Leaves of Transcendentalism


Many of the major themes found in Walden can be found in some smaller form in the “Spring” chapter. They can also be found in Whitman’s Song of Myself: Leaves of Grass. Taking the passage from the middle of the “Spring” chapter, we can analyze many of the things Thoreau is saying.

In this passage Thoreau is constructing a very complex metaphor for the transcendent quality of life as he sees it in leaves. He sees the structure of the leaf as the basic structure of all of Nature. He carefully describes the path the melting mud and sand take through the snow and ice on the banks of Walden Pond. These he compares to the rivers network of tributaries and deltas and the flow of molten lava from volcanic eruptions. He also says that in them we can see how the blood vessels are formed reaching into every finger and bone and vital organ of the body, flowing more quickly as the sun warms the mud, cutting channels and arteries through the melting ice to bring the nutrients from decomposed leaves and other matter. In the structure as well as the function of all these things we can see the veins of a leaf, branching out to every tip of the leaf bringing nutrients. He also compares the visible structure of the leaf to many parts of the human body thus connecting us to nature. He says that the human hand is the same as the spreading lobes of a palm tree, and the ear is like lichen. He also sees the lips, the cheeks, the brows, and our vital organs. He says that they all flow out to become these parts like the mud flows out of the ice on the bank. He also compares the physical shape of the leaf to the wings of birds and the grubs of the earth. Through all of these comparisons Thoreau crosses the lines between many aspects of the physical world via the leaf.

The big connection Thoreau sees between the melting of the bank and the leaves is the pattern the mud makes on the icy bank, which he describes as foliage. This impresses him greatly. He sees this as the outward expression of all of the inner workings of the earth. He also sees this as his window into the studio of the Creator. He watches all this “foliage” springing up over the course of an hour and in that he watches God at work on a fresh canvas. This however is literal as well as figurative. Literally, this mud breaking through the ice is going to be the soil that the new growth of Spring takes root in. This brings everything full circle for him. The muddy foliage he sees at the beginning of the thaw is a precursor to the real foliage of Spring. This makes all the comparisons between the muddy bank and the rest of the world hints of the connection between all the small parts and the greater whole, which culminates in the physical creation of the leaf. He says that the leaf was God’s one and only blueprint for the rest of creation, and once we discover that, there is nothing new to discover.

Whitman would agree with Thoreau that the tiniest piece of creation can encompass the whole. Instead of leaves of trees though, Whitman makes his metaphor from leaves of grass. He connects the whole world through the grass by pointing out that the same green grass grows everywhere, regardless of who is living on it. He calls it the “uncut hair of graves” (110) as well as “the produced babe of the vegetation” (105). This combination very much echoes Thoreau’s muddy foliage metaphor. If the grass is the uncut hair of graves it is the new growth that springs up from the same ground that houses the dead, thereby connecting the old to the new. For Whitman, death is a new beginning. The same grass that covers over death, he refers to directly as a child, indicating the freshness of nature and completing the cycle just like Thoreau’s Spring.

Whitman also calls the grass “the handkerchief of the Lord” (102). This is God’s signature for his creation. Here we see God