Thoreau was an avid student of local history. He scoured records, interviewed elderly residents, and imagined himself an archeologist at “ruins”—foundations, chimney bases, wells, and cellar holes.
His friend and first biographer, Sanborn, notes that historically the road running past the pond was “the abode of denizens who rather shunned publicity, like the freed slaves of the eighteenth century and white persons who had an affinity more than normal for ardent spirits.”
So this chapter is sort of a lineage. Thoreau acknowledging the spirit of neighbors now gone, by proximity and intention his own place in the story, and the contributions of intrepid winter visitors by way of his own residence.
Thoreau relates himself to these departed denizens— “I encountered many a blustering and nipping wind…and when the first had smithed me on one cheek, heathen as I was, I turned to it the other also.” While of course this refers to Christ’s instruction in the Book of Matthew, there’s another interesting layer. Cramer notes an 1860 Journal entry,
As in old times they who dwelt on the heath remote from towns were backward to adopt the doctrines which prevailed there, and were therefore called heathen in a bad sense, so we dwellers in the huckleberry pastures, which are our heath lands.
This came from his reading in Richard Chenevix Trench’s (1807-1866) The Study of Words, in which the term (heathen) is traced back to the introduction of Christianity in Germany, where “the wild dwellers on the ‘heaths’ longest resisted the truth” of the Church.
Trust Thoreau to call himself a heathen and refer to the New Testament all in one sentence. There is a logic to it—he claims his independence with a nod to the authority of Christianity. It also points to himself as someone qualified to live in these parts formerly inhabited with such colorful characters. And remember, mythological systems do like to trace their lineage.
A few historical notes. The “pranks of a demon not distinctly named in old mythology, who acted a prominent and astounding part in our New England life” refers to rum. Many New England families became wealthy by way of rum production in what Cramer calls “the slavery triangle.” West Indies molasses was taken to New England to make rum, which was shipped to New Guinea to purchase slaves, who were taken to the West Indies and traded for…molasses. In other words, many in the north were complicit in “a prominent and astounding” industry to perpetuate slavery.
Davenant’s Gondibert was an unfinished epic poem tedious enough to put Thoreau to sleep, along with Chalmer’s poetry collection—you may recall he preferred listening to frogs. Thoreau did suffer from bouts of sleepiness, especially during his time on Staten Island.
Shall we quiz you on the identity of his visitors? By now you know the poet. The woodchopper who left the scent of his pipe would be the Canadian Alec Therien. The loquacious farmer would have been Edmund Hosmer. While cracking a nut may be literal, it also refers to addressing a conundrum. The “last of the philosophers….I do not see how he can ever die; Nature cannot spare him” is the loyal Bronson Alcott. And the “one other with whom I had ‘solid seasons’” is certainly Emerson.
The closing allusions to the Vishnu Purana and an old English ballad, The Children in the Wood, weave a sense of mythos and mystery.
These pretty babes, with hand in hand,
Went wandering up and down,
But never more could see the man
Approaching from the town.
- If a family had no possessions of value to pay a debt, a sheriff would “attach a chip” of wood to something in the house.
- A pumpkin pine is an Eastern White Pine that can acquire a yellowish color.
Cramer, Jeffery. Walden, A Fully Annotated Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2004. pp.246- 261.
Harding, Walter. Walden, an Annotated Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1995.
Thoreau, Henry David. Thoreau’s Journals. U.K. Delphi Classics. 2017.
Van Doren Stern, Philip. The Annotated Walden. New York: Bramhall House. 1970.