Cognitive Thaw: The Sandbank is YOUR Brain

ENGL 250 Essay, Vered Arnon

The whole bank, which is from twenty to forty feet high, is sometimes overlaid with a mass of this kind of foliage, or sandy rupture, for a quarter of a mile on one or both sides, the produce of one spring day. What makes this sand foliage remarkable is its springing into existence thus suddenly. When I see on the one side the inert bank, — for the sun acts on one side first, — and on the other this luxuriant foliage, the creation of an hour, I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me, — had come to where he was still at work, sporting on this bank, and with excess of energy strewing his fresh designs about. I feel as if I were nearer to the vitals of the globe, for this sandy overflow is something such a foliaceous mass as the vitals of the animal body. You find thus in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf. No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant by it. The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype. Internally, whether in the globe or animal body, it is a moist thick lobe, a word especially applicable to the liver and lungs and the leaves of fat. (*****, labor, lapsus, to flow or slip downward, a lapsing; *****, globus, lobe, globe; also lap, flap, and many other words); externally, a dry thin leaf, even as the f and v are a pressed and dried b. The radicals of lobe are lb, the soft mass of the b (single-lobed, or B, double lobed), with the liquid l behind it pressing it forward. In the globe, glb, the gutteral g adds to the meaning the capacity of the throat. The feathers and wings of birds are still drier and thinner than leaves. Thus, also, you pass from the lumpish grub in the earth to the airy and fluttering butterfly. The very globe continually transcends and translates itself, and becomes winged in its orbit. Even ice begins with delicate crystal leave, as if it had flowed into moulds which the fronts of water-plants have impressed on the watery mirror. The whole tree itself is but one leaf, and rivers are still vaster leaves whose pulp is intervening earth, and towns and cities are the ova of insects in their axils.

 Take Thoreau’s description of a thawing sandbank as a ‘description’ of a thawing sandbank. Let the phrases in the text conjure images of sand and clay. One after another, the phrases fill your mind with more and more detail. One after another, the phrases spread through your brain- and somehow, out of an abstract discussion of phonemes you get a sense of the sand and clay thawing and spreading apart.

In this passage, Thoreau ‘describes’ the sandbank thawing, ‘describes’ his writing process, and ‘describes’ the reader’s cognitive process. The text’s breakdown into phonemes is analogous to the sandbank’s thawing and also reflects the brain’s process of cognition (electrical impulses travelling along neural networks, chemical messages spreading from one pathway to the next- Thoreau may not have been aware of the scientific principles, but at least the notion of thinking as a flowing activity, the notion of the brain functioning by blood flowing through it in networks of veins, was certainly around by his time). Thus a parallel forms between the sandbank and the reader’s brain. When you read that passage, the sandbank described is in fact YOUR brain.

The passage begins with conventional, objective, extensive description. Thoreau gives an account of the spatial dimensions of the sandbank in neutral third person narrative, but then shifts to first person. He ‘describes’ how he feels while seeing the sandbank. At this point, the preceding sentences take on a new level of meaning. “The produce of one spring day” and “the creation of an hour” now have an indirect agent, the first person voice of the narration. “The Artist who made the world and me” seems like an allusion to God and the ‘Lord’s Work’, but while God might be the creator of the physical sandbank that Thoreau was describing at the time he was writing Walden, Thoreau himself was the artist creating the textual description of the sandbank. The only ‘sandbank’ that the reader has access to is the mental image that Thoreau’s words create in the reader’s mind. Thoreau is “still at work, sporting on this bank”, having fun with this textual sandbank that he is in the process of creating, “strewing his fresh designs about”, those designs being the words and phrases and imagery that he is “strewing about” on the page and in the reader’s mind.

On a broader level, the “I” of the first person narrative is the voice of the reader. Thoreau wrote these words over a century ago, so the narrator’s voice is not the author’s voice. The narrator is not a character. The reader’s brain creates the “luxuriant foliage” of the sandbank as the words in the text evoke mental images. What Thoreau builds on the page, the reader builds in his head. The text ‘describes’ how seeing the sandbank causes one to feel “nearer to the vitals of the globe”. The globe most common reference of ‘the globe’ is ‘the world’. Reality is perception. The reader’s world is a function of the reader’s perception, which itself is a function of the reader’s brain. “Nearer to the vitals of the globe” then means nearer to the vitals of the brain, nearer to the internal networking components that spread and branch like a “sandy overflow” or “foliaceous mass”. The text subtly draws together the connexion between the “sandbank” and the “vitals of the animal body”, the brain.

Once the connexion is drawn and established between the sandbank and the brain, the “sandbank” is no longer directly referred to. Thoreau’s continuing ‘description’ moves ‘inward’. “No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly.” This sentence can be interpreted on various levels(1). On one level, Thoreau is comparing the sandy foliage of the sandbank to the shape of vegetable leaves. This expresses the ‘Universality of Nature’, just like the first person narration about gazing at the sandbank seemed to express the notion of ‘Nature as the Lord’s Work’. But taken at face value like this, one penetrates only the shallowest level of Thoreau’s writing. Taken more literally, the word “leaves” can be taken to refer to the pages on which Thoreau was writing or the pages which the reader is viewing. The earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, or, the outside world is expressed in the pages of a book. The rest of the sentence, “it so labors on the idea inwardly”, can mean various things as well. Thoreau is thinking inwardly about all these notions and ideas as he is writing. The reader is labouring over the ideas inwardly as he processes and attempts to understand the text. On the deepest level, or the most ‘inward’ level, the branching neural fibres in the lobes of the brain where all this processing and understanding is going on are shaped like the structure of vegetable leaves.

Once Thoreau’s description of the sandbank gets this deep into the brain, it ceases to be a literal description of a sandbank. The passage at this point is almost a word-picture, a metaphoric map ‘describing’ the cognitive thaw of the reader’s brain as he struggles to follow the text. First it seems like word association, one word following another, one word leading to another in a smooth flow. “Labor, lapsus, to flow or slip downward”… The brain takes sentences apart and processes them word by word. Neurons follow the connexions evoked by each word as neurons travel through synapses, synonyms or etymologically similar words filling out a verbal picture. After sentences are dismantled into word association, then the words themselves are dismantled, and Thoreau enters into a discussion of phonemes. The individual sound segments in each word have specific connotations. They provide the details, they show how the words in the word association are all connected. The types of sound in the phonemes express intuitive qualities of the referents of the words. Similar sounds and repeating phonemes demonstrate interconnectedness. The pattern as the phonemes go from f to v to b is a progression from an unvoiced fricative to a voiced bilabial. The sound is on the lips from the start, but the sound gains vocal quality, and then glides are added to form lb and glb, finally involving the entire area of the sound-producing system, starting with the glottal down in the throat and ending with the voiced bilabial. Spatially, within the sound-producing system, the words are moving outwards, ‘expressing themselves outwardly’.

Finally, Thoreau’s passage returns to conventional expository prose. But by now, each word in the ‘descriptive’ sentences is more apparent to the reader’s mind, and each phoneme more apparent as well. The passage concludes descriptively, poetically and abstractly, transforming the separate phonemes back into coherent concepts and imagery. “The very globe continually transcends and translates itself” – the brain continually shifts and changes as it processes the meaning of words. The world is dynamic and changing, just like the neurochemical activity in the brain. In the final sentences of the passage, the ‘leaf’ imagery is applied once more to the outside world, showing how everything in the passage is indeed interconnected.

Now take Thoreau’s description of the sandbank as a description of your brain. Do you feel the cognitive thaw?


Henry David Thoreau, Walden and the Famous Essay on “Civil Disobedience”. Signet Classics, New York, 1963.

1 A point which is interesting but not quite relevant: In English the word ‘leaves’ may refer to pages in a book or foliage on a vegetation. In Chinese the word ‘yè’ (same pronunciation, but with a different character in each case) can mean either ‘page’ or ‘leaf’.

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