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Chapter 8:
The Ponds
Sometimes, having had a surfeit of human society and gossip, and
worn out all my village friends, I rambled still farther westward
than I habitually dwell, into yet more unfrequented parts of the
town, "to fresh woods and pastures new," or, while the sun was
setting, made my supper of huckleberries and blueberries on Fair
Haven Hill, and laid up a store for several days. The fruits do not
yield their true flavor to the purchaser of them, nor to him who
raises them for the market. There is but one way to obtain it, yet
few take that way. If you would know the flavor of huckleberries,
ask the cowboy or the partridge. It is a vulgar error to suppose
that you have tasted huckleberries who never plucked them. A
huckleberry never reaches Boston; they have not been known there
since they grew on her three hills. The ambrosial and essential
part of the fruit is lost with the bloom which is rubbed off in the
market cart, and they become mere provender. As long as Eternal
Justice reigns, not one innocent huckleberry can be transported
thither from the country's hills.
Occasionally, after my hoeing was done for the day, I joined
some impatient companion who had been fishing on the pond since
morning, as silent and motionless as a duck or a floating leaf, and,
after practising various kinds of philosophy, had concluded
commonly, by the time I arrived, that he belonged to the ancient
sect of Coenobites. There was one older man, an excellent fisher
and skilled in all kinds of woodcraft, who was pleased to look upon
my house as a building erected for the convenience of fishermen; and
I was equally pleased when he sat in my doorway to arrange his
lines. Once in a while we sat together on the pond, he at one end
of the boat, and I at the other; but not many words passed between
us, for he had grown deaf in his later years, but he occasionally
hummed a psalm, which harmonized well enough with my philosophy.
Our intercourse was thus altogether one of unbroken harmony, far
more pleasing to remember than if it had been carried on by speech.
When, as was commonly the case, I had none to commune with, I used
to raise the echoes by striking with a paddle on the side of my
boat, filling the surrounding woods with circling and dilating
sound, stirring them up as the keeper of a menagerie his wild
beasts, until I elicited a growl from every wooded vale and
In warm evenings I frequently sat in the boat playing the flute,
and saw the perch, which I seem to have charmed, hovering around me,
and the moon travelling over the ribbed bottom, which was strewed
with the wrecks of the forest. Formerly I had come to this pond
adventurously, from time to time, in dark summer nights, with a
companion, and, making a fire close to the water's edge, which we
thought attracted the fishes, we caught pouts with a bunch of worms
strung on a thread, and when we had done, far in the night, threw
the burning brands high into the air like skyrockets, which, coming
down into the pond, were quenched with a loud hissing, and we were
suddenly groping in total darkness. Through this, whistling a tune,
we took our way to the haunts of men again. But now I had made my
home by the shore.
Sometimes, after staying in a village parlor till the family had
all retired, I have returned to the woods, and, partly with a view
to the next day's dinner, spent the hours of midnight fishing from a
boat by moonlight, serenaded by owls and foxes, and hearing, from
time to time, the creaking note of some unknown bird close at hand.
These experiences were very memorable and valuable to me—anchored
in forty feet of water, and twenty or thirty rods from the shore,
surrounded sometimes by thousands of small perch and shiners,
dimpling the surface with their tails in the moonlight, and
communicating by a long flaxen line with mysterious nocturnal fishes
which had their dwelling forty feet below, or sometimes dragging
sixty feet of line about the pond as I drifted in the gentle night
breeze, now and then feeling a slight vibration along it, indicative
of some life prowling about its extremity, of dull uncertain
blundering purpose there, and slow to make up its mind. At length
you slowly raise, pulling hand over hand, some horned pout squeaking
and squirming to the upper air. It was very queer, especially in
dark nights, when your thoughts had wandered to vast and cosmogonal
themes in other spheres, to feel this faint jerk, which came to
interrupt your dreams and link you to Nature again. It seemed as if
I might next cast my line upward into the air, as well as downward
into this element, which was scarcely more dense. Thus I caught two
fishes as it were with one hook.
The scenery of Walden is on a humble scale, and, though very
beautiful, does not approach to grandeur, nor can it much concern
one who has not long frequented it or lived by its shore; yet this
pond is so remarkable for its depth and purity as to merit a
particular description. It is a clear and deep green well, half a
mile long and a mile and three quarters in circumference, and
contains about sixty-one and a half acres; a perennial spring in the
midst of pine and oak woods, without any visible inlet or outlet
except by the clouds and evaporation. The surrounding hills rise
abruptly from the water to the height of forty to eighty feet,
though on the southeast and east they attain to about one hundred
and one hundred and fifty feet respectively, within a quarter and a
third of a mile. They are exclusively woodland. All our Concord
waters have two colors at least; one when viewed at a distance, and
another, more proper, close at hand. The first depends more on the
light, and follows the sky. In clear weather, in summer, they
appear blue at a little distance, especially if agitated, and at a
great distance all appear alike. In stormy weather they are
sometimes of a dark slate-color. The sea, however, is said to be
blue one day and green another without any perceptible change in the
atmosphere. I have seen our river, when, the landscape being
covered with snow, both water and ice were almost as green as grass.
Some consider blue "to be the color of pure water, whether liquid or
solid." But, looking directly down into our waters from a boat,
they are seen to be of very different colors. Walden is blue at one
time and green at another, even from the same point of view. Lying
between the earth and the heavens, it partakes of the color of both.
Viewed from a hilltop it reflects the color of the sky; but near at
hand it is of a yellowish tint next the shore where you can see the
sand, then a light green, which gradually deepens to a uniform dark
green in the body of the pond. In some lights, viewed even from a
hilltop, it is of a vivid green next the shore. Some have referred
this to the reflection of the verdure; but it is equally green there
against the railroad sandbank, and in the spring, before the leaves
are expanded, and it may be simply the result of the prevailing blue
mixed with the yellow of the sand. Such is the color of its iris.
This is that portion, also, where in the spring, the ice being
warmed by the heat of the sun reflected from the bottom, and also
transmitted through the earth, melts first and forms a narrow canal
about the still frozen middle. Like the rest of our waters, when
much agitated, in clear weather, so that the surface of the waves
may reflect the sky at the right angle, or because there is more
light mixed with it, it appears at a little distance of a darker
blue than the sky itself; and at such a time, being on its surface,
and looking with divided vision, so as to see the reflection, I have
discerned a matchless and indescribable light blue, such as watered
or changeable silks and sword blades suggest, more cerulean than the
sky itself, alternating with the original dark green on the opposite
sides of the waves, which last appeared but muddy in comparison. It
is a vitreous greenish blue, as I remember it, like those patches of
the winter sky seen through cloud vistas in the west before sundown.
Yet a single glass of its water held up to the light is as colorless
as an equal quantity of air. It is well known that a large plate of
glass will have a green tint, owing, as the makers say, to its
"body," but a small piece of the same will be colorless. How large
a body of Walden water would be required to reflect a green tint I
have never proved. The water of our river is black or a very dark
brown to one looking directly down on it, and, like that of most
ponds, imparts to the body of one bathing in it a yellowish tinge;
but this water is of such crystalline purity that the body of the
bather appears of an alabaster whiteness, still more unnatural,
which, as the limbs are magnified and distorted withal, produces a
monstrous effect, making fit studies for a Michael Angelo.
The water is so transparent that the bottom can easily be
discerned at the depth of twenty-five or thirty feet. Paddling over
it, you may see, many feet beneath the surface, the schools of perch
and shiners, perhaps only an inch long, yet the former easily
distinguished by their transverse bars, and you think that they must
be ascetic fish that find a subsistence there. Once, in the winter,
many years ago, when I had been cutting holes through the ice in
order to catch pickerel, as I stepped ashore I tossed my axe back on
to the ice, but, as if some evil genius had directed it, it slid
four or five rods directly into one of the holes, where the water
was twenty-five feet deep. Out of curiosity, I lay down on the ice
and looked through the hole, until I saw the axe a little on one
side, standing on its head, with its helve erect and gently swaying
to and fro with the pulse of the pond; and there it might have stood
erect and swaying till in the course of time the handle rotted off,
if I had not disturbed it. Making another hole directly over it
with an ice chisel which I had, and cutting down the longest birch
which I could find in the neighborhood with my knife, I made a
slip-noose, which I attached to its end, and, letting it down
carefully, passed it over the knob of the handle, and drew it by a
line along the birch, and so pulled the axe out again.
The shore is composed of a belt of smooth rounded white stones
like paving-stones, excepting one or two short sand beaches, and is
so steep that in many places a single leap will carry you into water
over your head; and were it not for its remarkable transparency,
that would be the last to be seen of its bottom till it rose on the
opposite side. Some think it is bottomless. It is nowhere muddy,
and a casual observer would say that there were no weeds at all in
it; and of noticeable plants, except in the little meadows recently
overflowed, which do not properly belong to it, a closer scrutiny
does not detect a flag nor a bulrush, nor even a lily, yellow or
white, but only a few small heart-leaves and potamogetons, and
perhaps a water-target or two; all which however a bather might not
perceive; and these plants are clean and bright like the element
they grow in. The stones extend a rod or two into the water, and
then the bottom is pure sand, except in the deepest parts, where
there is usually a little sediment, probably from the decay of the
leaves which have been wafted on to it so many successive falls, and
a bright green weed is brought up on anchors even in midwinter.
We have one other pond just like this, White Pond, in Nine Acre
Corner, about two and a half miles westerly; but, though I am
acquainted with most of the ponds within a dozen miles of this
centre I do not know a third of this pure and well-like character.
Successive nations perchance have drank at, admired, and fathomed
it, and passed away, and still its water is green and pellucid as
ever. Not an intermitting spring! Perhaps on that spring morning
when Adam and Eve were driven out of Eden Walden Pond was already in
existence, and even then breaking up in a gentle spring rain
accompanied with mist and a southerly wind, and covered with myriads
of ducks and geese, which had not heard of the fall, when still such
pure lakes sufficed them. Even then it had commenced to rise and
fall, and had clarified its waters and colored them of the hue they
now wear, and obtained a patent of Heaven to be the only Walden Pond
in the world and distiller of celestial dews. Who knows in how many
unremembered nations' literatures this has been the Castalian
Fountain? or what nymphs presided over it in the Golden Age? It is
a gem of the first water which Concord wears in her coronet.
Yet perchance the first who came to this well have left some
trace of their footsteps. I have been surprised to detect
encircling the pond, even where a thick wood has just been cut down
on the shore, a narrow shelf-like path in the steep hillside,
alternately rising and falling, approaching and receding from the
water's edge, as old probably as the race of man here, worn by the
feet of aboriginal hunters, and still from time to time unwittingly
trodden by the present occupants of the land. This is particularly
distinct to one standing on the middle of the pond in winter, just
after a light snow has fallen, appearing as a clear undulating white
line, unobscured by weeds and twigs, and very obvious a quarter of a
mile off in many places where in summer it is hardly distinguishable
close at hand. The snow reprints it, as it were, in clear white
type alto-relievo. The ornamented grounds of villas which will one
day be built here may still preserve some trace of this.
The pond rises and falls, but whether regularly or not, and
within what period, nobody knows, though, as usual, many pretend to
know. It is commonly higher in the winter and lower in the summer,
though not corresponding to the general wet and dryness. I can
remember when it was a foot or two lower, and also when it was at
least five feet higher, than when I lived by it. There is a narrow
sand-bar running into it, with very deep water on one side, on which
I helped boil a kettle of chowder, some six rods from the main
shore, about the year 1824, which it has not been possible to do for
twenty-five years; and, on the other hand, my friends used to listen
with incredulity when I told them, that a few years later I was
accustomed to fish from a boat in a secluded cove in the woods,
fifteen rods from the only shore they knew, which place was long
since converted into a meadow. But the pond has risen steadily for
two years, and now, in the summer of '52, is just five feet higher
than when I lived there, or as high as it was thirty years ago, and
fishing goes on again in the meadow. This makes a difference of
level, at the outside, of six or seven feet; and yet the water shed
by the surrounding hills is insignificant in amount, and this
overflow must be referred to causes which affect the deep springs.
This same summer the pond has begun to fall again. It is remarkable
that this fluctuation, whether periodical or not, appears thus to
require many years for its accomplishment. I have observed one rise
and a part of two falls, and I expect that a dozen or fifteen years
hence the water will again be as low as I have ever known it.
Flint's Pond, a mile eastward, allowing for the disturbance
occasioned by its inlets and outlets, and the smaller intermediate
ponds also, sympathize with Walden, and recently attained their
greatest height at the same time with the latter. The same is true,
as far as my observation goes, of White Pond.
This rise and fall of Walden at long intervals serves this use
at least; the water standing at this great height for a year or
more, though it makes it difficult to walk round it, kills the
shrubs and trees which have sprung up about its edge since the last
rise—pitch pines, birches, alders, aspens, and others—and,
falling again, leaves an unobstructed shore; for, unlike many ponds
and all waters which are subject to a daily tide, its shore is
cleanest when the water is lowest. On the side of the pond next my
house a row of pitch pines, fifteen feet high, has been killed and
tipped over as if by a lever, and thus a stop put to their
encroachments; and their size indicates how many years have elapsed
since the last rise to this height. By this fluctuation the pond
asserts its title to a shore, and thus the shore is shorn, and the
trees cannot hold it by right of possession. These are the lips of
the lake, on which no beard grows. It licks its chaps from time to
time. When the water is at its height, the alders, willows, and
maples send forth a mass of fibrous red roots several feet long from
all sides of their stems in the water, and to the height of three or
four feet from the ground, in the effort to maintain themselves; and
I have known the high blueberry bushes about the shore, which
commonly produce no fruit, bear an abundant crop under these
Some have been puzzled to tell how the shore became so regularly
paved. My townsmen have all heard the tradition—the oldest
people tell me that they heard it in their youth—that anciently
the Indians were holding a pow-wow upon a hill here, which rose as
high into the heavens as the pond now sinks deep into the earth, and
they used much profanity, as the story goes, though this vice is one
of which the Indians were never guilty, and while they were thus
engaged the hill shook and suddenly sank, and only one old squaw,
named Walden, escaped, and from her the pond was named. It has been
conjectured that when the hill shook these stones rolled down its
side and became the present shore. It is very certain, at any rate,
that once there was no pond here, and now there is one; and this
Indian fable does not in any respect conflict with the account of
that ancient settler whom I have mentioned, who remembers so well
when he first came here with his divining-rod, saw a thin vapor
rising from the sward, and the hazel pointed steadily downward, and
he concluded to dig a well here. As for the stones, many still
think that they are hardly to be accounted for by the action of the
waves on these hills; but I observe that the surrounding hills are
remarkably full of the same kind of stones, so that they have been
obliged to pile them up in walls on both sides of the railroad cut
nearest the pond; and, moreover, there are most stones where the
shore is most abrupt; so that, unfortunately, it is no longer a
mystery to me. I detect the paver. If the name was not derived
from that of some English locality—Saffron Walden, for instance
—one might suppose that it was called originally Walled-in Pond.
The pond was my well ready dug. For four months in the year its
water is as cold as it is pure at all times; and I think that it is
then as good as any, if not the best, in the town. In the winter,
all water which is exposed to the air is colder than springs and
wells which are protected from it. The temperature of the pond
water which had stood in the room where I sat from five o'clock in
the afternoon till noon the next day, the sixth of March, 1846, the
thermometer having been up to 65x or 70x some of the time, owing
partly to the sun on the roof, was 42x, or one degree colder than
the water of one of the coldest wells in the village just drawn.
The temperature of the Boiling Spring the same day was 45x, or the
warmest of any water tried, though it is the coldest that I know of
in summer, when, beside, shallow and stagnant surface water is not
mingled with it. Moreover, in summer, Walden never becomes so warm
as most water which is exposed to the sun, on account of its depth.
In the warmest weather I usually placed a pailful in my cellar,
where it became cool in the night, and remained so during the day;
though I also resorted to a spring in the neighborhood. It was as
good when a week old as the day it was dipped, and had no taste of
the pump. Whoever camps for a week in summer by the shore of a
pond, needs only bury a pail of water a few feet deep in the shade
of his camp to be independent of the luxury of ice.
There have been caught in Walden pickerel, one weighing seven
pounds—to say nothing of another which carried off a reel with
great velocity, which the fisherman safely set down at eight pounds
because he did not see him—perch and pouts, some of each weighing
over two pounds, shiners, chivins or roach (Leuciscus pulchellus), a
very few breams, and a couple of eels, one weighing four pounds—I
am thus particular because the weight of a fish is commonly its only
title to fame, and these are the only eels I have heard of here;—
also, I have a faint recollection of a little fish some five inches
long, with silvery sides and a greenish back, somewhat dace-like in
its character, which I mention here chiefly to link my facts to
fable. Nevertheless, this pond is not very fertile in fish. Its
pickerel, though not abundant, are its chief boast. I have seen at
one time lying on the ice pickerel of at least three different
kinds: a long and shallow one, steel-colored, most like those caught
in the river; a bright golden kind, with greenish reflections and
remarkably deep, which is the most common here; and another,
golden-colored, and shaped like the last, but peppered on the sides
with small dark brown or black spots, intermixed with a few faint
blood-red ones, very much like a trout. The specific name
reticulatus would not apply to this; it should be guttatus rather.
These are all very firm fish, and weigh more than their size
promises. The shiners, pouts, and perch also, and indeed all the
fishes which inhabit this pond, are much cleaner, handsomer, and
firmer-fleshed than those in the river and most other ponds, as the
water is purer, and they can easily be distinguished from them.
Probably many ichthyologists would make new varieties of some of
them. There are also a clean race of frogs and tortoises, and a few
mussels in it; muskrats and minks leave their traces about it, and
occasionally a travelling mud-turtle visits it. Sometimes, when I
pushed off my boat in the morning, I disturbed a great mud-turtle
which had secreted himself under the boat in the night. Ducks and
geese frequent it in the spring and fall, the white-bellied swallows
(Hirundo bicolor) skim over it, and the peetweets (Totanus
macularius) "teeter" along its stony shores all summer. I have
sometimes disturbed a fish hawk sitting on a white pine over the
water; but I doubt if it is ever profaned by the wind of a gull,
like Fair Haven. At most, it tolerates one annual loon. These are
all the animals of consequence which frequent it now.
You may see from a boat, in calm weather, near the sandy
eastern shore, where the water is eight or ten feet deep, and also
in some other parts of the pond, some circular heaps half a dozen
feet in diameter by a foot in height, consisting of small stones
less than a hen's egg in size, where all around is bare sand. At
first you wonder if the Indians could have formed them on the ice
for any purpose, and so, when the ice melted, they sank to the
bottom; but they are too regular and some of them plainly too fresh
for that. They are similar to those found in rivers; but as there
are no suckers nor lampreys here, I know not by what fish they could
be made. Perhaps they are the nests of the chivin. These lend a
pleasing mystery to the bottom.
The shore is irregular enough not to be monotonous. I have in
my mind's eye the western, indented with deep bays, the bolder
northern, and the beautifully scalloped southern shore, where
successive capes overlap each other and suggest unexplored coves
between. The forest has never so good a setting, nor is so
distinctly beautiful, as when seen from the middle of a small lake
amid hills which rise from the water's edge; for the water in which
it is reflected not only makes the best foreground in such a case,
but, with its winding shore, the most natural and agreeable boundary
to it. There is no rawness nor imperfection in its edge there, as
where the axe has cleared a part, or a cultivated field abuts on it.
The trees have ample room to expand on the water side, and each
sends forth its most vigorous branch in that direction. There
Nature has woven a natural selvage, and the eye rises by just
gradations from the low shrubs of the shore to the highest trees.
There are few traces of man's hand to be seen. The water laves the
shore as it did a thousand years ago.
A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature.
It is earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the
depth of his own nature. The fluviatile trees next the shore are
the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and
cliffs around are its overhanging brows.
Standing on the smooth sandy beach at the east end of the pond,
in a calm September afternoon, when a slight haze makes the opposite
shore-line indistinct, I have seen whence came the expression, "the
glassy surface of a lake." When you invert your head, it looks like
a thread of finest gossamer stretched across the valley, and
gleaming against the distant pine woods, separating one stratum of
the atmosphere from another. You would think that you could walk
dry under it to the opposite hills, and that the swallows which skim
over might perch on it. Indeed, they sometimes dive below this
line, as it were by mistake, and are undeceived. As you look over
the pond westward you are obliged to employ both your hands to
defend your eyes against the reflected as well as the true sun, for
they are equally bright; and if, between the two, you survey its
surface critically, it is literally as smooth as glass, except where
the skater insects, at equal intervals scattered over its whole
extent, by their motions in the sun produce the finest imaginable
sparkle on it, or, perchance, a duck plumes itself, or, as I have
said, a swallow skims so low as to touch it. It may be that in the
distance a fish describes an arc of three or four feet in the air,
and there is one bright flash where it emerges, and another where it
strikes the water; sometimes the whole silvery arc is revealed; or
here and there, perhaps, is a thistle-down floating on its surface,
which the fishes dart at and so dimple it again. It is like molten
glass cooled but not congealed, and the few motes in it are pure and
beautiful like the imperfections in glass. You may often detect a
yet smoother and darker water, separated from the rest as if by an
invisible cobweb, boom of the water nymphs, resting on it. From a
hilltop you can see a fish leap in almost any part; for not a
pickerel or shiner picks an insect from this smooth surface but it
manifestly disturbs the equilibrium of the whole lake. It is
wonderful with what elaborateness this simple fact is advertised—
this piscine murder will out—and from my distant perch I
distinguish the circling undulations when they are half a dozen rods
in diameter. You can even detect a water-bug (Gyrinus) ceaselessly
progressing over the smooth surface a quarter of a mile off; for
they furrow the water slightly, making a conspicuous ripple bounded
by two diverging lines, but the skaters glide over it without
rippling it perceptibly. When the surface is considerably agitated
there are no skaters nor water-bugs on it, but apparently, in calm
days, they leave their havens and adventurously glide forth from the
shore by short impulses till they completely cover it. It is a
soothing employment, on one of those fine days in the fall when all
the warmth of the sun is fully appreciated, to sit on a stump on
such a height as this, overlooking the pond, and study the dimpling
circles which are incessantly inscribed on its otherwise invisible
surface amid the reflected skies and trees. Over this great expanse
there is no disturbance but it is thus at once gently smoothed away
and assuaged, as, when a vase of water is jarred, the trembling
circles seek the shore and all is smooth again. Not a fish can leap
or an insect fall on the pond but it is thus reported in circling
dimples, in lines of beauty, as it were the constant welling up of
its fountain, the gentle pulsing of its life, the heaving of its
breast. The thrills of joy and thrills of pain are
undistinguishable. How peaceful the phenomena of the lake! Again
the works of man shine as in the spring. Ay, every leaf and twig
and stone and cobweb sparkles now at mid-afternoon as when covered
with dew in a spring morning. Every motion of an oar or an insect
produces a flash of light; and if an oar falls, how sweet the echo!
In such a day, in September or October, Walden is a perfect
forest mirror, set round with stones as precious to my eye as if
fewer or rarer. Nothing so fair, so pure, and at the same time so
large, as a lake, perchance, lies on the surface of the earth. Sky
water. It needs no fence. Nations come and go without defiling it.
It is a mirror which no stone can crack, whose quicksilver will
never wear off, whose gilding Nature continually repairs; no storms,
no dust, can dim its surface ever fresh;—a mirror in which all
impurity presented to it sinks, swept and dusted by the sun's hazy
brush—this the light dust-cloth—which retains no breath that
is breathed on it, but sends its own to float as clouds high above
its surface, and be reflected in its bosom still.
A field of water betrays the spirit that is in the air. It is
continually receiving new life and motion from above. It is
intermediate in its nature between land and sky. On land only the
grass and trees wave, but the water itself is rippled by the wind.
I see where the breeze dashes across it by the streaks or flakes of
light. It is remarkable that we can look down on its surface. We
shall, perhaps, look down thus on the surface of air at length, and
mark where a still subtler spirit sweeps over it.
The skaters and water-bugs finally disappear in the latter part
of October, when the severe frosts have come; and then and in
November, usually, in a calm day, there is absolutely nothing to
ripple the surface. One November afternoon, in the calm at the end
of a rain-storm of several days' duration, when the sky was still
completely overcast and the air was full of mist, I observed that
the pond was remarkably smooth, so that it was difficult to
distinguish its surface; though it no longer reflected the bright
tints of October, but the sombre November colors of the surrounding
hills. Though I passed over it as gently as possible, the slight
undulations produced by my boat extended almost as far as I could
see, and gave a ribbed appearance to the reflections. But, as I was
looking over the surface, I saw here and there at a distance a faint
glimmer, as if some skater insects which had escaped the frosts
might be collected there, or, perchance, the surface, being so
smooth, betrayed where a spring welled up from the bottom. Paddling
gently to one of these places, I was surprised to find myself
surrounded by myriads of small perch, about five inches long, of a
rich bronze color in the green water, sporting there, and constantly
rising to the surface and dimpling it, sometimes leaving bubbles on
it. In such transparent and seemingly bottomless water, reflecting
the clouds, I seemed to be floating through the air as in a balloon,
and their swimming impressed me as a kind of flight or hovering, as
if they were a compact flock of birds passing just beneath my level
on the right or left, their fins, like sails, set all around them.
There were many such schools in the pond, apparently improving the
short season before winter would draw an icy shutter over their
broad skylight, sometimes giving to the surface an appearance as if
a slight breeze struck it, or a few rain-drops fell there. When I
approached carelessly and alarmed them, they made a sudden splash
and rippling with their tails, as if one had struck the water with a
brushy bough, and instantly took refuge in the depths. At length
the wind rose, the mist increased, and the waves began to run, and
the perch leaped much higher than before, half out of water, a
hundred black points, three inches long, at once above the surface.
Even as late as the fifth of December, one year, I saw some dimples
on the surface, and thinking it was going to rain hard immediately,
the air being fun of mist, I made haste to take my place at the oars
and row homeward; already the rain seemed rapidly increasing, though
I felt none on my cheek, and I anticipated a thorough soaking. But
suddenly the dimples ceased, for they were produced by the perch,
which the noise of my oars had seared into the depths, and I saw
their schools dimly disappearing; so I spent a dry afternoon after
An old man who used to frequent this pond nearly sixty years
ago, when it was dark with surrounding forests, tells me that in
those days he sometimes saw it all alive with ducks and other
water-fowl, and that there were many eagles about it. He came here
a-fishing, and used an old log canoe which he found on the shore.
It was made of two white pine logs dug out and pinned together, and
was cut off square at the ends. It was very clumsy, but lasted a
great many years before it became water-logged and perhaps sank to
the bottom. He did not know whose it was; it belonged to the pond.
He used to make a cable for his anchor of strips of hickory bark
tied together. An old man, a potter, who lived by the pond before
the Revolution, told him once that there was an iron chest at the
bottom, and that he had seen it. Sometimes it would come floating
up to the shore; but when you went toward it, it would go back into
deep water and disappear. I was pleased to hear of the old log
canoe, which took the place of an Indian one of the same material
but more graceful construction, which perchance had first been a
tree on the bank, and then, as it were, fell into the water, to
float there for a generation, the most proper vessel for the lake.
I remember that when I first looked into these depths there were
many large trunks to be seen indistinctly lying on the bottom, which
had either been blown over formerly, or left on the ice at the last
cutting, when wood was cheaper; but now they have mostly
When I first paddled a boat on Walden, it was completely
surrounded by thick and lofty pine and oak woods, and in some of its
coves grape-vines had run over the trees next the water and formed
bowers under which a boat could pass. The hills which form its
shores are so steep, and the woods on them were then so high, that,
as you looked down from the west end, it had the appearance of an
amphitheatre for some land of sylvan spectacle. I have spent many
an hour, when I was younger, floating over its surface as the zephyr
willed, having paddled my boat to the middle, and lying on my back
across the seats, in a summer forenoon, dreaming awake, until I was
aroused by the boat touching the sand, and I arose to see what shore
my fates had impelled me to; days when idleness was the most
attractive and productive industry. Many a forenoon have I stolen
away, preferring to spend thus the most valued part of the day; for
I was rich, if not in money, in sunny hours and summer days, and
spent them lavishly; nor do I regret that I did not waste more of
them in the workshop or the teacher's desk. But since I left those
shores the woodchoppers have still further laid them waste, and now
for many a year there will be no more rambling through the aisles of
the wood, with occasional vistas through which you see the water.
My Muse may be excused if she is silent henceforth. How can you
expect the birds to sing when their groves are cut down?
Now the trunks of trees on the bottom, and the old log canoe,
and the dark surrounding woods, are gone, and the villagers, who
scarcely know where it lies, instead of going to the pond to bathe
or drink, are thinking to bring its water, which should be as sacred
as the Ganges at least, to the village in a pipe, to wash their
dishes with!—to earn their Walden by the turning of a cock or
drawing of a plug! That devilish Iron Horse, whose ear-rending
neigh is heard throughout the town, has muddied the Boiling Spring
with his foot, and he it is that has browsed off all the woods on
Walden shore, that Trojan horse, with a thousand men in his belly,
introduced by mercenary Greeks! Where is the country's champion,
the Moore of Moore Hill, to meet him at the Deep Cut and thrust an
avenging lance between the ribs of the bloated pest?
Nevertheless, of all the characters I have known, perhaps Walden
wears best, and best preserves its purity. Many men have been
likened to it, but few deserve that honor. Though the woodchoppers
have laid bare first this shore and then that, and the Irish have
built their sties by it, and the railroad has infringed on its
border, and the ice-men have skimmed it once, it is itself
unchanged, the same water which my youthful eyes fell on; all the
change is in me. It has not acquired one permanent wrinkle after
all its ripples. It is perennially young, and I may stand and see a
swallow dip apparently to pick an insect from its surface as of
yore. It struck me again tonight, as if I had not seen it almost
daily for more than twenty years—Why, here is Walden, the same
woodland lake that I discovered so many years ago; where a forest
was cut down last winter another is springing up by its shore as
lustily as ever; the same thought is welling up to its surface that
was then; it is the same liquid joy and happiness to itself and its
Maker, ay, and it may be to me. It is the work of a brave man
surely, in whom there was no guile! He rounded this water with his
hand, deepened and clarified it in his thought, and in his will
bequeathed it to Concord. I see by its face that it is visited by
the same reflection; and I can almost say, Walden, is it you?
It is no dream of mine,
To ornament a line;
I cannot come nearer to God and Heaven
Than I live to Walden even.
I am its stony shore,
And the breeze that passes o'er;
In the hollow of my hand
Are its water and its sand,
And its deepest resort
Lies high in my thought.
The cars never pause to look at it; yet I fancy that the
engineers and firemen and brakemen, and those passengers who have a
season ticket and see it often, are better men for the sight. The
engineer does not forget at night, or his nature does not, that he
has beheld this vision of serenity and purity once at least during
the day. Though seen but once, it helps to wash out State Street
and the engine's soot. One proposes that it be called "God's Drop."
I have said that Walden has no visible inlet nor outlet, but it
is on the one hand distantly and indirectly related to Flint's Pond,
which is more elevated, by a chain of small ponds coming from that
quarter, and on the other directly and manifestly to Concord River,
which is lower, by a similar chain of ponds through which in some
other geological period it may have flowed, and by a little digging,
which God forbid, it can be made to flow thither again. If by
living thus reserved and austere, like a hermit in the woods, so
long, it has acquired such wonderful purity, who would not regret
that the comparatively impure waters of Flint's Pond should be
mingled with it, or itself should ever go to waste its sweetness in
the ocean wave?
Flint's, or Sandy Pond, in Lincoln, our greatest lake and inland
sea, lies about a mile east of Walden. It is much larger, being
said to contain one hundred and ninety-seven acres, and is more
fertile in fish; but it is comparatively shallow, and not remarkably
pure. A walk through the woods thither was often my recreation. It
was worth the while, if only to feel the wind blow on your cheek
freely, and see the waves run, and remember the life of mariners. I
went a-chestnutting there in the fall, on windy days, when the nuts
were dropping into the water and were washed to my feet; and one
day, as I crept along its sedgy shore, the fresh spray blowing in my
face, I came upon the mouldering wreck of a boat, the sides gone,
and hardly more than the impression of its flat bottom left amid the
rushes; yet its model was sharply defined, as if it were a large
decayed pad, with its veins. It was as impressive a wreck as one
could imagine on the seashore, and had as good a moral. It is by
this time mere vegetable mould and undistinguishable pond shore,
through which rushes and flags have pushed up. I used to admire the
ripple marks on the sandy bottom, at the north end of this pond,
made firm and hard to the feet of the wader by the pressure of the
water, and the rushes which grew in Indian file, in waving lines,
corresponding to these marks, rank behind rank, as if the waves had
planted them. There also I have found, in considerable quantities,
curious balls, composed apparently of fine grass or roots, of
pipewort perhaps, from half an inch to four inches in diameter, and
perfectly spherical. These wash back and forth in shallow water on
a sandy bottom, and are sometimes cast on the shore. They are
either solid grass, or have a little sand in the middle. At first
you would say that they were formed by the action of the waves, like
a pebble; yet the smallest are made of equally coarse materials,
half an inch long, and they are produced only at one season of the
year. Moreover, the waves, I suspect, do not so much construct as
wear down a material which has already acquired consistency. They
preserve their form when dry for an indefinite period.
Flint's Pond! Such is the poverty of our nomenclature. What
right had the unclean and stupid farmer, whose farm abutted on this
sky water, whose shores he has ruthlessly laid bare, to give his
name to it? Some skin-flint, who loved better the reflecting
surface of a dollar, or a bright cent, in which he could see his own
brazen face; who regarded even the wild ducks which settled in it as
trespassers; his fingers grown into crooked and bony talons from the
long habit of grasping harpy-like;—so it is not named for me. I
go not there to see him nor to hear of him; who never saw it, who
never bathed in it, who never loved it, who never protected it, who
never spoke a good word for it, nor thanked God that He had made it.
Rather let it be named from the fishes that swim in it, the wild
fowl or quadrupeds which frequent it, the wild flowers which grow by
its shores, or some wild man or child the thread of whose history is
interwoven with its own; not from him who could show no title to it
but the deed which a like-minded neighbor or legislature gave him—
him who thought only of its money value; whose presence perchance
cursed all the shores; who exhausted the land around it, and would
fain have exhausted the waters within it; who regretted only that it
was not English hay or cranberry meadow—there was nothing to
redeem it, forsooth, in his eyes—and would have drained and sold
it for the mud at its bottom. It did not turn his mill, and it was
no privilege to him to behold it. I respect not his labors, his
farm where everything has its price, who would carry the landscape,
who would carry his God, to market, if he could get anything for
him; who goes to market for his god as it is; on whose farm nothing
grows free, whose fields bear no crops, whose meadows no flowers,
whose trees no fruits, but dollars; who loves not the beauty of his
fruits, whose fruits are not ripe for him till they are turned to
dollars. Give me the poverty that enjoys true wealth. Farmers are
respectable and interesting to me in proportion as they are poor—
poor farmers. A model farm! where the house stands like a fungus in
a muckheap, chambers for men horses, oxen, and swine, cleansed and
uncleansed, all contiguous to one another! Stocked with men! A
great grease-spot, redolent of manures and buttermilk! Under a high
state of cultivation, being manured with the hearts and brains of
men! As if you were to raise your potatoes in the churchyard! Such
is a model farm.
No, no; if the fairest features of the landscape are to be named
after men, let them be the noblest and worthiest men alone. Let our
lakes receive as true names at least as the Icarian Sea, where
"still the shore" a "brave attempt resounds."
Goose Pond, of small extent, is on my way to Flint's; Fair
Haven, an expansion of Concord River, said to contain some seventy
acres, is a mile southwest; and White Pond, of about forty acres, is
a mile and a half beyond Fair Haven. This is my lake country.
These, with Concord River, are my water privileges; and night and
day, year in year out, they grind such grist as I carry to them.
Since the wood-cutters, and the railroad, and I myself have
profaned Walden, perhaps the most attractive, if not the most
beautiful, of all our lakes, the gem of the woods, is White Pond;—
a poor name from its commonness, whether derived from the remarkable
purity of its waters or the color of its sands. In these as in
other respects, however, it is a lesser twin of Walden. They are so
much alike that you would say they must be connected under ground.
It has the same stony shore, and its waters are of the same hue. As
at Walden, in sultry dog-day weather, looking down through the woods
on some of its bays which are not so deep but that the reflection
from the bottom tinges them, its waters are of a misty bluish-green
or glaucous color. Many years since I used to go there to collect
the sand by cartloads, to make sandpaper with, and I have continued
to visit it ever since. One who frequents it proposes to call it
Virid Lake. Perhaps it might be called Yellow Pine Lake, from the
following circumstance. About fifteen years ago you could see the
top of a pitch pine, of the kind called yellow pine hereabouts,
though it is not a distinct species, projecting above the surface in
deep water, many rods from the shore. It was even supposed by some
that the pond had sunk, and this was one of the primitive forest
that formerly stood there. I find that even so long ago as 1792, in
a "Topographical Description of the Town of Concord," by one of its
citizens, in the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical
Society, the author, after speaking of Walden and White Ponds, adds,
"In the middle of the latter may be seen, when the water is very
low, a tree which appears as if it grew in the place where it now
stands, although the roots are fifty feet below the surface of the
water; the top of this tree is broken off, and at that place
measures fourteen inches in diameter." In the spring of '49 I
talked with the man who lives nearest the pond in Sudbury, who told
me that it was he who got out this tree ten or fifteen years before.
As near as he could remember, it stood twelve or fifteen rods from
the shore, where the water was thirty or forty feet deep. It was in
the winter, and he had been getting out ice in the forenoon, and had
resolved that in the afternoon, with the aid of his neighbors, he
would take out the old yellow pine. He sawed a channel in the ice
toward the shore, and hauled it over and along and out on to the ice
with oxen; but, before he had gone far in his work, he was surprised
to find that it was wrong end upward, with the stumps of the
branches pointing down, and the small end firmly fastened in the
sandy bottom. It was about a foot in diameter at the big end, and
he had expected to get a good saw-log, but it was so rotten as to be
fit only for fuel, if for that. He had some of it in his shed then.
There were marks of an axe and of woodpeckers on the butt. He
thought that it might have been a dead tree on the shore, but was
finally blown over into the pond, and after the top had become
water-logged, while the butt-end was still dry and light, had
drifted out and sunk wrong end up. His father, eighty years old,
could not remember when it was not there. Several pretty large logs
may still be seen lying on the bottom, where, owing to the
undulation of the surface, they look like huge water snakes in
This pond has rarely been profaned by a boat, for there is
little in it to tempt a fisherman. Instead of the white lily, which
requires mud, or the common sweet flag, the blue flag (Iris
versicolor) grows thinly in the pure water, rising from the stony
bottom all around the shore, where it is visited by hummingbirds in
June; and the color both of its bluish blades and its flowers and
especially their reflections, is in singular harmony with the
glaucous water.
White Pond and Walden are great crystals on the surface of the
earth, Lakes of Light. If they were permanently congealed, and
small enough to be clutched, they would, perchance, be carried off
by slaves, like precious stones, to adorn the heads of emperors; but
being liquid, and ample, and secured to us and our successors
forever, we disregard them, and run after the diamond of Kohinoor.
They are too pure to have a market value; they contain no muck. How
much more beautiful than our lives, how much more transparent than
our characters, are they! We never learned meanness of them. How
much fairer than the pool before the farmers door, in which his
ducks swim! Hither the clean wild ducks come. Nature has no human
inhabitant who appreciates her. The birds with their plumage and
their notes are in harmony with the flowers, but what youth or
maiden conspires with the wild luxuriant beauty of Nature? She
flourishes most alone, far from the towns where they reside. Talk
of heaven! ye disgrace earth.
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