"The Wrecking Ground, pt. 12" by Lee Huttner
"The Wrecking Ground" is an essay told in parts by Lee Huttner. We will be publishing a new part each week on our blog. Stay tuned!
In his public as well as private writing, Thoreau refers frequently to a “companion” or “friend” who often accompanies him on his walks through the Concord woods, who joins him in conversation and in silence while sitting upon a hill, rowing across a pond, or casting off the winter chill before the hearth. It is a curious choice, to leave this companion unnamed, when elsewhere he is clear and direct about those with whom he speaks or wanders. William Ellery Channing, for instance, husband to Margaret Fuller’s younger sister and Thoreau’s most frequent co-conspirator in his excursions. Or Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s mentor, patron, and perhaps closest friend. Thoreau’s sister Sophia, too. There was Alek Therien, an itinerant Canadian woodchopper whom Thoreau befriended, and little Julian, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s young son, who later in life would write of Thoreau’s “terrible blue eyes.” But more often than not, Thoreau keeps mum about the identity of his “companion.” It is enough, it would seem, to know that he is not alone.
Sometimes, eschewing the singular “I,” Thoreau will write of “we.” Companion, friend, familiar go unnamed, unspecified. Only that plurality of the first person. The multiplicity of being.
To himself, Narcissus whispers: The echo of the self.
To Narcissus, Echo replies: The self that floats above the body lying naked and supine beneath it.
One night in early October 1851, Thoreau and his companion row out to the middle of Fair Haven Pond. The moon is gibbous and bright.
The pond rests in a basin surrounded by higher ground, its surface silvered as a broad pool of mercury in the moonlight. They paddle slowly, deliberately, hardly wanting to disturb the sacred hush. Even the crickets are quiet, an early frost having lulled most of them into a permanent slumber.
Once they reach the middle of the pond, they haul in their oars and wait for the boat to cease rocking. The inverted image of the surrounding hills and woods is reflected on the water’s surface, night-pale and rippling as if a mirage. An answering reflection,Thoreau will call it in his journal.
Answer to what?Narcissus asks.
Replying Echo: Answer to the question substance asks of shadow.
Out there on the pond, Thoreau is struck by a memory: an experiment he once tried with a piece of paper. Lightly, he drew a straight line down the center of the page. On the right side, with an ink pen, he drew half of his own face. A basic sketch only, in thick, quick lines, before the ink could dry. He folded the paper in half along the pencil line and pressed the sheet down flat to blot the drawing, rubbing it smooth with the side of his hand. He opened the paper back up, and the ink of the right side had transferred to the left, albeit spottily. His face was complete. But there was something off about it, monstrous, even, in the way the features mirrored themselves perfectly, as though he were seeing himself through some primitive creature’s eye attuned only to shape and symmetry. The image lacked the necessary imperfections and deformations that come with the face being shaped by a wilder hand.
Thoreau and his companion row out to the middle of Fair Haven Pond in order to try another kind of experiment. In the center of everything, Thoreau stretches out his oar over the water, the flat side parallel with the pond’s surface. He lifts it up, and swiftly brings it down to strike the water with a loud whap. They wait three, four seconds, when the echo rebounds back to them from the hillsides, hoarse, overlapping echoes from all sides, carrying with them a faint yet audible memory of that watery smack. They watch the ripples spreading outward from their boat, taking even longer than the sound to travel to the pond’s edge, and fading flat before they can ever return.
Whap, Thoreau strikes the water again. ((whhaat)) comes the echo’s reply.
He does this again, and again, then strikes the water in a rapid succession six or seven times. ((whhaat haat at hhat whaa tt tt)) echoes back.
Thin, gauzy clouds begin to obscure the moonlight, and the pond and surrounding hills and forests dim to dull gray. For a moment Thoreau imagines they are nestled within a volcanic caldera, gray-black walls of soot and sediment rising up and encircling them, the quaking igneous entrails of the earth anxious for release far below.
Narcissus to Echo: To whom do you speak?
Echo to Narcissus: I speak to those unutterable thoughts as yet unvoiced.
Thoreau, about to suggest that his companion try the echo as well, turns behind him. Finding only empty air, he discovers that he is alone in the boat.