Summary: Baker Farm

Thoreau sometimes roams beyond Walden Pond and Flints’ Pond to outlying groves and woods, surveying the land. One day, caught in a rainstorm on a fishing trip, Thoreau takes cover in a hut near Baker Farm that he imagines to be deserted. But inside he finds John Field and his family, poor Irish immigrants. A conversation ensues, although it is more a lecture by Thoreau to Field on how he should live his life, telling Field that if he reevaluates his priorities and economizes, he can pull himself out of poverty. Thoreau says that the wild state of nature is best and that “the only true America” is that place where one can do without luxuries such as tea, coffee, butter, and beef. Thoreau insists that he speaks to Field as a fellow philosopher, but Field is not overly receptive to Thoreau’s points. Thoreau concludes that the Irishman is not interested in taking risks, and lacks the “arithmetic” to see the wisdom of Thoreau’s financial management advice. He leaves the Field home with no mention of having shared a moment of warmth or humor with the family. Moreover, Thoreau makes the unfair speculation that Field suffers from “inherited Irish poverty.” Before departing, Thoreau notes that even the well is dirty, its rope broken, and its bucket “irrecoverable.” Yet, having asked for a drink of water, Thoreau says he does not refuse the dirty “gruel” that “sustains life here.” Thoreau proclaims, “I am not squeamish in such cases when manners are concerned.”

Summary: Higher Laws

On the walk home, Thoreau passes a woodchuck, and is seized with a primitive desire to devour it. He notices his own dual nature, part noble and spiritual, part dark and savage, and declares that he values both sides of himself. Thoreau believes in the importance of the hunt as an early stage in a person’s education and upbringing, noting that intellectual and spiritual individuals then move on to higher callings, leaving “the gun and fish-pole behind.”

Although he is a skilled fisherman, Thoreau confesses his reluctance for the practice in recent days, borne of a sense that the fish is neither fully nourishing nor fully clean. His impulse toward vegetarianism, however, is based on his instincts and his principles rather than on any actual experience of poor health. Thoreau also avoids the consumption of alcohol, tea, and coffee on the same grounds. To him the simplest fare is the best, and the consumption of animal flesh is a moral debasement that far fewer would indulge in if they had to slaughter beasts themselves. Thoreau feels strongly that the minister should not partake of the hunt, and he himself finds grains and vegetables both more filling and less difficult to prepare. Thoreau says that one should delight in one’s appetite, rather than obey it dutifully. Yet, while there is much to be gained from savoring a meal, taste should not be taken to the point of indulgence. Thus there is water to quench thirst, rather than wine. This simplicity of taste marks his other pleasures as well: Thoreau prefers a breath of fresh air to the strains of a musical composition.

Thoreau aspires to distinguish his higher nature from his more animalistic tendencies. It is never a fully successful effort, yet even in failure he says it is a pursuit that yields considerable rewards. As the animal nature fades, one approaches divinity. Thoreau says we have a choice: we may strive to be either chaste or sensual, either pure or impure. In the end, Thoreau says, it is up to each individual to care for his or her body and his or her soul, saying that “[e]very man is the builder of a temple.” The proof of that care will be evident in the face and in the features, he says, which will acquire the visage of nobility when one engages in right thought and action and the visage of degradation when one engages in wrong thought and action. To conclude, Thoreau invokes the figure of John Farmer, an allegorical representation of the common man who hears the music of higher spheres, questions his life of hopeless toil, and decides to live his life with a “new austerity.” Farmer “redeem[s]” himself by letting his “mind descend into his body,” and becomes able to “treat himself with ever increasing respect.”

Analysis: Baker Farm and Higher Laws

Most of the material in these two sections, and afterward, was added after Thoreau left Walden. In general, these sections were not begun in earnest until 1851, and Thoreau did not impose chapter divisions until 1853, more than five years after he abandoned his cabin in the woods. As a result, much of the writing that appears in the latter portion of Walden does not feel as closely related to his self-reliance project as the earlier chapters do, though they still remain connected by themes and ideas.

The Baker Farm episode raises questions that are central to the earlier part of the work, giving us the opportunity to see what happens when Thoreau applies his ideas about domestic economy onto the lives of others. Thoreau demonstrates a strange lack of generosity on his part when considering John Field and his family. He describes Mrs. Field’s “round greasy face and bare breast,” representing her as an ineffectual housekeeper “with the never absent mop in one hand, and yet no effects of it visible anywhere.” Here, in a single breath, he is calling a woman who offers him shelter unwashed, unkempt, and unproductive—and with no apparent remorse. In a similarly ungenerous manner, he describes the Field baby as “wrinkled” and “cone-headed.” And when this baby naturally regards Thoreau with the self-confidence of infancy, Thoreau sees not its sweet innocence, but rather its self-delusion in behaving as though it were “the last of a noble line, and the hope and cynosure of the world” instead of an ugly and malnourished creature. John Field himself is described as honest and hard working, but “shiftless,” a poor money manager. This verdict, which is quite damning given Thoreau’s insistence on keeping one’s accounts simple and healthy, may explain the mild animosity he shows the family (perhaps without realizing it): the Fields are the negative examples of economy, while he is the positive example of it. That he himself once contemplated living on Baker Farm, as he tells us, and that he too is living in the backwoods on a subsistence level suggests that he sees the Fields as his counterparts. But the difference between him and the Fields is what matters most to Thoreau: they do not share his enlightened philosophy of self-reliance, and so they fail where he has succeeded.

Thoreau seems remarkably unfriendly in what he tells us of his interaction with this poor family. He does not chat with the Fields, but launches immediately into a lecture about how Thoreau’s shanty cost as much to buy outright as the Fields spend annually on rent, and about how cutting down on coffee and meat would save them money. We can imagine the annoyance of such a guest appearing unannounced in one’s home, handing out advice unsolicited. Furthermore, he leaves with no mention of sharing any human connection or having a laugh with the Fields. He merely asks for a drink of water (which he has to shut his eyes to gulp down, aware of its poor quality), and departs. This display of rudeness—not just in outward manners, but also in his categorical imposition of his own views on others without reporting their side of the story—forces us to see a side of Thoreau different from that of the solitary dreamer and conscientious objector we have seen before. Here we see that Thoreau’s fervent convictions may actually stand in the way of human relations. Perhaps his isolation is making him not just self-reliant but also somewhat antisocial, or at least grossly insensitive to the situations of others. By idealizing and simplifying humans, as his allegorical depiction of “John Farmer” at the end of the chapter suggests, he may have difficulties thinking about the complexities of real people’s lives.

One of the most distressing aspects of Thoreau’s attitude toward the Fields is his focus on their Irish heritage, which he associates—in stereotypical nineteenth-century Anglo-American style—with laziness and self-neglect. In a final note of pity, he suggests that Field is poor not because he lacks Thoreau’s advantages of education or because the plight of immigrants is difficult, but simply because he was “born to be poor.” Thoreau almost implies a kind of racist belief in genetic predisposition to economic performance when he refers to Field’s “inherited Irish poverty.” The notion of free self-determination that Thoreau extols throughout Walden seems inapplicable, in his mind, to the poor Irish: with their inherited poverty, they can never break free to become self-reliant like he has. Thoreau praises poverty, but only when it is self-imposed rather than when it is determined by social forces. Combined with his curt treatment of the Fields, this prejudice leaves a bitter aftertaste. There is no brotherhood of the poor in his mind; Thoreau focuses on what separates himself and the Fields, and their Irish background is one difference. Thoreau’s views on the causes of Irish poverty are startlingly conservative, given his much-vaunted status as a radical.