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Thoreau the Land Surveyor$

Patrick Chura

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780813034935

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813034935.001.0001

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Serving Admetus

Serving Admetus

(p.92) 5 Serving Admetus
Thoreau the Land Surveyor

Patrick Chura

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

Thoreau's journals reflect deep ambivalence about his work, referring to surveying at various times as “insignificant drudgery,” “a vulgar necessity,” “grinding at the mill of the philistines” and “barren work.” The journals also record the sense of loss he felt at the extent of New England's environmental transformation. In a particularly moving passage of November 9, 1850, Thoreau is struck by the beauty of “a young grove of pitch pines” but immediately considers their probable demise. The trees, it is lamented, are “regarded even by the woodman as ‘trash’” and are thus “destined for the locomotive's maw.” The great sadness of the passage, however, stems from Thoreau's discernment of the part he was to play in the destruction of the grove.

Keywords:   journals, land surveying, New England, literary passages, grove, surveying notebook

I have lately been surveying the Walden woods so extensively and minutely that I now see it mapped in my mind's eye—as indeed, on paper—as so many men's wood-lots, and am aware when I walk there that I am at a given moment passing from such a one's wood-lot to such another’s. I fear this particular dry knowledge may affect my imagination and fancy, that it will not be easy to see so much wildness and native vigor there as formerly.

—Thoreau, Journal, January 1, 1858

THE WORDS “I FEAR” OCCUR RARELY in Thoreau's journals and are decidedly at variance with the prevailing image of the boldly iconoclastic, courageously independent “man of Concord.” Here they express his regret at an apparent loss of independence, an erosion of perceptual faculties that would equate his own discernment with that of the crowd, that materially focused cultural majority who saw in the beauty of the Walden landscape merely so many profitable and divisible “men's woodlots.” Thoreau understood and repeatedly expressed the dangers to both (p.93) individual and community of this mode of thought; his final essays especially assert vehement resistance to the platitudes governing utilitarian exploitation and demystification of nature.

In the passage above, however, Thoreau is honestly afraid, troubled by the possibility that he also could become party to the commodification of the landscape. He proceeds to lament that “no thicket will seem so unexplored now that I know that stake and stones may be found in it.” Referring with palpable anxiety to the surveyor's laths he had himself sharpened and pounded in, he confesses complicity in ecological modifications that originate in his own work. As Thoreau knew well, the process that began with “stake and stones” culminated in environmental destruction. The date of this journal entry within the last phase of the author's life, its recognition of a profound paradox in Thoreau's conduct and a threat to his “imagination,” its focus on the sacred ground at Walden Pond—all suggest that his spiritual battle to keep his perceptions pure, if won at all, was at least a protracted, intense and problematic struggle.

On a few occasions in his personal writings, Thoreau gave intimations of his distress at even being publicly known as a surveyor. In a pensive letter written from Staten Island to his mother, Cynthia, in 1843, he expressed frustration at having a manuscript rejected and at being viewed by those outside Concord as no more than a businessman: “I go moping about the fields and woods here as i did in Concord, and, it seems, am thought to be a surveyor…. One neighbor observed to me, in a mysterious and half inquisitive way, that he supposed I must be pretty well acquainted with the state of things; that I kept pretty close; he didn’t see any surveying instruments, but perhaps I had them in my pocket.”1 An 1856 letter written to Harrison Blake from a surveying job in Eagles-wood, New Jersey, suggests Thoreau's frustration with the shaping demands made upon him by his chosen profession: “You must excuse me if i write mainly a business letter now, for I am sold for the time,—-am merely Thoreau the surveyor here.”2 Also notable in this letter is Thoreau's allusion in the same breath to a recent reading of his “What Shall It Profit” lecture—the manuscript that later became his most passionate antibusiness declaration under the title “Life Without Principle.”

Thoreau's journals reflect deep ambivalence about his work, referring to surveying at various times as “insignificant drudgery,” “a vulgar necessity,” “grinding at the mill of the philistines” and “barren work.”3 The journals (p.94) also record a sense of loss he felt at the extent of New England's environmental transformation.4 In a particularly moving passage of November 9, 1850, Thoreau is struck by the beauty of “a young grove of pitch pines” but immediately considers their probable demise. The trees, the author laments, are “regarded even by the woodman as ‘trash’” and are thus “destined for the locomotive's maw.” The great sadness of the passage, however, stems from Thoreau's discernment of the part he will play in the destruction of the grove that, he predicts, “erelong perchance I may survey and lot off for wood auction and see the choppers at their work.”5

Thoreau's “Field-Notes” do not allude directly to the exertions required to open paths for chaining, create sight lines, and mark property corners in densely wooded areas or thick undergrowth. But the clear-cutting of vegetation, the marking of line intersections with permanent monuments, and the blazing or marking of witness trees to identify locations were all standard procedures, required of surveyors on an almost daily basis then as now. It would have been an unusual job that did not require Thoreau to chisel several rectangular divots into the bark of a white pine, oak or hickory, or to gather and arrange fieldstones to erect a knee-high pyramidal monument near a lot corner, or to cut away trees and shrubs in the forest undergrowth in order to get a clear sight line with his compass. Modern surveyors use chainsaws to run line; Thoreau undoubtedly created his own share of unobstructed views using less-menacing equipment.

Reference points described in the surveying notebook directly testify to the scope and frequency of these landscape alterations, performed in service to the need of making land boundaries unambiguous and economically useful. During a single survey of Emerson's lot at Walden, for example, Thoreau recorded using “a stake & stones a short dist from the water” to locate the beginning of a line. Corner and line markers from the same set of notes include a “scarred young oak,” “hickory stake and stones,” an oak stump, five blazed oaks, two blazed white pines, a blazed walnut, a “heap of stones,” one “blazed young oak,” a stump and stone near each other, several mounds of stones and several split stones. A field note of 1851 explains that Thoreau moved and used a “stone on the bank of the [Assabet] river” to run a line. An entry in Thoreau's journal records that, while surveying the Richardson lot at Walden Pond in 1857, he “turned up a rock near the pond to make bound with.”6 While the (p.95) picture of Thoreau hacking away at the vegetation, gouging and scarring trees, and rearranging topography near Walden Pond and in the fields around Concord may not square with our image of the preservationist nature writer, these actions were part and parcel to the long-term compromise with professional and material necessity that Thoreau's surveying career entailed.

Interestingly, Thoreau's prose journals allude only rarely to blazing and cutting, but they do describe his making an opening with “axe and knife” through shrub oaks and birches in order to “get the exact course of a wall” while surveying the Tommy Wheeler farm in April of 1856.7 Though he tells of “cutting off the limbs of a young white pine in the way of my compass,” only three days before he had remarked on “a little blue slate butterfly” that “fluttered over the chain.”8 Thoreau once wrote, “I should not be ashamed to have a shrub oak for my coat of arms,”9 and so his remarks concerning this specific plant are revealing. On May 17, 1856, the journal celebrates their beauty: “The shrub oak and some other oak leafets [sic], just expanding, now begin to be pretty.” But Thoreau is capable of treating the same plant as an obstruction. Surveying the woodlot of John Hosmer about two weeks later, he describes “clearing a line through shrub oak.”10 Thoreau was once moved to speculate about the resemblance between the scars made on trees by the blazing of an axe while surveying and those caused by “natural disease,”11 but neither the field notes nor the journals offer extended theorizations of these acts of self-inscription upon the landscape. It would be logical to presume, however, that the fear of contaminating his perceptions that Thoreau felt because he had left “stake and stones” in forest thickets would result as well from his having personally cut paths through such thickets. In the chapter of Walden entitled “The Ponds,” the surveyor truthfully acknowledged that “the wood-cutters, and the railroad, and I myself have profaned Walden.”12

How then, did the author of the pronouncement “In Wildness is the preservation of the world”13 negotiate inconsistencies between his protoenvironmentalist, anti-institutional ideals and his professional practices? Evidence of a search for spiritual-emotional compensation, along with signs of an environmentally aware consciousness at war with itself, appear throughout Thoreau's journals. Troubled by the dichotomy between two selves, “the morning surveyor and afternoon seeker,”14 Thoreau (p.96) weighed the effects of his surveying on body and soul. In a particularly self-conflicted passage from February 1853, after several days of surveying work described as “comparatively insignificant drudgery with stupid companions,” Thoreau is struck by a “remarkable echo” he hears after calling to his chain man on the Hunt farm. He interprets the sound as evidence of nature's generosity in providing him with someone to talk with other than his employee. “It was encouraging and soothing to hear it,” Thoreau relates, because it sympathized with “the better part of me…somebody, I pined to hear, with whom I could form a community.” These echoing repetitions, described as “suggesting thoughts unutterable” to the surveyor, reflect feelings obviously responsive to the natural world but held in check while surveying. Accordingly, Thoreau's impulse is to give up his work in response to the better part of his nature: “I did wish rather to linger there & call all day to the air & hear my words repeated.” On this day, however, the side of Thoreau in less-than-ideal relation with the landscape wins out: “A vulgar necessity dragged me along round the bounds of the farm—to hear only the stale answers of my chain man shouted back to me.”15

An intensely disenchanting encounter with the debasing side of surveying work came in the fall of 1851, when Thoreau was hired for several days by the Town of Concord to verify the town boundaries with the neighboring communities of Sudbury, Lincoln, Bedford and Carlisle. The custom of perambulating the borders was an annual ritual for the selectmen of many New England towns, but because there had recently been disputes about the boundary lines and threats of lawsuits from neighboring communities, Concord had for the first time called on an experienced surveyor to arbitrate the process.16 The survey of the acton-Concord town line analyzed in chapter 4 was one of the products of this job. Thoreau had actually looked forward to this project because he believed it would afford him the type of ancillary benefits he had sought when deciding to pursue his business. In a journal entry written three days before the perambulation, he expected that the project would put him precisely where he wanted to be, bringing “the surveyor into contact with whatever wild inhabitant or wilderness its territory embraces.”17

A second anticipated benefit of the perambulation was that it would require Thoreau to violate more boundaries than he adhered to: “As I am partial to across-lot routes, this appears to be a very proper duty for me (p.97) to perform, for certainly no route can well be chosen which shall be more across-lot, since the roads in no case run round the town but ray out from its centre, and my course will lie across each one.”18 Always uneasy with the spiritual implications of an owner's right to bar access, Thoreau sometimes assumed the privilege of leaving beaten paths and trespassing, as he did while visiting Canada in 1850, hiking “across lots in spite of numerous signs threatening the severest penalties.”19 Doing so physically counteracted what Thoreau understood as the historical progression toward enclosure of open lands, a trend in which the surveyor's work played a vital role. Largely because of his surveying work, Thoreau envisioned in his journals the coming of a bleak era of complete land appropriation in which “practically a few will have grounds of their own, but most will have none to walk over but what the few allow them.”20 In “Walking,” he would develop the choosing of cross-lot routes into an overarching metaphor for his ideal of “sauntering,” the inspired activity that, even if it happened while on a paid surveying job, could somehow purify the work, offsetting boundary demarcation with boundary denial. Showing his responsiveness to this ideal, Thoreau notes with pleasure in the days before the 1851 perambulation that there is no “public house” near the line he will establish. Accordingly, he conceives of his surveying as a pastoral sojourn, a cross-lot walk that is more leisure than labor: “It is almost as if I had undertaken to walk round the town at the greatest distance from its centre and at the same time from the surrounding villages.”21

In the same sanguine preperambulation journal entry, Thoreau seems to have been planning to incorporate the full implications of the term perambulation into a mature philosophical program. Apparently searching for a neologism that would express what he most desired to do in the fields and woods, he researched the history and etymology of perambulation, learning that

this appears to be a very ancient custom, and I find that this word ‘perambulation’ has exactly the same meaning that it has at present in Johnson and Walker's dictionary. A hundred years ago they went round the towns of this State every three years. And the old selectmen tell me that, before the present split stones were set up in 1829, the bounds were marked by a heap of stones, and it was customary for each selectman to add a stone to the heap.22

(p.98) The Johnson's and Walker's English dictionary Thoreau used actually included several meanings for perambulation, defining the act as “a traveling survey” or “a survey of the bounds of the parish annually performed.” To perambulate was “to walk through,” but it also meant “to visit the boundaries of a parish.”23 Among these meanings was the basis of Thoreau's willingness to view the procedure—and thus his supportive role in it—as an affirmative social ritual and an exercise that furthered legitimate communal ends. Though he eventually settled on sauntering as the invented term that best expressed his relation to nature while walking and working, it seems perambulation was the early candidate for a key word that would justify the surveyor's role in society. In effect, the anticipatory journal entry suggests that Thoreau was pleased with the prospect of government-paid work that would provide him with an enlightening “reconnaissance of [Concord’s] frontiers” and confirm how well his chosen occupation accorded with his life's project. At this early stage in his career, he looks forward, hopefully and perhaps naively, to achieving a seamless reconciliation of his moral code with the claims of economic necessity and state authority.

Thoreau was to be quickly and severely disillusioned. What he actually discovered on the perambulation was the power of authority to warp morality. Immediately following his four days of work for the town, it becomes clear that the selectmen themselves, as the personification of his culture's dominant values, have made a damaging imprint on Thoreau's psyche. His September 20 journal entry speaks of the need to recover his “tone and sanity and to perceive things truly and simply again” after “dealing with the most commonplace and worldly-minded men, and emphatically trivial things.” Judging the communities in his immediate vicinity as fairly represented by these men, Thoreau intuits lives that are “cheap and superficial,” concerned inordinately With the crude economic functions of getting and holding. “What can be uglier than a country occupied by grovelling, coarse, and low-lived men?” he asks mean-spiritedly, expressing a disgust for the selectmen that seems as much personal as professional.24

An equally distressing insight comes when the surveyor turns the focus of his examination on himself. “Though I have been associating with the select men of this and the surrounding towns, I feel inexpressibly begrimed,” Thoreau writes. “My Pegasus has lost his wings; he has turned (p.99) a reptile and gone on his belly.” Giving himself over to the selectmen's intentions has at least temporarily robbed him of both his freedom and a part of his humanity: “Since I perambulated the bounds of the town, I find that I have in some degree confined myself,—my vision and my walks,” he complains. “I feel as if I had committed suicide in a sense.”25

In his later address “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau would famously assert, “My thoughts are murder to the state.” Here the state is murder to Thoreau's thoughts. Initially expecting some form of vital discovery from the perambulation excursion, he has instead undergone a numbing of imaginative faculties analogous to spiritual if not bodily death, produced by not only attention to but subservience to men and things he found repugnant, a condition similar to the intellectual and moral suicide he warned of in “Life Without Principle.” The result of “mixing in the trivial affairs of men,” Thoreau learns, is “a fatal coarseness.” The final implication of the passage, the didactic message Thoreau derives for himself, is that “the poet must keep himself unstained and aloof. Let him perambulate the bounds of Imagination's provinces, the realms of fancy, and not the insignificant boundaries of towns.”26

The strong aftereffects of the perambulation prompt inevitable questions about what actually happened on this job to produce Thoreau's disgust and perceived self-abasement. While his journal does not give details, a witness to the September 16 fixing of the Sudbury boundary recalled that the selectmen became embroiled in a heated disagreement over the exact course of the town line. Despite the presence of a trusted surveyor, “there were grave disputes, and law suits seemed probable…. The real trouble was owing to the variation of the compass, the old lines having been run some 200 years before.”27 At this moment Thoreau's calculations of the variation between magnetic and true north, made in February and rechecked in March of 1851, proved useful. He pointed out to the selectmen that on the town map Concord's boundary lines had been projected using a variation of nearly eleven degrees, and that the current variation, which naturally changes over time, was now just under ten degrees.28 A difference of one degree was insignificant in the survey of a house lot, but such a discrepancy applied to the more than five miles of the Concord-Acton boundary would produce an error of over 470 feet. Having compiled in his surveying field notebook a reference chart that indicated the error produced by one degree of variation for lines of (p.100) various lengths, Thoreau was well prepared to address this problem. As Concord selectman Horace Hosmer later recalled, “Thoreau understood his business thoroughly and settled the boundary question so that peace was declared.”29

Thoreau's postperambulation nausea was therefore the result not of a surveying problem but of a philosophical problem. What he had envisioned as an affirmative ritual had devolved into the worst kind of empty preening by the selectmen, who had made the town boundary into a site of either materialistically or egotistically motivated political contention. in preparing for the job, Thoreau had learned that a perambulation had two historical meanings. Though in its broadest sense it could be simply a “walking through, a walk, a journey on foot,” this was obviously not the activity for which he had been hired. If Thoreau had been able to consult the Oxford English Dictionary rather than the Johnson's and Walker's dictionary, he would have found perambulation defined in a narrower, more political sense: “the action or ceremony of walking officially round a territory for the purpose of asserting and recording its boundaries, so as to preserve the rights of possession.”30 Was it a walk in the woods or an organized display of hegemony? Obviously, the latter expressed what the selectmen were all about, the former what their hired employee had in mind.

The Concord surveyor seems to have taken several lessons from this experience. The first simple moral had to do with the aforementioned divergence in priorities. Expecting, if not a liberating retreat to the margins of society, at least a dignified communal ritual—perhaps one that emphasized the uniting rather than dividing effects of boundaries and displayed a benevolent form of civil authority—he had instead observed men “tenacious of their rights and dignities and difficult to deal with.”31 He may also have derived the more complicated insight that sauntering for official purposes was a self-defeating practice, a philosophical contradiction of terms. It naturally followed that a walk in the woods while surveying, to the extent that it reinforced rather than traversed boundaries, presented a thorny paradox. In essence, paid perambulation and official walk were oxymoronic concepts.

Painfully aware that in serving the selectmen, he had abetted the political and economic order he despised, Thoreau was conscious of having faltered. Contemplating the material needs that had made him a hireling (p.101) of the state, he compared his plight to the fable of Apollo serving King Admetus. Sentenced by the gods to a year of servitude as punishment for killing the Cyclops, Apollo became the slave of Admetus in exchange for food and clothing. Recoiling from his own slavery to “mean and narrow-minded men” in exchange for a livelihood, Thoreau wrote in his journal that he was “forcibly struck with the truth of the fable…its universal applicability.”32 The difference, perhaps, was in the mental and moral character of the surveyor's bondage, his aversion not toward work itself or the demands it made on his body, but toward its tainted karma—the unhealthy cultural values it made manifest.

Similar sentiments were expressed in journal entries throughout the early phase of Thoreau's career. On November 25, 1850, he becomes alarmed at the recognition that he had “walked a mile into the forest bodily without getting there in spirit.” Referring to surveying as his “morning's occupation,” he tries but fails to forget obligations to society, among which the demands of clients figure prominently:

Sometimes it happens that I cannot easily shake off the village; the thought of some work, some surveying, will run in my head, and I am not where my body is, I am out of my senses. in my walks I would return to my senses like a bird or a beast. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?33

Probably the most lyrical expression of generalized disillusionment with getting a living—and particularized displeasure with government-sponsored labor—came in late 1851, as Thoreau was physically recovering from an unusually busy period of fieldwork:

I have been surveying for twenty or thirty days, living coarsely, even as respects my diet,-for I find that that will always alter to suit my employ-ment,-indeed, leading a quite trivial life; and to-night, for the first time, had made a fire in my chamber and endeavored to return to myself. I wished to ally myself to the powers that rule the universe. I wished to dive into some deep stream of thoughtful and devoted life, which meandered through retired and fertile meadows far from towns. I wished to do again, or for once, things quite congenial to my highest inmost and most sacred nature, to lurk in crystalline thought like the trout under verdurous banks, where stray mankind should only see my bubble come (p.102) to the surface. I wished to live, ah! as far away as a man can think. I wished for leisure and quiet to let my life flow in its proper channels, with its proper currents; when i might not waste the days, might establish daily prayer and thanksgiving in my family; might do my own work and not the work of Concord and Carlisle,-which would yield me better than money.34

These thoughts, obviously sincere in their melancholy, acquaint us with the profundity of Thoreau's intermittent aversion to land surveying, perhaps even prompting questions about why he did not find another means of income, or how he kept up his professional energies for another ten years and hundred or so more jobs. How could Thoreau's life ever “flow in its proper channels” if he were regularly compelled to “waste the days” for Concord or Carlisle?

As he composed the above journal entry, it seems the surveyor himself confronted this question. The honestly expressed depth of his anguish must have prompted an immediate mental adjustment, for it did not take long for him to return to the issue with different conclusions. One of Thoreau's strongest expressions of job satisfaction came exactly one day after his lament about the harmful effects of surveying. On December 13, in the fields of Carlisle, something happened:

While surveying to-day, saw much mountain laurel for this neighborhood in Mason's pasture, just over the line in Carlisle. Its bright yellowish-green shoots are agreeable to my eye. We had one hour of almost Indian summer weather in the middle of the day. I felt the influence of the sun. It melted my stoniness a little. The pines looked like old friends again.35

The opportunity to physically encounter nature and the outdoor world is frequently cited as a factor in Thoreau's choice of a surveying livelihood. Twenty-four hours removed from despair, he is here affirmatively resensitized, quite clearly made happy by what he sees and feels while surveying in the open air. As the journal entry continues, however, Thoreau dives deeper, surpassing the acknowledgment of surveying as merely a job that allows him coincidental contact with natural phenomena:

Cutting a path through a swamp where was much brittle dogwood, etc., etc., I wanted to know the name of every shrub. This varied employment, (p.103) to which my necessities compel me, serves instead of foreign travel and the lapse of time. If it makes me forget some things which I ought to remember, it no doubt enables me to forget many things which it is well to forget. By stepping aside from my chosen path so often, i see myself better and am enabled to criticise myself. Of this nature is the only true lapse of time.

…to be able to see ourselves, not merely as others see us, but as we are, that service a variety of absorbing employments does us. I would not be rude to the fine intimations of the gods for fear of incurring the reproach of superstition.36

Based on this passage, theorizations of what surveying could mean to Thoreau may be taken to a new level. In all Thoreau's journals there is no better indication that his work in the fields could and did have profound effects—on his temperament, his view of the world, his view of himself, his ability to perform the tasks to which his life was dedicated. Surveying the Concord-Carlisle boundary line, Thoreau is forced to cut a path through a specific growth of vegetation but moved toward curiosity and interest in all vegetation—he “wanted to know the name of every shrub.” The necessity of small-scale environmental harm is at least partially compensated for by the desire for more inclusive knowledge of the environment in its entirety. In a way, the process is not very different from the realization that many trees have gone into the making of Thoreau's published books, but the effect of reading them has undoubtedly saved an appreciable number of trees. Whatever Thoreau learned about the land through the process of surveying, when translated into observations that became part of his environmental writings, helped offset the destruction he confessed to having caused or abetted.

Moreover, as the passage affirms, surveying liberates Thoreau. As an activity that enables the forgetting of what he periodically “should forget,” it has restorative purposes where his analytical powers are concerned. This is not so simple as to say that it allows him to stop thinking abstractly and instead engage physical problems of mathematics and geometry. When Thoreau avers that surveying is akin to foreign travel, he is also referring to the transference of meaning-making processes from one language or signification system to another, in this case the verbal symbolic order of his literary life to the numerical taxonomy of engineering. (p.104) That such “foreign travel” was beneficial—that the mathematic approximations of reality could function in synergy with linguistically based insights—is borne out in Walden as in perhaps no other American book. Thoreau is famous for metaphysical journeying, for having “traveled a good deal in Concord”; what is less widely acknowledged is that the code switching required by his surveying livelihood was frequently his means of doing so.

Once Thoreau returns from surveying work to the “chosen path” of his life, the remunerations of spiritual travel and the passage of time with compass and chain are even more apparent. After surveying, “I see myself better and am enabled to criticise myself,” he declares. The work to which “necessities compel,” though indeed a diversion from the “highest inmost and most sacred nature” of the artist, makes possible a return to the self that Thoreau recognizes as crucial. Where the writer's critical consciousness is concerned, surveying is among the “fine intimations of the gods,” speaking to him in ways he could not have foreseen and would not have chosen, but that are essential to his growth. What Thoreau means when he observes, “Of this nature is the only true lapse of time,” is that the spirit develops only by “stepping aside” from its established course, perhaps even occasionally in order to cut a path through a swamp or set a town boundary. Wise acquiescence to the exigencies of surveying, acceptance of “this varied employment” along with concomitants that included both sacrifices and blessings, made Henry Thoreau a better writer.

Evidence that surveying could be productively channeled and made useful in a literary way occurs in the period just prior to the publication of Walden. While he was occupied with making final corrections to the manuscript in the spring of 1854, Thoreau was also busy in the fields, making extensive plans of several properties on the Bedford Road and completing smaller jobs for Abel Hosmer and Samuel Hoar. Speaking about the revision process of his masterpiece, Thoreau states, “When I do not see it, for instance…I make a little chapter of contents which enables me to recall it page by page to my mind, and judge it more impartially when my manuscript is out of the way.” The literary text has been out of sight for a while, but not out of mind. Taking up the Walden proofs and his journal after several days surveying, Thoreau seems surprised to discover that his perceptions are sharpened rather than dulled: “I find that I can criticise my composition best when I stand at a little (p.105) distance from it.” In the process of fulfilling obligations demanding substantial physical and mental labor, Thoreau has actually been editing and rewriting, with favorable results: “The distraction of surveying enables me rapidly to take new points of view,” he observes. “A day or two of surveying is equal to a journey.”37 After the publication of Walden, Thoreau once more declared his ability not only to balance the mental demands of field labor and literary labor, but to derive pleasure and edification from their mutual influence: “Again, so many times I am reminded of the advantage to the poet, and philosopher, and naturalist…of pursuing from time to time some other business than his chosen one—seeing with the side of the eye.”38

Other journal entries substantiate the idea that surveying was a spiritual influence Thoreau had learned to regulate. Three years after the perambulation that prompted his venomous comparison of surveying to the punishment of serving Admetus, Thoreau revised his assessment. Working in Carlisle on a beautiful spring afternoon in 1854, the surveyor momentarily feels sorry for himself; he is still the god Apollo serving a mortal king. But when he hears the shrill notes of a tree frog on an early-spring day, his rancor dissipates:

Whatever year it may be, I am surveying, perhaps, in the woods; I have taken off my outside coat, perhaps for the first time, and hung it on a tree; the zephyr is positively agreeable on my cheek; I am thinking what an elysian day it is, and how I seem always to be keeping the flocks of Admetus such days—that is my luck; when I hear a single, short, well-known stertorous croak from some pool half filled with dry leaves. you may see anything now—the buff-edged butterfly and many hawks—along the meadow; and hark! while i was writing down that field note, the shrill peep of the hylodes was borne to me from afar through the woods.39

For all its descriptive interest, what the passage most strikingly records is Thoreau's emotional self-mastery—a triumph over self-destructive resentment of his dubious “luck,” enabled by a sudden awareness of its compensations. That the awakening occurs while he is inscribing a field note is a pertinent detail, symbolizing emancipation from burdens purely commercial.

At the peak of Concord's deforestation in the mid-1850s, during a correspondingly (p.106) busy time in his surveying career, Thoreau wrote, “I hate the present modes of living and getting a living.” The professional trades, he declared, were “all odious to me.”40 Contemplating man's incursions on the landscape several months later, he broached the fundamental question: “Is the earth improving or deteriorating in this respect? Does it require to be improved by the hands of man?”41 For the Concord surveyor, the crux of the dilemma was obviously the lot-corner monumentation he had constructed in remote corners of the Walden woods—the stake and stones he left behind while measuring landscape features “so extensively and minutely” that he had physically or metaphysically destroyed them.

Within Thoreau's feelings about his work, there is quite a paradox. For every expression in Thoreau's writings of either discontent at “profaning Walden” or disdain for the process of getting a living, especially under the auspices of civil authority, there is an equally eloquent passage attesting to the positive values or at least temporarily uplifting influences of land surveying. Thoreau could claim that viewing the landscape through the sight vanes of his compass was like putting a veil over his faculties that “shut out nature”; he could also classify surveying as one of the “honest arts of life,” one of “the true paths to perception and enjoyment” of his beloved natural world.42

In working out the enigma that dwells in Thoreau's identity as businessman, civil employee and instrument of environmental change, it may help to recall that in concluding his description of the psychologically disastrous perambulation of 1851, Thoreau suddenly pulled back from self-censure. Righting himself spiritually, he rendered a calming image of boundlessness and imaginative flight: “I scare up the great bittern in meadow by the Heywood Brook near the ivy. He rises buoyantly as he flies against the wind, and sweeps south over the willow with outstretched neck, surveying.” This, it seems, is the type of surveying to which Thoreau wished to dedicate himself. Heeding his own call to “perambulate the bounds of imagination's provinces…and not the insignificant boundaries of towns,”43 Thoreau rejects despair, implicitly renewing a commitment to achieve or embody a personal-professional synthesis that would offset the worldly and environmentally destructive in his work.


(1.) Thoreau, Familiar Letters, 118 (August 6, 1843).

(2.) Ibid., 340 (November 18, 1856).

(3.) Respective dates of these journal entries are February 11, 1853 (PJournal 5, 466), January 1, 1857 (Journal, 9: 205) and December 7, 1857 (Journal, 10: 221).

(4.) “This my life in nature…is lamentably incomplete. The whole civilized country is to some extent turned into a city, and I am that citizen whom i pity…. all the great trees and beasts, fishes and fowl are gone…I see that a shopkeeper advertises among his perfumes ‘meadow flowers’ and ‘new-mown hay.’ Thoreau, Journal, 8: 221 (22 March 1856).

(5.) Thoreau, PJournal 5, 135 (9 November 1850).

(6.) Thoreau, Journal, 10: 219 (3 December 1857).

(7.) Thoreau, Journal, 8: 319 (30 April 1856).

(8.) Ibid.; Thoreau, Journal, 8: 315 (28 April 1856).

(9.) Thoreau, Journal, 9: 207 (7 January 1857).

(10.) Thoreau, Journal, 8: 363 (3 June 1856).

(11.) Thoreau, PJournal 4, 153 (19 October 1851).

(12.) Thoreau, Walden, 186–187. (p.189)

(13.) Thoreau, Essays, 162.

(14.) Stoller, 69.

(15.) Thoreau, PJournal 5, 465–466 (11 February 1853).

(16.) Harding, 276.

(17.) Thoreau, PJournal 4, 77 (12 September 1851).

(18.) Ibid.

(19.) Thoreau, Writings, 5: 98.

(20.) Thoreau, Journal, 14: 305–6 (3 January 1861).

(21.) Thoreau, PJournal 4, 77 (12 September 1851).

(22.) Ibid.

(23.) Johnson's and Walker's English Dictionaries. Boston: Perkins and Marvin, 1830.

(24.) Thoreau, PJournal 4, 101 (26 September 1851).

(25.) Thoreau, PJournal 4, 100–101 (26 September 1851);Ibid., 85 (20 September 1851).

(26.) Ibid., 85 (20 September 1851).

(27.) Horace Hosmer, “Reminiscences of Thoreau,” Concord Enterprise, April 15, 1893, quoted in Cameron, Contemporary Dimension, 103.

(28.) The variation problem is briefly described in Thoreau's “Field-Notes.” See also Harding, 276, and McLean 569–70.

(29.) Horace Hosmer, quoted in Cameron, Contemporary Dimension, 103.

(30.) Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 11: 518.

(31.) Thoreau, PJournal 4, 83 (16 September 1851).

(32.) Ibid., 85 (20 September 1851).

(33.) Thoreau, PJournal 3, 150 (25 November 1850).

(34.) Thoreau, PJournal 4, 201–2 (12 December 1851).

(35.) Ibid., 203–4 (13 December 1851).

(36.) Ibid., 204 (13 December 1851).

(37.) Thoreau PJournal 8, 59–60 (8 April 1854). Deriving from surveying an experiential and thus literary benefit “equal to a journey” is a particularly apt trope for Thoreau. His expeditions to the Maine woods and Cape Cod, ostensibly retreats from commitments in Concord, were also in large part surveying expeditions, saturated with observations fully intelligible only from a perspective informed by land-measuring technology.

(38.) Thoreau, Journal, 8: 314, (28 April 1856).

(39.) Thoreau, PJournal 8, 55 (5 April 1854).

(40.) Thoreau, Journal, 8: 7 (5 November 1855).

(41.) Ibid., 330 (11 May 1856).

(42.) Thoreau, PJournal 3, 321 (21 July 1851); Thoreau, Journal, 10: 146–47 (29 October 1857).

(43.) Thoreau, PJournal 4, 85 (20 September 1851).