Winter Tracings and Transcendental Leaps: Henry Thoreau's Skating

By Marshall, Ian | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Winter Tracings and Transcendental Leaps: Henry Thoreau's Skating


Marshall, Ian, Papers on Language & Literature


Good writing is a kind of skating which carries off the performer

where he would not go, and is only right admirable when to all its

beauty and speed a subserviency to the will, like that of walking, is

added. (Emerson, Journals 7:334)

We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them.

(Emerson, "Experience" 35)

Judging from accounts in the journal of Henry David Thoreau and in letters from Sophia Hawthorne, the Concord Transcendentalists spent a lot of time skating on the Concord River and surrounding meadows and ponds. William Ellery Channing, according to Thoreau, was "far from an easy skater," but though skating was "killing work for him" and the perspiration "froze in long icicles on his beard . . . . he kept up his spirits and his fun" (7:87). Emerson apparently was not very graceful either; Sophia describes him as being" too weary to hold himself erect, pitching head foremost" (which seems an appropriate way for Emerson to fall). Nathaniel Hawthorne, though, was a good skater. Sophia terms his style "kingly," and she says he "moved like a self-impelled Greek statue, stately and grave." In contrast to the clumsiness of Channing and Emerson and the reserve of Hawthorne, Thoreau apparently skated with great agility and vim. According to Sophia, Thoreau's skating style included "dithyrambic dances and Bacchic leaps on the ice" (Lathrop 53).

Despite his skill on ice and the amount of time he spent skating, Thoreau wrote little about skating in works that he prepared for publication, the one exception being a passage in "A Winter Walk." In his journals, however, Thoreau devoted a significant amount of space to skating--describing it, studying it, and delighting in it. Scattered in his journals is the material for a full-fledged essay on the art and science, the theory and practice of skating.(2) In this series of comments, Thoreau seems to relish skating as a means for exploring nature more extensively than is possible afoot, and it serves, perhaps, as a subtle metaphor for freedom and play and brinkmanship, a sort of living--and writing--on the wild edge.

Part of skating's appeal for Thoreau was that it made available to him a whole new arena (no pun intended) for his observations of the natural world. Out skating the day before Christmas in 1854, he delights in the fact that "there is not an insect in the air, and hardly a leaf to rustle. If there is a grub out, you are sure to detect it on the snow or ice" (7: 87-88). The sparsity of life in winter highlights what is there, and the ice serves as the slide on which Thoreau could turn his microscopic eye. Frequently, the ice itself is the focus of Thoreau's descriptions. "Surely the ice is a great and absorbing phenomenon," he exults (11: 433). Given his interest in water in all its forms, whether flowing (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers) or still (Walden), perhaps his preoccupation with ice should not surprise us. At one point he notes the "singular and interesting phenomenon" of ice flakes raised by the wind and frozen on their sides. They are, he says, "slightly scalloped, like shells," or "like a fleet of a thousand mackerel-fishers under a press of sail careering before a smacking breeze" (2: 157). At another place, the ice is "uneven like frozen suds, in rounded pancakes, as when bread spews out in baking" (7: 88). He also speaks of "singular spider-shaped dark places amid the white ice, where the surface water has run through some days ago" (9: 167).

Often Thoreau's descriptions go beyond the visual; some of his best are about the sounds of skating. He speaks, for instance, of the ice making. Quite a musical cracking, running like chain lightning of sound athwart my course, as if the river, squeezed, thus gave its morning milk with music. A certain congealed milkiness in the sound, like the soft action of piano keys,--a little like the cry of a pigeon woodpecker,--a-week a-week, etc. …

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