The Literary Gardner
By Carol Howard
Henry David Thoreau spent much of his adult life fighting bouts of depression. He especially dreaded the New England winter and seems to have had some of the symptoms of what we now call seasonal affective disorder. He confided to his diary that in winter, “the landscape is barren of objects—the trees being leafless—and so little light in the sky for variety.” In such a season, he admitted, “you must hold on to life by your teeth.” Thoreau was especially attuned to the loss of daylight hours. Not long after midsummer, he wrote “how early in the year it begins to be late.”
Still, in his published essay “A Winter Walk” (1843) and in the winter chapters of Walden (1854), the outlook is far more positive than in these distressed lines from the raw, unedited and more private diary entries. Through the published work, in fact, readers see that, in the absence of modern medicine, Thoreau developed coping skills to help regulate the winter doldrums. His practices included vigorous outdoor exercise, spending quality time with good company and actively reframing his outlook on the world.
“A Winter Walk” opens with a happy and sensuous account of a pre-dawn winter wonderland: “The snow lies warm as cotton or down upon the window-sill; the broadened sash and frosted panes admit a dim and private light, which enhances the snug cheer within.” The speaker here embraces the darkness, rather than avoiding it, and he savors every moment of natural light. He is out of bed and through the front door before daybreak. He watches the sun rise.
This is no still, somber portrait of winter. During a brisk early morning walk, the speaker delights in the sounds of snow crunching, dogs barking, roosters crowing and a farmer chopping wood. In these pages, the season is joyfully busy: “The recent tracks of the fox or otter, in the yard, remind us that each hour of the night is crowded with events,” writes Thoreau.
The delight in hustle and bustle might come as a surprise to those familiar with the stories of a reclusive Thoreau. To be sure, during his two years at Walden Pond, he did relish his solitude in the woods. But solitude for Thoreau did not mean hiding away in his cabin. To the contrary, he often visited with friends and family or hiked into nearby Concord, MA, to hear the news.
Solitude, to Thoreau, meant a sympathetic relationship with the natural world, a relationship anchored in robust activity and deep observation that sustained him in winter. “I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow-birch or an old acquaintance among the pines,” he wrote in Walden.
If he hiked for miles most days at Walden, he also involved himself in scientific study. One day, he ventured over the frozen pond, cut a hole in its surface and measured its depth. His goal was to correct the historical record: contrary to the legend of the bottomless pond, Walden was deep, but finite. The rationalist Thoreau surveyed the pond. The transcendentalist in him spoke with trees. Both sides helped him through the long winter.
Carol Howard is Dean of the Faculty at Warren Wilson College.