Finding My Boundaries
As a college freshman, my American lit professor assigned the class to read Walden by Henry David Thoreau. I was excited about the assignment, largely because I had already read the book and enjoyed it so, figured I could cruise through this section of the class while others struggled to comprehend Thoreau’s reclusiveness and quest for a simple life of self-reliance. We were college freshmen, pigging out at the dining hall and phoning home when funds ran low. Self-reliance was something we couldn’t relate to.
Even though Thoreau mentions surveying in “Walden” it wasn’t until years later that I discovered he had made a living as a land surveyor in Concord before settling into his small cabin on Walden Pond for a couple of years of economic living and escaping “over civilization.”
By most accounts, Thoreau was an excellent surveyor for his mid-19th century time—meticulous, honest, hardworking and always in search of accuracy.
In a book about Thoreau the land surveyor, Patrick Chura writes: “Thoreau prospered for more than a decade as a surveyor in the Concord area because he was considered to be both honest and accurate. He often applied the highest levels of science to many of what were, in reality, run-of-the-mill surveys.”
But the profession didn’t always align with Thoreau’s impeccable ethics.
“When I observe that there are different ways of surveying, my employer commonly asks which will give him the most land, not which is most correct,“ he wrote in the essay Life Without Principle.
That’s probably still true of most employers today, and likely helped fuel Thoreau’s rejection of capitalism and, really, of the society that endorsed capitalism. Perhaps that also helped push him to his reclusiveness. All this considered, it would stand to reason that the survey that gave him the most pleasure was not one he got paid for but his survey of the shoreline and depth of Walden Pond, which he included in the manuscript of Walden.
Speaking at Thoreau’s funeral, his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, said Thoreau had a “natural skill for mensuration…his intimate knowledge of the territory about Concord made him drift into the profession of land surveyor. It had the advantage for him that led him continually into new and secluded grounds and helped his studies of nature. His accuracy and skill in his work were readily appreciated, and he found all the employment he wanted.”
Even while living on Walden Pond Thoreau used his surveyor skills. “I was self-appointed inspector of snowstorms and rainstorms and did my duty faithfully; surveyor, if not of highways, then of forest paths and all across-lot routes, keeping them open, and ravines bridged and passable at all seasons, where the public heel had testified to their utility.”
As a land surveyor Thoreau could easily solve problems, but as Emerson said, “He was daily beset with graver questions, which he manfully confronted. He interrogated every custom and wished to settle all his practice on an ideal foundation.” Despite his longing for the correct answer, Thoreau’s work as a land surveyor is relegated to the quite spaces of history, as is the work of most surveyors today and throughout history.
Almost 150 years after his death, the Surveyors Historical Society honored Thoreau with a “Final Point” monument at his resting place in a small section of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts. There Thoreau rests not with fellow surveyors but next to his contemporary writers—Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott and William Ellery Channing—in what is known as Author’s Ridge.
Thoreau may not be remembered for his skill as a land surveyor, but I think a bit of Thoreau can be found in all surveyors—the comfort of being alone with one’s self; the joy of being in nature, the intense longing for the most-correct answer. Perhaps today’s surveyors would not go so far as to say, as Thoreau did, “I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
Nevertheless, I feel like most surveyors would still prefer spending a day alone on a survey in quest of the “most correct” answer than a day surrounded by the chaos of the office.
“I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” Right?