Walden on Ice

Peter Wood

It took a month, but I finally turned the last page of Walden. It is not a journey I would eagerly repeat. The book has given the modern English-speaking world memorable sentences, like “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” in the opening pages, and “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer,” in the conclusion. But these sentences come along like clumps of ice on a slow-moving winter river. Between them are long, frigid currents of murky depth.

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is undoubtedly an American classic, and, like many other classics, is more admired than read. Like most Americans of my generation, I read parts of it in high school. Some of them stuck. I vividly remembered Thoreau’s account of his venturing out on the ice-covered pond in the early months of 1846 with “compass and chain and sounding line” to refute the folk belief that Walden was a bottomless hole. With his numerous soundings charted on a map, he found the pond at its deepest was 102 feet.

What kind of man goes crawling around on the winter ice with a plumb line to refute a manifestly silly story? A would-be scientist or someone who is seriously odd?

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