Birdsong, the Railroad, and Time in Walden

One of the more superficial lessons often gleaned from Thoreau's Walden is the superiority of the "natural" laws of time over those of commercially-motivated, fast-paced humans. This viewpoint has its supports in Thoreau's almost constant juxtaposition of timeless, melodious birdsong to the screeching, interruptive quality of the train whistle in "Sounds." His message, however, contains more complexity than a single condemnation of civilization's rule by the ticking clock; at various moments, he stresses the good qualities of the railroads by comparing their noises more favorably toward natural time, equating the whistle's regularity to the sun. Thoreau utilizes the qualities of sound to demonstrate how various tones found in nature and civilization connote with the pace of living in each place. The relationship of natural versus civilized time is confounded by seemingly contradictory examples of, for instance, a whippoorwill singing "almost with as much precision as a clock," the human construct also governing the railroads' time. By the end of "Sounds," Thoreau somewhat reconciles his love of a natural time with its civilized associations by suggesting a blend of the...

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