Chapters 15–18 Summary

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Chapter 15: Winter Animals

As winter arrives, Walden Pond becomes frozen and covered with snow. Thoreau pays particular attention to the sounds of birds and expresses amazement when he hears an owl and a goose communicating with each other. He describes his amusement with watching the animals from his house after placing food scraps outside. Especially intriguing to Thoreau are the red squirrels who sneak away with his leftover corn, and he illustrates their motions with painstaking detail.

During the winter, Thoreau often hears packs of hounds with hunters pursuing foxes. He observes how the hounds “circle until they fall upon the recent trail of a fox” and argues that “a wise hound will forsake everything else for this.” He tells a story of a man who approached his house after having lost his hounds. Finally, he praises rabbits and partridges as “true natives of the soil” for their resilience toward “whatever revolutions occur” in the forest.

Chapter 16: The Pond in Winter

In contemplating the mysteries of the natural world, Thoreau comes to the conclusion that “nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask,” for “she has long ago taken her resolution.” In setting off for his daily chores, he explains his struggle to find water in winter, given that the pond is frozen over with thick ice. Thoreau expresses admiration for the “wild men” who frequent the pond in winter to fish for pickerel. He believes that pickerel in Walden Pond have a “dazzling and transcendent beauty” in contrast to other fish; he thus refers to them as “small Waldens in the animal kingdom.”

Thoreau explains his resolve to find the “long lost bottom” of the pond and uses a fishing rod with a stone tied to the end in order to determine a depth of 102 feet, which he notes is “a remarkable depth for so small an area.” In mapping out the pond’s depth, Thoreau is amazed “that the line of greatest length intersected the line of greatest breadth exactly at the point of greatest depth” and endeavors to compare these proportions with those of White Pond.

This line of thought prompts Thoreau to contemplate the laws of nature and the human’s inability to know all of those laws. To him, these mysteries are enchanting. Thoreau contends that “what I have observed of the pond is no less true in ethics,” arguing that “the law of average” influences the inner workings of nature. He henceforth explains how the cycles of nature echo the processes by which humans navigate their thoughts.

As Thoreau observes the surface of the frozen pond, he notes that the ice undulates from the thick layers underneath; at other times, when the pond is covered in puddles, he sees “a double shadow” of himself. While a wealthy man builds a farm on the land, with Irish workers digging and hauling off the ice, Thoreau expresses dismay at watching the pond’s resources be misused and having his solitude disrupted; however, he looks forward to having the space to himself again when the work is finished.

Chapter 17: Spring

Thoreau explains that while the ice on Walden Pond takes longer to melt than the ice of surrounding ponds, the water warms up faster. In illustrating how the ice melts—with the temperature fluctuating over the course of days and nights—he asserts that “the night is winter, the morning and evening are the spring and fall, and the noon is the summer,” exemplifying Thoreau’s conception of seasonal change.

Thoreau mentions that one of the reasons he originally wanted to live alone in the woods was to have the opportunity to enjoy spring’s arrival without the interruptions of societal living. He explains that Walden Pond usually opens to the public sometime between late March and mid-April, and he refers to an old man, “a close observer of Nature,” who visits the pond during this time period, when the ice is beginning to melt, to hunt ducks.

Thoreau details the “sand foliage” that forms on the banks of the pond in spring, which he describes as “something such a foliaceous mass as the vitals of the human body,” in much the same way as fall foliage; as such, he argues that “the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves.” He expresses wonder at “how rapidly yet perfectly the sand organizes itself as it flows,” and believes that “this one hillside illustrated the principle of all of the operations of Nature.” Fittingly, then, Thoreau depicts spring as a time when nature is most alive.

Thoreau contends that the transformation that occurs between winter and spring is “a memorable crisis which all things proclaim.” He suggests several lessons that the spring season bestows onto humans, such as to “feel the spring influence with the innocence of infancy,” and portrays the sun as having forgiving powers. To further illustrate this point, he quotes a poem in which the speaker reflects upon the Golden Age, a time portrayed as “eternal spring.” Afterward, Thoreau describes “the most ethereal flight I had ever witnessed”: that of a hawk one evening in late April.

While reflecting upon the earth’s reawakening during springtime, Thoreau emphasizes the importance of exploring the wilderness. Here, he reasserts his belief that humans should test their limits by discovering uncharted territories.

Chapter 18: Conclusion

Thoreau emphasizes the importance of seeking “a change of air and scenery” for personal well-being. He exults in the diverse gifts of nature around the world and the animals that migrate in tandem with the seasons. He urges the reader to look inward: in doing so, one might discover “a thousand regions” in the mind and “be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you.” Those who claim to be patriotic yet do not give back to the land, he argues, “have no sympathy with the spirit which may still animate their clay.”

Thoreau explains,

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there.

Had he stayed longer, he feels that the lifestyle would have become too familiar. He reasons that the key to success is progressing “confidently in the direction” of one’s dreams, because pursuing personal endeavors with authenticity and simplicity allows one to live freely. Thoreau expresses a desire to “speak somewhere without bounds” and reiterates the importance of retaining conscious thought and individuality in order to gain a sense of purpose in the world.

Thoreau argues that material wealth does not provide this sense of purpose. Instead, given his understanding that the town’s poorest residents seem to “live the most independent lives of any,” he argues that one should “cultivate poverty like a garden herb.” He values truth—“rather than love, than money, than fame”—above all else and argues that thoughts are an individual’s most prized possession.

As Walden concludes, Thoreau asserts that “there is more day to dawn” and urges the reader to go out and discover life’s wonders with open eyes and a fresh perspective.

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Chapters 10–14 Summary