Walden Summary and Analysis
Chapter Ten "Baker Farm"
Instead of paying a visit to a scholar, Thoreau visits particular groves of trees pines, beeches, black- and yellow-birches, elms, and helmlocks. He visits these "shrines" in summer and winter. One time, he stood surrounded by rainbow light in a rainbow's arch. Sometimes, when he walks, he sees a halo around his shadow, which makes him fancy he is a member of the elect. Benvenuto Cellini once wrote about seeing his shadow like this, and in minds like his, such a natural phenomenon is the basis for superstition.
One afternoon, on his way to go fishing in Fair-Haven, Thoreau passes through Pleasant Meadow, which is part of Baker Farm. It begins to rain, and he is forced to stand under a pine tree. When he finally wades into the water and casts out his line, the thunder and rain start once again, and he is forced to take refuge in a nearby hut, where he finds an Irishman named John Field living with his wife and many children, including an older son who works in the fields with him and a baby who seems unaware of its destitute circumstances. Thoreau crouches in the least leaky corner of the house with the family.
Field tells Thoreau how hard he works "bogging," turning up a farmer's meadow with a bog hoe, and Thoreau tries to explain that he lives in a "tight, light, and clean house" for far less money. Because he doesn't spend money on rent or on buying coffee, tea, milk, or meat, he can work far less than Field, who must work hard to buy the meat he needs to sustain such hard work. Field came to America so he could have access to such things, but the only free America is one where a man can decide to go without them.
Thoreau talks to Field "as if he were a philosopher," trying to tell him that his work wears out his boots and clothing and requires that he continue to work to buy new, while Thoreau wears simple, light clothing and by spending a few hours fishing and a few working, can afford anything he needs. So could the Fields if they lived simply. Field and his wife seem to be considering it, but "without arithmetic," they fail to see how it's possible. Field fishes sometimes, but he uses worms to catch shiners and uses the shiners to catch fish.
With the rain over and a rainbow in the sky, Thoreau begins to leave, first asking for a dish as an excuse to look at the well. It takes a long time to select a dish, go to the well, which has shallows, quicksands, a broken rope, and a lost bucket, and when the water comes, it has motes floating in it. Still, Thoreau drinks it in a show of hospitality. As he's leaving, Thoreau's rush to catch fish "seemed trivial to me who had been sent to school and college," but suddenly he seems to hear his "Good Genius" speaking to him, telling him to hunt and fish, rest by brooks and hearthsides, rise before dawn, visit lakes and be found at home at night basically live his life as he has been living it at Walden for "There are no larger fields than these, no worthier games than may here be played."
Men are living like serfs through want of enterprise. Thoreau write some lines of poetry exulting Baker Farm and observes that most men come home at night and live the same day over and over when they should come home every day with adventures and new experiences. John Field, who has decided not to go bogging that afternoon after all, decides to fish with Thoreau but he only catches a few fish while Thoreau, in the same boat, catches many. He's trying to live by old country ways catching perch with shiners in this new country, as if he was born to be poor. He and his offspring will always be until they consciously change their lives.
In this chapter, Thoreau draws upon the powerful and oft-used image of the rainbow. In traditional Christian literature, the rainbow (which appears to Noah in the Genesis after the flood) is a sign of God's covenant with mankind. Though Thoreau eschews Christian dogma, he draws upon the power of this association as a means of expressing his own spiritual fulfillment. As he stands in its arch, Thoreau describes the rainbow as "dazzling me as if I looked through colored crystal." This is a spiritual experience which transforms Thoreau's very perception of the nature which surrounds him. In its light he lives "like a dolphin" a symbol of immortality and in describing his experience this way, offers an alternate path to spiritual fulfillment to the traditional Christian beliefs of his fellow New Englanders. Rather, Thoreau achieves spiritual enlightenment and immortality through the direct experience of nature.
Additionally, Thoreau draws on secular myths in his description of his encounter of the rainbow. "It chanced that [he] stood in the very abutment of a rainbow's arch." This spot, according to Irish folktales where the leprechaun's pot of gold is hidden, is found by Thoreau almost by accident. In this way, he expresses nature's sympathy for him in its allowing him to inhabit such a space.
In a more humorous and mocking manner, Thoreau references spiritual matters when he describes seeing an inexplicable glow around his shadow, which makes him "fancy" he is one of the elect, or God's chosen. His off-handed and joking reference makes it clear that he is not serious and likewise makes apparent that he does not believe in the Puritan doctrine of the elect a doctrine which formed the character of the American people and the very work ethic which Thoreau himself eschews.
Thoreau's joke that someone told him that Irishmen don't have a halo around their shadows displays the prejudices which existed in a nineteenth-century New England where the majority was of English descent. This comment also foreshadows Thoreau's perceptions of John Field, an Irishman who is unable to achieve the spiritual enlightenment that Thoreau cherishes. Additionally, Thoreau comments on Benvenuto Cellini's belief that the glow surrounding his shadow demonstrated God's favor, and opines that this is simply an example of "superstition" proceeding from an "excitable imagination." In this comment Thoreau's general suspicion of organized religion is mingled with a nineteenth-century prejudice against Roman Catholicism as based on superstition and spectacle.
John Field, the Irish "bogger," is likely a composite of many poor workers whom Thoreau met. His name, of course, is a symbol for his occupation. He works endlessly digging up fields for farmers. Being Irish, he is at the bottom of the social stratum and is therefore a more likely target for Thoreau's beliefs about simplifying life. Unlike a rich man, Field would have little to lose and much to gain by following Thoreau's example. Ultimately, he is "bogged" down by his limited conception of how to live his life. Unable to conceive of living differently than he does, he does things the hard and unproductive way as Thoreau exemplifies metaphorically in Field's lengthy process of catching shiners with worms in order to use worms to catch fish. Such men are the motivation behind the publication of Thoreau's book.
Representations of the divine recur in this chapter when Thoreau's "Good Genius" seems to speak to him, quelling his worries that his way of life is trivial and urging him to live in nature as he has been doing. This voice is at once Thoreau's own and the imagined voice of God. In representing it so, Thoreau communicates his belief that the divine can be found by looking within and also illustrates the spiritual dimension to his choice of a life.
Chapter Eleven "Higher Laws"
Walking home, Thoreau sees a woodchuck and has the urge to devour him raw. He finds dual instincts toward spiritual life and toward primitive live in himself. He attributes his occasional desire to live like an animal to the hunting he did as a child. Hunters and fishers get to know nature in a way travellers don't. Those who say Americans have fewer amusements than the English, because they don't play as many games are wrong, for all the boys his age hunted between ages 10 and 14.
Sometimes, he fishes, through necessity, at the pond and feels no real sympathy for the fish. He used to hunt, saying it was an interest in ornithology that inspired him, but he sold his gun before going to the woods, where he got to know the birds in a better way. He tells his friends to make their sons hunters, if possible "mighty" enough hunters that there ceases to be game big enough to please them. A boy who has never fired a gun has had his education neglected but is no more humane than others. In Thoreau's opinion, "no humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature which holds it life by the same tenure that he does." Young men go forth into the forest as hunters and fishers and find themselves to be poets and naturalists instead. Parsons who hunt are paradoxes to Thoreau.
The only reason men and their sons seem to spend half a day at Walden is to fish but they are disappointed if they don't go home with a whole string of fish. Mostly the legislature ignores this practice and all men therefore pass through "the hunter stage of development." Recently, Thoreau has a loss of self-respect when fishing. It's a base instinct which he has lost but which would be reawakened if he were to go back to live in the woods. Mostly this is because fish make an unclean diet, with all the cleaning they need. There is an instinct against animal food, and any man who wants to preserve his poetic faculties should give up eating it. Larvae eat gluttonously; butterflies can survive on drops of honey.
Most men, if they had to prepare it themselves, would give up eating rich cooking. Man's carnivorous instincts are accomplished in a "miserable way" through the slaughter of animals. Thoreau is certain that it is the destiny of the human race to stop eating animals, just a tribes gave up cannibalism when they became civilized. Men should follow their inner genius, even if it means feeling bodily weak, to conform with higher principles, and they will be rewarded by life becoming "more elastic, more starry, more immortal."
Nonetheless, Thoreau could eat a fried rat if he had to. He drinks only water because he desires to be always sober, eschewing wine, coffee, and tea, even though they tempt him. He has objected to course labors because they led him to eat and drink coarsely. He has become less particular recently though, and this chapter represents his opinions rather than his practice. When a person "distinguishes the true savor of his food" and gets satisfaction from that has more to do with his mind than appetite, he can't be a glutton. The appetite, not the food, defiles the person.
Everything in life has a moral aspect, and "goodness is the only investment that never fails." We know there is an animal that exists inside of his which we can never truly escape. The other day Thoreau picked up the jaws of a hog and saw in its tusks an animal vigor that led to its success in life different from spiritual vigor. The spirit can control the body and turn everything into purity and devotion. Purity the loss of the animal inside brings the person closer to the divine. All sensuality overeating, drinking, promiscuity are different forms of the same thing. People calls themselves Christian when they are no purer than "the heathen," even when they could learn to be purer through "heathen" religion.
Thoreau knows he risk speaking obscenely but finds it strange that there are matters of human nature considered improper to discuss and finds this to be a symptom of human degradation. "Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships." John Farmer sits in his door one September evening and hears a flute. He thinks of work but the flute awakens parts of his mind that are slumbering, asking him why he leads such a mean life when a glorious one is possible? He decides to practice austerity, to let his mind redeem his body and to treat himself with more respect.
Thoreau struggles throughout this chapter with the dialectic between man's animal and spiritual nature. In some ways, this understanding of the human being is reminiscent of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers' separation of human reason from animal instinct. For them, human beings differed from animals through their capacity for rational thought and action. Unlike these philosophers, however, Thoreau's struggle is further complicated by his understanding as the human as a part of nature. He cannot deny that human beings have primitive animalistic desires as exemplified by his desire to consume a woodchuck raw. Therefore, his attempts to purify himself, through the denial of the animal parts of his nature, can never be completely successful. This dialectic is ultimately irresolvable.
The metaphor of the body as a temple, which Thoreau offers as man's true work near the end of the chapter, has Biblical origins. In 1 Corinthians 6:19, St. Paul wrote, "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own." Paul, like Thoreau, urged his readers to eschew bodily desires and needs in order to become purely spiritual beings. Thoreau takes Paul's words, which says the body is not man's but God's, to argue the opposite that man's body is his own, a work created by him just as a sculptor creates a work of art. "We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones."
Thoreau's metaphor of the body as material for the artist juxtaposes strangely with his primarily symbolic perspective. In likening the sculptor's creation of art from clay to man's creation of art from his body, he denigrates the symbolic nature of the sculptor's work. This is odd, primarily because Thoreau himself is so heavily concerned with symbols. For example, his refusal to eat meat, coffee or tea, or salt and spices is primarily a symbolic statement. Vegetarianism, for him, is not an end in itself. A Puritan eating brown bread can be a glutton if he gives in to his base physical desire for it. Additionally, because Thoreau allies himself with animals as coexistent parts of nature, to eat them would be tantamount to cannibalism.
In his assertion that the human race is progressing to a state in which it will cease to eat animals, just as the progress of civilization previously led to the end of cannibalism, Thoreau imparts a theme of progress and evolution to this chapter. The human race represents the macrocosmic level. On the microcosmic level, an individual man will proceed from the stage of the "thoughtless boy," who through hunting and fishing becomes aquainted with nature; to the man who would not deign to kill an animal whose life is as tenuous as his; to a man who replaces his fishing and hunting with poetry and naturalism; to finally, the man who ceases to eat animal products in order to preserve his poetic faculties.
John Farmer, who like John Field, is a symbolic representation of all men of a certain class and occupation, provides the example of a man awakened in spirit. In "Economy," Thoreau has spoken about how most men's spiritual lives slumber. Here, he suggests that the animal life should slumber while the spiritual life revive. Farmer's realization, through overhearing flute music, that there is more to his life than his work illustrates Thoreau's belief that he can, through writing Walden, show his townsmen the possibility of exchanging their "mean" lives for "glorious" ones. The flute, of course, is the instrument that Thoreau plays at the pond, and this artistic creation, flute music, represents Thoreau's other artistic creation the book Walden.
Chapter Twelve "Brute Neighbors"
Thoreau opens the chapter with an imagined dialogue between Hermit and Poet. Hermit wonders what "the world" is doing and speculates on the sounds he hears, including the horn of the farmer calling the hands in to dinner and the rustle of a dog or lost pig running through the brush. Poet, meanwhile, stares at the clouds and asks Hermit to come fish with him. Hermit tells him to go dig worms while he finishes meditating, for in this wood, it is as hard to catch worms as fish. Alone, he loses track of his thoughts, having been close to "resolv[ing] into the essence of things." Poet comes back with thirteen worms as well as several undersized ones which do for small fry, and Hermit agrees to go off fishing with him, proposing the Concord River.
Why, Thoreau asks, do particular species fill the spaces in our lives they do? All animals are beasts of burden, carrying our thoughts. Mice of a different species which are found in the village live in Thoreau's house. One had its nest built under the house and as it gradually became accustomed to Thoreau, would run around his clothes, the sides of the wall, and around his dinner. He fed it a piece of cheese from his hand and watched it clean its face and paws before it walked away.
A phoebe (bird) lived in his shed and a robin in a nearby pine. In June, the partridge led her chicks by his house. When he approached, she gave the chicks a signal and they dispersed like a whirlwind, while she spun around to distract him. The chicks stay so still through instinct that Thoreau once picked one up and it remained crouching without trembling. Once, when he put a chick down on the leaves and it fell over, it stayed that way for ten minutes. The eyes of the partridges reflect an age-old intelligence, which no traveler or hunter can see. They are Thoreau's hens and chickens.
So many animals live secretly in woods near the town and only the hunter suspects them. There is a four-foot-long otter near Walden and raccoons behind Thoreau's house. At a brook near Brister Hill, which he would visit on summer afternoons to sit in the shade and get cold water from a well he'd dug in its spring, Thoreau saw a wood-cock and her brood. When she saw him, she signaled the young, who began dutifully marching away in a line, and pretended her wing was broken to distract him. If you sit still long enough in an attractive spot in the woods, all its inhabits will gradually exhibit themselves.
One day, near his woodpile, he observes a battle between red ants and black ants twice their size. The ants struggle, one-on-one and sometimes two red ants to one black ant, in silent deadly combat over the wood chips. He watches as a red ant continue to gnaw at the root of a black ant's feeler while dashed from side to side and as another red ant approaches the battle and leaps onto a black warrior already struggling with another red ant. This battle excites Thoreau more than if they were men, for it displays more heroism and greater numbers than any American battle. At the Battle of Concord, only two men, Davis and Hosmer, died, but all these ants are like Colonel Buttrick, "Fire! For God's sake fire!" Unlike the colonists who fought over a three cent tax on tea, Thoreau has no doubt the ants fight over an issue of principle. Taking a chip where two ants struggle into his house, he puts a tumbler over it and watches as they struggle for half an hour until the black ant has severed the other two ants' heads. Unfortunately, all his feelers and all but one leg are gone. Thoreau lets him out the window, and is excited all day, though he never learns who won the battle or the cause. He mentions examples from writing listing ant battles, and notes that this one took place "in the Presidency of Polk, five years before the passage of Webster's Fugitive Slave Bill."
Once, Thoreau saw a house cat walking by the pond and was surprised to see how natural it looked in the woods. Another time, while berrying, he met a while cat and her kittens, all of whom arched their backs and spit at him. Before he came the woods, he visited a farm who owned a "winged cat," who grew large wings of fur on her sides during the winter and shed them in the spring. Her owners gave him a pair of her wings to keep and he suggests that a winged cat would be an appropriate pet for a poet.
In the fall, the loons come, and ten hunters to every one loon arrive at the mill-dam to shoot them. Early in the morning, Thoreau would see them from afar in his boat and try to get close but they dived under the water. One October afternoon, he follows one around the pond but it dives so deep and stays under for so long, he can't predict where it will reemerge. Always, though, the bird laughs and howls when it surfaces, thus drawing attention to itself. One series of hollows is followed by rain and thinking the god of the loons is angry with him, Thoreau leaves the loon alone in the pond.
For hours in the fall, he watches ducks in the center of the pond, far from hunters. Sometimes they fly so high above the pond they must be able to see other lakes and rivers. Often when he thinks they have flown off, they land on a distant part of the pond. He can't imagine what safety from hunters they gain in the middle of Walden Pond, unless they love its water for the same reason he does.
The dialogue between Hermit and Poet that opens the chapter continues the dialectical internal conflict which consumes Thoreau. Hermit and Poet represent different parts of Thoreau, struggling to coexist. Hermit, Thoreau's spiritual side, desires only to philosophize but his thoughts, just when they are reaching their pinnacle, are disturbed by the Poet's desire to go fishing. Poet, in his desire to go fishing, represents the instinctual animal part of Thoreau which he attempts to shed. Nonetheless, Hermit cannot live without Poet. He has only a little brown bread left and must agree to fish if he is to survive. Nevertheless, these two elements of Thoreau's inner self coexist uneasily, each blocking the other from achieving its ultimate goals.
All of the animals in this chapter combine animal nature with a spiritual component. In his representations of them, we can see that Thoreau has not completely dismissed animals, despite his sentiments in the last chapter. Rather, he is entranced and inspired by nature, and his struggle to reconcile the spirituality he perceives to exist effortlessly within nature with the animal nature in human beings is ongoing.
The ants, for example, exemplify the untroubled coexistence of animal and spiritual. Clearly, their animal natures are at play as they gnaw and rip at each other. Yet, in their "battle," Thoreau perceives more nobility and valor than in the battles of the American Revolution. While human beings fight for materialistic reasons, animals, lacking material possessions or the understanding of them, can in Thoreau's logic only fight over principle. Thoreau's reference to the Fugitive Slave Act in his dating of the ant battle, further connects the example of the ants' valor to human conflict. Writing in the 1850s, Thoreau had come to believe that armed conflict was an appropriate means of resisting the injustice of slavery. Thus, for Thoreau, John Brown's conflict at Harper's Ferry was a human counterpart to the valiant ants.
Similarly, instinct to Thoreau is not necessarily a negative thing. In the partridge and woodcock chicks, who without fear follow their mothers' signal when an intruder approaches, Thoreau sees a kind of bravery in instinctual behavior. Additionally, the intelligence as old as the woods themselves which he sees reflected in the partridges' eyes and the unselfconscious behavior of the mouse suggest a spiritual dimension in animals.
The winged cat is yet another example of a hybrid, which Thoreau seeks to be in reconciling the dialectic between animal and spiritual natures. Referencing Greek mythology, he says she would be a fitting pet for a poet, who already has a winged horse, Pegasus. He speculates she might be the product of a union between a flying squirrel and cat, making her a physical hybrid as well as a hybrid of dual natures.
Nonetheless, Thoreau fails to ultimately reconcile within himself animal and spiritual natures. The loon, with its eerily human capacity for laughter and trickery and its animals abilities to transcend even the boundaries between bird and fish, easily achieves this position of liminality. But Thoreau in failing to capture the loon symbolically fails to capture this ability to cross boundaries and maintain internal contradictions in himself.
Walden Essays and Related Content
- Walden: Major Themes
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- Henry David Thoreau: Biography
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- About Walden
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- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-3
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 4-6
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 7-9
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- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 13-15
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16-18
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