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"What a sorrowful act must that be - the covering up of wells!"

I really like this passage from Walden, in which Thoreau's forced winter solitude turns his thoughts to the people who once lived in the area but have long since vanished, along with almost all traces of their humble homes.

Now only a dent in the earth marks the site of these dwellings, with buried cellar stones, and strawberries, raspberries, thimble-berries, hazel-bushes, and sumachs growing in the sunny sward there; some pitch pine or gnarled oak occupies what was the chimney nook, and a sweet-scented black birch, perhaps, waves where the door-stone was. Sometimes the well dent is visible, where once a spring oozed; now dry and tearless grass; or it was covered deep - not to be discovered till some late day - with a flat stone under the sod, when the last of the race departed. What a sorrowful act must that be - the covering up of wells! coincident with the opening of wells of tears. These cellar dents, like deserted fox burrows, old holes, are all that is left where once were the stir and bustle of human life, and "fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute," in some form and dialect or other were by turns discussed. But all I can learn of their conclusions amounts to just this, that "Cato and Brister pulled wool"; which is about as edifying as the history of more famous schools of philosophy.

Still grows the vivacious lilac a generation after the door and lintel and the sill are gone, unfolding its sweet-scented flowers each spring, to be plucked by the musing traveller; planted and tended once by children's hands, in front-yard plots - now standing by wallsides in retired pastures, and giving place to new-rising forests; - the last of that stirp, sole survivor of that family. Little did the dusky children think that the puny slip with its two eyes only, which they stuck in the ground in the shadow of the house and daily watered, would root itself so, and outlive them, and house itself in the rear that shaded it, and grown man's garden and orchard, and tell their story faintly to the lone wanderer a half-century after they had grown up and died - blossoming as fair, and smelling as sweet, as in that first spring. I mark its still tender, civil, cheerful lilac colors.

When Thoreau sticks to close descriptions of the natural and built environments like this, the writing is absolutely marvelous. Unfortunately, he's also often prone to ponderous philosophical abstractions, which I could easily do without.

June 18, 2009 in Books | Permalink


I've read Walden a few times, but it's clear to me that I need to get back to it again.

I visited Walden many years ago -- on the coldest day New England had experienced in 50 years -- and I'd like to get back to it again, too.

Posted by: Paul Lamb at Jun 19, 2009 5:52:32 AM

I visited once, too, but was disappointed that the cabin there was only a replica, and not the original.

Posted by: Pete at Jun 19, 2009 2:23:09 PM