Summary and Analysis
The chapter opens with a dramatic dialogue between a Hermit (who seems to represent the narrator) and a Poet. The Hermit sits alone and muses upon a familiar question: "Why will men worry themselves so? He that does not eat need not work." The Poet approaches him and asks if he would like to go fishing, "the true industry for poets." The Hermit seriously considers the proposition. Should he continue his meditation or fish with his friend? "Shall I go to heaven or a-fishing?" Eventually he decides to fish and goes off with the Poet, leaving his deep thoughts for another time.
After this dialogue is completed, the narrator describes the various animals, the "brute neighbours," that harmoniously lived with him at Walden. There is the friendly mouse that climbed up his sleeves and gobbled the crumbs given him. A phoebe built her nest in his shed and a robin dwelt in the pine tree next to his cabin. Partridges filed beneath his window, and beyond his window the woods were busy with animal activity. The narrator gives us lively descriptions of otters, raccoons, woodcocks, turtledoves, squirrels, jays, and many other animals. In such a setting, his ability to perceive natural phenomena was developed to such an extent that he was able to observe and depict in minute detail a battle between red and black ants near his woodpile. While he was doing this, his imagination was so stimulated that he turned the ant fight into an epic war between "the red republicans" and "the black imperialists" — and thus he "skimmed off" another truth for man: is a war between ants any more or any less significant than one between men?
The loon that the narrator observed swimming in Walden Pond is of special interest. He spent much time observing him, listening to his wild, laughing cries, and occasionally rowed out to try and catch him. The ducks that circled above the pond in the autumn also provided a spectacle worth hours of observation.
It seemed at the end of "Higher Laws" that the narrator had resolved the conflict between his animality and spirituality. Yet the dialogue which begins this chapter indicates that he is still troubled by it. The Hermit and the Poet represent the two instinctual sides of the narrator. We should note that when the Poet invites the Hermit to go fishing (an animalistic activity) the Hermit must completely abandon his higher thoughts in order to do so — in spite of the fact that he is "as near [to] being resolved into the essence of things" as he ever was in his life. Thus, through this dialogue, Thoreau is restating the incompatibility of spiritual consciousness and animalistic activity. For the narrator to follow his animal instincts by fishing, he must disengage himself from spiritual activity; the narrator finds it an "either-or" choice that he must make. He cannot follow both his animal and his spiritual instincts at the same time.
Still very much interested in integrating the two instincts, the narrator turns to nature again for a solution — and he finds it. He sees the partridge, the "winged cat," and the loon as natural symbols of how spirituality and animality can be integrated. The partridge provides an example of how animality can be perfected to the point at which it complements spirituality. In the partridge, the narrator finds perfected animality: "so perfect is this instinct." And in this creature he also finds a sign of perfected spirituality. The narrator focuses on the bird's eyes, and in reading his description, we should recall the description of another symbol of spiritual perfection, the "earth's eye," Walden Pond: "All intelligence seems reflected in them. They suggest not merely the purity of infancy, but a wisdom clarified by experience. Such an eye was not born when the bird was, but is coeval with the sky it reflects. The woods do not yield another such a gem. The traveler does not often look into such a limpid well." The "winged cat" reveals a similar truth to the narrator. This cat is one that roams the Walden woods; she has hair so thick that it creates the appearance of wings. Thus, while remaining a wild animal, she signifies spirituality since "wings" indicate spiritual perfection (another example is the hawks in "The Bean-field").
In the loon, the integration of the animal and the spiritual is also seen. The loon in Walden Pond is certainly wild, and that he is more than merely wild is revealed by the narrator's word choices. Describing the cry of the loon, the narrator speaks of his "unearthly laugh," his "long-drawn unearthly howl," and his "demoniac laughter." One scene especially suggests the narrator's perception of the loon: "He uttered one of those prolonged howls, as if calling on the god of loons to aid him, and immediately there came a wind from the east and rippled the surface, and filled the whole air with misty rain . . . as if it were the prayer of the loon answered, and his god was angry with me, and so I left him disappearing far away on the tumultuous surface."
Through these three symbols, nature indicates to the narrator that animality and spirituality need not be in conflict. But while the narrator sees this in nature, it seems as though he is not yet able to resolve the conflict within himself. This failure on the part of the narrator is dramatically expressed in his unsuccessful attempt at catching the loon — the loon being a symbol for the narrator's ideal, perfected self. The loon took on this symbolic meaning when Thoreau described it in terms of purification and rebirth: "In the fall the loon came, as usual, to moult and bathe in the pond." This symbolism was further developed when the loon became a sign of animal and spiritual integration. Hence, the loon represents those ideal qualities that the narrator wants to possess in his personality. His failure to "catch" the loon signifies his failure to develop those qualities in himself.
After considering the above point, it would seem that the narrator was a bit premature in claiming his perfection in "The Ponds" and "Baker Farm." This is the second time that the narrator has failed to resolve a dialectical situation. Much earlier he could not integrate the worlds of nature and the machine (signified by the locomotive); now he cannot integrate two powerful instincts within him. The reader should note that the narrator has seemingly forgotten his first failure; and the reader should also note that the narrator will forget this second failure. Both failures will be ignored by the end of Walden when the narrator will be caught up in an incandescently ecstatic celebration of nature's spring rebirth, and his own consequent spiritual rebirth.