Snakes and Other Creatures in Thoreau’s Walden
In Walden Pond, Thoreau certainly describes animals from an observatory standpoint more so than an integrated standpoint. While Thoreau does seem to gain genuine peace and friendship from the creatures around him, it is more apparent that they serve as representations of his relationships to people and society. In particular, Thoreau’s discussion of the snake implies a dark take on humanity in which our separation from nature has rendered us inept. It is the spring however, which redeems both man and the snake. Thoreau’s representation of the snake and other animals in Walden Pond primarily signifies his spiritual rebirth.
There is an interesting balance struck in Walden between the representation of animals as equals or instead as sanctioned curiosities for the purpose of observation. Although he entertained guests and went into town during his two years at Walden Pond, a majority of Thoreau’s time was spent alone. There is something to be said for nature, and in particular, animal life, serving as company for him in his journey. His descriptions of animals range from distanced observation to friendly amusement you might associate with friendship between humans. He writes for example, of the foxes: “They seemed to me to be rudimental, burrowing men, still standing on their defence, awaiting their transformation.” This passage in particular is extremely humanizing. He refers to them metaphorically as “burrowing men,” but more importantly likens their struggle in nature to possibly even a human existential one. The phrase ‘burrowing men’ who are ‘awaiting transformation’ conceptually echoes the uniquely human struggle to burrow towards an awakening in which we find meaning in life or achieve growth. Thoreau’s use of language here is just one example of the way in which his use of language allocates more dimensions to animals than is typically afforded. Conversely, Thoreau asserts that there is an “animal” part of all humans. As Francesca Osterero writes in her thesis on Walden Pond, “Moreover, animals represent the savage part rooted in all man. Within himself and all humans, Thoreau perceives two struggling natures: a wild, animal nature and a spiritual nature.” (5) In this way, Thoreau unifies humans and animals as spiritual parts of one another. This concept is an important base for the establishment of the snake as a symbolic representation of rebirth in Walden.
Similarly, Thoreau discusses a hare in these terms as well: “One had her form under my house all winter, separated from me only by the flooring, and she startled me each morning by her hasty departure when I began to stir--thump, thump, thump, striking her head against the floor timbers in her hurry.” Here, Thoreau alludes to a playful and touching morning ritual between himself and a hare. This interaction is undoubtedly reminiscent of one between human beings cohabitating. He even assigns the hare a gender, which rhetorically leads the reader to assign it more personality. Michelle C. Neely calls specific attention to Thoreau’s treatment of the hares. Neely writes:
Thoreau's response to the rabbit's childlike sound is to propose a more expansive motherhood that recognizes the "hare" as kin, as a child whose life should be protected; unlike most human "mothers," Thoreau tells us, his "sympathies" do not stop at the species line. (126)
Neely has pinpointed the extremity of Thoreau’s emotional integration into the animal and natural world.
Thoreau’s account of the striped snake in the first chapter of Walden demonstrates his use of animals as allegorical for humanity’s devolution. Thoreau describes the snake’s state alongside the state of man, drawing parallels between the two. Like the snake that emerges from the winter still frozen and torpid, men bogged down by society lie in this same “low and primitive” state. Thoreau writes that “I saw a striped snake run into the water, and he lay on the bottom, apparently without inconvenience, as long as I stayed there, or more than a quarter of an hour; perhaps because he had not yet fairly come out of the torpid state.” The snake’s retreat into a frozen and torpid state is likened to man’s retreat from nature: they are stunted in ice, but preserved. Thoreau proceeds in the next line: “I had previously seen the snakes in frosty mornings in my path with portions of their bodies still numb and inflexible, waiting for the sun to thaw them.” Thoreau alludes to man’s emergence in spring, that the sun allows humans to achieve ethereal life. His simultaneous imagery of the snake emerging from numbness into the clarity of thawed spring is a direct parallel between man and nature. In his journal article “Walden Pond as a Symbol,” Melville E. Lyon addresses this motif, writing “The seasonal structure of the year provides the external structural principle for Walden. The two cycles provide two of its’ major symbols: spring and morning.” (289) The striped snake in this passage of Walden is a direct manifestation of the spring theme that Lyon refers to here.
Thoreau does place himself as a human being on a different plane than animals; despite the transcendentalist notion of assimilation to nature, there is certainly still human exceptionalism occurring in Thoreau’s work. Thoreau uses language in terms of “them,” the animals, versus himself as an outside entity. Here for example, Thoreau describes the way a bird eats with some degree of separation, as if the birds’ foolishness separates them from us. “They attempt to swallow in their haste a kernel which is too big for their throats and chokes them; and after great labor they disgorge it…” The language of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ is isolating when used in conjunction with imagery in which an animal struggles for lack of heightened intelligence.
Thoreau’s snake metaphor, however, draws parallels between the spirituality of animals and the spirituality of man. In this way, he implies some thread of unspoken synch that both animals and humans adhere to, in effect placing us all on an equal plane. Thoreau’s depiction of the snake in the early Economy chapter of Walden is ultimately echoed with a human counterpart at the end of the book in his Spring chapter. Thoreau writes, “So our human life but dies down to its root, and still puts forth its green blade to eternity.” (233) Where before the snake had stood as a synecdoche for nature’s resilience on the whole, here Thoreau addresses humanity’s role directly. Human life, just like snake life and all other life, is cyclical. Spring is a unifying period of renewal, not just literally as with animals such as the snake, but spiritually. Lawrence Buell has noted this connection between spiritual renewal and spring in his book The Environmental Imagination. Buell writes:
This representation of a late, resurrecting spring was a happy coincidence of the local truth and the symbolic reality enforced throughout Euro-America by setting the Christian Easter on the Sunday following the first full moon following the vernal equinox. (242)
Here, Buell explains the religious origins of springtime symbolically. This religious association between man and spring is evident across Thoreau’s language. On page 209 he writes: “In a pleasant spring morning all men’s sins are forgiven.” Thoreau is drawing a direct parallel that spring is a time of not just renewal, but spiritual renewal.