I was lucky enough to attend a seminar series last month organized by the University of East Anglia’s American Studies department which was run by Fulbright Scholar Patrick Chura and based around his recent book, Thoreau the Land Surveyor. Chura’s book argues for the reclamation of Thoreau the surveyor; despite the fact that surveying was his profession and provided most of his income, critics have tended to entirely neglect this side of his life. Chura charges that we need to read Thoreau with and through his surveying.
One of the most interesting examples of this convergence of surveying and writing is found in Walden. Chura finds it likely that before he even began work on the text, Thoreau performed a painstaking survey of the pond (see illustration above).
Chura argues that: ‘Prompted by a desire to know and shape reality for visual rather than verbal representation, Thoreau began not with words of his own making but with symbols for which he was merely a conduit, not with the drafting of sentences but with the drafting of a landscape.’ (41) So if Thoreau’s writing of the pond began with this survey, then Walden the text is infused with surveying and mapping methodologically. This mapping methodology is clearly evident in chapter 16 of Walden, ‘The Pond in Winter,’ in which Thoreau describes how he measured the depth of the pond, and came to the surprising discovery that ‘the line of greatest length intersected the line of greatest breadth exactly at the point of greatest depth’.
This surveying observation is immediately and intimately linked with a literary and philosophical measurement, as Thoreau finds ‘[w]hat I have observed of the pond is no less true in ethics.’ (260) Applying his survey to the human spirit, he argues that ‘[p]erhaps we only need to know how his shores trend and his adjacent country or circumstances, to infer his depth and concealed bottom.’ (260) The process of surveying then becomes the method of his philosophical writing.
Significantly, the text of Walden includes a copy of Thoreau’s map of the pond, in many editions as the title page and preceding the text. Chura notes how unusually, Thoreau has given the map an upside-down orientation, leading the directional arrow of the compass to point directly at the reader. Is this a form of address, signaling to and singling-out the reader of the text? Does the arrow indicate that Walden will be turning the world upside down, and offering a new perspective? Chura argues that it acts a dramatic means of ‘redirecting the way we habitually read.’ (37) The arrow forms a truly fascinating and self-reflexive moment, and above all indicates that Thoreau’s writing is an integral part of his surveying; the two map across onto each other, making Walden methodologically intriguing as Thoreau surveys the world around him.
Patrick Chura, Thoreau The Land Surveyor (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011)
Henry Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)