When The Pond in Winter Turns to Spring

A few years ago, I forced myself to finally read Walden. I hadn’t gotten around to reading it in high school or college and it seemed like one of those books I was supposed to read. I bought a copy while traveling for work, probably in 2007 or 2008, read the first 10 or so pages, and set it aside for several years. Books written in the 1800s are so hard to read, being full of long, run-on sentences that contain six different ideas. While I have been told that I talk that way (putting one idea into another and and then another, working my way deeper and deeper within the same thought), I don’t like that style of writing or reading.

I finally read Walden, after years of it sitting on my bookshelf.

So it took me forever to get around to reading Walden, and then another forever (or at least most of a winter) to actually read the entire book. It was good, but it wasn’t magnificent for me; it didn’t bowl me over the way that it apparently has for other people. [Sidenote: Instead, I’d recommend Braiding Sweetgrass which also contemplates the interaction of nature and humans; it was beautiful, and I had to read it in small, savoring bits because it was so breathtaking that I could hardly read a section without crying at something sad or beautiful or profound.]

But I liked Walden well enough and there were definitely many nice pieces of text that I underlined to save for later, and I expect that someday I will go back, reread the book, and think to myself: This book is amazing! Why didn’t I recognize this the first time I read it?!?

One thing that I like about Walden is that it is written as the year progresses, starting in the spring. Aldo Leopold starts The Sand County Almanac with the new year in January, but I think that if I ever write a book about this place, I would also be inclined to start it in the early spring because that feels like the new year to me. Because Walden starts in the spring, however, it means that the chapters describing winter felt really long and boring. There’s not a lot going on in the winter for Thoreau to observe (although he does observe more than the rest of us who tend to stay inside where its warm), and so there seem to be pages of detailed descriptions and long contemplation. During the near-final chapter The Pond in Winter, I couldn’t help but wonder: Will anything more happen before the book ends? 

Our pond in winter. Pretty boring, but at least the sun is out.

But there is one last chapter—Spring—that starts with the ice melting on Walden Pond. In the span of a few pages, the writing picks up and goes into rapid-fire descriptions of all of the changes that are happening: lake ice melting, ground thawing, a robin, geese, rain, and green grass. There is still plenty of cumbersome mid-19th century prose, but at least there is excitement—and many exclamation points!

This is how the end of Walden felt to me: There’s ice and snow. There’s still ice and snow. Let’s ponder all this ice and snow, and some Hindu gods too just because there’s nothing else to do. The ice is starting to melt now. The ice is going away. Hey, look at this. And this! And this! And this! And this and this! Spring! Ta-da! The end.

The ice is starting to melt (in western Massachusetts earlier this week).

And, funnily enough, I got to thinking about this today, because this is how life is feeling right now. We are currently right between “The ice is starting to melt now.” and “The ice is going away.” A week ago, I was feeling anxious and frustrated, which is really just being asymptomatic of cabin fever. [Another sidenote: This is why the tag Winter Never Ends is one of the most frequently used on my blog.]

Now that the trees are tapped and the ice is starting to melt, I’m feeling a bit better. Two nights ago, we went out to do some work on our land; I heard geese, and that made me so happy. Spring is not quite here yet, but in a few days I’ll be talking like this:  The ice is going away. Hey, look at this. And this! And this! And this! And this and this! Spring! Ta-da!

Happy spring!

p.s. As I was writing this post, I recalled a post from last year called Spring Starts a New Year and I wondered if I’d already written about some of these ideas. It seemed vaguely familiar—too familiar. Yup, I covered a lot of this same (frozen) ground year at pretty much the exact same time of the year. But I decided to keep going because this version is a bit different and captures my experience this spring.

Three Versions of Spring

After a long streak of no-travel, I had a long streak with travel. Three weeks of travel in a four-week period, seven states, lots and lots of meetings. It was fun, but it was exhausting.

The highlight? Experiencing early spring in three different locations.

Spring #1: Walden Pond

During my trip across much of New England, I finally had time to stop in and check out Walden Pond. It was about time, as after several starts and a long year of pecking away at it, I finally finished reading Walden

I think I largely read it out of obligation—after all, it’s one of those books that everyone seems to reference when it comes to nature, self-reliance, or sticking it to the man. It wasn’t my favorite book ever, but it was good enough and I’m glad that I read it.

I went in late March, and it truly was an early spring day.

There was snow, but also bare ground. This was particularly noticeable on Walden Pond itself, where the ice was melting away from the shore in the sun along the north edge of the lake, while the south end remained solid in the shadows and a few ice fishermen stood out on the ice fiddling with their gear.

Walden Pond in early, early sping.
Walden Pond in early, early spring.
It was amazing to see bare ground on south-facing slopes. Bare ground!!
It was amazing to finally see bare ground on south-facing slopes after months of winter!
Foot selfie at Walden Pond!
Foot selfie at Walden Pond!
A current view from near the site of Thoreau's cabin.
A current view from near the site of Thoreau’s cabin.
A replica of the cabin, near the parking area.
A replica of the cabin, near the parking area.

Spring #2:  The Sand Counties

After my trip to New England and a brief time at home, we went back to central Wisconsin for the first time since last spring. Inspired by finishing Walden and some references to Aldo Leopold at the forestry meetings I attended in New England, I decided it was time to begin rereading A Sand County Almanac. 

So on the drive south, I started reading the book aloud as Sexy drove, which is much harder than audiobooks would suggest. When I needed a break, I looked at maps of Wisconsin’s ecological landscapes to verify that I’d in fact grown up in the same landscape as described in the book, making the phenological descriptions of the seasons that I was reading all the more pertinent.

Perhaps as a result of that, and/or some severe cabin fever, I think we spent more time outside exploring the area than we had in nearly all previous visits combined. We walked across much of a field adjacent to my parent’s house where I spent so much time outside growing up. We visited the monkey tree—a large, gawky willow that arches over the crik—that was at one time the world’s best climbing tree. We circled around the edges of my brother’s forty acres in our rubber boots with the dogs. We went to a small lake and looked at hundreds of ducks (his favorite) with binoculars and listened to cranes (my favorite).

At dusk on Easter, we listened for woodcock and watched the sky dance (just like Aldo).

The marsh. This is home.
The crik, the marsh, and the river.

Spring #3: At Home, Finally

After feeling the first bits of spring in other places, I was glad that I didn’t miss too much of it at home. We tapped trees before I started traveling, and I was home for bits and pieces of the change in season. There were signs that spring was coming: melting snow, a mud pit in the front yard, my first bike ride of the year, and even pulling the maple taps from the trees this weekend.

But it really wasn’t spring until today . That’s when I stepped out on the porch this morning and the woods were almost entirely rid of snow. As of today, only the teensiest patches of snow remain—the locations of old banks and piles that are barely holding on. Now it’s spring.

Other signs that calendar spring has been replaced by actual spring? It’s the first day I worked in the garden, raking beds and assessing where to begin this year’s planting. It’s the first day that the water to the hose spigot was turned on, since the need for outdoor running water is now greater than the risk of freezing pipes. It was the first day of sitting on the porch, and not inside, to write.

And, yes, it was also the first day of the mosquito, who knew enough about spring to find me sitting on the porch.

The woods behind our house (and all bare ground!).
The woods behind our house (and all bare ground!).