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A Survey of the Pond and its Surroundings
He who would know Thoreau's Walden will do well to bathe in it. His first plunge may well be in Thoreau's story of the pond and his life on its bank, and when he comes dripping from this and puts on the garments of everyday life he still must feel a little of the glow of the fire with which this alchemist of the woods transmuted all things, showing us how rough granite, hard iron and base lead are gold. Thoreau lived on the borders of the little clear pond but two years. He knew it in the flesh for just his short life. But his spirit had birth in something akin to its pure, profound waters and dwells above them now for all centuries.
The next plunge should be in the waters themselves, and only thus shall you learn to the full what a miracle the pond is. Here is a crater of glacier-crushed granite, out of which never came smoke nor lava, only a white fire from unexplored depths, a fire of cool austerity which burns the dross out of all that may be put into it. There is no inflowing stream. Its waters well up from a mysterious source within the very earth. Their outflow' is equally invisible. In their going they leap spirit-like along the golden stairs which the sun lets down to them and pass up for the building of rainbows, their white light breaking in its mystical seven colors, a visible ecstasy to all who watch the heavens. To plunge in these waters at dawn is to feel this cool fire thrill through the marrow of your bones, and only by total immersion shall you know to the full its purity.
Coming to such a flight with Eos through the dusky solemnity of the trees of the western bank, I saw the pond silvered beneath its tense level with the frosty scintillations of the stars that had shone into it all night. It was as if their radiance had but penetrated the water-tension film of the surface and collected just beneath it, making a white mirror which my plunge shattered into a thousand prisms of scintillant light. The dancing night winds had shaken all the rich odors from the white clethra blooms that grow all about the pond's rim and stored them along its surface, and to swim out toward the center was to enter a sweetly perfumed bath. The forest to eastward, full of black density, as it was, could not bar out the rose of the morning from the sight. Instead it stood in a silhouetted fretting against it and let its glow shine through a million tiny windows of the day, blossoming again in the ripples ahead. Here was a moving picture of the blooming and vanishing of pink meadow-flowers, flashing a brief life upon the film, vanishing and growing again. The cinematograph is nothing new. Walden has operated it for those who will swim toward the dawn in its waters since the centuries began. In our theaters we are but tawdry imitators of its film productions.
Chin deep in its middle you begin to feel that you know the pond. In a sense you are its eye and look upon the world as it does. Day breaks for the swimmer as it does for Walden, and the flash of the sun above the wood to eastward warms you both with the same sudden sweep of its August fire. In the same sense you are the pond's ear and hear as it does. The morning rustle of the trees, shaking the dusk from their boughs, comes to you as a clear ecstasy, and you think you can hear the wan tinkling of the invisible feet of fairy mists as they leap sunward from the surface and vanish in the day. Over the wood comes the intermittent pulse of Concord waking, and by fainter reverberations the pond knows that Lincoln and more distant villages are astir. Then the first train of the day crashes by the southern margin and stuns the tympanum with a vast avalanche of uproar.
To plunge beneath the surface and escape this is to learn the real color of the pond. From without, on the banks, this varies. Oftenest it is a dull, clear green like that of alexandrite, a chrysoberyl gem from the mines of Ceylon and the Ural mountains. You see this best from the higher points of the hills along the borders and at certain angles of the sun the green shows red reflections and tints of blue as does the gem. If, swimming in the center, you will tip up as a duck does and go headforemost with open eyes into the depths, you will see none of this color. There with all the influences of reflection and refraction eliminated you find yourself moving through an infinitely soft blue that is semi-opaque merely because a million generations of use has fitted the human eye for seeing details through air only. Yet the perception of color remains. Hold your breath desperately and swim as far down as you may and there is no change. The color has all the softness and gentle beauty of the turquoise. In certain lights among the Florida Keys I have seen this sweetest, gentlest of blues in the Gulf Stream, but in no other water.
To turn and look at yourself in this water is to have another surprise. Already it seems as if the mystic fires of its depths had begun to inform you with a pure whiteness that should be akin to nobility of soul, and as you step forth on the shore mayhap this quality, passing subtly to the blood and brain, lingers for a while, and in the clear fire of renewed vitality you feel that the morning has indeed brought back to you the heroic age.
To come to Walden at mid-day, even with Thoreau's account of it in the back of your head, is not at first to be impressed with the clear spirituality of its waters nor their depth. Here, you say, is the path from Concord, lightly worn by the spring of his tread, clumsily rutted by the heavy footsteps of many who follow, having indeed hitched their wagon to a star. Here is the cairn erected in his memory, to which with doffed hat you may well add a stone from the pond shore. And here is the pond itself, a gem of silvered water set among low, wooded hills. Your eve may well catch first a sight of the driftwood on the shore, of which there is much and think it makes the place untidy and wish that the Concord selectmen might have it removed. But the thought which this first mid-day glimpse stirs soon passes from you and standing on the very brink you realize the limpidity of the water and the spirit of dignity and peace which prevails over all. The world grows up around many shrines of its great ones and so changes the environment that you go away sorry that you came, wishing that you had let the place live in your imagination as it was in its heroic age, rather than as it has since degenerated.
Walden is Walden still, very much as Thoreau painted it. No chimney smoke rises in view from its shore. No picnic pavilion disturbs its outline or jangle of trolley echoes within its spaces. The woods grow tall all about it, and if they are more frequented by men than in his day and less by wild creatures the casual visitor need hardly know the difference. The pond was low when he wrote of Walden. So it is now and the same stones with which it was "walled-in" then pave the wide margins to-day. You may walk all around it on this crushed granite and note the sparkle of plentiful mica in the pebbles. Near the beach where he took his morning swim is the tiny meadow which in the years of high water is a cove to be fished in. You may throw a stone across this meadow cove and in any direction save at its narrow entrance from the pond you will hit tall woods that in dense array lean lovingly over it and give it cool shadows except when the sun is high. Between the tall trees and the meadow grasses grows the clethra, its white spikes of perfume seeming to make a lace collar all about the place. In the bottom of this meadow grows much thoroughwort, which is a plain, homely weed to the passing glance, not considered fit for a garden nor thought to beautify a roadside as do so many fairer pasture blooms. Yet its gray-white heads add a soft friendliness to the coarse meadow grasses and give delicacy to the whole place, seeming to invite invasion and preparing the invader to find the more fragile flowers of the Gerardia tenuifolia that nestles beneath it, its pink bells set by some fairy bell-ringer of the dawn with mute throats open toward the sky. The little enclosure is as deep as a well, stoned in by forest walls, and is beloved of the argynnis butterflies whose spangled underwings shine with the same silver as the mica along the pond shore. Meadowsweet and a half dozen other August flowers warm their heads in the sun and cool their feet in the shadows of this same meadow, but the thoroughwort seems to possess it most and to have a feeling of rightful ownership as if it were Thoreau's own plant. All about the pond you will find it blossoming in the same way, standing bravely out from the wood with its feet among the close-set stones. Always before thoroughwort has seemed to me coarse and unattractive. Here it seems to belong and to give and take a certain beauty of virility and appropriateness. Perhaps it is because with it came so often the fond fragrance of the white alders and the soft, rose-pink beauty of the gerardia bells. In many places the stones of the beach are set so close together and have so little soil beneath them that nothing can grow, yet in others the plucky, bright-faced hedge hyssop has crept into the interstices among them and made a carpet pattern of soft green that is all flecked with the golden yellow of their blooms. And all behind these rise the woods, oak and chestnut, maple and scattered pines, whose plumed tops seem like the war-bonnets of Indian chiefs, standing guard over the homely, beautiful, simple, mysterious little pond which seems to excite love and reverence in the hearts of all who remain long on its banks.
The hills climb abruptly from the brink of Walden on all sides. The woods climb the hills and top their summits with half-century old growth that yearly adds to its girth and stature.
Nor, one fancies, need these trees again fear the sweep of the woodchopper's axe. The spirit of reverence for its shores, which through the one-time hermit of Walden has spread to us all, should prevent that. For now the pond is much as Thoreau remembered it had been in his boyhood, walled in by dense forests, a place of echoes. Your spoken word comes back to you from this shore and from that, refined and made more sonorous, as if the wood gods would fain teach you oratory and had taken your phrase into their own mouths and put it forth again as an example. To your ears it comes again sweetened with the gentle essences of juniper, birch and sassafras, rich with the melodies taught to bare boughs by winter winds. In the haze of the August noon these other shores are distant to the eye. The sight must swim a long way through the quivering air to reach one or the other. The hearing, thanks to the kindly offices of the wood gods, leaps the space at a bound.
The kingfisher seems as much a familiar of the place as the echoes. Like them he flies back and forth from shore to shore till you wonder whether he is trying to keep pace with them or whether he is the embodiment of one that does not need to be set going by a word but has volition of its own. The kingfisher's voice hardly seems to belong at Walden, it is so harsh and unlovely. Even in this very school of sweet echoes it has learned neither modulation nor singing quality. Far different is the gentle peet-weet of the sandpipers which precede you along shore in scalloped flight. Something of the bright sweetness of the hedge hyssop strolls along the moist stones of the margin with them, as if the two became yearly more and more related. Each fall I think the olive-fuscous backs of these little birds get just a little more of a golden tinge from this continual neighboring with the equally gentle, friendly Gratiola aurea. If in return some fine summer the hedge hyssop should blossom into twittering song no one need be terribly surprised.
In contrast to the fearless rattle of the kingfisher as he echoed from shore to shore and to the twittering, friendly sandpipers who ran so fearlessly along the margin, was the single little green heron that has made the pond his abiding place for a while. There is but one, nor are there any signs that herons have nested about the pond this year, so I fancy this bird is a bachelor visitor seeking to reduce living to its lowest terms and finding on the Walden shore the simplicity and seclusion that is the spirit of the place. He is as taciturn and patient as any hermit could be. When his country seat on one shore is invaded he simply flies silently to another and there resumes that inward contemplation which is as characteristic of the bird as the rattling, vibrating flight is of the kingfisher. The little green heron was a recluse of the pond shore long before the first pioneer planted his cabin in Concord. His kin still cling to the place which is as lovely and lonely now as it was then.
At nightfall deep peace settles upon the little pond. The shores that were so distant to the eye in the noonday haze draw in friendlily toward one another, and the last light slips through the trees to westward and throws a coverlet of shadow over this sleepy child of the woods. In the growing dusk there is no mystery about the place. It is just a wee baby of a pond that is tired and has been put to bed. But as children often do when we think them asleep for the night the pond, as darkness gathered, seemed to dimple with wakeful laughter, to kick off the shadow quilt and dance with a new radiance of life. Gathering clouds of sultry August thunderstorms had gloomed the sky with the passing of the sun, and there was no star to give an answering twinkle, but the whole surface of the pond laughed up to the clouds in silvery light. It was as if all the mica-shine of all the granite ground together and sifted to make its unfathomed bottom had come to the surface, the infinitesimal flakes joining hands in a fairy dance to the tiny tune of the little evening winds. The pond was such a gentle little part of the vocal earth then that it did not seem as if it had ever been mysterious and informed with all the deep wisdom of the stars. Its surface was no bigger than the counterpane of a white crib on which danced the fairy dreams of the child that slumbered happily below.
Later someone lighted a fishing fire on the opposite shore, and with a flash the mystery of the place returned. The cove where it burned seemed infinitely far withdrawn, and about it stalked shadowy giants who were the fishermen. Their voices, coming in brief sentences and at long intervals, were as weird as their shadows and as unsubstantial, from that immense distance to which they seemed withdrawn. The whole was a mystery of the elder earth, as if man had fished here before the flood and came, a shade among the shadows, to try it again.
By and by the fishing fire ceased to flare and sank to a red glow of embers. The dense clouds, tempest-drawn toward distant skies, dropped southward. The moon rode out of them and all dignity and crystal beauty returned to the pond, no longer little but wide and deep and mysterious. Down the moon's radiance a spirit of fire strode, walking the water along a path of golden light, right into Thoreau's cove as I sat there on his shore. The pond was once again a well of crystal, now leading from the zenith to the nadir, and the white radiance of its spirit made mountain peaks of snow-white grandeur of the receding clouds.
In the dark depths below these peaks flashed still the crimson scimitars of the lightning, but all about them and the pond shone a radiance of purity and serenity such as that in which we know Thoreau walked, day by day.
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