Chapters 10–14 Summary

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Chapter 10: Baker Farm

Thoreau begins with a description of the various trees in the forest. While observing his surroundings, he discusses his walks through Pleasant Meadow on Baker Farm, an area he considered moving to before settling on Walden Pond. A man named John Field—a hardworking Irish farmer—lives there with his family. Thoreau gives Field advice on how to live both sustainably and comfortably, asserting that, because “I did not work hard, I did not have to eat hard.” When Field highlights the civil liberties afforded in America, Thoreau points out that “the only true America is that country where you are at liberty to pursue such a mode of life as may enable you to do without” superfluous luxuries like tea, coffee, and meat.

Accordingly, Thoreau advises the man that “if he and his family would live simply,” they would have more leisure time to enjoy themselves. Thoreau then urges the reader to “rise free from care before the dawn, and seek adventures,” and “grow wild according to thy nature.” With this advice, Thoreau suggests that having the freedom to experience the natural world’s gifts is incredibly valuable to the human soul; thus, he cautions the reader against conforming to a mundane existence.

Chapter 11: Higher Laws

Thoreau discusses his feral urges and expresses his occasional desire to devour the wild animals in the woods. Rather than feeling distressed by these urges, he reveres his instincts “toward a higher . . . spiritual life” as well as “toward a primitive rank and savage one,” expressing that he “love[s] the wild not less than the good.” Thoreau argues that the most skilled observers of nature are fishermen and hunters, because they are more accustomed to primitive living and adapting to the natural world’s rhythms. He recalls fond memories of hunting in the woods as a child and believes that these experiences—of learning to track and shoot animals—were crucial to his upbringing and education.

Thoreau is most interested in fishing as an occupation; however, as he has grown older, he “cannot fish without falling a little in self-respect,” explaining that he finds most meat and fish unclean, and thus “insignificant and unnecessary” to buy. He believes that others with poetic faculties and higher intelligence share his disgust with “animal food” and declares that “it is not worth the while to live by rich cookery.” However, Thoreau expresses hope that humans’ consumption of meat will gradually decline.

In examining his own inclinations toward indulgent pleasures—such as alcohol and excess food—Thoreau acknowledges that he has become somewhat indifferent to his own value system with age. Overall, he does believe in being mindful about food consumption, arguing that those who truly savor their food can never be considered gluttonous. Thoreau then contemplates the distinction between “animal health and vigor” and “the spiritual.” He suggests that humans are more spiritually pure than animals, because humans are better capable of controlling indulgent or brutish instincts; he also acknowledges, however, that not all humans can make this distinction. To illustrate his perspective, Thoreau briefly tells a story of John Farmer, a man who attempts to “re-create his intellectual man,” having long been overly consumed with his labor and unable to attend to his thoughts. Farmer thus allows “his mind to descend into his body and redeem it” as a means of gaining spiritual purity.

Chapter 12: Brute Neighbors

While discussing the burdens of housekeeping, Thoreau narrates from the perspectives of both a hermit and a poet. The hermit, preoccupied with his labor, expresses fear that he will forget profound thoughts that he gains during daily meditations. In detailing this imagined interaction, Thoreau illustrates his appreciation for having time and space to self-reflect in nature. Afterward, Thoreau describes the mice inside his house and the various species of birds and other animals outside. While observing how the young birds interact, he illustrates the “remarkably adult yet innocent expression” of their “open and serene eyes,” which he believes “suggest not merely the purity of infancy, but a wisdom clarified by experience.” Thoreau then paints a picture of a secluded spot in the woods with a spring he dug from the surrounding swamp. He sits there and observes the animals, including “battles” for food between red and black ants, and, to his surprise, families of cats.

Thoreau appears especially intrigued by the loons that arrive in autumn and depicts them as playful and cunning. While he laments when sportsmen hunt them, he describes the sight itself as “a pretty game, played on the smooth surface of the pond, a man against a loon.” In observing the loons skimming along the surface and diving into the water—and listening to their “wild laugh”—Thoreau communicates a deep respect for the animal’s immense beauty.

Chapter 13: House-Warming

During the month of October, when the leaves surrounding the pond burst with color, Thoreau searches in the woods for nuts to eat. With the arrival of November, he prepares for winter. Thoreau discusses the size of his house. While he “sometimes dream[s] of a larger and more populous house,” he finds that, being so far away from neighbors, his house does not feel very small.

Thoreau observes the ice that freezes over the pond in winter and is especially vivid in his portrayal of the bubbles below the surface. He mourns that the beauty of the ice disappears when the water is too warm. With snow already on the ground in November, Thoreau must now focus on keeping his shelter warm, and most of his time outdoors is spent collecting firewood.

After expressing his grief toward the chopped-down trees of the forest, Thoreau examines the importance that wood has for human survival. He thus believes that “every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection.” Thoreau ponders “how much of this food for fire is still concealed in the bowels of the earth,” then includes a poem in which the speaker asks forgiveness from the gods for making fires. He says that he regards fire as his “housekeeper” and companion during the cold winter months: when he takes winter walks, he returns to find his fire “still alive and glowing. My house was not empty though I was gone.”

Chapter 14: Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors

Because of the frequent snowstorms, Thoreau encounters fewer people in the winter months. His closest neighbors include Cato Ingraham from across the bean-field, Zilpha on the corner of the field closest to town, Blister Freeman down the road, and Wyman the potter deeper in the woods. Thoreau also mentions “Breed’s location,” which, according to myth, is the site of a family’s murder by a demon. He recounts how, after the house was unoccupied for years and burned down by “mischievous boys,” he stumbles upon the “only survivor of the family” lying on his stomach among the wreckage.

Thoreau remarks that “only a dent in the earth marks the site of these dwellings,” and beautiful lilacs now grow in these areas. He goes on to describe his walks in the snow along his regular path through the woods to the village, during which he encounters owls and other creatures of the forest. He discusses several of his most memorable winter visitors, including a poet and a philosopher. Thoreau maintains that he also sometimes expects “the Visitor who never comes” and, in doing so, performs his “duty of hospitality” for potential guests.

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Chapters 5–9 Summary


Chapters 15–18 Summary