen into the water. It’s taken me a long time to get used to the Northwest climate, but still, if I’m to go out on some water, I would prefer doing it on a surfboard, in warm, salty water, where nothing freezes. I like Thoreau, but I’m not following him out onto the ice again.


Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].

What some others have said about Thoreau’s Walden

Agger, Michael. “Thoreau’s Worst Nightmare: Are the new ascetics masters of self-denial or just self-promotion?Mother Jones Nov./Dec. 2008.

An Exchange on Thoreau” 2 Dec. 1999 Lawrence Buell, reply by Leo Marx IN RESPONSE TO: “The Struggle Over Thoreau” from the June 24, 1999 issue [New York Review of Books].

Bibliography on Walden: Selected Articles, Lectures, and Chapters.” American Transcendentalism Web.

Hurn, Rachel. “Not a Luddite, Not a Thoreauvian.” New Yorker 1 Feb. 2011.

Kopley, Richard. “Chiasmus in Walden.The New England Quarterly Vol. 77, No. 1 (Mar., 2004), pp. 115-121 (article consists of 7 pages) Published by: The New England Quarterly, Inc. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1559690

Lepore, Jill. “Vast Designs: How America came of age.” New Yorker 29 Oct. 2007.

Miller, Jakob. “Two Truths in Thoreau’s Inconclusive ‘Conclusion’.”

Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Mysterious Thoreau.” New York Times 1 May 1988.

Updike, John. “A Sage for All Seasons.” Guardian 25 Jun. 2004.

For more leads, see in Related:

A Sixth Way of Looking at Walden: Deliberately Seeking Simplicity

Walter Harding suggested “Five Ways of Looking at Walden.” Bill McKibben, in his introduction to the Beacon Press edition of Walden, cites two “practical questions…: How much is enough? And How do I know what I want?” (xi). Reading Walden as a way of asking these questions for ourselves, McKibben suggests, is another way of looking at Walden.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately” (85), Thoreau said, in the Walden chapter titled “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.” What does he mean by deliberately, and why wasn’t he able to live deliberately in town? “When we consider what, to use the words of the catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other” (6). Yet how deliberate can the decision be if, as Thoreau continues, “…they honestly think there is no choice left” (6). We might add a third question to McKibben’s reading questions: What are my choices?

“Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature,” Thoreau proposes, “and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails” (91). He seems to be suggesting that to live deliberately means to live free from non-essential distractions, from man-made dissipations. Perhaps this is reason enough for talking about what we are reading, for reading aloud, with others: “Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written” (96), for while deliberately means intentionally, purposefully, meaningfully, existentially, deliberate also means to think, to consult others, to consider one’s options. One may live as simply as one chooses, Thoreau seems to say, but it takes, apparently, deliberation.


Reading Directions for Thoreau’s Walden

Walter Harding was the secretary of the Thoreau Society when he wrote the short article for The Massachusetts Review titled “Five Ways of Looking at Walden.” The article opens with a narrative description of the types of people who read Thoreau and attended the Society meetings, and these were, in short, anyone and everyone, folks from all walks of life. And why was this diverse group of individuals interested in Thoreau? Harding says, “It is very rarely that two give the same reason. They are interested in his natural history, his politics, his economics, his prose style, his anarchism, his theology, and so on…Walden is read, not for just one reason, but for many” (149). Harding then describes his five types of readings of Walden, variations that might explain the diversity of its readers, and that serve as a useful introduction to Walden as argument.

The first of Harding’s five readings of Walden is as a nature book: “To most people, I suppose, Walden is a nature book. Certainly back at the time of its appearance it was almost universally considered to be a book about natural history, and some of Thoreau’s contemporaries were annoyed that he allowed anything but nature to have a part in the book” (149-150). Publishers over the years have capitalized on this reading, for most editions show some drawing or picture of the pond or environs, suggesting a bucolic topic. The 2004 Beacon Press edition I’m reading now is covered with a black and white photo titled, “Fallen leaves through the Corner Spring Woods” (October 15, 1899). There’s no hint in the photo of a cabin, of what it might take to build one, or why.

The second of Harding’s five readings suggests that some folks read Walden for its value of self-dependent optimism. Says Harding, “A second appeal of Walden is as a do-it-yourself guide to the simple life. I think it highly significant that the first real surge of interest in Thoreau in the twentieth century came during the depression years of the nineteen-thirties when large masses of people, indeed almost all of us, were required willy-nilly by the press of circumstances to adopt the simple life. We had no choice in the matter, but Thoreau was one of the very few authors who not only made this simple life bearable, he even made it appealing” (151). This economic season of Walden, and reason to read it, may again be upon us.

Harding’s third reading might appeal to today’s fans of sarcasm, for nothing so deflates and simplifies as humor. Harding says, “A third facet of Walden is its satirical criticism of modern life and living. Strangely enough this is one side of Thoreau that is sometimes misunderstood by the reader. Some take everything Thoreau says literally and seriously, ignoring the fact that the book’s epigraph reads: ‘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’” (154-155) [Harding refers to this passage as “the book’s epigraph”; it’s found on page 79 of the Beacon Press edition, in the “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” chapter]. But Thoreau’s humor is evident from the beginning of his text: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body [sic] else whom I knew so well” (2). We may know folks who talk of no one else but others, as if they don’t know themselves at all, or as if they themselves present the poorest topic they know, or as if there exists no topic other than people, no ideas or things.

Harding’s fourth reading comes equipped with a seemingly highfalutin word that upon examination might be found to aptly describe Thoreau’s style: “A fourth approach to Walden is the belletristic. From a purely technical standpoint, Walden is good writing and is worth examining as such” (156). This reading suggests textual analysis, and focuses on structure and style, unity, on the how of what is said. Harding points out that the central unifying trope of Walden is the year, the seasons (157), which leads to a reading of the whole as “the symbol of rebirth and renewal” (160). But with this aesthetic reading, the reader focuses on devices such as the order of the chapters, paragraphing, sentence structure, and diction, and figures of speech (without which Walden would be only a couple of pages long, if that).

This is the reading I find most interesting, the rhetorical analysis, for which Walden provides plenty of fuel. Harding says that he “once took a list of more than fifty different types of figures of speech [within Walden] – allusions, metaphors, rhetorical questions, alliteration, analogy, puns, epanorthosis, parables, similes, meiosis, anti-strophe, oxymoron, epizeuxis, anaphora, litotes, anti-thesis, portmanteau words, metonomy, contrast, personification, epistrophe, synecdoche, irony, apostrophe, hyperbole, and so on, and with no difficulty at all found excellent examples of each one in Walden. There is hardly a trick of the trade that Thoreau does not make use of” (158-159).

Harding’s final reading, if we’ve any spirit left after that last passage, is as a spiritual book.

And there are other readings of Walden, perhaps as many as there are readers. Here is a reference to Harding’s article, which can be found using the JSTOR electronic database, accessible via library:

Five Ways of Looking at Walden
Walter Harding
The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Autumn, 1962), pp. 149-162
Published by: The Massachusetts Review, Inc.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25086959

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].


Mapping a Reading of Thoreau’s Walden

We might be tempted, reading Walden, and wanting, for some reason, something more, answers, perhaps, though we might not yet know the questions, to split the difference (and the infinitive) and to quickly Google “Thoreau.” (I just did, and got 22 million results in about half a second.) Eventually, we might stumble across Walter Harding’s The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography, a good find, and one that carries the imprimatur of scholarly law. Harding’s book contains a map of Thoreau’s Concord. And, if we want to map the many obscure references in Walden, we might be interested in Harding’s Walden: An Annotated Edition, though there are so many annotations we are reminded of a crowded day in the South Bay, when one could not see the waves between the Manhattan and Hermosa Piers, there were so many surfers in the water. Sauntering further along the streams of academic searches, we might discover John Roman’s excellent “Mapping Thoreau’s World: An Artist’s Journal on Making an Illustrated Map of Historic Concord” (The Concord Saunterer: A Journal of Thoreau Studies, N.S. Vol. 15 [2007]: 123-184).

All good stuff, except for one problem: as we set sail on The Google Titanic, we seem to have put the actual Walden aside, the original text, and haven’t read, or reread, a single page. Besides, wouldn’t Thoreau be the first to say that if it’s maps we want, we would do well to make our own, and make it of our own neighborhood, that we might better come to know where we live, and what we live for?

Still, parts of Walden might perplex us for lack of specific knowledge of how things were in Thoreau’s time: his attitude toward the poor toward the end of “Economy,” for example, might perplex us, toward being poor (if he could be considered poor, by any definition), or of fear of becoming poor. We might want to know something of almshouses and poorhouses of Thoreau’s time, of what became of citizens with mental health problems, of the growth of towns, of economic recessions and recoveries, of farm labor, of immigration and how immigration provided for cheap labor and the exploitation of recent Irish immigrants to build the railroad through Thoreau’s countryside (Thoreau, in Walden, appears to have several objections to the railroad). These questions would provide us with useful pursuits that might lead to new reading perspectives.

But still, the questions of what we think of the poor, of being poor (if we might be considered poor by any definition), or fear of becoming poor, if we harbor such a fear, might suggest our own rendering, writing, of our economy, in such rhetorical terms as Thoreau opened the door for us. And as for maps, we would do well to make our own, our own reading map of Walden, complete with distances, landmarks, signposts, and other markings and drawings, and footnotes, so that our reader, if we can imagine such a one, might better know our reading perspective and what we found, having lived for some significant time, in Walden.