Yet social life for Thoreau is not always so peaceful and harmless. If the visitor loses his natural good sense within the village, and is seduced by its illusory appeals, it becomes a risky place to be. As Thoreau’s description of the village’s layout proceeds, it uses more and more words of aggression, onslaught, and danger. Every traveler has to “run the gauntlet,” he says, when exploring the place. The houses are arranged as if in a battle-line, so that the villagers “might get a lick at” the visitor before he can “escape.” Advertising signs “catch him.” In portraying the dangers of village life, Thoreau is indirectly mocking the villagers’ beliefs that it is nature that is hostile and threatening. Thoreau says that he has never been “distressed in any weather” out in the open, unlike the distraught townspeople who lose their way at night and stray far from the well-trod streets of the village. For Thoreau, being lost in this way is neither dangerous nor inadvisable. Being disoriented with regard to society—losing the path to the village—is far less serious, implies Thoreau, than being disoriented with regard to our own selves. It is better to find oneself and risk one’s social standing, if need be, just as Thoreau himself does when as a conscientious objector he is jailed for nonpayment of a tax. In commenting on this point, he ironically reverses the idea that he is a wild rebel, saying instead that it is society that has “run amok” of him. His casual tone in reporting the jail incident (“One afternoon . . .” he begins coolly, as if relating another squirrel sighting or fishing trip) illustrates how unimportant it is in his life, which has generally been successful in “escap[ing]” not just jail but all social constraints.
Thoreau’s description of Walden Pond in the beautiful “Ponds” chapter hints at a symbolic significance to this mysterious, deep, and pure body of water. Blue or green when seen from different angles, yet “as colorless as an equal quantity of air” when a glass of it is held up to the light, Walden Pond is profoundly indefinable. Thoreau mentions that some people “think it is bottomless,” or infinitely deep. Other waters make the human bather appear yellowish, but Walden gives the human body an alabaster whiteness, like a figure by Michelangelo. Since Michelangelo was a religious artist, and white a Christian symbol of purity, Walden’s infinity and mystery makes it seem divine. Indeed, water, in Christianity, through the sacrament of baptism, is a powerful symbol of a higher life in Christ. Thoreau is never an explicitly Christian writer, but subtly Walden Pond seems to perform some of the functions traditionally performed by the church. Its fascinating “glassy surface” reflects heaven, “a perfect forest mirror” of the sky above. It seems a little bit of heaven on earth, and the chapter’s last line suggests that it is better than heaven, because it can be found on earth: “Talk of heaven! ye disgrace earth.” The living human has access to and may choose to live near the earthly pond, as Thoreau does. In a sense the pond may represent the natural soul of humankind, a bit of heaven we can discover within us, “walled-in” within our external social selves, just as Walden is walled in by its stones.