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Since ice is the only product of Walden Pond that is useful, it becomes a symbol of the social use and social importance of nature, and of the exploitation of natural resources. Thoreau’s fascination with the ice industry is acute. He describes in great detail the Irish icemen who arrive from Cambridge in the winter of 1846 to cut, block, and haul away 10,000 tons of ice for use in city homes and fancy hotels. The ice-cutters are the only group of people ever said to arrive at Walden Pond en masse, and so they inevitably represent society in miniature, with all the calculating exploitations and injustices that Thoreau sees in the world at large.
Consequently, the labor of the icemen on Walden becomes a symbolic microcosm of the confrontation of society and nature. At first glance it would appear that society gets the upper hand, as the frozen pond is chopped up, disfigured, and robbed of ten thousand tons of its contents. But nature triumphs in the end, since less than twenty-five percent of the ice ever reaches its destination, the rest melting and evaporating en route—and making its way back to Walden Pond.
With this analysis, Thoreau suggests that humankind’s efforts to exploit nature are in vain, since nature regenerates itself on a far grander scale than humans could ever hope to affect, much less threaten. The icemen’s exploitation of Walden contrasts sharply with Thoreau’s less economic, more poetical use of it. In describing the rare mystical blue of Walden’s water when frozen, he makes ice into a lyrical subject rather than a commodity, and makes us reflect on the question of the value, both market and spiritual, of nature in general.
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