On Walden Pond

Finished Thoreau’s Walden, reading it mainly to and from work on the bus. (I mentioned earlier the coincidence that it was the subject of BBC’s “In Our Time” recently too, just as I had unpacked the book from our recent relocation onto the bed-side cabinet – so a comprehensive re-read was in order.)

A little book that has caused a lot to be written, so I guess any summary of mine I can’t add much. Also a significant amount of inconsistency in the (idyllic) naive and (worldly) wise “lifestyle” advice, so hard to pick out individual points that stand up by themsleves. The message really is know thyself, know the world. A balance of society and solitude, private and social food preparation and eating. As I blogged earlier, a balance of reading the great books, and not reading too much. A balance of immersion in local detail and experience of the foreign; better to travel “for & with” your experiences en-route than to arrive via a “conduit”, etc …

One of my pet subjects the etymology of words with l/f/b/v genes in their roots. Thoreau has a wonderful passage originating from watching frozen ground melting in the spring and pushing forward tiny rivulets of sand to create new structures – which turns into a metaphor for patterns of (designs for) life of all kinds at all levels (physical, biological & mental) and at all scales (from the granularity of individual grains, leaves & thoughts to entire continents, cosmologies & cultures). Taking in the play between the fluid construction of “thaw” and the destructive force of “Thor”, it is a long real and playful etymological, phoenetic and metaphorical – whole world in a grain of sand – riff on leaf / lobe / love / lip / labia / live and many more. Wonderul. Something I may come back to and join up with the r/t/a (arts & crafts) riff from Pirsig … aha, the “rites” of spring (See post note below).

The focus of this post is this …

The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of their residual statement. Their truth is instantly translated; its literal monument alone remains. The words which express our faith and piety are not definite; yet they are significant and fragrant like frankincense to superior natures.

Why level downward to our dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense  The commonest sense is the sense of men asleep, which they express by snoring. Sometimes we are inclined to class those who are once-and-a-half-witted with the half-witted, because we appreciate only a third part of their wit.

While England endeavours to cure the potato-rot, will not endeavour to cure the brain-rot, which prevails so much more widely and fatally ?

[The emphasis on translated is Thoreau’s.]

The middle paragraph put me in mind of the Dostoevsky “talking nonsense” passage, but of course this is a statement of the ephemeral nature of objects and the words we presume to define them. That final sentence is a statement of my Psyberton agenda … the need for an intellectual revolution.

Ongoing – Lots of eastern references throughout; quotes from the Vedas and the like. Clearly I need to go one step further back in US Pragmatism to Emerson, for whom Thoreau worked for a time. And where is the cross-link with Northrop – he makes three references to Emerson in “The Meeting of East and West” – the final one “… as the Americans Emerson and Thoreau have seen …”; the only indexed reference to Thoreau ?


[Post Note : The text on the thawing rivulets (some emphasis lost in this quoted & pasted text):

At length the sun’s rays have attained the right angle, and warm winds blow up mist and rain and melt the snow banks, and the sun dispersing the mist smiles on a checkered landscape of russet and white smoking with incense, through which the traveller picks his way from islet to islet, cheered by the music of a thousand tinkling rills and rivulets whose veins are filled with the blood of winter which they are bearing off.

Few phenomena gave me more delight than to observe the form which thawing sand and clay assume in flowing down the sides of a deep cut on the railroad through which I passed on my way to the village, a phenomenon not very common on so large a scale, though the number of freshly exposed banks of the right material must have been greatly multiplied since railroads were invented. The material was sand of every degree of fineness and of various rich colors, commonly mixed with a little clay. When the frost comes out in the spring, and even in a thawing day in the winter, the sand begins to flow down the slopes like lava, sometimes bursting out through the snow and overflowing it where no sand was to be seen before.

Innumerable little streams overlap and interlace one with another,exhibiting a sort of hybrid product, which obeys half way the law of currents, and half way that of vegetation. As it flows it takes the forms of sappy leaves or vines, making heaps of pulpy sprays a foot or more in depth, and resembling, as you look down on them, the laciniated lobed and imbricated thalluses of some lichens; or you are reminded of coral, of leopards’ paws or birds’ feet, of brains or lungs or bowels, and excrements of all kinds. It is a truly rotesque vegetation, whose forms and color we see imitated in bronze, a sort of  architectural foliage more ancient and typical than acanthus, chiccory, ivy, vine, or any vegetable leaves; destined perhaps, under some circumstances, to become a puzzle to future geologists. The whole cut impressed me as if it were a cave with its stalactites laid open to the light. The various shades of the sand are singularly rich and agreeable, embracing the different iron colors, brown, gray, yellowish, and reddish. When the flowing mass reaches the drain at the foot of the bank it spreads out flatter into strands, the separate streams losing their semi-cylindrical form and gradually becoming more flat and broad, running together as they are more moist, till they form an almost flat sand, still variously and beautifully shaded, but in which you can trace the original forms of vegetation; till at length, in the water itself, they are converted into banks, like those formed off the mouths of rivers, and the forms of vegetation are lost in the ripple marks on the bottom. The whole bank, which is from twenty to forty feet high, is sometimes overlaid with a mass of this kind of foliage, or sandy rupture, for a quarter of a mile on one or both sides, the produce of one spring day. What makes this sand foliage remarkable is its springing into existence thus suddenly.

When I see on the one side the inert bank,—for the sun acts on one side first,—and on the other this luxuriant foliage, the creation of an hour, I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me,—had come to where he was still at work, sporting on this bank, and with excess of energy strewing his fresh designs about. I feel as if I were nearer to the vitals of the globe, for this sandy overflow is something such a foliaceous mass as the vitals of the animal body. You find thus in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf. No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant by it. The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype. Internally, whether in the globe or animal body, it is a moist thick lobe, a word especially applicable to the liver and lungs and the leaves of fat, ({le!bo}, labor, lapsus, to flow or slip downward, a lapsing; {lobos}, lobus, lobe, globe; also lap, flap, and many other words,) externally a dry thin leaf, even as the f and v are a pressed and dried b. The radicals of lobe are lb, the soft mass of the b (single lobed, or B, double lobed,) with a liquid l behind it pressing it forward. In globe, lb, the guttural adds to the meaning the capacity of the throat. The feathers and wings of birds are still drier and thinner leaves. Thus, also, you pass from the lumpish grub in the earth to the airy and fluttering butterfly. The very globe continually transcends and translates itself, and becomes winged in its orbit.

Even ice begins with delicate crystal leaves, as if it had flowed into moulds which the fronds of water plants have impressed on the watery mirror. The whole tree itself is but one leaf, and rivers are still vaster leaves whose pulp is intervening earth, and towns and cities are the ova of insects in their axils.


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