Lecturer: Chapter 17 of Thoreau's Walden, which is entitled "Spring" is a climatic chapter which gives us a very good example of Thoreau's symbolic method.
It's a method that allows him to move from materialist observations to idealist conclusions.
In a way what Thoreau does is to build on the observation that Emerson makes in the fourth chapter of his little book Nature, that particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts.
Moreover, Thoreau makes use of a rhetoric of what we might call "exemplarity."
He takes little pieces of evidence, talks about the ways in which they stand for larger patterns that he sees recurring in nature, and then talks about the ways in which those larger patterns are evidence of what you might call idealist conclusions or principles that he wishes to discuss.
So for example, on page 2028 of the text, Thoreau talks about the ways in which the phenomenon of the year take place every day in a pond on small scale.
"Every morning, generally speaking," he says at the bottom of the page, "the shallow water is being warmed more rapidly than the deep, though it may not be made so warm after all, and every evening it is being cooled more rapidly until the morning.
The day is an epitome of the year.
The night is the winter, the morning and evening are the spring and fall, and the noon is the summer.
The cracking and booming of the ice indicate a change of temperature."
So one of the things I want to suggest to you is that even in a little sentence like that, you can see that Thoreau is mixing actual observation with something that we might think of as a larger set of observations -- more abstract, more idealist in their imaginings, thinking about the larger truths behind these natural facts that he notices.
So as he watches the pond start to melt, and he sees the return of spring to the neighborhood, there's a certain kind of wonder that comes into the prose.
And that's another thing I wanted to say to you.
Again, remember last time I suggested that this narrative should be thought of as encapsulating some of the other forms.
And I think if we were to think about some of the wonder that we found in the early settlement narratives, Thoreau has some of that, too.
It's a settlement narrative in that sense.
But then he goes off and he does some things that you might say most good naturalists in this period wouldn't do.
And you could start to see, particularly when he talks about the railroad bank, that he's doing something that is not strictly speaking natural history.
Take a look at page 2030.
I mean, he recorded lots of signs of nature in his journal.
And there were lots of possibilities for a kind of epitome for him of correspondences with various forms of nature and beyond.
So it's interesting that he chooses this one: the thawing of sand and clay in the deep cut by the railroads.
You can see that to culminate which you might call the revelations of spring in his text.
And I wanted to point this out to you because it's a good encapsulation of how his symbolic method works.
This is the second full paragraph on 2030.
"Few phenomena gave me more delight than to observe the forms of which the falling sand and clay assume in flowing down the sides of a deep cut on the railroad through which I passed on my way to the village, a phenomenon not very common on so large a scale, though the number of freshly exposed banks of the right material must have been greatly multiplied since railroads were invented."
We looked at this before.
There's a kind of weird conflation of nature and culture going on here.
And that passage about the meridian shallows and not being [inaudible] dinner.
We saw how Thoreau was strangely mixing images from nature and culture in order to make a larger point about the routineness of life and the need to strip things down to their essentials.
So here, again, he's not going to do what's predictable.
He's going talk about nature but using as an example man's incursion into nature.
So of all the things you could talk about, you go to Walden Pond, you live in nature, you're going to talk about the way in which man has cut through nature to create railroad banks and in particular, he's going to talk about this, what he calls sand foliage.
"The material was sand of every degree of fineness and of various rich colors commonly mixed with a little clay.
When the frost comes out to the spring and even in a thawing day in the winter, the sand begins to flow down the slopes like lava, sometimes bursting out through the snow and overflowing it where no sand was to be seen before."
Now we're going to have very close observation of this.
"Innumerable little streams overlap and interlace one with another, exhibiting a sort of hybrid product, which obeys half way the law of currents, and half way that of vegetation.
As it flows it takes the forms of sappy leaves or vines, making heaps of pulpy sprays a foot or more in depth, and resembling, as you look down on them, the laciniated, lobed, and imbricated thalluses of some lichens; or you are reminded of coral, of leopard's paws or birds' feet, of brains or lungs or bowels, and excrements of all kinds.
It is a truly grotesque vegetation, whose forms and color we see imitated in bronze, a sort of architectural foliage more ancient and typical than acanthus, chicory, ivy, vine, or any vegetable leaves; destined perhaps, under some circumstances, to become a puzzle to future geologists" -- they become fossilized -- "The whole cut impressed me as if it were a cave with its stalactites laid open to the light."