Blogging Walden #2: Sounds -- 'a vibration of the universal lyre'


Nature is not quiet.

It's easy to forget that, since it is quieter than many things. City life is loud: The sounds of many modern lives lived on top of one another. When you live in a city, you think of nature as quiet.

And in winter, it can be. The cold twists the humidity out of the air and forces all the birds to warmer climes. It creates a silence  that hollows out space.

But once spring arrives, the woods become a cacophony. My desk sits next to a window, and though it is a cool morning I have it open to listen to the sounds. I can hear at least a half dozen different songbirds, the wind in the trees, and some cows in the distance.

In "Walden," Thoreau devotes an entire section to the sounds he hears in the woods. Though it's just 15 pages (in my copy*, anyway), it is a dense section of the book with sentences that have a winding life of their own. There is a lot of excellent writing here that I am often tempted to--and do--skip past. It's just a bit much sometimes. Take for instance how Thoreau describes the "dismal scream" of a screech owl:

" It is no honest and blunt tu-whit tu-who of the poets, but, without jesting, a most solemn graveyard ditty, the mutual consolations of suicide lovers remembering the pangs and the delights of supernal love in the infernal groves. "

It's not the sort of snappy description that moves the plot along. And there is a lot of writing like it: from the baying of dogs to the screams of a whistle, Thoreau takes his time. He is unrushed. ... it's not the type of writing I am accustomed to reading these days and it can be difficult to slow myself down. I often feel my eyes skipping past these lengthy paintings of sound. ...

Which is fine. Not every line or page or chapter of each great book will enthrall all readers.

Still, there is much in the "Sounds" section to linger over. Take this line early in the chapter, where Thoreau is setting the scene for us. He is describing how he worked outside, but how the worked flowed naturally with the days and seasons rather than taking effort:

"The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished."

Here, his words echo the classic Chinese text, Tao Te Ching:

"Less and less is done
Until non-action is achieved.
When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.

The world is ruled by letting things take their course.
It cannot be ruled by interfering."

Is Thoreau a Taoist? I'm not sure his staunch individualism meshes well with Taoism, but both writings focus on the idea of co-existing with a natural way. When things unfold as they should, it's not work. 

Really, I should not be so critical of Thoreau's "Sounds" chapter. But the ideas and thoughts I enjoy most are not about the sounds he heard but his ideas of individualism and life. He advocates living a simple life, unfettered by unnecessary wants, with a focus on the daily and common.

"... my life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel. It was a drama of many scenes and without an end. ... Every track but your own is the path of fate. Keep on your own track, then."

Thoreau didn't eschew other people, but he also didn't think much of society's excesses and the idea of working long hours to afford unnecessary luxuries. Which makes a lot of sense to me. Wanting less is one way to have more, so long as you're ok with with "more" meaning time, independence, security and self-determination , as opposed to more stuff.

"All sound heard at the greatest possible distance produces one and the same effect, a vibration of the universal lyre ..."

Maybe Thoreau was being cryptic or metaphorical with this last comment here, but I tend to think not. A flock of geese -- just about the noisiest form of nature around here -- flew over my head earlier this month. Their bleating squawks had announced their arrival, but just as they flew over they were silent and I could hear the beating of their wings, but just barely, which created a buzzing effect that hit me like a physical vibration.

He may take a while getting to it, but Thoreau knew what he was talking about. 


* I'm reading from a Signet Classic edition that also includes Thoreau's epic "Civil Disobedience" essay and a forward by the great poet W.S. Merwin. Read his beautiful poem "For the Anniversary of My Death."

Posted on May 22, 2018 .