Henry David Thoreau: “Walden; or, Life in the Woods”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.”

So says Henry David Thoreau in the most famous sentence from Walden, his 1854 treatise on spending two years and two months in a cabin he built in the woods outside his family’s home in Concord, Massachusetts.

Mostly a book of philosophy and, some would say, polemic, there’s also a strong element of storytelling in the book.

On the macro level, Thoreau traces his journey from building the cabin and planting the garden to moving into and living in the cabin. Along the way, he details the rhythms of the seasons, beginning and ending the book with spring, the time of new life.

But it is on the micro level that Thoreau’s storytelling really shines. Here and there throughout this book of philosophy, Thoreau’s small stories of daily life and natural observation shimmer like gems. My favorite of these stories is the one that tells of Thoreau’s late-night fishing expeditions on Walden Pond.

Thoreau describes “fishing from a boat my moonlight, serenaded by owls and foxes . . . , anchored in forty feet of water, and twenty or thirty rods from the shore.” Thus, he is both suspended in and immersed in the natural world, floating there on the pond.

On dark nights, says Thoreau, his thoughts would “wander to vast and cosmogonal themes in other spheres” – anyone who fishes knows the meditative trance he is describing. But then a tug on the line, “this faint jerk,” would “interrupt [his] dreams and link [him] to Nature again.” A fish bites, and in that instant, Thoreau is completely one with the natural world. His head is in the clouds, his spiritual hunger satisfied, and his body is tied to the actual world, his physical needs being met with the catching of a fish.

Thus, says Thoreau, “I caught two fishes . . . with one hook.”

In this moment, Thoreau – ever the Transcendentalist – finds perfect alignment, linked simultaneously to the cares of the ordinary, mundane world (fishing for his dinner) and to the heady “cosmogonal . . . spheres.”

Ready to read all of this wonderful book? There are so many (many!) wonderful editions, and you can’t go wrong with any of them. I especially want to mention Walden: 150th Anniversary Illustrated Edition of the American Classic, published in association with the Walden Woods Project and featuring photographs by Scot Miller and an introduction by Don Henley. Another favorite is Jeffrey S. Cramer’s annotated edition of the book. And for a free online “study” text, check out Ann Woodlief’s version at American Transcendentalism Web.

As a final treat, check out this Walden webpage I developed in collaboration with Dr. Patricia Dwyer and our students at Shepherd University. There you’ll see a great photograph of a 21st-century fisherman catching two fishes with one hook at Walden Pond. On the “Journals” page, you’ll find links to lots of other student work, among them many photographs taken on our 2006 trip to Walden Pond. If you want to take your exploration of Thoreau even farther, take a look at our WebQuest on Thoreau and Walden and also our WebQuest on Thoreau’s habit of journaling and his relationship with his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the founder of the Transcendentalist movement.

Join me this week on Pinterest as I pin images and resources related to Henry David Thoreau. Take a look around at all my boards – or go straight to “My Favorite Books” board for Henry David Thoreau treats.

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Listen:Listen as I read a two-minute excerpt from Chapter 9 of Walden, in which Thoreau tells about catching two fishes with one hook.

Image Credit: Daguerrotype of Henry David Thoreau by Benjamin D. Maxham, 1856, available via the National Portrait Gallery. For more on this image, visit Wikipedia.