In the preceding paragraphs, the narrator describes the beauty of the sunset on the mountain tops. Elizabeth is observing the depth of the pine forest, the gleam of the birches, and then as they descend into the valley of civilization and this passage begins, "they leave the day behind them." Here the theme of civilization versus nature is described in terms of day versus night, sunlight versus cold darkness. Even as the sunlight still hits the mountain summits (where nature still reigns), Elizabeth sees the "cold gloom of the valley" before her, the lake without a shadow, and the "gloomy and indistinct" dwellings. The mansion too is described only as "cold dreary stone walls." Throughout the passage and others, the new buildings of the settlers are cold, impersonal forms without spirit, a theme throughout the novel, speaking to the hasty settling of the new world without time creating spirit that places in the old world possess on account of the long history that has taken place there. Also, in the description of the woodcutters, merely nodding and saluting the passing sleighs, then heading into their warm cabins and closing their paper curtains, separating them from the rest of the settlement, there is a feeling of isolation of man from nature. The mansion itself and the cabins of the woodcutters are the self-contained dwellings of civilization, without any spirit of living or communing with nature as other characters, like Natty Bumppo, would. The woodcutters are described as about to go into their cabins and enjoy the fruits of their day's labor, by burning the wood that they've cut from the woods. Their enjoyment in the burning of the trees is another example of civilization reaping the benefits of the wilderness. Also, unlike the natural warmth brought to the mountains by the sunlight, the warmth within the civilization in the "cold gloom of the valley" is an artificial means of warmth, fires in fireplaces.
Finally, the description of the poplars lining the driveway symbolizes the new world versus old world conflict. The poplars are "young and leafless," as opposed to the depth of the pine trees lining the forest described earlier. The country itself is "young and leafless," like the settlement in relation to the ancient wilderness around them, like the settlers' place in the wilderness in relation to the Indians who've had the area since long before the Europeans arrived.