Pond in Finitude: Some Thoughts Growing Out of an Episode in Walden

by Gus Mitchell

The idea for this essay came not just from Thoreau, but from a conversation between Professors Robert Pogue Harrison and Andrea Nightingale of Stanford University. That conversation can be heard here. I gratefully recommend it to everyone.

1. Sometime “early in ‘46” Henry David Thoreau sets out to measure the depth of a pond. He is at the end of his first year at the cabin in the woods. 

2. Winter ice still covers the water. Thoreau uses only a “compass and chain and sounding line” to make his investigations. Walden – “that truly illusive medium” – is said to have no bottom. Perhaps it reaches clean through the centre of the earth to the other side; some Concordians have lie on its bank, fancying the source of the Styx opening from below.

3. “Be it life or death”, he writes early in Walden, “we crave only reality.” And morality, philosophy, imagination itself are all seeded and cultivated in observation and participation of the natural world, the true face of which is “wildness.”

4. The incuriosity of his fellow Concordians bothers Thoreau. He does what nobody else has thought to do with Walden Pond: “taking the trouble to sound it.” It’s done “easily, with a cod-line and a stone weighing about a pound and a half.” Being able to “tell accurately when the stone left the bottom, by having to pull so much harder before the water got underneath to help me.” He ends up measuring the depth of the pond, “a reasonably tight bottom, at a not unreasonable, though at an unusual, depth,” as 102 feet (adjusted to 107 feet once the water-level rises in Spring).

5. These experiments generate a host of hypotheses. Thoreau maps carefully, putting down soundings – “more than a hundred in all.” He wonders about larger, universal laws through which the depth of bodies of water might be inducted. He finds the intersecting lengthwise and breadthwise lines on his map meet at exactly the point of greatest depth in the map’s centre. From this, he moves to speculation on “the deepest part of the ocean as well as of a pond or puddle.” And might these rules apply to the height of mountains, as well as to the depth of valleys?

6. This is the concluding set piece Walden – a book made of set pieces – each one illustrating some aspect of the “truth” of which Thoreau has become “convinced.” He is a man both deeply practical and deeply extravagant.

7. What do we mean by extravagant? In the concluding chapter of Walden, Thoreau takes pains to express his fear that “my expression may not be extra-vagant enough.” In medieval Latin, extravagant (“diverging greatly”) arises from the verb extravagari, made up of extra (outside) and vagari (wander/roam). By the 15th century its associative meanings could take in “rambling” or “irrelevant” or “extraordinary” or “unusual.” Generally – and this is the use to which Thoreau puts it – extravagance involves “wandering outside of” some kind of boundary – a limit, a restriction. Thoreau underlines this point: “Extra vagance! it depends on how you are yarded […] I desire to speak somewhere without bounds.”

8. On this late winter’s day on Walden Pond, Thoreau is engaging in a deep play of limits and their opposite. Why does he care to prove the locals wrong in the notion of their bottomless pond? Pedantry is not the reason – Thoreau loves precision, but he is not bounded by it. Rather, it is precision, or detail, in observation, in knowledge, in acquaintance and attentiveness to the world, leads to an understanding of truth that goes far beyond mere acquaintance, or knowledge, or observation. It leads to truths housed in mystery: the mystery whose face is wildness.

9. What is being undertaken might be called an inversion of Keats’s lamentation of Newton destroying “the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism.” In measuring the pond, Thoreau is removing its illusion of infinitude, which kept hidden its true reality, of which depth is, of course, a part. But the truth of the pond is such that, although it is “of remarkable depth for so small an area; yet not an inch of it can be spared by the imagination.”

10. Thoreau negotiates his naturalism between rigorously scientific discernment and an exuberant negative capability, to borrow once more from Keats. So, he says: “If we knew all the laws of Nature, we should need only one fact, or the description of one actual phenomenon, to infer all the particular results at that point.” He comes to know Walden so well that the place “varies with every step,” containing numberless “profiles.” Rather than our knowledge, we should foreground our ignorance, since because “we know only a few laws…the harmony which results from a far greater number of seemingly conflicting, but really concurring, laws,” remains unknowable – yet, also, “wonderful.”

11. The spirit of Thoreau’s mission in entering the woods around Concord has been hazily absorbed into popular consciousness: reducing life “to its essential facts” (whatever those are.) This doesn’t necessarily mean, or purely mean, asceticism, but rather living toward the freedom that limits hold. By setting, or leaning back into, limits, Thoreau intends to live “deliberately.” And by so doing, to bring, vibrantly back, into his own life, the rest of life, in all its inexhaustible fullness.

12. Observation, explanation, taxonomy, the naming-of-things – all these amount to a deeper humility, an ever-renewing intimacy. Thoreau’s awareness of the limits to his knowledge and direct contact toward that infinitude of not-I’s, that vast web of interrelations (which seem to be closer to one another, in their obscurities, than we can ever be to them, at any moment) yet this wild infinitude of incalculable relationality still “answers to our conceptions.” Wildness cries out for our witness.

13. “What if all ponds were shallow? Would it not react on the minds of men? I am thankful that this pond was made deep and pure for a symbol.” For Thoreau, the pond embodies the imagination itself, the depths of which feed the pond in turn, in a rain-like cycle.

14. A cold winter’s morning, some string, a stone, some patience, your own simple presence. Nature, in all its embodiments, expands and deepens, as it never stands still. A single year on the pond – the two years condensed by Thoreau into Walden – is an endless, ungraspable stream of manifestations. Volumes and depths diversify, diversify further.

15. “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Thoreau famously intones in “Walking.” A more anthropocentric line from Walden: “We need the tonic of wildness.”

16. Like extravagant, wild is a many-faceted word. In 1862, it would still be the natural assumption that the wild cries out for cultivation: a placing within bounds, or perhaps a subduing of “savage” peoples, limits enforced on nature’s extra-vagance.

17. Unlike extravagance, the definitional spectrum of “wild” remains reassuringly unchanged since its origin. But its resonances are certainly altered. By it we still mean undomesticated, uninhabited, uncultivated. We can still say “wild eyes”, “wild child,” “wild party,” “wild accusation.” All of these bespeak a back-and-forth between limit and lack, law and chaos, something excessive – requiring restraint.

18. The real question now is: what is law, and what chaos? Climate chaos is here, largely thanks (in Greta Thunberg’s phrase) to “fairy tales of unlimited economic growth.” To preserve the world now entails placing limits on our grasp, and so on civilisation – the great de-wilding project – itself.

19. For centuries (and still in many places) the wild is death. Death as hazard, death as chaos. Everything outside of our boundaries is a reminder that we are always hurtling towards some end, riding unstoppably through danger, and into more.

20. “Everything that does not need you is real,” runs a line of the late, great poet, WS Merwin. Merwin himself defined wildness: “the sense, that we all have, that we just missed something, that it just got away from us again.” (Merwin on Thoreau: “crusty…irritating…prickly…I think he’s sort of cranky, irascible, wonderful, and again and again, reading him, I’ve had that sense of great recognition and gratitude at his having put into words something that seems, utterly and absolutely true, and very, very important and he does it again and again to me. And he was passionate in a disorganised way.”)

21. “Be it life or death’, runs Thoreau’s simplest, strangest line, “we crave only reality.” Thoreau had the luxury to crave. But we need reality, and we need it now.

22. Thoreau wants to acquaint himself with the natural world in as wild a way as possible. It is a phenomenological, spiritual, intellectual, practical endeavour, and as different as possible from accumulation of capital and of surplus, which is the central nexus of civilisation’s diurnal energy and concern. Intimacy with the realities of the wild world – and all its mysteriously real complexity – produces a surplus of vibrancy, of vital reservoirs of life, and this leads, not to exhaustion, not to depletion, but to more life. Meaning, freedom, satiety, whatever it is that the imagination so dearly craves, because what we consume in fact becomes what we produce, and vice-versa. It is not for nothing that the first (and longest) chapter of Walden was titled “Economy.”

23. In 1846, Walden Pond might as well be Thoreau’s own lost, lonely, loud, fast, angry, slave-holding country, dreaming an infinite vision of itself, ignorant of the depths of its real promise, which lie precisely in natural, wild, mysterious, dark, non-producing, negatively capable land. Thoreau was always paying attention to this land, wherever he happened to find himself. As the millions of words in his Journal attest, he never stopped seeing Walden, seeing Concord – and by extension, from this part of Massachusets seeing America itself, seeing the earth – with an “infinite expectation of the dawn.” This is no “morning in America”: it’s the single sun, rising over one pond, where Thoreau re-baptizes himself every morning, a true American.

24. In the face of the overwhelming wild comes agriculture, fences, walls, villages, towns, economies, cultures. Monoculture. A quest for unending expansion replaces the Amazon rainforest with an ever-receding soy field. As if we could make the world safer, the land more bountiful, and ourselves richer, through the institutionalisation of limitation: the enforcement of sameness, monotony, and monopoly. ‘Simplify, simplify’, Thoreau demands. But simplicity he called for, was not closed, but open, infinitely.

25. We are discovering (or are very soon truly to discover) nature’s real limits for us. Our productive and destructive capacity seem to have far outstripped any ability to accept limits as constitutive of reality itself. And yet, everywhere else in the universe, limits are what make things things.

26. “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”

27. Thoreau approaches Walden Pond in his “waking moments”. He asks readers to approach Walden “in their waking moments.”