Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors

Return to the Thoreau homepage. This chapter really is two chapters on two different topics, fused into one. It's the only chapter title that I remember seeing with a semicolon in the middle of it. And of course, in addition to the two topics, Thoreau also has some paragraphs telling what the winter was like, carrying forward his narrative about living in the woods, which runs through the entire book. I won't have a great deal to say in this chapter, as there is little to interpret and as the chapter tells us little about his philosophy.

Two points should be discussed in advance, however. First, Thoreau, in talking about some of the former inhabitants calls them "Negroes" or "colored." He was writing a long time before politically correct language was invented. I don't believe that Thoreau looked down upon these people or treated them any differently from the White people he talks about. In using the term "colored," he is just using the language of his day. Note his comment about "a man of color," which he evidently found distasteful.

Second, Thoreau heaps extravagent praise on Bronson Alcott but then says little about Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was acknowledged as the greatest writer and lecturer in the US at that time, the unofficial leader of the Transcendental movement, and the person Thoreau had once admired above all others. While Thoreau was at Walden and for some time afterwards, he and Emerson got along famously, but they had become estranged before Walden was published. Thus Thoreau mentions Emerson with kind words but keeps his comments short.

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I weathered some merry snow-storms, and spent some cheerful winter evenings by my fireside, while the snow whirled wildly without, and even the hooting of the owl was hushed. For many weeks I met no one in my walks but those who came occasionally to cut wood and sled it to the village. The elements, however, abetted me in making a path through the deepest snow in the woods, for when I had once gone through the wind blew the oak leaves into my tracks, where they lodged, and by absorbing the rays of the sun melted the snow, and so not only made a my bed for my feet, but in the night their dark line was my guide. For human society I was obliged to conjure up the former occupants of these woods. Within the memory of many of my townsmen the road near which my house stands resounded with the laugh and gossip of inhabitants, and the woods which border it were notched and dotted here and there with their little gardens and dwellings, though it was then much more shut in by the forest than now. In some places, within my own remembrance, the pines would scrape both sides of a chaise at once, and women and children who were compelled to go this way to Lincoln alone and on foot did it with fear, and often ran a good part of the distance. Though mainly but a humble route to neighboring villages, or for the woodman's team, it once amused the traveller more than now by its variety, and lingered longer in his memory. Where now firm open fields stretch from the village to the woods, it then ran through a maple swamp on a foundation of logs, the remnants of which, doubtless, still underlie the present dusty highway, from the Stratton, now the Alms-House, Farm, to Brister's Hill. The route of the road evidently was somewhat different in Thoreau's day from today, running somewhat to the west of the current road after passing the pond. A clear map of the area in Thoreau's day was created by Gleason in 1906 and is included in Faith in a Seed on page 18. The map explains to me how his bean field could have been on the road, when currently it would have to be very distant from the road to have been near his home site. However, it seems to show the road passing right next to Brister's Spring, which Thoreau described as an isolated spot in the previous chapter, and it does not explain Thoreau's comment about creating a trail half a mile long to reach the highway, later in this chapter, unless by "highway," he means some other road. The statement here that Cato lived across the road would agree with the Gleason map.
East of my bean-field, across the road, lived Cato Ingraham, slave of Duncan Ingraham, Esquire, gentleman, of Concord village, who built his slave a house, and gave him permission to live in Walden Woods; -- Cato, not Uticensis, but Concordiensis. Some say that he was a Guinea Negro. There are a few who remember his little patch among the walnuts, which he let grow up till he should be old and need them; but a younger and whiter speculator got them at last. He too, however, occupies an equally narrow house at present. Cato's half-obliterated cellar-hole still remains, though known to few, being concealed from the traveller by a fringe of pines. It is now filled with the smooth sumach (Rhus glabra), and one of the earliest species of goldenrod (Solidago stricta) grows there luxuriantly. According to The Variorum Walden, Cato Uticensis was the son of the Roman Cato who Thoreau quotes in Latin from time to time. His last name indicated that he was from Utica. The "narrow house" is the grave. The sumach and goldenrod indicate that the land was at least partially clear of trees. This is the first use of the term "Walden Woods" within Walden.
Here, by the very corner of my field, still nearer to town, Zilpha, a colored woman, had her little house, where she spun linen for the townsfolk, making the Walden Woods ring with her shrill singing, for she had a loud and notable voice. At length, in the war of 1812, her dwelling was set on fire by English soldiers, prisoners on parole, when she was away, and her cat and dog and hens were all burned up together. She led a hard life, and somewhat inhumane. One old frequenter of these woods remembers, that as he passed her house one noon he heard her muttering to herself over her gurgling pot, -- "Ye are all bones, bones!" I have seen bricks amid the oak copse there.  
Down the road, on the right hand, on Brister's Hill, lived Brister Freeman, "a handy Negro," slave of Squire Cummings once, -- there where grow still the apple trees which Brister planted and tended; large old trees now, but their fruit still wild and ciderish to my taste. Not long since I read his epitaph in the old Lincoln burying-ground, a little on one side, near the unmarked graves of some British grenadiers who fell in the retreat from Concord, -- where he is styled "Sippio Brister," -- Scipio Africanus he had some title to be called, -- "a man of color," as if he were discolored. It also told me, with staring emphasis, when he died; which was but an indirect way of informing me that he ever lived. With him dwelt Fenda, his hospitable wife, who told fortunes, yet pleasantly, --large, round, and black, blacker than any of the children of night, such a dusky orb as never rose on Concord before or since. According to The Variorum Walden, the grave stone is still there and indicates that he died in 1820. "Scipio Africanus" was the Roman general who defeated Hannibal. "Africanus" was a title given to him for his victory in Africa.
Farther down the hill, on the left, on the old road in the woods, are marks of some homestead of the Stratton family; whose orchard once covered all the slope of Brister's Hill, but was long since killed out by pitch pines, excepting a few stumps, whose old roots furnish still the wild stocks of many a thrifty village tree. Apple trees are always grafted onto the roots of other trees.
Nearer yet to town, you come to Breed's location, on the other side of the way, just on the edge of the wood; ground famous for the pranks of a demon not distinctly named in old mythology, who has acted a prominent and astounding part in our New England life, and deserves, as much as any mythological character, to have his biography written one day; who first comes in the guise of a friend or hired man, and then robs and murders the whole family, -- New-England Rum. But history must not yet tell the tragedies enacted here; let time intervene in some measure to assuage and lend an azure tint to them. Here the most indistinct and dubious tradition says that once a tavern stood; the well the same, which tempered the traveller's beverage and refreshed his steed. Here then men saluted one another, and heard and told the news, and went their ways again. According to The Variorum Walden, Breed, an alcoholic, was found dead in the middle of the roadway in 1824.
Breed's hut was standing only a dozen years ago, though it had long been unoccupied. It was about the size of mine. It was set on fire by mischievous boys, one Election night, if I do not mistake. I lived on the edge of the village then, and had just lost myself over Davenant's "Gondibert," that winter that I labored with a lethargy, -- which, by the way, I never knew whether to regard as a family complaint, having an uncle who goes to sleep shaving himself, and is obliged to sprout potatoes in a cellar Sundays, in order to keep awake and keep the Sabbath, or as the consequence of my attempt to read Chalmers' collection of English poetry without skipping. It fairly overcame my Nervii. I had just sunk my head on this when the bells rung fire, and in hot haste the engines rolled that way, led by a straggling troop of men and boys, and I among the foremost, for I had leaped the brook. We thought it was far south over the woods, -- we who had run to fires before, -- barn, shop, or dwelling-house, or all together. "It's Baker's barn," cried one. "It is the Codman place," affirmed another. And then fresh sparks went up above the wood, as if the roof fell in, and we all shouted "Concord to the rescue!" Wagons shot past with furious speed and crushing loads, bearing, perchance, among the rest, the agent of the Insurance Company, who was bound to go however far; and ever and anon the engine bell tinkled behind, more slow and sure; and rearmost of all, as it was afterward whispered, came they who set the fire and gave the alarm. Thus we kept on like true idealists, rejecting the evidence of our senses, until at a turn in the road we heard the crackling and actually felt the heat of the fire from over the wall, and realized, alas! that we were there. The very nearness of the fire but cooled our ardor. At first we thought to throw a frog-pond on to it; but concluded to let it burn, it was so far gone and so worthless. So we stood round our engine, jostled one another, expressed our sentiments through speaking-trumpets, or in lower tone referred to the great conflagrations which the world has witnessed, including Bascom's shop, and, between ourselves, we thought that, were we there in season with our "tub," and a full frog-pond by, we could turn that threatened last and universal one into another flood. We finally retreated without doing any mischief, -- returned to sleep and "Gondibert." But as for "Gondibert," I would except that passage in the preface about wit being the soul's powder, -- "but most of mankind are strangers to wit, as Indians are to powder." Although Thoreau criticized the villagers for rushing to the fire in "Where I Lived and What I Lived For," that is exactly what we find him doing here. There is humor in Thoreau's uncle starting potatoes in the cellar on Sundays in order to stay awake. Obviously, he was going down there to take a nap. Throwing a frog-pond on the fire is another example of humor. Thoreau's "lethargy" is evidently a sleep disorder which makes him sleepy during the day and wide awake at night; thus he was awake and reading when the fire occurred. The Nervii was a tribe destroyed by Julius Ceasar, probably put here due to its similarity to "nerves." Returning to make a comment about "Gondibert" when it is not the real topic is a literary trick I have seen before which I would consider to be gentle humor.
It chanced that I walked that way across the fields the following night, about the same hour, and hearing a low moaning at this spot, I drew near in the dark, and discovered the only survivor of the family that I know, the heir of both its virtues and its vices, who alone was interested in this burning, lying on his stomach and looking over the cellar wall at the still smouldering cinders beneath, muttering to himself, as is his wont. He had been working far off in the river meadows all day, and had improved the first moments that he could call his own to visit the home of his fathers and his youth. He gazed into the cellar from all sides and points of view by turns, always lying down to it, as if there was some treasure, which he remembered, concealed between the stones, where there was absolutely nothing but a heap of bricks and ashes. The house being gone, he looked at what there was left. He was soothed by the sympathy which my mere presence, implied, and showed me, as well as the darkness permitted, where the well was covered up; which, thank Heaven, could never be burned; and he groped long about the wall to find the well-sweep which his father had cut and mounted, feeling for the iron hook or staple by which a burden had been fastened to the heavy end, -- all that he could now cling to, -- to convince me that it was no common "rider." I felt it, and still remark it almost daily in my walks, for by it hangs the history of a family. His being the heir to the vices of the family would mean that he is also a drunkard, whatever his virtues happen to be.
Once more, on the left, where are seen the well and lilac bushes by the wall, in the now open field, lived Nutting and Le Grosse. But to return toward Lincoln. This may be the same Nutting mentioned in the next chapter.
Farther in the woods than any of these, where the road approaches nearest to the pond, Wyman the potter squatted, and furnished his townsmen with earthenware, and left descendants to succeed him. Neither were they rich in worldly goods, holding the land by sufferance while they lived; and there often the sheriff came in vain to collect the taxes, and "attached a chip," for form's sake, as I have read in his accounts, there being nothing else that he could lay his hands on. One day in midsummer, when I was hoeing, a man who was carrying a load of pottery to market stopped his horse against my field and inquired concerning Wyman the younger. He had long ago bought a potter's wheel of him, and wished to know what had become of him. I had read of the potter's clay and wheel in Scripture, but it had never occurred to me that the pots we use were not such as had come down unbroken from those days, or grown on trees like gourds somewhere, and I was pleased to hear that so fictile an art was ever practiced in my neighborhood. "Squatted" means, that like Thoreau, he didn't own the land, which helps explain why the sheriff couldn't seize his property. "Fictile" means plastic or moldable.
The last inhabitant of these woods before me was an Irishman, Hugh Quoil (if I have spelt his name with coil enough), who occupied Wyman's tenement, -- Col. Quoil, he was called. Rumor said that he had been a soldier at Waterloo. If he had lived I should have made him fight his battles over again. His trade here was that of a ditcher. Napoleon went to St. Helena; Quoil came to Walden Woods. All I know of him is tragic. He was a man of manners, like one who had seen the world, and was capable of more civil speech than you could well attend to. He wore a greatcoat in midsummer, being affected with the trembling delirium, and his face was the color of carmine. He died in the road at the foot of Brister's Hill shortly after I came to the woods, so that I have not remembered him as a neighbor. Before his house was pulled down, when his comrades avoided it as "an unlucky castle," I visited it. There lay his old clothes curled up by use, as if they were himself, upon his raised plank bed. His pipe lay broken on the hearth, instead of a bowl broken at the fountain. The last could never have been the symbol of his death, for he confessed to me that, though he had heard of Brister's Spring, he had never seen it; and soiled cards, kings of diamonds, spades, and hearts, were scattered over the floor. One black chicken which the administrator could not catch, black as night and as silent, not even croaking, awaiting Reynard, still went to roost in the next apartment. In the rear there was the dim outline of a garden, which had been planted but had never received its first hoeing, owing to those terrible shaking fits, though it was now harvest time. It was overrun with Roman wormwood and beggar-ticks, which last stuck to my clothes for all fruit. The skin of a woodchuck was freshly stretched upon the back of the house, a trophy of his last Waterloo; but no warm cap or mittens would he want more. According to The Variorum Walden, "a bowl broken at the fountain" is an allusion to Ecclesiastes 12:6. "Reynard" is the fox, so the chicken is waiting to be eaten.
Now only a dent in the earth marks the site of these dwellings, with buried cellar stones, and strawberries, raspberries, thimbleberries, hazel-bushes, and sumachs growing in the sunny sward there; some pitch pine or gnarled oak occupies what was the chimney nook, and a sweet-scented black birch, perhaps, waves where the door-stone was. Sometimes the well dent is visible, where once a spring oozed; now dry and tearless grass; or it was covered deep, -- not to be discovered till some late day, -- with a flat stone under the sod, when the last of the race departed. What a sorrowful act must that be, -- the covering up of wells! coincident with the opening of wells of tears. These cellar dents, like deserted fox burrows, old holes, are all that is left where once were the stir and bustle of human life, and "fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute," in some form and dialect or other were by turns discussed. But all I can learn of their conclusions amounts to just this, that "Cato and Brister pulled wool"; which is about as edifying as the history of more famous schools of philosophy. According to The American Tradition in Literature, pulling wool means to perform menial tasks.
Still grows the vivacious lilac a generation after the door and lintel and the sill are gone, unfolding its sweet-scented flowers each spring, to be plucked by the musing traveller; planted and tended once by children's hands, in front-yard plots, -- now standing by wallsides in retired pastures, and giving place to new-rising forests; -- the last of that stirp, sole survivor of that family. Little did the dusky children think that the puny slip with its two eyes only, which they stuck in the ground in the shadow of the house and daily watered, would root itself so, and outlive them, and house itself in the rear that shaded it, and grown man's garden and orchard, and tell their story faintly to the lone wanderer a half-century after they had grown up and died, -- blossoming as fair, and smelling as sweet, as in that first spring. I mark its still tender, civil, cheerful lilac colors.  
But this small village, germ of something more, why did it fail while Concord keeps its ground? Were there no natural advantages, -- no water privileges, forsooth? Ay, the deep Walden Pond and cool Brister's Spring, -- privilege to drink long and healthy draughts at these, all unimproved by these men but to dilute their glass. They were universally a thirsty race. Might not the basket, stable-broom, mat-making, corn-parching, linen-spinning, and pottery business have thrived here, making the wilderness to blossom like the rose, and a numerous posterity have inherited the land of their fathers? The sterile soil would at least have been proof against a lowland degeneracy. Alas! how little does the memory of these human inhabitants enhance the beauty of the landscape! Again, perhaps, Nature will try, with me for a first settler, and my house raised last spring to be the oldest in the hamlet. Thoreau stayed at the pond for only two years, and his cabin was hauled off to be used elsewhere. It sounds here as if this passage was written while he was still at the pond.
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. With such reminiscences I repeopled the woods and lulled myself asleep.  
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. But no friendly Indian concerned himself about me; nor needed he, for the master of the house was at home. The Great Snow! How cheerful it is to hear of! When the farmers could not get to the woods and swamps with their teams, and were obliged to cut down the shade trees before their houses, and, when the crust was harder, cut off the trees in the swamps, ten feet from the ground, as it appeared the next spring. I'm doubtful that most people would consider it cheerful. Thoreau, of course, would find delight in unusual weather, much as children do.
In the deepest snows, the path which I used from the highway to my house, about half a mile long, might have been represented by a meandering dotted line, with wide intervals between the dots. For a week of even weather I took exactly the same number of steps, and of the same length, coming and going, stepping deliberately and with the precision of a pair of dividers in my own deep tracks, -- to such routine the winter reduces us, -- yet often they were filled with heaven's own blue. But no weather interfered fatally with my walks, or rather my going abroad, for I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines; when the ice and snow causing their limbs to droop, and so sharpening their tops, had changed the pines into fir trees; wading to the tops of the highest bills when the show was nearly two feet deep on a level, and shaking down another snow-storm on my head at every step; or sometimes creeping and floundering thither on my hands and knees, when the hunters had gone into winter quarters. One afternoon I amused myself by watching a barred owl (Strix nebulosa) sitting on one of the lower dead limbs of a white pine, close to the trunk, in broad daylight, I standing within a rod of him. He could hear me when I moved and cronched the snow with my feet, but could not plainly see me. When I made most noise he would stretch out his neck, and erect his neck feathers, and open his eyes wide; but their lids soon fell again, and he began to nod. I too felt a slumberous influence after watching him half an hour, as he sat thus with his eyes half open, like a cat, winged brother of the cat. There was only a narrow slit left between their lids, by which be preserved a pennisular relation to me; thus, with half-shut eyes, looking out from the land of dreams, and endeavoring to realize me, vague object or mote that interrupted his visions. At length, on some louder noise or my nearer approach, he would grow uneasy and sluggishly turn about on his perch, as if impatient at having his dreams disturbed; and when he launched himself off and flapped through the pines, spreading his wings to unexpected breadth, I could not hear the slightest sound from them. Thus, guided amid the pine boughs rather by a delicate sense of their neighborhood than by sight, feeling his twilight way, as it were, with his sensitive pinions, he found a new perch, where he might in peace await the dawning of his day. The statement that the path from his house to the highway was half a mile long has me puzzled. Even today, the Lincoln Road is less than a quarter of a mile from his cabin site, and it evidently was much closer then. On the other hand, it would have been further than half a mile to any other road.
As I walked over the long causeway made for the railroad through the meadows, I encountered many a blustering and nipping wind, for nowhere has it freer play; and when the frost had smitten me on one cheek, heathen as I was, I turned to it the other also. Nor was it much better by the carriage road from Brister's Hill. For I came to town still, like a friendly Indian, when the contents of the broad open fields were all piled up between the walls of the Walden road, and half an hour sufficed to obliterate the tracks of the last traveller. And when I returned new drifts would have formed, through which I floundered, where the busy northwest wind had been depositing the powdery snow round a sharp angle in the road, and not a rabbit's track, nor even the fine print, the small type, of a meadow mouse was to be seen. Yet I rarely failed to find, even in midwinter, some warm and springly swamp where the grass and the skunk-cabbage still put forth with perennial verdure, and some hardier bird occasionally awaited the return of spring. Thoreau's two routes to town were along the railway or along the Concord-Lincoln road, which he here calls "the carriage road from Brister's Hill."

Jesus taught to "resist not evil." When struck on the one cheek, one should present the other cheek to be struck as well (Matthew 5:38-48; Luke 6:27-36). Thoreau is being witty here, of course, and talks more seriously about these principles in Civil Disobedience.

Sometimes, notwithstanding the snow, when I returned from my walk at evening I crossed the deep tracks of a woodchopper leading from my door, and found his pile of whittlings on the hearth, and my house filled with the odor of his pipe. Or on a Sunday afternoon, if I chanced to be at home, I heard the cronching of the snow made by the step of a long-headed farmer, who from far through the woods sought my house, to have a social "crack"; one of the few of his vocation who are "men on their farms"; who donned a frock instead of a professor's gown, and is as ready to extract the moral out of church or state as to haul a load of manure from his barn-yard. We talked of rude and simple times, when men sat about large fires in cold, bracing weather, with clear heads; and when other dessert failed, we tried our teeth on many a nut which wise squirrels have long since abandoned, for those which have the thickest shells are commonly empty. The woodcutter was Alex Therien, who is described at length in "Visitors," and the farmer who comes to talk was probably Edmund Hosmer.
The one who came from farthest to my lodge, through deepest snows and most dismal tempests, was a poet. A farmer, a hunter, a soldier, a reporter, even a philosopher, may be daunted; but nothing can deter a poet, for he is actuated by pure love. Who can predict his comings and goings? His business calls him out at all hours, even when doctors sleep. We made that small house ring with boisterous mirth and resound with the murmur of much sober talk, making amends then to Walden vale for the long silences. Broadway was still and deserted in comparison. At suitable intervals there were regular salutes of laughter, which might have been referred indifferently to the last-uttered or the forth-coming jest. We made many a "bran new" theory of life over a thin dish of gruel, which combined the advantages of conviviality with the clear-headedness which philosophy requires. This, of course, is Thoreau's closest friend, Ellery Channing, the nephew of Dr. William Ellery Channing. He appears as the poet at the beginning of "Brute Neighbors." As you can see, they loved to laugh and make jokes, and the description in "Brute Neighbors" is deliberately phony. I can see them reading that little play and rolling with laughter. Note the weak pun in "bran new." Channing would not run from Thoreau's hasty-pudding. Channing's best claim to fame was his biography of Thoreau.
I should not forget that during my last winter at the pond there was another welcome visitor, who at one time came through the village, through snow and rain and darkness, till he saw my lamp through the trees, and shared with me some long winter evenings. One of the last of the philosophers, -- Connecticut gave him to the world, -- he peddled first her wares, afterwards, as he declares, his brains. These he peddles still, prompting God and disgracing man, bearing for fruit his brain only, like the nut its kernel. I think that he must be the man of the most faith of any alive. His words and attitude always suppose a better state of things than other men are acquainted with, and he will be the last man to be disappointed as the ages revolve. He has no venture in the present. But though comparatively disregarded now, when his day comes, laws unsuspected by most will take effect, and masters of families and rulers will come to him for advice. --

     "How blind that cannot see serenity!"

A true friend of man; almost the only friend of human progress. An Old Mortality, say rather an Immortality, with unwearied patience and faith making plain the image engraven in men's bodies, the God of whom they are but defaced and leaning monuments. With his hospitable intellect he embraces children, beggars, insane, and scholars, and entertains the thought of all, adding to it commonly some breadth and elegance. I think that he should keep a caravansary on the world's highway, where philosophers of all nations might put up, and on his sign should be printed, "Entertainment for man, but not for his beast. Enter ye that have leisure and a quiet mind, who earnestly seek the right road." He is perhaps the sanest man and has the fewest crotchets of any I chance to know; the same yesterday and tomorrow. Of yore we had sauntered and talked, and effectually put the world behind us; for he was pledged to no institution in it, freeborn, ingenuus. Whichever way we turned, it seemed that the heavens and the earth had met together, since he enhanced the beauty of the landscape. A blue-robed man, whose fittest roof is the overarching sky which reflects his serenity. I do not see how he can ever die; Nature cannot spare him.

This is Bronson Alcott, who was born poor and self-educated. He worked as a peddlar in Virginia. Although praised highly by Thoreau, Alcott has not faired well in literary history. Most references to him are as the father of Louisa May Alcott, who wrote Little Women, partially based on her childhood. He tended to be the most radical in his views and the least able to accomplish anything. Perry Miller, in The American Transcendentalists, says "... no figure more invited ridicule than the gentle, dreamy, abstracted, utterly unworldly Bronson Alcott." "And yet, though he took no thought for the morrow, blithely let himself be supported by the labor of his wife, and in his last years basked contentedly in the prosperity brought by his daughter's books, he all the time showed himself a shrewd judge of men, a keen analyst of politics, [and] a compentent carpenter (when he chose to be)..." Alcott's "Orphic Sayings," published in the Dial created a great deal of laughter. To give a very short example, "Human heads are images, more or less perfect, of the soul's or God's head. But the divine features do not fix in flesh; in the coarse and brittle clay." I think Thoreau and others recognized his better qualities even though nothing ever came from them. Certainly, he was the idealist's idealist.
Having each some shingles of thought well dried, we sat and whittled them, trying our knives, and admiring the clear yellowish grain of the pumpkin pine. We waded so gently and reverently, or we pulled together so smoothly, that the fishes of thought were not scared from the stream, nor feared any angler on the bank, but came and went grandly, like the clouds which float through the western sky, and the mother-o'-pearl flocks which sometimes form and dissolve there. There we worked, revising mythology, rounding a fable here and there, and building castles in the air for which earth offered no worthy foundation. Great Looker! Great Expecter! to converse with whom was a New England Night's Entertainment. Ah! such discourse we had, hermit and philosopher, and the old settler I have spoken of -- we three, -- it expanded and racked my little house; I should not dare to say how many pounds' weight there was above the atmospheric pressure on every circular inch; it opened its seams so that they had to be calked with much dulness thereafter to stop the consequent leak;- but I had enough of that kind of oakum already picked. Thoreau has a number of metaphors here, such as whittling thoughts wading in thoughts, and the seams being opened on the house from the pressure of their discourse. Calking with oakum is the method used to stop leaks on a boat. The "old settler," who was first mentioned in "Solitude," must be Pan or God.

For all of Alcott's failings, he must have been great at conversation.

There was one other with whom I had "solid seasons," long to be remembered, at his house in the village, and who looked in upon me from time to time; but I had no more for society there. Ralph Waldo Emerson, getting barely mentioned.
There too, as everywhere, I sometimes expected the Visitor who never comes. The Vishnu Purana says, "The house-holder is to remain at eventide in his courtyard as long as it takes to milk a cow, or longer if he pleases, to await the arrival of a guest." I often performed this duty of hospitality, waited long enough to milk a whole herd of cows, but did not see the man approaching from the town. Quite often, if no one showed up, Thoreau walked into town to visit someone else.
Thoreau's Text in This Column
My Comments in This Column
Comments | SECTIONS: | The New World | Writing | Thoreau | Home | Bike Pages |
WALDEN: | Economy I | Economy II | Economy III | Economy IV | Where I Lived | Reading | Sounds | Solitude |
WALDEN: | Visitors |The Bean-Field | The Village | The Ponds | Baker Farm | Higher Laws | Brute Neighbors |
WALDEN: | House Warming | Former Inhabitants | Winter Animals | The Pond in Winter | Spring | Conclusion | | Copyright © 2001 Ken Kifer | December 13, 2001