Thoreau Essay On Brute Neighbors

Chapter Ten "Baker Farm"

Summary:

Instead of paying a visit to a scholar, Thoreau visits particular groves of trees ­ pines, beeches, black- and yellow-birches, elms, and helmlocks. He visits these "shrines" in summer and winter. One time, he stood surrounded by rainbow light in a rainbow's arch. Sometimes, when he walks, he sees a halo around his shadow, which makes him fancy he is a member of the elect. Benvenuto Cellini once wrote about seeing his shadow like this, and in minds like his, such a natural phenomenon is the basis for superstition.

One afternoon, on his way to go fishing in Fair-Haven, Thoreau passes through Pleasant Meadow, which is part of Baker Farm. It begins to rain, and he is forced to stand under a pine tree. When he finally wades into the water and casts out his line, the thunder and rain start once again, and he is forced to take refuge in a nearby hut, where he finds an Irishman named John Field living with his wife and many children, including an older son who works in the fields with him and a baby who seems unaware of its destitute circumstances. Thoreau crouches in the least leaky corner of the house with the family.

Field tells Thoreau how hard he works "bogging," turning up a farmer's meadow with a bog hoe, and Thoreau tries to explain that he lives in a "tight, light, and clean house" for far less money. Because he doesn't spend money on rent or on buying coffee, tea, milk, or meat, he can work far less than Field, who must work hard to buy the meat he needs to sustain such hard work. Field came to America so he could have access to such things, but the only free America is one where a man can decide to go without them.

Thoreau talks to Field "as if he were a philosopher," trying to tell him that his work wears out his boots and clothing and requires that he continue to work to buy new, while Thoreau wears simple, light clothing and by spending a few hours fishing and a few working, can afford anything he needs. So could the Fields if they lived simply. Field and his wife seem to be considering it, but "without arithmetic," they fail to see how it's possible. Field fishes sometimes, but he uses worms to catch shiners and uses the shiners to catch fish.

With the rain over and a rainbow in the sky, Thoreau begins to leave, first asking for a dish as an excuse to look at the well. It takes a long time to select a dish, go to the well, which has shallows, quicksands, a broken rope, and a lost bucket, and when the water comes, it has motes floating in it. Still, Thoreau drinks it in a show of hospitality. As he's leaving, Thoreau's rush to catch fish "seemed trivial to me who had been sent to school and college," but suddenly he seems to hear his "Good Genius" speaking to him, telling him to hunt and fish, rest by brooks and hearthsides, rise before dawn, visit lakes and be found at home at night ­ basically live his life as he has been living it at Walden ­ for "There are no larger fields than these, no worthier games than may here be played."

Men are living like serfs through want of enterprise. Thoreau write some lines of poetry exulting Baker Farm and observes that most men come home at night and live the same day over and over when they should come home every day with adventures and new experiences. John Field, who has decided not to go bogging that afternoon after all, decides to fish with Thoreau but he only catches a few fish while Thoreau, in the same boat, catches many. He's trying to live by old country ways ­ catching perch with shiners ­ in this new country, as if he was born to be poor. He and his offspring will always be until they consciously change their lives.

Analysis:

In this chapter, Thoreau draws upon the powerful and oft-used image of the rainbow. In traditional Christian literature, the rainbow (which appears to Noah in the Genesis after the flood) is a sign of God's covenant with mankind. Though Thoreau eschews Christian dogma, he draws upon the power of this association as a means of expressing his own spiritual fulfillment. As he stands in its arch, Thoreau describes the rainbow as "dazzling me as if I looked through colored crystal." This is a spiritual experience which transforms Thoreau's very perception of the nature which surrounds him. In its light he lives "like a dolphin" ­ a symbol of immortality ­ and in describing his experience this way, offers an alternate path to spiritual fulfillment to the traditional Christian beliefs of his fellow New Englanders. Rather, Thoreau achieves spiritual enlightenment and immortality through the direct experience of nature.

Additionally, Thoreau draws on secular myths in his description of his encounter of the rainbow. "It chanced that [he] stood in the very abutment of a rainbow's arch." This spot, according to Irish folktales where the leprechaun's pot of gold is hidden, is found by Thoreau almost by accident. In this way, he expresses nature's sympathy for him in its allowing him to inhabit such a space.

In a more humorous and mocking manner, Thoreau references spiritual matters when he describes seeing an inexplicable glow around his shadow, which makes him "fancy" he is one of the elect, or God's chosen. His off-handed and joking reference makes it clear that he is not serious and likewise makes apparent that he does not believe in the Puritan doctrine of the elect ­ a doctrine which formed the character of the American people and the very work ethic which Thoreau himself eschews.

Thoreau's joke that someone told him that Irishmen don't have a halo around their shadows displays the prejudices which existed in a nineteenth-century New England where the majority was of English descent. This comment also foreshadows Thoreau's perceptions of John Field, an Irishman who is unable to achieve the spiritual enlightenment that Thoreau cherishes. Additionally, Thoreau comments on Benvenuto Cellini's belief that the glow surrounding his shadow demonstrated God's favor, and opines that this is simply an example of "superstition" proceeding from an "excitable imagination." In this comment Thoreau's general suspicion of organized religion is mingled with a nineteenth-century prejudice against Roman Catholicism as based on superstition and spectacle.

John Field, the Irish "bogger," is likely a composite of many poor workers whom Thoreau met. His name, of course, is a symbol for his occupation. He works endlessly digging up fields for farmers. Being Irish, he is at the bottom of the social stratum and is therefore a more likely target for Thoreau's beliefs about simplifying life. Unlike a rich man, Field would have little to lose and much to gain by following Thoreau's example. Ultimately, he is "bogged" down by his limited conception of how to live his life. Unable to conceive of living differently than he does, he does things the hard and unproductive way ­ as Thoreau exemplifies metaphorically in Field's lengthy process of catching shiners with worms in order to use worms to catch fish. Such men are the motivation behind the publication of Thoreau's book.

Representations of the divine recur in this chapter when Thoreau's "Good Genius" seems to speak to him, quelling his worries that his way of life is trivial and urging him to live in nature as he has been doing. This voice is at once Thoreau's own and the imagined voice of God. In representing it so, Thoreau communicates his belief that the divine can be found by looking within and also illustrates the spiritual dimension to his choice of a life.

Chapter Eleven "Higher Laws"

Summary:

Walking home, Thoreau sees a woodchuck and has the urge to devour him raw. He finds dual instincts ­ toward spiritual life and toward primitive live ­ in himself. He attributes his occasional desire to live like an animal to the hunting he did as a child. Hunters and fishers get to know nature in a way travellers don't. Those who say Americans have fewer amusements than the English, because they don't play as many games are wrong, for all the boys his age hunted between ages 10 and 14.

Sometimes, he fishes, through necessity, at the pond and feels no real sympathy for the fish. He used to hunt, saying it was an interest in ornithology that inspired him, but he sold his gun before going to the woods, where he got to know the birds in a better way. He tells his friends to make their sons hunters, if possible "mighty" enough hunters that there ceases to be game big enough to please them. A boy who has never fired a gun has had his education neglected but is no more humane than others. In Thoreau's opinion, "no humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature which holds it life by the same tenure that he does." Young men go forth into the forest as hunters and fishers and find themselves to be poets and naturalists instead. Parsons who hunt are paradoxes to Thoreau.

The only reason men and their sons seem to spend half a day at Walden is to fish but they are disappointed if they don't go home with a whole string of fish. Mostly the legislature ignores this practice and all men therefore pass through "the hunter stage of development." Recently, Thoreau has a loss of self-respect when fishing. It's a base instinct which he has lost but which would be reawakened if he were to go back to live in the woods. Mostly this is because fish make an unclean diet, with all the cleaning they need. There is an instinct against animal food, and any man who wants to preserve his poetic faculties should give up eating it. Larvae eat gluttonously; butterflies can survive on drops of honey.

Most men, if they had to prepare it themselves, would give up eating rich cooking. Man's carnivorous instincts are accomplished in a "miserable way" through the slaughter of animals. Thoreau is certain that it is the destiny of the human race to stop eating animals, just a tribes gave up cannibalism when they became civilized. Men should follow their inner genius, even if it means feeling bodily weak, to conform with higher principles, and they will be rewarded by life becoming "more elastic, more starry, more immortal."

Nonetheless, Thoreau could eat a fried rat if he had to. He drinks only water because he desires to be always sober, eschewing wine, coffee, and tea, even though they tempt him. He has objected to course labors because they led him to eat and drink coarsely. He has become less particular recently though, and this chapter represents his opinions rather than his practice. When a person "distinguishes the true savor of his food" and gets satisfaction from that has more to do with his mind than appetite, he can't be a glutton. The appetite, not the food, defiles the person.

Everything in life has a moral aspect, and "goodness is the only investment that never fails." We know there is an animal that exists inside of his which we can never truly escape. The other day Thoreau picked up the jaws of a hog and saw in its tusks an animal vigor that led to its success in life ­ different from spiritual vigor. The spirit can control the body and turn everything into purity and devotion. Purity ­ the loss of the animal inside ­ brings the person closer to the divine. All sensuality ­ overeating, drinking, promiscuity ­ are different forms of the same thing. People calls themselves Christian when they are no purer than "the heathen," even when they could learn to be purer through "heathen" religion.

Thoreau knows he risk speaking obscenely but finds it strange that there are matters of human nature considered improper to discuss and finds this to be a symptom of human degradation. "Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships." John Farmer sits in his door one September evening and hears a flute. He thinks of work but the flute awakens parts of his mind that are slumbering, asking him why he leads such a mean life when a glorious one is possible? He decides to practice austerity, to let his mind redeem his body and to treat himself with more respect.

Analysis:

Thoreau struggles throughout this chapter with the dialectic between man's animal and spiritual nature. In some ways, this understanding of the human being is reminiscent of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers' separation of human reason from animal instinct. For them, human beings differed from animals through their capacity for rational thought and action. Unlike these philosophers, however, Thoreau's struggle is further complicated by his understanding as the human as a part of nature. He cannot deny that human beings have primitive animalistic desires ­ as exemplified by his desire to consume a woodchuck raw. Therefore, his attempts to purify himself, through the denial of the animal parts of his nature, can never be completely successful. This dialectic is ultimately irresolvable.

The metaphor of the body as a temple, which Thoreau offers as man's true work near the end of the chapter, has Biblical origins. In 1 Corinthians 6:19, St. Paul wrote, "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own." Paul, like Thoreau, urged his readers to eschew bodily desires and needs in order to become purely spiritual beings. Thoreau takes Paul's words, which says the body is not man's but God's, to argue the opposite ­ that man's body is his own, a work created by him just as a sculptor creates a work of art. "We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones."

Thoreau's metaphor of the body as material for the artist juxtaposes strangely with his primarily symbolic perspective. In likening the sculptor's creation of art from clay to man's creation of art from his body, he denigrates the symbolic nature of the sculptor's work. This is odd, primarily because Thoreau himself is so heavily concerned with symbols. For example, his refusal to eat meat, coffee or tea, or salt and spices is primarily a symbolic statement. Vegetarianism, for him, is not an end in itself. A Puritan eating brown bread can be a glutton if he gives in to his base physical desire for it. Additionally, because Thoreau allies himself with animals as coexistent parts of nature, to eat them would be tantamount to cannibalism.

In his assertion that the human race is progressing to a state in which it will cease to eat animals, just as the progress of civilization previously led to the end of cannibalism, Thoreau imparts a theme of progress and evolution to this chapter. The human race represents the macrocosmic level. On the microcosmic level, an individual man will proceed from the stage of the "thoughtless boy," who through hunting and fishing becomes aquainted with nature; to the man who would not deign to kill an animal whose life is as tenuous as his; to a man who replaces his fishing and hunting with poetry and naturalism; to finally, the man who ceases to eat animal products in order to preserve his poetic faculties.

John Farmer, who like John Field, is a symbolic representation of all men of a certain class and occupation, provides the example of a man awakened in spirit. In "Economy," Thoreau has spoken about how most men's spiritual lives slumber. Here, he suggests that the animal life should slumber while the spiritual life revive. Farmer's realization, through overhearing flute music, that there is more to his life than his work illustrates Thoreau's belief that he can, through writing Walden, show his townsmen the possibility of exchanging their "mean" lives for "glorious" ones. The flute, of course, is the instrument that Thoreau plays at the pond, and this artistic creation, flute music, represents Thoreau's other artistic creation ­ the book Walden.

Chapter Twelve "Brute Neighbors"

Summary:

Thoreau opens the chapter with an imagined dialogue between Hermit and Poet. Hermit wonders what "the world" is doing and speculates on the sounds he hears, including the horn of the farmer calling the hands in to dinner and the rustle of a dog or lost pig running through the brush. Poet, meanwhile, stares at the clouds and asks Hermit to come fish with him. Hermit tells him to go dig worms while he finishes meditating, for in this wood, it is as hard to catch worms as fish. Alone, he loses track of his thoughts, having been close to "resolv[ing] into the essence of things." Poet comes back with thirteen worms as well as several undersized ones which do for small fry, and Hermit agrees to go off fishing with him, proposing the Concord River.

Why, Thoreau asks, do particular species fill the spaces in our lives they do? All animals are beasts of burden, carrying our thoughts. Mice of a different species which are found in the village live in Thoreau's house. One had its nest built under the house and as it gradually became accustomed to Thoreau, would run around his clothes, the sides of the wall, and around his dinner. He fed it a piece of cheese from his hand and watched it clean its face and paws before it walked away.

A phoebe (bird) lived in his shed and a robin in a nearby pine. In June, the partridge led her chicks by his house. When he approached, she gave the chicks a signal and they dispersed like a whirlwind, while she spun around to distract him. The chicks stay so still through instinct that Thoreau once picked one up and it remained crouching without trembling. Once, when he put a chick down on the leaves and it fell over, it stayed that way for ten minutes. The eyes of the partridges reflect an age-old intelligence, which no traveler or hunter can see. They are Thoreau's hens and chickens.

So many animals live secretly in woods near the town and only the hunter suspects them. There is a four-foot-long otter near Walden and raccoons behind Thoreau's house. At a brook near Brister Hill, which he would visit on summer afternoons to sit in the shade and get cold water from a well he'd dug in its spring, Thoreau saw a wood-cock and her brood. When she saw him, she signaled the young, who began dutifully marching away in a line, and pretended her wing was broken to distract him. If you sit still long enough in an attractive spot in the woods, all its inhabits will gradually exhibit themselves.

One day, near his woodpile, he observes a battle between red ants and black ants twice their size. The ants struggle, one-on-one and sometimes two red ants to one black ant, in silent deadly combat over the wood chips. He watches as a red ant continue to gnaw at the root of a black ant's feeler while dashed from side to side and as another red ant approaches the battle and leaps onto a black warrior already struggling with another red ant. This battle excites Thoreau more than if they were men, for it displays more heroism and greater numbers than any American battle. At the Battle of Concord, only two men, Davis and Hosmer, died, but all these ants are like Colonel Buttrick, "Fire! For God's sake fire!" Unlike the colonists who fought over a three cent tax on tea, Thoreau has no doubt the ants fight over an issue of principle. Taking a chip where two ants struggle into his house, he puts a tumbler over it and watches as they struggle for half an hour until the black ant has severed the other two ants' heads. Unfortunately, all his feelers and all but one leg are gone. Thoreau lets him out the window, and is excited all day, though he never learns who won the battle or the cause. He mentions examples from writing listing ant battles, and notes that this one took place "in the Presidency of Polk, five years before the passage of Webster's Fugitive Slave Bill."

Once, Thoreau saw a house cat walking by the pond and was surprised to see how natural it looked in the woods. Another time, while berrying, he met a while cat and her kittens, all of whom arched their backs and spit at him. Before he came the woods, he visited a farm who owned a "winged cat," who grew large wings of fur on her sides during the winter and shed them in the spring. Her owners gave him a pair of her wings to keep and he suggests that a winged cat would be an appropriate pet for a poet.

In the fall, the loons come, and ten hunters to every one loon arrive at the mill-dam to shoot them. Early in the morning, Thoreau would see them from afar in his boat and try to get close but they dived under the water. One October afternoon, he follows one around the pond but it dives so deep and stays under for so long, he can't predict where it will reemerge. Always, though, the bird laughs and howls when it surfaces, thus drawing attention to itself. One series of hollows is followed by rain and thinking the god of the loons is angry with him, Thoreau leaves the loon alone in the pond.

For hours in the fall, he watches ducks in the center of the pond, far from hunters. Sometimes they fly so high above the pond they must be able to see other lakes and rivers. Often when he thinks they have flown off, they land on a distant part of the pond. He can't imagine what safety from hunters they gain in the middle of Walden Pond, unless they love its water for the same reason he does.

Analysis:

The dialogue between Hermit and Poet that opens the chapter continues the dialectical internal conflict which consumes Thoreau. Hermit and Poet represent different parts of Thoreau, struggling to coexist. Hermit, Thoreau's spiritual side, desires only to philosophize but his thoughts, just when they are reaching their pinnacle, are disturbed by the Poet's desire to go fishing. Poet, in his desire to go fishing, represents the instinctual animal part of Thoreau which he attempts to shed. Nonetheless, Hermit cannot live without Poet. He has only a little brown bread left and must agree to fish if he is to survive. Nevertheless, these two elements of Thoreau's inner self coexist uneasily, each blocking the other from achieving its ultimate goals.

All of the animals in this chapter combine animal nature with a spiritual component. In his representations of them, we can see that Thoreau has not completely dismissed animals, despite his sentiments in the last chapter. Rather, he is entranced and inspired by nature, and his struggle to reconcile the spirituality he perceives to exist effortlessly within nature with the animal nature in human beings is ongoing.

The ants, for example, exemplify the untroubled coexistence of animal and spiritual. Clearly, their animal natures are at play as they gnaw and rip at each other. Yet, in their "battle," Thoreau perceives more nobility and valor than in the battles of the American Revolution. While human beings fight for materialistic reasons, animals, lacking material possessions or the understanding of them, can in Thoreau's logic only fight over principle. Thoreau's reference to the Fugitive Slave Act in his dating of the ant battle, further connects the example of the ants' valor to human conflict. Writing in the 1850s, Thoreau had come to believe that armed conflict was an appropriate means of resisting the injustice of slavery. Thus, for Thoreau, John Brown's conflict at Harper's Ferry was a human counterpart to the valiant ants.

Similarly, instinct to Thoreau is not necessarily a negative thing. In the partridge and woodcock chicks, who without fear follow their mothers' signal when an intruder approaches, Thoreau sees a kind of bravery in instinctual behavior. Additionally, the intelligence ­ as old as the woods themselves ­ which he sees reflected in the partridges' eyes and the unselfconscious behavior of the mouse suggest a spiritual dimension in animals.

The winged cat is yet another example of a hybrid, which Thoreau seeks to be in reconciling the dialectic between animal and spiritual natures. Referencing Greek mythology, he says she would be a fitting pet for a poet, who already has a winged horse, Pegasus. He speculates she might be the product of a union between a flying squirrel and cat, making her a physical hybrid as well as a hybrid of dual natures.

Nonetheless, Thoreau fails to ultimately reconcile within himself animal and spiritual natures. The loon, with its eerily human capacity for laughter and trickery and its animals abilities to transcend even the boundaries between bird and fish, easily achieves this position of liminality. But Thoreau in failing to capture the loon symbolically fails to capture this ability to cross boundaries and maintain internal contradictions in himself.

Sometimes I had a companion in my fishing, who came through the village to my house from the other side of the town, and the catching of the dinner was as much a social exercise as the eating of it.

Hermit. I wonder what the world is doing now. I have not heard so much as a locust over the sweet–fern these three hours. The pigeons are all asleep upon their roosts—no flutter from them. Was that a farmer's noon horn which sounded from beyond the woods just now? The hands are coming in to boiled salt beef and cider and Indian bread. Why will men worry themselves so? He that does not eat need not work. I wonder how much they have reaped. Who would live there where a body can never think for the barking of Bose? And oh, the housekeeping! to keep bright the devil's door–knobs, and scour his tubs this bright day! Better not keep a house. Say, some hollow tree; and then for morning calls and dinner–parties! Only a woodpecker tapping. Oh, they swarm; the sun is too warm there; they are born too far into life for me. I have water from the spring, and a loaf of brown bread on the shelf.—Hark! I hear a rustling of the leaves. Is it some ill–fed village hound yielding to the instinct of the chase? or the lost pig which is said to be in these woods, whose tracks I saw after the rain? It comes on apace; my sumachs and sweetbriers tremble.—Eh, Mr. Poet, is it you? How do you like the world to–day?

Poet. See those clouds; how they hang! That's the greatest thing I have seen to–day. There's nothing like it in old paintings, nothing like it in foreign lands—unless when we were off the coast of Spain. That's a true Mediterranean sky. I thought, as I have my living to get, and have not eaten to–day, that I might go a–fishing. That's the true industry for poets. It is the only trade I have learned. Come, let's along.

Hermit. I cannot resist. My brown bread will soon be gone. I will go with you gladly soon, but I am just concluding a serious meditation. I think that I am near the end of it. Leave me alone, then, for a while. But that we may not be delayed, you shall be digging the bait meanwhile. Angleworms are rarely to be met with in these parts, where the soil was never fattened with manure; the race is nearly extinct. The sport of digging the bait is nearly equal to that of catching the fish, when one's appetite is not too keen; and this you may have all to yourself today. I would advise you to set in the spade down yonder among the ground–nuts, where you see the johnswort waving. I think that I may warrant you one worm to every three sods you turn up, if you look well in among the roots of the grass, as if you were weeding. Or, if you choose to go farther, it will not be unwise, for I have found the increase of fair bait to be very nearly as the squares of the distances.

Hermit alone. Let me see; where was I? Methinks I was nearly in this frame of mind; the world lay about at this angle. Shall I go to heaven or a–fishing? If I should soon bring this meditation to an end, would another so sweet occasion be likely to offer? I was as near being resolved into the essence of things as ever I was in my life. I fear my thoughts will not come back to me. If it would do any good, I would whistle for them. When they make us an offer, is it wise to say, We will think of it? My thoughts have left no track, and I cannot find the path again. What was it that I was thinking of? It was a very hazy day. I will just try these three sentences of Confutsee; they may fetch that state about again. I know not whether it was the dumps or a budding ecstasy. Mem. There never is but one opportunity of a kind.

Poet. How now, Hermit, is it too soon? I have got just thirteen whole ones, beside several which are imperfect or undersized; but they will do for the smaller fry; they do not cover up the hook so much. Those village worms are quite too large; a shiner may make a meal off one without finding the skewer.

Hermit. Well, then, let's be off. Shall we to the Concord? There's good sport there if the water be not too high.

Why do precisely these objects which we behold make a world? Why has man just these species of animals for his neighbors; as if nothing but a mouse could have filled this crevice? I suspect that Pilpay & Co. have put animals to their best use, for they are all beasts of burden, in a sense, made to carry some portion of our thoughts.

The mice which haunted my house were not the common ones, which are said to have been introduced into the country, but a wild native kind not found in the village. I sent one to a distinguished naturalist, and it interested him much. When I was building, one of these had its nest underneath the house, and before I had laid the second floor, and swept out the shavings, would come out regularly at lunch time and pick up the crumbs at my feet. It probably had never seen a man before; and it soon became quite familiar, and would run over my shoes and up my clothes. It could readily ascend the sides of the room by short impulses, like a squirrel, which it resembled in its motions. At length, as I leaned with my elbow on the bench one day, it ran up my clothes, and along my sleeve, and round and round the paper which held my dinner, while I kept the latter close, and dodged and played at bopeep with it; and when at last I held still a piece of cheese between my thumb and finger, it came and nibbled it, sitting in my hand, and afterward cleaned its face and paws, like a fly, and walked away.

A phoebe soon built in my shed, and a robin for protection in a pine which grew against the house. In June the partridge (Tetrao umbellus), which is so shy a bird, led her brood past my windows, from the woods in the rear to the front of my house, clucking and calling to them like a hen, and in all her behavior proving herself the hen of the woods. The young suddenly disperse on your approach, at a signal from the mother, as if a whirlwind had swept them away, and they so exactly resemble the dried leaves and twigs that many a traveler has placed his foot in the midst of a brood, and heard the whir of the old bird as she flew off, and her anxious calls and mewing, or seen her trail her wings to attract his attention, without suspecting their neighborhood. The parent will sometimes roll and spin round before you in such a dishabille, that you cannot, for a few moments, detect what kind of creature it is. The young squat still and flat, often running their heads under a leaf, and mind only their mother's directions given from a distance, nor will your approach make them run again and betray themselves. You may even tread on them, or have your eyes on them for a minute, without discovering them. I have held them in my open hand at such a time, and still their only care, obedient to their mother and their instinct, was to squat there without fear or trembling. So perfect is this instinct, that once, when I had laid them on the leaves again, and one accidentally fell on its side, it was found with the rest in exactly the same position ten minutes afterward. They are not callow like the young of most birds, but more perfectly developed and precocious even than chickens. The remarkably adult yet innocent expression of their open and serene eyes is very memorable. All intelligence seems reflected in them. They suggest not merely the purity of infancy, but a wisdom clarified by experience. Such an eye was not born when the bird was, but is coeval with the sky it reflects. The woods do not yield another such a gem. The traveller does not often look into such a limpid well. The ignorant or reckless sportsman often shoots the parent at such a time, and leaves these innocents to fall a prey to some prowling beast or bird, or gradually mingle with the decaying leaves which they so much resemble. It is said that when hatched by a hen they will directly disperse on some alarm, and so are lost, for they never hear the mother's call which gathers them again. These were my hens and chickens.

It is remarkable how many creatures live wild and free though secret in the woods, and still sustain themselves in the neighborhood of towns, suspected by hunters only. How retired the otter manages to live here! He grows to be four feet long, as big as a small boy, perhaps without any human being getting a glimpse of him. I formerly saw the raccoon in the woods behind where my house is built, and probably still heard their whinnering at night. Commonly I rested an hour or two in the shade at noon, after planting, and ate my lunch, and read a little by a spring which was the source of a swamp and of a brook, oozing from under Brister's Hill, half a mile from my field. The approach to this was through a succession of descending grassy hollows, full of young pitch pines, into a larger wood about the swamp. There, in a very secluded and shaded spot, under a spreading white pine, there was yet a clean, firm sward to sit on. I had dug out the spring and made a well of clear gray water, where I could dip up a pailful without roiling it, and thither I went for this purpose almost every day in midsummer, when the pond was warmest. Thither, too, the woodcock led her brood, to probe the mud for worms, flying but a foot above them down the bank, while they ran in a troop beneath; but at last, spying me, she would leave her young and circle round and round me, nearer and nearer till within four or five feet, pretending broken wings and legs, to attract my attention, and get off her young, who would already have taken up their march, with faint, wiry peep, single file through the swamp, as she directed. Or I heard the peep of the young when I could not see the parent bird. There too the turtle doves sat over the spring, or fluttered from bough to bough of the soft white pines over my head; or the red squirrel, coursing down the nearest bough, was particularly familiar and inquisitive. You only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns.

I was witness to events of a less peaceful character. One day when I went out to my wood–pile, or rather my pile of stumps, I observed two large ants, the one red, the other much larger, nearly half an inch long, and black, fiercely contending with one another. Having once got hold they never let go, but struggled and wrestled and rolled on the chips incessantly. Looking farther, I was surprised to find that the chips were covered with such combatants, that it was not a duellum, but a bellum, a war between two races of ants, the red always pitted against the black, and frequently two red ones to one black. The legions of these Myrmidons covered all the hills and vales in my wood–yard, and the ground was already strewn with the dead and dying, both red and black. It was the only battle which I have ever witnessed, the only battle–field I ever trod while the battle was raging; internecine war; the red republicans on the one hand, and the black imperialists on the other. On every side they were engaged in deadly combat, yet without any noise that I could hear, and human soldiers never fought so resolutely. I watched a couple that were fast locked in each other's embraces, in a little sunny valley amid the chips, now at noonday prepared to fight till the sun went down, or life went out. The smaller red champion had fastened himself like a vice to his adversary's front, and through all the tumblings on that field never for an instant ceased to gnaw at one of his feelers near the root, having already caused the other to go by the board; while the stronger black one dashed him from side to side, and, as I saw on looking nearer, had already divested him of several of his members. They fought with more pertinacity than bulldogs. Neither manifested the least disposition to retreat. It was evident that their battle–cry was "Conquer or die." In the meanwhile there came along a single red ant on the hillside of this valley, evidently full of excitement, who either had despatched his foe, or had not yet taken part in the battle; probably the latter, for he had lost none of his limbs; whose mother had charged him to return with his shield or upon it. Or perchance he was some Achilles, who had nourished his wrath apart, and had now come to avenge or rescue his Patroclus. He saw this unequal combat from afar—for the blacks were nearly twice the size of the red—he drew near with rapid pace till he stood on his guard within half an inch of the combatants; then, watching his opportunity, he sprang upon the black warrior, and commenced his operations near the root of his right fore leg, leaving the foe to select among his own members; and so there were three united for life, as if a new kind of attraction had been invented which put all other locks and cements to shame. I should not have wondered by this time to find that they had their respective musical bands stationed on some eminent chip, and playing their national airs the while, to excite the slow and cheer the dying combatants. I was myself excited somewhat even as if they had been men. The more you think of it, the less the difference. And certainly there is not the fight recorded in Concord history, at least, if in the history of America, that will bear a moment's comparison with this, whether for the numbers engaged in it, or for the patriotism and heroism displayed. For numbers and for carnage it was an Austerlitz or Dresden. Concord Fight! Two killed on the patriots' side, and Luther Blanchard wounded! Why here every ant was a Buttrick—"Fire! for God's sake fire!"—and thousands shared the fate of Davis and Hosmer. There was not one hireling there. I have no doubt that it was a principle they fought for, as much as our ancestors, and not to avoid a three–penny tax on their tea; and the results of this battle will be as important and memorable to those whom it concerns as those of the battle of Bunker Hill, at least.

I took up the chip on which the three I have particularly described were struggling, carried it into my house, and placed it under a tumbler on my window–sill, in order to see the issue. Holding a microscope to the first–mentioned red ant, I saw that, though he was assiduously gnawing at the near fore leg of his enemy, having severed his remaining feeler, his own breast was all torn away, exposing what vitals he had there to the jaws of the black warrior, whose breastplate was apparently too thick for him to pierce; and the dark carbuncles of the sufferer's eyes shone with ferocity such as war only could excite. They struggled half an hour longer under the tumbler, and when I looked again the black soldier had severed the heads of his foes from their bodies, and the still living heads were hanging on either side of him like ghastly trophies at his saddle–bow, still apparently as firmly fastened as ever, and he was endeavoring with feeble struggles, being without feelers and with only the remnant of a leg, and I know not how many other wounds, to divest himself of them; which at length, after half an hour more, he accomplished. I raised the glass, and he went off over the window–sill in that crippled state. Whether he finally survived that combat, and spent the remainder of his days in some Hotel des Invalides, I do not know; but I thought that his industry would not be worth much thereafter. I never learned which party was victorious, nor the cause of the war; but I felt for the rest of that day as if I had had my feelings excited and harrowed by witnessing the struggle, the ferocity and carnage, of a human battle before my door.

Kirby and Spence tell us that the battles of ants have long been celebrated and the date of them recorded, though they say that Huber is the only modern author who appears to have witnessed them. "AEneas Sylvius," say they, "after giving a very circumstantial account of one contested with great obstinacy by a great and small species on the trunk of a pear tree," adds that "this action was fought in the pontificate of Eugenius the Fourth, in the presence of Nicholas Pistoriensis, an eminent lawyer, who related the whole, history of the battle with the greatest fidelity." A similar engagement between great and small ants is recorded by Olaus Magnus, in which the small ones, being victorious, are said to have buried the bodies of their own soldiers, but left those of their giant enemies a prey to the birds. This event happened previous to the expulsion of the tyrant Christiern the Second from Sweden. The battle which I witnessed took place in the Presidency of Polk, five years before the passage of Webster's Fugitive–Slave Bill.

Many a village Bose, fit only to course a mud–turtle in a victualling cellar, sported his heavy quarters in the woods, without the knowledge of his master, and ineffectually smelled at old fox burrows and woodchucks' holes; led perchance by some slight cur which nimbly threaded the wood, and might still inspire a natural terror in its denizens;—now far behind his guide, barking like a canine bull toward some small squirrel which had treed itself for scrutiny, then, cantering off, bending the bushes with his weight, imagining that he is on the track of some stray member of the jerbilla family. Once I was surprised to see a cat walking along the stony shore of the pond, for they rarely wander so far from home. The surprise was mutual. Nevertheless the most domestic cat, which has lain on a rug all her days, appears quite at home in the woods, and, by her sly and stealthy behavior, proves herself more native there than the regular inhabitants. Once, when berrying, I met with a cat with young kittens in the woods, quite wild, and they all, like their mother, had their backs up and were fiercely spitting at me. A few years before I lived in the woods there was what was called a "winged cat" in one of the farm–houses in Lincoln nearest the pond, Mr. Gilian Baker's. When I called to see her in June, 1842, she was gone a–hunting in the woods, as was her wont (I am not sure whether it was a male or female, and so use the more common pronoun), but her mistress told me that she came into the neighborhood a little more than a year before, in April, and was finally taken into their house; that she was of a dark brownish–gray color, with a white spot on her throat, and white feet, and had a large bushy tail like a fox; that in the winter the fur grew thick and flatted out along her sides, forming stripes ten or twelve inches long by two and a half wide, and under her chin like a muff, the upper side loose, the under matted like felt, and in the spring these appendages dropped off. They gave me a pair of her "wings," which I keep still. There is no appearance of a membrane about them. Some thought it was part flying squirrel or some other wild animal, which is not impossible, for, according to naturalists, prolific hybrids have been produced by the union of the marten and domestic cat. This would have been the right kind of cat for me to keep, if I had kept any; for why should not a poet's cat be winged as well as his horse?

In the fall the loon (Colymbus glacialis) came, as usual, to moult and bathe in the pond, making the woods ring with his wild laughter before I had risen. At rumor of his arrival all the Mill–dam sportsmen are on the alert, in gigs and on foot, two by two and three by three, with patent rifles and conical balls and spy–glasses. They come rustling through the woods like autumn leaves, at least ten men to one loon. Some station themselves on this side of the pond, some on that, for the poor bird cannot be omnipresent; if he dive here he must come up there. But now the kind October wind rises, rustling the leaves and rippling the surface of the water, so that no loon can be heard or seen, though his foes sweep the pond with spy–glasses, and make the woods resound with their discharges. The waves generously rise and dash angrily, taking sides with all water–fowl, and our sportsmen must beat a retreat to town and shop and unfinished jobs. But they were too often successful. When I went to get a pail of water early in the morning I frequently saw this stately bird sailing out of my cove within a few rods. If I endeavored to overtake him in a boat, in order to see how he would manoeuvre, he would dive and be completely lost, so that I did not discover him again, sometimes, till the latter part of the day. But I was more than a match for him on the surface. He commonly went off in a rain.

As I was paddling along the north shore one very calm October afternoon, for such days especially they settle on to the lakes, like the milkweed down, having looked in vain over the pond for a loon, suddenly one, sailing out from the shore toward the middle a few rods in front of me, set up his wild laugh and betrayed himself. I pursued with a paddle and he dived, but when he came up I was nearer than before. He dived again, but I miscalculated the direction he would take, and we were fifty rods apart when he came to the surface this time, for I had helped to widen the interval; and again he laughed long and loud, and with more reason than before. He manoeuvred so cunningly that I could not get within half a dozen rods of him. Each time, when he came to the surface, turning his head this way and that, he cooly surveyed the water and the land, and apparently chose his course so that he might come up where there was the widest expanse of water and at the greatest distance from the boat. It was surprising how quickly he made up his mind and put his resolve into execution. He led me at once to the widest part of the pond, and could not be driven from it. While he was thinking one thing in his brain, I was endeavoring to divine his thought in mine. It was a pretty game, played on the smooth surface of the pond, a man against a loon. Suddenly your adversary's checker disappears beneath the board, and the problem is to place yours nearest to where his will appear again. Sometimes he would come up unexpectedly on the opposite side of me, having apparently passed directly under the boat. So long–winded was he and so unweariable, that when he had swum farthest he would immediately plunge again, nevertheless; and then no wit could divine where in the deep pond, beneath the smooth surface, he might be speeding his way like a fish, for he had time and ability to visit the bottom of the pond in its deepest part. It is said that loons have been caught in the New York lakes eighty feet beneath the surface, with hooks set for trout—though Walden is deeper than that. How surprised must the fishes be to see this ungainly visitor from another sphere speeding his way amid their schools! Yet he appeared to know his course as surely under water as on the surface, and swam much faster there. Once or twice I saw a ripple where he approached the surface, just put his head out to reconnoitre, and instantly dived again. I found that it was as well for me to rest on my oars and wait his reappearing as to endeavor to calculate where he would rise; for again and again, when I was straining my eyes over the surface one way, I would suddenly be startled by his unearthly laugh behind me. But why, after displaying so much cunning, did he invariably betray himself the moment he came up by that loud laugh? Did not his white breast enough betray him? He was indeed a silly loon, I thought. I could commonly hear the splash of the water when he came up, and so also detected him. But after an hour he seemed as fresh as ever, dived as willingly, and swam yet farther than at first. It was surprising to see how serenely he sailed off with unruffled breast when he came to the surface, doing all the work with his webbed feet beneath. His usual note was this demoniac laughter, yet somewhat like that of a water–fowl; but occasionally, when he had balked me most successfully and come up a long way off, he uttered a long–drawn unearthly howl, probably more like that of a wolf than any bird; as when a beast puts his muzzle to the ground and deliberately howls. This was his looning—perhaps the wildest sound that is ever heard here, making the woods ring far and wide. I concluded that he laughed in derision of my efforts, confident of his own resources. Though the sky was by this time overcast, the pond was so smooth that I could see where he broke the surface when I did not hear him. His white breast, the stillness of the air, and the smoothness of the water were all against him. At length having come up fifty rods off, he uttered one of those prolonged howls, as if calling on the god of loons to aid him, and immediately there came a wind from the east and rippled the surface, and filled the whole air with misty rain, and I was impressed as if it were the prayer of the loon answered, and his god was angry with me; and so I left him disappearing far away on the tumultuous surface.

For hours, in fall days, I watched the ducks cunningly tack and veer and hold the middle of the pond, far from the sportsman; tricks which they will have less need to practise in Louisiana bayous. When compelled to rise they would sometimes circle round and round and over the pond at a considerable height, from which they could easily see to other ponds and the river, like black motes in the sky; and, when I thought they had gone off thither long since, they would settle down by a slanting flight of a quarter of a mile on to a distant part which was left free; but what beside safety they got by sailing in the middle of Walden I do not know, unless they love its water for the same reason that I do.

0 comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *