In Thoreau’s second winter at the pond, a team of one hundred men and more arrives at Walden Pond. Acting as agents for an ambitious farmer, these workmen cut and cut at the ice over a period of two weeks, claiming they could harvest as much as a thousand tons on a good day and ten thousand tons over the whole winter. It is a complex business, on a grand scale, and the result is a great heap of ice to be stored and later sold for a profit. Although some of it reaches far-off destinations, Thoreau notes that the greater part of it melts and returns to the pond.
These three chapters are dominated by winter, a time for stepping back from outside work and withdrawing to the inner world of home and mind. As a result, this portion of Walden is brooding and highly meditative, focusing on ideas of absence, history, and infinity. “Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors “ is a survey of Walden’s ghosts, or at least of earlier residents of the pond who are “conjured up,” as Thoreau says, in his own mind. Prominent among the dead he conjures up from the graves of history are black people: Cato Ingraham, Zilpha, and Brister Freeman are all poor blacks who are alive no longer, but still live in Thoreau’s personal memory. Given Thoreau’s strong opposition to Southern slavery and his proven commitment to aiding fugitive slaves, his reminiscences of black people here take on an ideological importance. We sense that Thoreau is recalling them because the nation’s official chronicles do not: in a generally racist country, individuals must provide a humane commemoration for those who are otherwise overlooked and forgotten.
The absent black people segue in Thoreau’s imagination to another absence: that of the hut that had once belonged to Breed before it burned down a dozen years earlier. This story of a mere house takes on a symbolic meaning. As Thoreau narrates the story of how he and the other local fire volunteer firefighters rushed to save the hut, only to decide “to let it burn, it was so far gone and so worthless,” our thoughts turn to the inevitable end to all things, houses and people alike. The moral is that it is useless to struggle to preserve them, for destruction will come regardless of our efforts. Thoreau says of the deceased Irishman, Hugh Quoil, that “[a]ll I know of him is tragic,” and the same could be said of almost everything he mentions in these wintry and death-obsessed chapters. His focus on the mortality of all life has a biblical feeling, as in the theme of memento mori (Latin for “remember you shall die”) common in New England Protestant sermons and prayer books. When Thoreau mentions scripture in this chapter, his words sound even more religious. The theological opposite of all this mortality is, of course, immortal heaven. Thoreau again equates heaven on earth with water, like that of Walden Pond or Breed’s well, “which, thank Heaven, could never be burned.” Water is the only thing impervious to the fires of death, and so there are spots of immortality even amid these ruins of destruction. When Thoreau later dubs his occasional visitor Emerson an “Old Immortal,” we feel that philosophy is another such spot, and that the water’s eternity is connected to the eternal truths glimpsed by great minds.
The idea of eternity is deeply sounded in the chapter “The Pond in Winter,” which focuses on the question of whether Walden Pond is, as people rumor it to be, infinite. Thoreau is determined to measure its depths, just as he reaches into the depths of himself in his backwoods retirement. The newly fallen snow makes the pond hard to locate, and the result is suggestive: the purity within us could be anywhere, if we can pierce the surface of our earthly lives. When Thoreau finds Walden Pond, cuts through the icy layer on top, and gazes into the “perennial waveless serenity” within, his conclusions are theological rather than natural, or both at once. “Heaven,” he says, “is under our feet as well as over our heads.” Thoreau seems satisfied that the pond should be seen as a bottomless quantity of water descending all the way to the other side of the globe, since it encourages inspirational thoughts of infinity.
We might infer that some men, like Thoreau, do not need symbols of infinity, since they experience infinity directly: the infinity of man’s spirit. Thoreau is content to prove that Walden Pond is only a hundred feet deep, since he knows that real depth is elsewhere, in his own mind and soul. Thoreau compares ice and water to the intellect and the emotions respectively, thus depicting the entire human spirit as composed of different aqueous states: the human is water. He sees a reflection of himself in the cut ice, “a double shadow of myself,” mirrored in the water. Thus every time he goes for a drink of water, he communes with the timeless aspect of his own self. Water becomes a metaphor not just for heaven but also, more important, for the human soul that is itself heavenly, for the divine side of humankind. This divinity can never be depleted, as Thoreau hints in his detailed account of ice cutting, which in the winter of 1846 yields ten thousand tons—most of which melts and flows back ultimately to the pond again, so that “the pond recovered the greater part.” It is the living source, inexhaustible.