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Walden's Shore

Walden's Shore

Robert M. Thorson
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    Walden's Shore
    Book Description:

    Walden's Shore explores Thoreau's understanding of the "living rock" on which life's complexity depends--not as metaphor but as physical science. Robert Thorson's subject is Thoreau the rock and mineral collector, interpreter of landscapes, and field scientist whose compass and measuring stick were as important to him as his plant press.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-72840-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature, General Science, Geology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
    (pp. 1-18)

    The historic steeple of First Parish Church pokes the sky just south of the Concord town green. There in 1817, a healthy infant named David Henry was baptized with water by the town’s spiritual patriarch, Unitarian minister Rev. Ezra Ripley. There in 1862, the coffin of a man who called himself Henry David was strewn with wildflowers while his memory was eulogized by Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose fall from Unitarian grace had made him world famous. “I know not any genius,” Emerson said of his best friend, “who so swiftly inferred universal law from the single fact.”¹

    Thoreau was indeed...


      (pp. 21-51)

      The “cinnamon stone,” wrote Thoreau, is the only “precious stone” found in Concord. “Large as a brick and as thick, and yet you could distinguish a pin through it, it was so transparent.” Though this reads like a typicalJournalentry, it was actually a fictional setup for the wise-crack to follow. “If not a mountain of light,” he continued, “it was a brickbatful, at any rate.” By this, he meant something to throw at someone, almost certainly the Reverend Edward Hitchcock, who irked Thoreau for being a wolf in sheep’s clothing: in this case, a “sacred historian” posing as...

      (pp. 52-81)

      “The Musketaquid, or Grass-ground River, though probably as old as the Nile or Euphrates, did not begin to have a place in civilized history, until the fame of its grassy meadows and the fish attracted settlers out of England in 1635.” With this nod to the depth of history, Thoreau begins his first book—A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. As it turns out, the Concord River in its present channel is actually twice as old as the others, having been formed on the bed of an ancient glacial lake that drained about 17,000 years ago, rather than...

      (pp. 82-111)

      Thoreau’s inner compass may have been aligned to the southwest, but his imagination consistently pointed north. To the “Esquimaux” he imagined standing silently over their fishing holes on Flint’s Pond. To the “Northmen,” whose Scandinavian sagas enrich his books, and whose playful god was the namesake for Thor-eau. To the “Land of the Midnight Sun,” where “sunrise and sunset are coincident, and that day returns after six months of night.” To the aurora borealis, that “burning bush” and “fiery worm” he saw from Concord hilltops during magnetic storms. To the Arctic pack ice and its local surrogate, the drifting floes...

      (pp. 112-141)

      Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Phi Beta Kappa address to the graduating class of Harvard on August 31, 1837, is considered by many to be America’s intellectual declaration of independence. Published as the essay “The American Scholar,” it proclaims: “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe … please God” our age “shall not be so. We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.” This is exactly what patriotic members of the Association of American Geologists did three years later during their inaugural national meeting in Philadelphia.¹...

      (pp. 142-168)

      “A vast blue fort or Valhalla … thirty-five feet high on one side and six or seven rods square … and estimated to contain ten thousand tons.” That was Thoreau’s description of the colossal stack of lake ice cut from Walden by Irish laborers “in the winter of ’46–7.” After stacking it up, they had to insulate it against the coming heat of summer to minimize melting before shipment. So “they began to tuck the coarse meadow hay into the crevices,” and then covered it all with hay and boards. Though the stack was uncovered and exposed to the...


      (pp. 171-198)

      Leo Marx’sThe Machine in the Gardenis “the best book ever written about the place of nature in American literary thought.” That was scholar Lawrence Buell’s summary judgment of a title that elegantly captures the dialectic tension between industrial progress and the timeless beauty of nature: in this case between the Fitchburg Railroad and Walden Pond. Thoreau’s pastoral remove there in 1845 took place midway between railroad construction in 1843 and his return to Concord village in 1847. During this four-year interval, the lake went from being an agricultural outback with little practical utility to a railhead where commodities...


      (pp. 201-229)

      “This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself.” So begins “Solitude.”¹

      Note that Thoreau’s sensation is singular: as it was in the beginning nearly four billion years ago, a time before the Earth had continents. A time when its oldest microbes were evolving on some boiling volcanic vent, probably in the pitch dark below a global abyssal sea. Somewhere on the gradient between geothermal scald and oceanic cold was the ideal Goldilocks temperature of “just right.”...

      (pp. 230-258)

      My first reading ofWaldenin 1970 was a transforming experience. At the time, I was an eighteen-year-old freshman with a low draft number monitoring the nightly news from Vietnam. Thoreau’s name came up. The first Earth Day was also in the news and rapidly approaching. His name came up again. During some restless moment, I found a paperback copy ofWalden, bicycled seven miles out to our family’s lakeside cabin in the pine woods of northern Minnesota, and began to read. I slogged my way through “Economy” before giving up, having discovered what Stanley Cavell was discovering at about...

      (pp. 259-288)

      “I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust.” No bachelor dusts daily, especially one living alone in the woods. So why the “disgust” from someone whose sister claimed he actually liked dust? There’s a clue in one of his accounting tables in “Economy.”¹

      Thoreau had only one complaint about the cost of building his house: the high price he paid for lime: “That was high,” he entered opposite...

    • 10 MYTHOLOGY
      (pp. 289-311)

      Christmas had passed in the Emerson house hold. Lidian reigned. Ralph Waldo was on tour in Europe. Thoreau was man of the house. On December 29, 1847, he began a letter to the absent husband and mentor: “My Dear Friend, … I am here still, & very glad to be here—and shall not trouble you with my complaints.” But then he does complain. A sarcastic rant about a certain unnamed professor whom Frank Sanborn clearly identified as Louis Agassiz. Apparently, the great scientist had stood them up socially on three separate occasions.¹

      “Lidian & I have a standing quarrel,” wrote Thoreau,...

      (pp. 312-330)

      Rocky, rugged, stormy, and cirque-bitten. Crowning the Presidential Range of New Hampshire, Mountain Washington is New England’s highest peak. Thoreau climbed it with his older brother John Jr. in September 1839 near the end of their famous river voyage, later memorialized asA Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. They summited the mountain in what biographer Robert Richardson called “the most laconically reported excursion of … [Thoreau’s] career.” The complete journal entry for that day is this: “Sept. 10. Ascended the mountain and rode to Conway.” Alan Hodder also noticed Thoreau’s eagerness to “gloss over the four days in...

    (pp. 331-336)

    Midway through this book project I drove to Concord, Massachusetts, to hear Professor Laura Dassow Walls read from her new bookPassage to Cosmos. The venue at the Thoreau Society headquarters was intimate, just a dozen chairs pulled together in the parlor of Thoreau’s recently restored birthplace home on Virginia Road. In the room were a few of my new colleagues. I felt like I belonged.

    On the way to the talk, I detoured into Sleepy Hollow Cemetery to visit Thoreau’s grave, which is one of my favorite places. The small slab of marble inscribed “Henry” is no more significant...

    (pp. 337-338)
    (pp. 339-356)
  11. NOTES
    (pp. 357-404)
    (pp. 405-412)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 413-421)