Sounds by Henry David Thoreau

This post was developed and authored by Christina Katopodis, M.A., M.Phil.

Core Text

Thoreau, Henry David. “Sounds” in Walden, ed. J. Lyndon Shanley, in The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971).

Summary

The “Sounds” chapter in Thoreau’s Walden captures his local soundscape at Walden Pond in the mid-nineteenth century, which has since altered dramatically with the changing landscape.

Teaching Resources

  • Other chapters to read from Walden, if you only have time for a short selection: “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” and “Winter Animals” both include important passages about the railroad as well as poignant sonic moments involving other animals. The hunting scene in “Winter Animals” is particularly tragic, and yet foxes are also “demonic” predators in the Walden woods. If you have time, also consider reading the loon passage in “Brute Neighbors” and listening to different YouTube videos of loons giving a distress call (like laughter) and their haunting yet calmer calling (like a prayer).
  • Listen to bioacoustician Bernie Krause’s natural sound recordings and read his book, The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places. Little, Brown & Co., 2012. Krause has been recording soundscapes for over 50 years, and about 50 percent of the natural soundscapes he has recorded are no longer acoustically viable.
  • Richard Primack, Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods (Chicago: Chicago UP, 2014). Primack draws from Thoreau’s natural history records to follow climate changes from Thoreau’s time to ours.
  • Wai Chee Dimock, “Vanishing Sounds: Thoreau Between Fable and Elegy,” in Thoreau at 200: Essays and Reassessments, ed. Kristen Case and Kevin P. Van Anglen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Dimock reads bullfrogs in Thoreau’s Walden as part of the text’s elegiac elements such as the bark of the extinct gray wolf and the haunting cackle of the disappearing loon. Dimock analyzes Thoreau’s bullfrogs, their voices “waxed hoarse and solemnly grave,” in light of the global trafficking of frog legs that has spread an amphibian-killing fungus around the world.
  • Anna Tsing, “Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species.” In this essay, Tsing uses Haraway’s concept of companion species to take us beyond familiar companions to the rich ecological diversity without which humans cannot survive. Following fungi, she forages the last ten thousand years of human disturbance history with feminist multispecies company. This essay would be useful for discussing the relationship between amphibian extinction and the global spread of amphibian-killing fungi due to the culinary industry and global frog leg consumption.
  • Kristen Case, “Knowing as Neighboring: Approaching Thoreau’s Kalendar,” J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists 2, no. 1 (2014). In this essay, Case explores different senses of neighborhood and neighborliness with nonhumans in Thoreau’s writings. This essay complements Tsing’s discussion of companion species to make stronger connections between new materialism, feminist theory, and Thoreau’s work in particular.
  • The Walden Soundscape is a digital project that aims to immerse viewers and listeners in Walden Pond’s soundscape. The website is a toolbox for educators and students to engage in a natural soundscape alongside works of literature that inspired early activism in the wilderness preservation movement.

Activity

Go for a “nature” walk (you define what qualifies as “nature”), either in the woods, through a park, taking your dog for a walk, hopping on a ferry, paddling a canoe, strolling by one of Monet’s panels of lilies at the local art museum, or listening to the natural sounds playing in the background of a video game. The choice is yours. The rules are simple: spend 1 hour unplugged (put your phone on airplane mode and out of sight), walking in “nature,” however you define it, exploring your senses, and attending to your local environment. What do you hear? Smell? See? Take some time to observe the world around you, and the environments you participate in. Think about Thoreau’s connection to the land he lives on, the land he farms, and the neighbors he occupies himself with. Adopt, for one hour, his keen methods of observation, his patience with living in the moment and absorb all you can from the experience. You might even write a reflection about “nature” in your own journal, or for a class writing assignment.

Discussion Questions

  1. Thoreau’s Walden is a compilation of many journal entries. Scholars such as Richard B. Primack, have studied Thoreau’s journals as records in natural history to compare to today’s temperatures, seasons, and migration patterns. Who do we write to when we write in our journals? How does the form of the journal entry impact the telling of a story in Walden?
  2. How does Thoreau characterize the railroad? What is his relationship to it? We should avoid assuming Thoreau’s world was quieter than ours. The industrial revolution was much louder than one might think. Consider children working machines in the Lowell Mills, or the ear-splitting sound of the Concord bells ringing close to the ears of the bell-ringer. What does the “iron horse” represent for Thoreau in Walden?
  3. How would you characterize Thoreau’s relationship to the screech owls at night? What does he mean by “discord” and “concord”? Is he implying that owls are capable of making music? Can nonhumans make music? If so, is there such a thing as “human” and “nonhuman”?
  4. How would you describe Thoreau’s mood in different parts of this chapter? Emerson writes that “nature wears the colors of the spirit,” signaling that mood influences our impressions of nature. How does Thoreau’s mood influence his impressions of his neighbors? Of nature?

Essay Prompts

  1. Some people less familiar with Thoreau’s life and writing consider him disagreeable and too privileged to be read today and taken seriously (see “Pond Scum” by Kathryn Schulz and responses to it from Sharon Cameron, Richard B. Primack, Wen Stephenson). Yet Thoreau’s Walden (1854) is a highly political text that advocates for the nonhuman voice, critiques frivolousness and inventions such as the telegraph, critiques the intrusion of the railroad on the American soundscape and landscape, critiques meat eating and hunting, and offers an example of a life of self-reliance, even if it is one that begins with borrowing (an axe). Moreover, Thoreau was far more radical than his friend Emerson. “Slavery in Massachusetts” and “Civil Disobedience” are testaments to that. So what do you make of the supposed irresponsibility of leaving society to live alone in the woods? Was that a worthy pursuit? When Thoreau returned to society and wrote and published Walden, did it contribute something to American thought and literature still relevant to today? Use examples from the text to support your claim.
  2. What is “nature” for Thoreau? What does he mean by “wildness”? For Emerson, nature is ecstasy. Thoreau writes that wildness is “a nature which I cannot put my foot through, woods where the wood thrush forever sings.” Is nature also human, and is human also “part and particle” of nature? Read Emerson’s book Nature (1836) and Thoreau’s essay on “Walking” to add to what you’ve already read from Walden and to get a fuller sense of nineteenth-century American Transcendentalism before you begin to answer these questions.
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