Walden by Henry David Thoreau contains many extraordinary passages. I want to focus upon a particular set of images that the great essayist creates regarding the mutability of everyday human lives and endeavors and the way in which they relate to nature.
When observing some lone abandoned homes and farms in a rural setting Thoreau observes,
“Still grows the vivacious lilac a generation after the door and lintel and the sill are gone, unfolding its sweet-scented flowers each spring, to be plucked by the musing traveller; planted and tended once by children's hands, in front-yard plots—now standing by wallsides in retired pastures, and giving place to new-rising forests;—the last of that stirp, sole survivor of that family. Little did the dusky children think that the puny slip with its two eyes only, which they stuck in the ground in the shadow of the house and daily watered, would root itself so, and outlive them, and house itself in the rear that shaded it, and grown man's garden and orchard, and tell their story faintly to the lone wanderer a half-century after they had grown up and died—blossoming as fair, and smelling as sweet, as in that first spring. I mark its still tender, civil, cheerful lilac colors. “
I find this passage both moving and thought provoking. I also sometimes look at an old place, be it an office building, factory (Thoreau might cringe at my commercial and industrial connection to his ideas), home, or even a park that has been around for a very long time, and I think about all who have come and gone before. Did these people, who lived, loved, laughed, fought and suffered, ever think how the places that they occupied would change and decay over time? Did they ever imagine that some of these places might be abandoned? I think about people occupying buildings, homes and other places now. Is anyone else thinking about what these locations will become fifty or a hundred years hence?
Of course Thoreau is talking about the mortality and the finite nature of human life and endeavors. The limited duration of people’s existence and actions in the face of change and in time, is starkly contrasted with nature which at least in a relative sense, seems to exhibit a permanency.
The image of children planting lilacs, which remain long after a home is abandoned and in ruins, and after the children have grown old and died, is particularly powerful for me. This section of the work, titled “Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors” goes on with these melancholy musings as Thoreau contemplates abandoned wells,
Sometimes the well dent is visible, where once a spring oozed; now dry and tearless grass; or it was covered deep—not to be discovered till some late day—with a flat stone under the sod, when the last of the race departed. What a sorrowful act must that be—the covering up of wells! coincident with the opening of wells of tears. These cellar dents, like deserted fox burrows, old holes, are all that is left where once were the stir and bustle of human life, and "fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute," in some form and dialect or other were by turns discussed.
It seems to me that throughout Walden Thoreau shows great regard for human reflections and philosophical thoughts of all types, including those concerning “fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute”. Here however, he seems to be turning a reflective and critical gaze upon even his own views and priorities. Of all the important philosophical topics that people ponder and that Thoreau expresses great interesting in elswhere, I think it may be important that Thoreau chooses “fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute” as an examples of important human thinking and discourse. Perhaps he is reflecting upon the reality, that in the end, whether we are guided by free will or by fate, what we say and do, will pass away. All that will remain will be nature.
Elswhere In Walden, Thoreau rarely dwells upon such sentimental fatalism as he does here. Indeed, this work is filled with the images and musings about change; seasons change, landscapes change, humans change the environment, etc. However, the author usually celebrates change as a wellspring of new life, new experiences and beauty. Here Thoreau chooses to devote a few pages to the sadder side of existence. In doing so he is exposing what can be viewed as the triviality of certain things that we value very highly. I am glad that he does so. I find these descriptions of the loss inherent in the inevitability of change to be aesthetically masterful.