Towards the mid-19th Century, some American writers turned to nature to seek an understanding of man’s existence in harmony with the elements. These writers were called the New England Transcendentalists. Henry David Thoreau was one of the most prominent representatives of this literary movement.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was a man of many talents and strong convictions; he was an activist who stood up for what he believed in, and he protested against what he saw as social and human injustice. He was even imprisoned for refusing to pay taxes, in protest against his slavery- supporting state. His writings about civil disobedience were inspiration for such legendary activists as Mahatma Ghandi and Dr Martin Luther King. In 1846, Thoreau withdrew from society to build a cabin at Walden Lake, close to his home town in Massachusetts, to live in harmony with nature. His idea was that nature could teach him the essentials of a fulfilled life. He lived there for two years and two months, after which he published “Walden” (1854), from which this excerpt is taken.
Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it. It was a pleasant hillside where I worked, covered with pine woods, through which I looked down on the pond, and a small open field in the woods where pines and hickories were springing up. The ice on the pond was not yet dissolved, though there were some open spaces, and it was all dark colored and saturated with water. There were some slight flurries of snow during the days that I worked there; but for the most part when I came out on to the railroad, on my way home, its yellow sand heap stretched away gleaming in the hazy atmosphere, and the rails shone in the spring sun, and I heard the lark and pewee and other birds already come to commence another year with us.
They were pleasant spring days, in which the winter of man’s discontent was thawing as well as the earth, and the life that had lain torpid began to stretch itself. One day, when my axe had come off and I had cut a green hickory for a wedge, driving it with a stone, and had placed the whole to soak in a pond hole in order to swell the wood, I saw a striped snake run into the water, and he lay on the bottom, apparently without inconvenience, as long as I staid there, or more than a quarter of an hour; perhaps because he had not yet come out of the torpid state.
It appeared to me that for a like reason men remain in their present low and primitive condition; but if they should feel the influence of the spring of springs arousing them, they would of necessity rise to a higher and more ethereal life. I had previously seen the snakes I frosty mornings in my path with portions of their bodies still numb and inflexible, waiting for the sun to thaw them. On the 1st of April it rained and melted the ice, and in the early part of the day, which was very foggy, I heard a stray goose groping about over the pond and cackling as If lost, or like the spirit of the fog.
So I went on for some days cutting and hewing timber, and also studs and rafters, all with my narrow axe, not having many communicable or scholar-like thoughts, singing to myself, -
Men say they know many things;
But lo! They have taken wings, -
The arts and sciences,
And a thousand appliances;
The wind that blows
Is all that any body knows.
I hewed the main timbers six inches square, most of the studs on two sides only, and the rafters and floor timbers on one side, leaving the rest of the bark on, so that they were just as straight and much stronger than sawed ones. Each stick was carefully mortised and tenoned by its stump, for I had borrowed other tools by this time.
My days in the woods were not very long ones; yet I usually carried my dinner of bread and butter, and read the newspaper in which it was wrapped, at noon, sitting amid the green pine boughs which I had cut off, and to my bread was imparted some of their fragrance, for my hands were covered with a thick coat of pitch. Before I had done I was more the friend than the foe of the pine tree, though I had cut down some of them, having become better acquainted with it. Sometimes a rambler in the wood was attracted by the sound of my axe, and we chatted pleasantly over the chips which I had made.
A Closer Look at the Text
- Apart from the little song, this is a prose text - but it still has a clear lyrical mood. Can you point out some poetical passages in the text?
- The Transcendentalists believed in a harmony between nature and the human soul; can you find examples of this here? (See especially the last paragraph.)
- Why does he make a point out of the fact that he has to borrow tools?
- Comment on the little song. (What does it mean that “arts and sciences have taken wings”?)
- Can you think of a symbolic interpretation of the striped snake and the stray goose?
- “The winter of man’s discontent” is a quote from Shakespeare’s Richard III – what does it mean?
- What does it mean to rise to “an ethereal life”, and how can that be achieved, according to Thoreau?
- The following is a famous quote from Henry David Thoreau. What does he really say – and how is it reflected in his own choice of life?
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer, let him step to the music which he hears, however measured and far away.”
Topics for Discussion
- Like Thoreau, the hippies of the 1960s broke with the established society to lead a simple and non-materialistic life in their own communities. Are such people eccentric dreamers, or are their protests praiseworthy?
- How important is making money in your choice of future career?
- Do you think we live in a materialistic society today?
- What cost can it have to put one’s ideals into practice, like Thoreau did? Can you mention some issues you would be willing to make sacrifices to fight for?
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