The Iris of “Earth’s Eye”

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The scenery of Walden is on a humble scale, and, though very beautiful, does not approach to grandeur, nor can it much concern one who has not long frequented it or lived by its shore; yet this pond is so remarkable for its depth and purity as to merit a particular description.  It is a clear and deep green well, half a mile long and a mile and three quarters in circumference, and contains about sixty-one and a half acres; a perennial spring in the midst of pine and oak woods, without any visible inlet or outlet except by the clouds and evaporation.  The surrounding hills rise abruptly from the water to the height of forty to eighty feet, though on the southeast and east they attain to about one hundred and one hundred and fifty feet respectively, within a quarter and a third of a mile.  They are exclusively woodland.  All our Concord waters have two colors at least; one when viewed at a distance, and another, more proper, close at hand.  The first depends more on the light, and follows the sky.  In clear weather, in summer, they appear blue at a little distance, especially if agitated, and at a great distance all appear alike.  In stormy weather they are sometimes of a dark slate-color.  The sea, however, is said to be blue one day and green another without any perceptible change in the atmosphere.  I have seen our river, when, the landscape being covered with snow, both water and ice were almost as green as grass.  Some consider blue “to be the color of pure water, whether liquid or solid.”  But, looking directly down into our waters from a boat, they are seen to be of very different colors.  Walden is blue at one time and green at another, even from the same point of view.  Lying between the earth and the heavens, it partakes of the color of both.  Viewed from a hilltop it reflects the color of the sky; but near at hand it is of a yellowish tint next the shore where you can see the sand, then a light green, which gradually deepens to a uniform dark green in the body of the pond.  In some lights, viewed even from a hilltop, it is of a vivid green next the shore.  Some have referred this to the reflection of the verdure; but it is equally green there against the railroad sandbank, and in the spring, before the leaves are expanded, and it may be simply the result of the prevailing blue mixed with the yellow of the sand.

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Such is the color of its iris.  This is that portion, also, where in the spring, the ice being warmed by the heat of the sun reflected from the bottom, and also transmitted through the earth, melts first and forms a narrow canal about the still frozen middle.  Like the rest of our waters, when much agitated, in clear weather, so that the surface of the waves may reflect the sky at the right angle, or because there is more light mixed with it, it appears at a little distance of a darker blue than the sky itself; and at such a time, being on its surface, and looking with divided vision, so as to see the reflection, I have discerned a matchless and indescribable light blue, such as watered or changeable silks and sword blades suggest, more cerulean than the sky itself, alternating with the original dark green on the opposite sides of the waves, which last appeared but muddy in comparison.  It is a vitreous greenish blue, as I remember it, like those patches of the winter sky seen through cloud vistas in the west before sundown.  Yet a single glass of its water held up to the light is as colorless as an equal quantity of air.  It is well known that a large plate of glass will have a green tint, owing, as the makers say, to its “body,” but a small piece of the same will be colorless.  How large a body of Walden water would be required to reflect a green tint I have never proved.  The water of our river is black or a very dark brown to one looking directly down on it, and, like that of most ponds, imparts to the body of one bathing in it a yellowish tinge; but this water is of such crystalline purity that the body of the bather appears of an alabaster whiteness, still more unnatural, which, as the limbs are magnified and distorted withal, produces a monstrous effect, making fit studies for a Michael Angelo….

A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature.  It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.  The fluviatile trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows.

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden