by: Henry David Thoreau

Brute Neighbors and House-Warming


At first glance Thoreau’s allegorical dialogue between the hermit and the poet seems fanciful, not very profound, and not well integrated with the animal theme of the chapter. But in fact it reveals much about Thoreau’s self-image, and about how he sees his own project not as that of a dreamy artist, but of someone who lives life to its fullest—like the animals before him. The poet in the dialogue offers his silly impressions about how the clouds hang in the sky, and how he has seen nothing like it in old paintings or foreign lands, not even on the coast of Spain. By contrast, the hermit Thoreau’s thoughts tend toward more practical concerns like the tubs that need to be scoured, the boiled beef to be eaten, and the fact that his “brown bread will soon be gone.” Food is a prominent presence in his meditations, and there is a deep significance in the poet’s final complaint that he has not caught enough fish, having used worms that are too large. Thoreau may be hinting that, instead of rhapsodizing about Spain and old pictures, the dreamy poet should have been paying attention to practical matters like the proper bait for fishing. He implies that life is not a poem but a matter of food gathering and survival, and the high-flying artist who ignores this fact will suffer later.

This odd dialogue thus provides a preface to the chapter on animals, “Brute Neighbors,” in ironically suggesting that humans and animals are indeed neighbors, and we are all “brutes” seeking food, shelter, and survival. The various vignettes of animal life offered in this chapter focus on animals involved in practical matters of survival, especially in the search for food. The mouse that Thoreau shares his house with is tame and entertaining, but the end point of the entertainment is the acquisition of the bit of cheese. Just like the fishing conversation between the poet and hermit, this interaction between human and mouse is based on food, and it is over when the cheese is gobbled up. The raccoon too is no more truly wild than this half-tamed, home-dwelling mouse. It is not a wild denizen of the forest, but a frequenter of neighborhoods in search of food from human sources. As with the mouse, the animal and human neighbors coexist on the basis of their shared food supplies, which makes feeding the common denominator between them. Similarly, the wild cat that hisses at Thoreau on a walk in the woods was originally, he conjectures, no different from the domestic pet “which has lain on a rug all her days.” The housebound and the savage, like the human and the brute, are close counterparts.

The warring ants that Thoreau finds make the connection between humans and brutes no less clear: the distinction between human civilization and animal savagery breaks down when red ants are seen waging a very human war against the black ants. “For numbers and for carnage it was an Austerlitz or a Dresden,” says Thoreau, mentioning two famously bloody battles of the nineteenth century. He sees the human aspect of their war immediately. When he narrates the thrilling scene of the large black ant beheading several smaller red ones, we feel the importance of survival even more sharply than we do in the context of food supplies: all these ants are fighting for their lives. The analogy to the human will to survive is clear.

Emphasizing the survival instincts that humans and brutes share does not necessarily imply, for Thoreau, that life is a dead-set fixation on practical gains alone. Animal life, no less than human life, has its eccentricities and irrationalities as part of the package of existence—as Thoreau illustrates by concluding his animal survey with a famously silly creature, the loon. This bird is no less committed to survival than the partridge, the robin, or any of the other birds or beasts mentioned in this chapter. But the loon is also, quite openly, loony. His battle of wits with Thoreau on the pond, diving in a way that makes Thoreau miscalculate where he will reappear and then surfacing unexpectedly elsewhere, serves no practical purpose. He even leads Thoreau to a wider expanse of water where he can maneuver more freely, for no other reason than to increase his fun.

Yet even this game is not played too seriously; the loon puzzles Thoreau by trying hard to sneak up on him only to reveal its location at the last moment. The bird betrays itself because it can afford to do so, since at this moment its life and survival are not at stake. Survival may be the main focus of animal and human existence, but life is more than a struggle, and even nature has its moments of fun and frivolity—like the poet at the beginning. Perhaps the poet and the hermit are not so different, but are rather two aspects of nature and of the man Thoreau imagines himself to be. It is significant that when recounting the old wives’ tale about a winged cat, Thoreau says that this “would be the kind of cat for me to keep,” since a poet deserves a fantastic animal. This comment is revealing, since with it Thoreau directly acknowledges himself to be a poet, after mocking poets in the opening dialogue. What the chapter shows above all is that, for humans and brutes alike, survival and frivolity are both parts of life.