Fiction | June 01, 1987
Reflections on a Child's Water Wheel
Henry David Thoreau’s remark in Walden that he had for a long time been a “reporter to a journal, of no very wide circulation,” was a fairly grim private joke. Since leaving college in 1837, he had kept a journal that would eventually swell to forty-seven manuscript volumes and over two million words by the time of his death in 1862. Writing steadily several mornings a week at his desk on the third floor of the family home in Concord, sometimes adding several volumes a year to those already on the homemade shelves next to him, Thoreau could have had no hopes of its ever attaining a very wide circulation unless it was to be posthumously.
As his reputation grew during the decades that followed his death, the importance of the Journal to his imaginative life and to his aims as a writer gradually came to be recognized, and it began to find its way slowly into print. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Ellery Charming inserted brief extracts into their biographical portraits. During the 1880s, Thoreau’s friend and literary executor, H. G. 0. Blake, compiled a series of seasonally organized volumes, such asEarly Spring in Massachusetts, from the original manuscripts in his possession. Finally, a fourteen-volume, supposedly complete edition prepared by Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen appeared as part of the Walden Edition of Thoreau’s writings published by Houghton Mifflin in 1906.
But much of the Journal was still unavailable or unknown to Torrey and Allen, and they choose not to print other portions. They were men of their times in regarding Thoreau more as a kind of spiritual father of American natural history writing than as the major literary figure and cultural critic we now judge him to be. Currently, a comprehensive new scholarly edition of Thoreau’s Writings, published by Princeton University Press, is in progress under the direction of Elizabeth Hall Witherell at the University of California-Santa Barbara. The journal is being re-edited from the original manuscripts for this edition, which will print for the first time all the extant material as Thoreau originally wrote it. To date the first two volumes, covering the period from 1837 to 1848 have appeared. The following extracts, heretofore unpublished, are reproduced from the forthcoming Journal 3: 1848-1851, edited by Mark Patterson, William Rossi, and Robert Sattelmeyer.
The manuscript in which this brief narrative appears is a fragmentary notebook of considerable biographical interest from 1848-1849, encompassing a period of profound change in Thoreau’s life. In it he expresses his disappointment at the commercial failure of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), and more disappointment and even anguish over his recent estrangement from his friend and early mentor, Emerson. At the same time, though, the volume also records Thoreau’s discovery, not unlike the one made by Faulkner some seventy-five years later, that his own little postage stamp of native soil around Concord offeredinexhaustable riches for a writer. In this notebook he first began recording details of the walks that were becoming the focus of his daily life, material that he would eventually transform in the essay “Walking” into a lyrical manifesto for the preservation of wilderness and what might be called the purposive non-purposiveness of the saunterer’s calling.
The brief extract which follows describes his discovery on one of these walks in March, 1849, of a child’s toy water wheel in a small brook outside town. He never used this vignette in any of his published writings, but we may observe the writer self-consciously at work here, recasting his material in the act of encountering it, beginning to shape a narrative, and searching for the correspondences and the larger implications that would repay his newfound resolve to travel a great deal in Concord and faithfully cover his beat as a reporter to the Journal.
I SOMETIMES DISCOVERED a miniature water wheel–a saw or grist mill–where the whole volume of water in some tiny rill was conducted through a junk bottle, in at the open bottom & out at the nose–where some country boy whose house was not easy to be seen–some Arkwright or Rennie–was making his first essay in mechanics–some little trip hammer in operation mimicking the regular din of a factory–where the wild weeds & huckleberry bushes hang unmolested over the stream as the pines still do at Manchester and Lawrence. It was the work of a fabulous, farmer boy such as I never saw. To come upon such unquestionable traces of a boy when I doubted if any were lingering still in this vicinity, as when you discover the trail of an otter.
One Sunday afternoon in March when the earth which had once been bare was again covered with a few inches of snow rapidly melting in the rain, as I was walking in a retired crossroad away from the town, at a distance from any farm house–I heard suddenly wafted over the meadow a faint tink-tink, tink-tink, as of a cow bell amidst the birches & huckleberry bushes, but I considered that it was quite too early in the season for cows to be turned out to pasture, the ground being covered with snow & it was not time to think of new-butter–and the cow bells were all safely put away in the cupboard or the till of a chest in the farm chamber. It made me think of the days when I went huckleberrying a long time ago & heard the distant tinkling of some cow’s bell who was not yet mired in the swamp–from association I know of no more sweet & wild sound than this piece of copper yields, though it may not be compounded with much art.
Well, still the sound came over the meadow louder & louder as I walked on–tink tink tink–too regular for a cowbell–and I conjectured that it was a man drilling a hole in a rock–and this was the sound of his sledge on the drill. But it was Sunday & what Concord farmer could be drilling stone! I referred the mystery to the woods beyond the meadow where alone as I thought it could be concealed–and began to think it was produced by some owl or other bird under peculiar circumstances. So, getting over the fence, I directed my steps through the meadow toward the wood.
But as I advanced, the sound seemed gradually to sink into the earth, while it grew louder & louder till finally it proceeded from the open meadow ground itself–and I thought of muskrats–minks & otters & expected to make a discovery in natural history. I stepped eagerly over the quaking ground–a peeping hyla & there in a little rill not more than a foot wide but as deep as wide, swollen by the melting snows, was a small water mill and at each revolution [of] the wheel its crank raised a small hammer which as often fell on a tongueless cowbell which was nailed down on a board. A loud tinkling gurgle as of water leaking out of the meadow. The little rill itself seemed delighted with the din & rushed over the miniature dam & fell on the water wheel eagerly as if delighted at & proud of this loud tinkling, fast by a pilgrim’s cup the bell all spattered with mist from the fall above, & when I had walked half a mile away a favorable wind wafted to me in a hollow among the hills–its faint tink-tink-tink-tink. Just a fortnight after–when a new snow had fallen, I walked near enough to this meadow to hear the steady fink tink from the water wheel away there in the outskirts of the town–& what is stranger than all, that very evening when I came home from a neighbor’s through the village far in the night–to my astonishment I heard from far over the meadows toward the woods more than a mile off in a direct line the distinct tink tink tink of [the] trip hammer. And I called the family to the window in the village to hear the sound of the boy’s trip hammer in Nut Meadow Brook–a distant & solitary place which most of them had never seen–& they all heard it distinctly, even some old ears which ordinarily could not hear the birds sing–and were greatly astonished–which I had told them of a fortnight before as of a thing far away. The sound was wafted over the water, for the meadows were flooded, a peculiar state or atmosphere.
Before I had thought how unlike this to all the village sounds, how remote from them as the tinkling of the rill itself–as the golden age–the village boys know not of it. It lies [as] far back in the outskirting meadows as the first invention of the water mill in history–& now this evening it was the one sound which possessed all the village street–& no doubt many a villager heard it but knew not from what remoteness as of antiquity it proceeded–borne on the gale of time from a simpler age. When the sound of every artisan was hushed–no flail, no tinkling anvil was heard. There was the still spring night–the slumbering village & for all sound the boy’s water wheel. In a remote walk a mile and a half by the road–& a straight line one mile distant over the water–the meadows being overflown.
Humboldt says that the roar of the cataracts of the Orinoco “was three times as great by night as by day,” and that the same phenomenon is observed in other waterfalls–& is owing “probably to ascending currents of warm air, which producing an unequal density of the elastic medium, obstruct the propagation of sound by displacing its waves; causes which cease after the nocturnal cooling of the earth’s surface.”
It seemed that nature sympathised with his experiments. When it had got to be April I heard it last. It was simply the regulated & increased tinkling of a brook–as the history of simpler ages–as the memory of early days comes over a man–so this sound of a night. It sounded like a sentence of Herodotus. It was an incident worthy to be recorded by the father of History–away in Nut Meadow–by Jenny Dugan’s– beyond the Jimmy Miles place–as if it were an alto singer among the bitterns, some ardea. It was news, a wind from Scythia. It was the dream or reminiscence of a primitive age coming over the modern life–as night veils the day–as the dews of evening succeed the sultry sun.
The next day I went out & listened by broad daylight–but no sound of the water wheel in Nut Meadow Brook could be heard more than the domestic sounds of the early ages. You could not hear it–you could not remember it. And yet the fit ear could hear it ever–the ear of the boy who made it. The busy & bustling village heard it not–yet the sound of the boy’s water wheel mingled with the din of its streets & at night was heard above the slumberous breathing when other sounds were hushed. Where the skunk cabbage grew–making music for the meadow mice.
& I could not believe that it still agitated with its waves of sound the atmosphere of the village–that it was still echoing thro’ the streets.
Editors’ Note: Thoreau’s attention to spelling, punctuation, and capitalization in the Journal is erratic, and we have regularized such eccentricities as seemed distracting, without altering the informal and often sketchy character of the passage. A few words (enclosed in square brackets) have been inserted where the context seemed to require them. The line of asterisks near the end of the passage marks a place where intervening and unrelated entries occur.
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10.2 (Summer 1987)
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