Summary: Brute Neighbors
Thoreau’s good friend William Ellery Channing sometimes accompanied him on his fishing trips when Channing came out to Walden Pond from Concord. Thoreau creates a simplified version of one of their conversations, featuring a hermit (himself) and a poet (Channing). The poet is absorbed in the clouds in the sky, while the hermit is occupied with the more practical task of getting fish for dinner; at the end the poet regrets his failure to catch fish.
Thoreau plays with the mice that share his house, describing one that takes a bit of cheese from Thoreau’s fingers. He also has regular encounters with a phoebe, a robin, and a partridge and her brood; he calls these wild birds his hens and chickens. Less frequently he sees otters and raccoons. Thoreau is struck by the raccoons’ ability to live hidden in the woods while nevertheless sustaining themselves on the refuse of human neighborhoods. About a half-mile from his habitation, Thoreau digs a makeshift well to which he often goes after his morning’s work to eat his lunch, gather fresh water, and read for a while. There he frequently encounters woodcocks and turtledoves.
On one occasion, Thoreau happens to notice a large black ant battling with a smaller red ant. Examining the scene more closely, he sees that it is actually part of a large conflict pitting an army of black ants against an army of red ants twice its number, but whose soldiers are half the size of the black army. Thoreau meditates on its resemblance to human wars, and concludes that the ants are just as fierce and spirited as human soldiers. Thoreau removes a wood chip, along with three ant combatants, from the scene of the battle, carrying it back to his cabin to observe it. He places them under a turned-over glass and brings a microscope to watch their struggle. After witnessing a pair of decapitations and some cannibalism, he releases the survivor.
Thoreau frequently encounters cats in the woods. Although domesticated, they prove quite comfortable in the woods, so inherently wild as to spit at Thoreau when he comes too closely upon them. Thoreau remembers one cat that was said to have had wings, perhaps resulting from crossbreeding with a flying squirrel. Although he never sees this cat, he was given a pair of her “wings” (pieces of matted fur that she shed in the springtime), and says that as a poet, he fancies owning a winged cat. Out on the pond in his boat, Thoreau at times pursues the loon, hoping to get close enough for a long look. In general, the loon allows him to advance to only a modest distance before diving deep into the water, surfacing again with a loud laugh. Thoreau sees no rhyme or reason in this ritual, or in the movements of the ducks, or in any of the motions that his other “brute neighbors” go through. He concludes that they must be as enthralled by the water and its natural surroundings as he is.
Combing the meadows for wild apples and chestnuts, Thoreau is dismayed by how nature’s bounty has been plundered for commercial use. Still, there is enough left for him to feast on. The changing leaves of autumn provide a brilliant spectacle, though Thoreau is well aware that they herald the coming hardships of winter. Wasps flee the colder weather in thousands, and Thoreau is forced to retreat to his quarters. He goes to another side of the pond for a while to soak in the remaining rays of the fall sun, which he prefers to “artificial” fire. Toward the end of summer, Thoreau studies masonry to build a chimney for his cabin with the help of his friend Channing. By November, Thoreau’s summer labors have proven a good investment, as the fires keep him warm at night.
Walden Pond has begun to freeze over in places, allowing Thoreau to walk on the thin surface and glimpse the deep waters beneath. Fascinating as the underwater activity is, the ice itself equally captivates Thoreau, especially the air bubbles that rise to the surface and wriggle themselves into the ice. Breaking off portions of the ice to examine them and observing the same spots day after day, Thoreau learns how ice forms around the bubbles. He understands how the bubbles make the ice “crack and whoop.” With winter fully upon him, Thoreau settles into a winter routine, gathering wood for his fires, and listening to the geese as they migrate south. The gathering of firewood becomes an essential occupation. Thoreau uses various types of wood and brush to kindle his fires, preferring pine but often settling for dry leaves. Warming himself and cooking his food, snugly ensconced with the moles that nest in his cellar, Thoreau reflects that fire warms the poor and the privileged alike, and that every man would die if another ice age occurred.
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