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Hollis Hall at Harvard University

Ten Ideas


Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods is arguably America’s most important work of literary nonfiction, and its author is unarguably the patron saint of our environmental thought.  Walden’s Shore explores the links between literature, environment, and physical science.  Here’s a short list of ten ideas from the book that would be my teaching priorities, were I to have the chance to teach a seminar on the book.

1.     Thoreau’s self-declared profession — to be fully engaged with Nature — was effectively a religious calling.  He was bimodal in this respect.  His poetic mode motivated him to pay serious scientific attention to Nature.  In turn, his understanding of natural laws greatly enhanced his prose-poetry.  Thoreau’s skills as an inductive geo-scientist, and Charles Darwin’s role in facilitating that skill, is under-appreciated.

2.     Thoreaus Walden revolves around a very ordinary place, geologically speaking.  It’s one of perhaps twenty thousand similar sandy kettles –sunk into fairly sterile sand and gravel and surrounded by pine-oak vegetation– between Nantucket Island and Great Falls Montana.   Understanding the physical place is critical to understanding the extra-ordinary literary result.

3.     In Walden, Thoreau’s path to “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity,” was downward: down to the woods, to the pond, down to its “deepest resort,” down to mathematical constancy, and ultimately to bedrock truth.  As such, he was more de-scendental than tran-scendental.  His fathoming the bottom of the pond for the ultimate scientific law, and his search for the origin of life at the Deep Cut, are good examples of his approach.

4.     When composing the nature writing within Walden, Thoreau relied on three important compositional techniques. (1) Walden, the namesake lake, became a literary black hole that drew in three decades worth of observations from all of his sojourning space. (2) To make it more readable, Thoreau threshed away his scientific understandings when creating his prose-poetry. (3) Finally, he was very selective about which aspects of space, time, substance, and process he included in Walden. focussing on radial geometry, cyclic time, water, and limnology.

5.     Thoreau deliberately ignored the American version of the glacial theory in Walden because its implicit cosmic catastrophism conflicted with his book’s main theme: the eternal stability and endless cycling of Nature.  So, instead of incorporating the theory overtly, he did so covertly using humorous myths and creative allegories instead.

6.     The historic interval (1841-1854) between Thoreau’s decision to live at the pond and the publication of Walden broadly coincides in New England with two important historic developments: A paradigm shift in geology (1842-1862) between the rejection and vindication of the glacial theory and its vindication. And the culminating decade of American Christian natural theology (the 1850s).  Walden derives, in part, from both developments.

7.     Walden Pond is a colonial English place name for a middle-sized lake created by the meltdown collapse of four adjacent glacial kettles, three of which are permanently sunk below the present water table.  The largest and deepest of these was Walden’s western basin, the site of virtually all of Thoreau’s observations and reflections.

8.     This western basin exhibits a prominent radial symmetry shaped like a star.  Its five coves (one being submerged) resemble the tips of stars surrounding a deep central basin. Three circles drawn around the tips of the coves, the inner basin, and the lake’s flat bottom are concentric around its deep hole, giving rise to a bulls-eye symmetry that Thoreau recognized and described as his “law of two diameters.”

9.     The holism, purity, and seclusion offered by this western basin derive from a single protracted event: The meltdown of a block of stagnant glacial ice and the consequent sinkhole collapse of the flat delta-plain surrounding it.  Setting the stage for this event were a series of specific events in a geological narrative beginning with Paleozoic tectonism and ending with the withdrawal of the Laurentide Ice Sheet.

10.    Thoreau understood the rise and fall of the Walden shore as the integrated outcome of a unified, radially symmetric local hydrologic system.  He identified the processes and time scales within its realms of air, land, aquifer, and lake, and used them to inform his masterpiece.  In short, the nature writing in Walden is a literary expression of Walden.


Photo: Hollis Hall at Harvard University (then a seminary) where Thoreau attended from 1833-1837. There he learned the foundations on which he could self-educate himself in science.