In the beginning of one of Walden’s winter chapters, Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors, Thoreau writes this: “For human society, I was obliged to conjure up the former inhabitants of these woods.”
In Maine, the snow has come and come again, followed by a preserving cold; on two nights the temperature has slipped below zero. So the snow, when walked upon or poked with a toe, is still fresh, still soft. But along the pathways in the woods of the Town Commons, someones have beaten a track, a record of passage, and each day I go out to walk with them.
Thoreau knew that in winter we often must conjure our company. Fewer people venture out, and those who do often seem to prefer to walk solo; they bend forward, hunch in; they study the slippery ground ahead. And he goes on to offer thumbnail sketches of these conjured folks. It turned out that Walden Woods had once been a thriving neighborhood for those most of the town’s “selectmen” didn’t want as neighbors – former slaves, migrants, those seized by drink – in a word, marginals. And Henry Thoreau, in repeopling his Walden with them, savors and walks too in this company, along these marginal ways.
Today again, this time at twilight, I’m out with the marginals, the company I would keep. It’s not that I expect to meet anyone or everyone, it’s rather that I will follow their tracks, and, as I do, I will wonder about them. The track through the white pines is hard packed; our passing feet have sculpted its bed with icy knobs and shallow depressions. As I walk, I adopt winter’s gait, a stride-shortened shuffle that keeps touch with the path, allowing my feet to “read” its slippery oddities; everyone who walks regularly in New England winter has such a gait.
At the first turn, a dog has cut its corner, leaving a small saffron apron the base of a tree. Others will follow. One boot print says that he pulled his “owner” in behind him. The straightaway that follows pulls me along under its pines that are tipped slightly to each other by their searches for light. Ahead, the light changes; I am nearing an open patch that signals pitch pines. Their short stature and sparse branching leave the sky alone, and across that sky’s fringe are the delicate, inked cirrus in the south. It is stillness and I stop.
The pitch pines are the color of smoke rising in columns from the white ground. The path winds on between them, through the sandy section where in summer the blueberries proliferate. There’s no one here, but I follow the prints of former inhabitants to the turn for home. Always, we walk in their prints.
Who’s out there with you when you walk in winter?