It’s almost that time again when I teach Thoreau’s Walden. For me, it’s become a perennial favorite, and as we all grow more and more connected to our phones and other digital devices, reading some Henry David Thoreau may serve as an antidote. At least that’s what I hope for my students. I suffer no illusions, however, for at best, it’s barely a scratch in the surface of their worlds.
Nevertheless, Thoreau comforts me. At its heart, Walden is about recognizing the superficial lives we all too often accept. Yet it’s easy to misinterpret his words about living “deliberately” in the woods, as my students often do, as a call to live life to the fullest. I try to set them straight. Thoreau didn’t want us to gorge ourselves on experience, to drink in everything without measure, but rather to slow down, to simplify, and to live a deeper life.
Walden is filled with metaphors for this deeper life, and every year I find more. One of these has both challenged and plagued me so much that I’d like to spend a few minutes discussing it. Many readers will probably recognize the familiar line. “Time is but a stream I go a-fishing in.” It’s just perfect—ready to be ripped from the page and plastered on a shirt or a hat. My father-in-law, in fact, has a decorative metal sign with those words neatly set against the backdrop of a man fishing in a stream.
But here’s the rub, for as I understand it, Thoreau draws this metaphor to describe our shallow and superficial lives. I admit—I was taken in by the turn of phrase, too, and it took me a long time, years really, to understand that what comes after that line is ever more important. He actually writes, “Time is but a stream I go a fishing-in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one.” There’s still more to that paragraph, but this should suffice my purpose here.
With greater context, the true meaning of these words takes shape. The first sentence is really just a prelude, and a contrasting metaphor, for the imagery of the second half, which contains the point of his message. Indeed, Thoreau proposes something more from life than just a stream. He uses the familiar metaphor of time passing like a river but changes the direction. He turns it vertical, reflecting upon the shallow nature of the water before him. The march of time seems weak, too, as Thoreau reduces the river to merely a “stream” and a “thin current” for the fisherman.
“I would drink deeper,” Thoreau says. And that’s the important part.
Thoreau wanted a deeper understanding of life. He wanted to strip away superfluity to better explore what lies at the core of our experience. He wants to “fish in the sky,” because in contrast to the stream, there is no bottom, but rather an infinite deepness. And for him that’s exciting. The stars in the sky are so far away, so very deep, that they become foreign and unaccountable. The deepness actually confounds him, which as I have said, Thoreau finds thrilling.
And in the end, it’s all quite beautiful. It gets the job done, so to speak, but only when the reader realizes the first line is only scratching the surface of the message. I think it’s interesting, too, that the structure of the passage even mimics Thoreau’s theme. That sentence that starts the paragraph with a familiar metaphor seems to suggest the way we lead our lives, looking for meaning at the top of our paragraphs rather than taking time to read through the whole thing. We skim along the surface, taking the easy way, avoiding complexity, because it takes time and patience to understand the world. Once in a while, we get lucky. We catch the meaning, but most of time we need to fish deeper.
Thanks to Bill Kern from the Countryside Conservancy for providing the picture of Meshoppen Creek in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania.