In the last paragraph of the second chapter of Walden, “Where I Lived, and What I lived for,” Thoreau gives us a very quotable line:
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.”
But that’s just the start of falling down a rabbit hole. He adds,
“I drink at it: but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. . . I would drink deeper: fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet.”
The eye soaks up fish and sees stars reflected, too. He seems to say, “Look! There are fish in the sky!” and also, “Come! Let’s fish in the starry skies!”
Then without losing a beat, he interrupts: “ I cannot count one.” Struck by the wonder of fishing among glittering stars, he’s overwhelmed by a multitude. Where to begin? He can’t even count one.
Not only that, “I know not the first letter of the alphabet.”
Wonder frees him from the imperative to assign numbers to everything, or to arrange things neatly in alphabetical order. Thoreau is cast into a world that predates the protocols of numbers, counting, letters, and words.
He completes this short Walden passage adding wistfully, “I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born.” A day of wonder before counting and letters began.