Walden | Study Guide

Henry David Thoreau

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Walden | Chapter 12 : Brute Neighbors | Summary



Thoreau opens this chapter with a short set piece: an imaginary dialogue between a hermit and a poet about fishing together. The hermit is busily listening to the sounds around them; the poet is gazing up at the sky. The poet invites the hermit to come fishing with him, and the hermit suggests that the poet dig worms for bait while he, the hermit, concludes "a serious meditation." When the poet brings back the worms, the two men depart for the river.

Then Thoreau rather abruptly moves on to a charming account of various creatures he's gotten to know since moving to Walden Pond: a hand-tamed wood mouse, nesting birds, a big otter, and raccoons.

Though the transition from hermits and poets to animals may seem abrupt, Thoreau embarks on the ways people view animals from bait-worms to small boys: "They are all beasts of burden, in a sense, made to carry some portion of our thoughts," he says, and marvels at "how many creatures still live wild and free though secret in the woods" near human settlements.

Thoreau follows this pastoral section with a detailed description of a fierce battle between two ant species. He observes, "It was evident that their battle-cry was 'Conquer or die.'" He finds watching the ant war as exciting as watching a human war would be.

He also meets a feral cat family and hears about a strange "winged cat," probably a longhair with matted fur. The chapter closes with a rollicking portrait of the loon that lives in Walden Pond.


Considering that Thoreau has just written with a hostile tone against fishing, it's odd that he opens this chapter with a dialogue about going fishing. However, he revised Walden for seven years, so he includes the poet/hermit passage to represent sides of his own character:

  • The poet wants to go fishing but keeps getting distracted by the beauty around him.
  • The hermit, who seems more pragmatic, tells the poet where to dig worms and leads the way to the pond.

There's not a lot of difference between the two figures, but it's safe for the reader to assume that the poet's dreamy rapture over the sky is trumped by the hermit's experiences on Earth.

There's a sting in many of Thoreau's animal descriptions in this chapter. Having set down their symbolic use as "beasts of burden" (i.e., metaphors) in this chapter, he refuses to make them cute:

  • The mouse's tame nature may be motivated more by hunger than by curiosity about Thoreau.
  • Reckless hunters "often" kill the parents of partridge chicks, leaving them to "fall a prey to some prowling beast or bird"—or else to die.
  • The ants fight as viciously as humans and suffer ghastly injuries.
  • A feral cat and her kittens spit angrily at Thoreau, showing no trace of cozy domestication.
  • A loon is a playmate in a hide-and-seek game but also a rain-summoning spirit.

In every creature in this chapter, including the poet/hermit, divinity wrestles with earthliness.

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