I’m a nature girl. Few things make me happier than spending a spring day climbing a mountain, or exploring a lake in a kayak, or walking the shoreline at the ocean… So when summer arrives, (especially on Fridays) I yearn to be away from my computer outside in the sun. Don’t get me wrong, I love the internet, but amidst all the voices online you can sometimes lose your own. In fact I once spend three WHOLE days away from the internet, away from phones and books and toilets, on a three day solo in Maine. Just me, a lake, my sleeping bag and a journal. It is a truly refreshing experience, learning to spend time with yourself. So, it may seem natural that Thoreau is one of my favorite authors.
Recently I found an Oxford book titled Walden Pond: A History by W. Barksdale Maynard, and I thought it might be nice to share an excerpt from it with you. Perhaps you will find time this summer to visit Thoreau’s refuge, or to spend time thinking in your own personal Walden Pond.
Undeniably, Walden Pond is rather ordinary, just “the average mean of New England nature,” as a 1905 visitor said, or, to Kay more recently, “pleasant if unspectacular.” It is one of 1100 Massachusetts lakes. Even Thoreau admitted that “the scenery of Walden is on a humble scale.” As for any uniqueness, he wrote that nearby White Pond was “just like” it—and, in fact, “since the woodcutters, and the railroad, and I myself have profaned Walden, perhaps the most attractive, if not the most beautiful, of all our lakes, the gem of the woods, is White Pond.” Walden Pond is not even the only Walden Pond in the state; there is one in the town of Lynn, north of Boston. Walden can lay claim to just one superlative, that of being the deepest lake in Massachusetts. With an average depth of forty feet, a 102-foot, seven-story office building could be fully dunked in the middle of the pond.
From the reservation parking lot a paved road leads steeply down the east bank, to the lakeside path that sees tourists stepping over the bikini-clad by noontime. At the foot of the road a young man in a business suit talks loudly into his cellphone: “Mom, it’s really a lake!” His reaction is common. Anne McGrath, longtime curator of the Thoreau Lyceum in Concord, said that “about ninety percent of visitors think of Walden as a little pool of sacred water deep in primeval woods” and are shocked by the reality. “I was seated by the shore of a small pond,” said Thoreau, which does nothing to prepare us for a truly sizable body of water—61.5 acres, as big as forty-seven football fields.
“Pond” was once common New England usage for even the largest lakes. Still today, of the nine biggest natural lakes in Massachusetts, seven are called “pond.” The smallest of these, Monponsett Pond, is more than twelve times larger than Walden. In the late nineteenth century, many New England ponds were rechristened “lake.” And if it weren’t for Thoreau’s book, people might well call it “Lake Walden” today, as that name flourished during the heyday of the picnic grounds. Some early-twentieth century visitors complained about the abandonment of Thoreau’s title for the pond.“If it were not for Thoreau, it would not matter what anybody called it”—and when in 1922 the place became a park meant to safeguard a famous transcendentalist landscape, it was called Walden Pond once again, and always will be.
One comes to Walden seeking nature and Thoreau, but as often as not it is people who arrest the attention. Fanatical, get-out-of-my-way joggers on the encircling path. Bespectacled professors pondering deep mysteries. Overprotective mothers snatching toddlers from the aquatic dangers of Main Beach. Preening teenyboppers arrayed on the griddle at Red Cross, with a busload of foreign tourists trundling amongst them in evident confusion. A photographer who In Morning Time 5 comes at the exact same hour every morning to record water and sky from a fixed location, showing nature’s kaleidoscopic moods. Hikers for whom Walden Woods is just one stretch of the Bay Circuit Trail; they are aware, as most visitors are not, that the pond lies, in Thoreau’s words, “in the midst of an extensive wood” between Concord and Lincoln, a wood linked to other woods now that the Massachusetts forests have regenerated on a vast scale.
“Many a traveller” visited Thoreau at Walden, and these are their descendants. Thoreau’s own house was always unlocked, and friends and strangers stopped by anytime: “One man proposed a book in which visitors should write their names, as at the White Mountains; but alas! I have too good a memory to make that necessary.” His memory would not suffice today, as the guestbook for 1999 alone shows signatures from every state and ninety-one foreign countries. Entries from summer 2001 reveal that among the crowds of tourists ticking off obligatory Boston sites are, in fact, some dedicated Thoreauvians. “Reading an 1883 edition of Walden,” one writes. An Austrian says, “I’m on a transcendentalist pilgrimage.” One couple reports, “Trying our best to live deliberately.” Such visitors can quote favorite passages from memory: “To suck all the marrow out of life.” “Drive life into a corner.” “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” “Wherever I sat, there I might live.” “Keep your accounts on a thumbnail.”
For many of these passionate visitors, Walden fulfills an old yearning: “I can’t believe I’m finally here!” “Now I understand.” For a couple from Delaware, “It took over forty years but we are not too late!” But others carp about high parking fees or, until it was recently closed, the Concord Landfill that loomed over the reservation’s northeastern treeline. A Minnesotan writes, “So sad to see Thoreau’s solitary spot commercialized.” “Walden deformed and scarred by tourists, progress, capitalism.” “Thoreau is rolling over in his grave.” “I wonder what fraction of the many that visit understand even a little of this place’s significance.” Some, however, are pleasantly surprised: “Nicer than in the ’60s.” “Much better preserved than I would have thought.” “Heard there were condos around the pond now. Glad I heard wrong.”
For all the changes that Walden has suffered since Thoreau’s day, guestbook comments suggest that it retains considerable capacity to uplift. A traveler from England “sat & wrote & sketched for three hours. How can one not be inspired here?” Standing inside the replica, some seem ready to change their lives: “I want to live delib¬erately.” “We long for this life.” “Makes me rethink my lifestyle.” “It’s amazing what we can do without.” “Let’s start throwing out our cell phones now!” Pond and house can be very personal places, even for those who have never seen them before: “Henry D., I’m home.”
These devotees know the story well—how Henry David Thoreau lived the simple life by the pond’s northwestern cove in a tiny house of his own construction for two years, two months, and two days. He was twenty-seven years old when he moved in on July 4, 1845. Here he wrote his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. It was a commercial flop of legendary proportions. But here too he wrote the initial version of the work that gained him, and the environs, fame and immortality. Several drafts later Walden was published, in 1854. It received more than sixty favorable reviews, but only after Thoreau’s premature death would it be widely read, thanks to the aggressive promotion of his works by Emerson and other friends. A third event of significance occurred while Thoreau lived at Walden: in protest against slavery and the Mexican War he refused to pay the poll tax and spent a night in Concord Jail. “Civil Disobedience,” which influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King, was published in 1849. Thoreau’s house was sold shortly after he left the pond. The farmer who ultimately acquired it moved it north of the village and used it for corn storage before demolishing it in 1868. A memorial to Thoreau was estab¬lished at his Walden housesite ten years after he died: at the cairn vis¬iting admirers add a stone, so that it grows steadily larger, along with his fame.
The idea of Walden Pond has swept the world: birthplace of the modern environmental movement, symbol of simplicity taken up in deliberate antithesis to chaotic and destructive modernity…