Find Your Own Walden Pond!
Hi there! Sometimes we like to take fields trips to places that don't fall within the imaginary shape of New Hampshire's borders. That's quite alright! What's important is that we have unique experiences that result in fun, as well as increased mindfulness and gratitude about life and the world around us. I had one such experience not so long ago at a little place called Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.
Boo! Hiss! I know, I know. I said the M-word. We won't mention Massachusetts too often in these pages, but now and then won't be too bad. A place like Walden Pond is important for everyone to visit at least once – especially if they want to appreciate their own backyard just a little more....
I. “His spirit was the spirit of Concord; he gave out Concord with every breath; he lived Concord.”
You would never know Concord, Massachusetts was just south of Boston except for its ties to history and philosophical thought. The Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord happened here. Transcendentalism happened here. Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts all lived here — at the same time. Thoreau lived here. In fact, for most people, Thoreau and Concord have merged to become more than man and more than place.
Concord today is perfectly quaint and feels very unlike the rest of Massachusetts. Once you turn off the stuffy, grit-scraping I-95 and onto the farm roads of Concord, you might feel at home. You’ll pass some heritage breed of cattle on an old farm field under a big ocean sky, then drive by Minute Man National Park, which is nothing but dirt paths and old colonial estates. Then you’ll turn into the picturesque, pedestrian-friendly downtown, banked by old graveyards and churches all ’round a roundabout. Ignore the granolas waving signs and playing mandolins – we didn’t know it was Earth Day. Instead, turn right onto a road that looks like it might lead back to where we came from and enjoy getting lost in the narrow, winding residential backroads of Concord – lush, green properties with big, fancy houses on the Sudbury river, perfectly upkept, complete with plump grampies in ballcaps and khakis walking their yorkies.
Turn down Walden Ave. and drive past Thoreauly Antiques and turn a few more times – just follow the signs – and you’ll end up on Rte. 126. It's a straightshot to Walden Pond, the “cradle of the environmental movement,” that “most important body of water in the literary world.” The road narrows and the trees grow taller and lean in on you. Might they be whispering? Are they welcoming us or telling us to go?
Before visiting Walden Pond, we visited the place where Henry Thoreau has lived for 151 ½ years longer than he did in his “sacred” cabin. In fact, we visited Henry, himself, in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery.
II. “I live in the present. I only remember the past and anticipate the future. I love to live.”
During a sunset stroll past all the historical sites of Concord, Kristin and I stood under a big old tree in the middle of town. She saw Sleepy Hollow cemetery on the map and pointed to it, right across the street. Some perfectly-placed graves on some perfectly green grass on a perfect knob of a hill behind a church beckoned us. She wanted to explore immediately. I hesitated – I must be scared of the dark or something.
Nonsense, she said, let’s just go find some dead authors' graves. When we got there, we saw a sign that said the cemetery closes at dusk. Whatever! It was a little spooky. I couldn't resist the fun.
We studied a map of Sleepy Hollow on display behind the gate. There is a place called Author’s Ridge. Conveniently, every famous writer from Concord is buried in the same neighborhood. It makes sense, really. All the writers were from wealthy families and are buried in family plots. It’s premium real estate, facing west on the ledge, overlooking a marsh.
Thoreau’s site was littered with pencils. Exclusively pencils. The “environmentalist hero” was a tree-chopping, graphite-mining pencil-maker.
His little grave stone reads “Henry.”
I stood right on his grave site and looked down. I knew his casket and skeleton were below me, but some tree roots separated us. I thought that was fine. I'm sure he enjoyed it. Here is simple Henry’s simple grave, wrapped in tree roots. Comfy as a baby.
III. “Perhaps on a spring morning when Adam and Eve were driven out of Eden, Walden Pond was already in existence…”
Thoreau loved Walden Pond. It sure is a beautiful place. But upon leaving, he also wrote, “Thank Heaven, here is not all the world.” He added that he “had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”
He only lived there for 2 ½ years. The roof of his “sacred” cabin was used to cover a pig pen in its second life. It was just a place to keep dry when he didn’t feel like sleeping in his drifting boat on the pond, only to be woken up by a bite on his fishing line. It took decades before someone thought to go and find the site where his cabin was built. That’s because no one cared about Thoreau until decades after he died.
We finally drove down the hallowed Rte. 126, which one article from a 1993 issue of the Concord Saunterer describes as “annoyingly close” to the pond. The state had to ban parking along the road in 1983. As many as 35,000 people in a single weekend would flock to Walden Pond for the beaches and activities.
Emerson purchased the land around the pond in the 19th century specifically to protect it from woodcutters. It was a perfect place for Thoreau to set up camp. However, the Walden Woods were no primeval wilderness. From the Saunterer: “To get to Walden, Thoreau often walked along the newly laid tracks of the Fitchburg Railroad.” Not only did Thoreau have numerous visitors at his getaway, but he could hear church bells, wagons, and even cows in nearby fields from the stoop of his cabin. And get this: “The railroad…built an ‘excursion park’ whose attractions included bathhouses, boats, dance halls, and later, a baseball diamond and cinder track.”
Walden Pond was well on its way to becoming a major day-trip destination before Thoreau ever showed up. And to boot, he didn’t seem to mind the railroad, either. He praised trade and technology, when it could be used to improve life. Biographer J. Brooks Atkinson argued, “To Thoreau the true harvest of any enterprise was the divination of the individual as a sovereign being far more noble than the tools of his trade.” But Thoreau didn’t hate the tools. He saw the value in technology to improve man's quality of life.
He loved to go down to the wharf and smell the spices in the air, a smell brought to him by ships, railroads, and modern food storage equipment. Atkinson, again: “If the machines do not actually release us from drudgery to the true freedom of life, if we are not happier men with finer capacities, we have missed the point entirely. If we are not always more exalted than the means of our living, then we are the slaves whom Thoreau despised – saddled with farms, oppressed with mortgages, the unburied dead, whose every motion seems futile and ghastly.”
As tourists flocked from the city down to Concord in the 1920s, the weary landowners of the Walden Woods deeded their holdings to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, with a stipulation: Walden Pond must be available for the “public” to “enjoy the pond, the woods and nature, including bathing, boating, fishing and picnicking.” Inevitably, it was a loss for the hardcore environmentalists that wanted to see Walden Pond turned into a sanctuary.
One such activist was Mary Sherwood. She led a project to rebuild the slopes at Walden Pond, which had been removed to build a bathhouse and other amenities. When she wasn't establishing wildflower nurseries all over the country, she'd stir up some curmudgeonry on the Concord scene: “Local Thoreauvians tended to be well-to-do, cultured, and decorous people; not renegade female foresters….Sherwood once brought a homemade sandwich to a fancy catered lunch.”
“First, first first,” Sherwood told the Saunterer when asked about her activism, “it is in honor of Thoreau,” that demi-god, that satyr – half-man, half-Nature. “Then it is for what he represents. It’s for ecology, for understanding the whole of nature as a system.”
A lawyer for Sherwood’s conservation group, Walden Forever Wild, stated that “Walden Pond is being loved to death.” I find it fascinating that they all forget that Walden was destined to be a recreation spot before Thoreau ever set foot there. It wasn't going to be a nature sanctuary until they decided it should be. Even the Saunterer asks, “One of the trickier aspects to the debate over the pond’s use is that Thoreau himself loved to swim there, and was generally opposed to government infringement on people’s activities.”
Thoreau wasn’t the only one who loved to swim there, and still isn’t.
IV. “Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.”
It’s important to recognize here that the government knows what Walden Pond is: a cash cow. They banned parking and installed parking lots and parking fees. I paid ten bucks to park my car – a government employee explained how to place a piece of paper on my dashboard – and we crossed the road to a beach. A beach!
Walden Pond has a beach! Sand and fat dudes with fishing rods tucked over their coolers. We followed signs for the trail. It was fenced in – seriously – with wire. Hills to our right, birds calling; pond to our left below, waves beckoning. It was a tight hike. A dad and daughter were behind us. I suggested we wait up and let them pass. “Excuse me, excuse me,” we all said. We watched a painter touch his canvas with just the right color below us on the shore. It was a blessing in disguise.
We got to the site of Thoreau’s cabin quick enough, but I wasn’t expecting the line.
Thoreau’s cabin site is at this calm, quiet spot overlooking the pond. There were four posts where the cabin originally stood and some chains to create a display effect. Next to the cabin site were all these piles of rocks that folks have left over the years. A guy with his hood up gently played his acoustic guitar, a 3/4-size with an Apple sticker on it. He told the fellows ahead of us in line that he was seeking inspiration as he walked around the rock pile. A wooden sign quoting Thoreau – “I wish to live deliberately….” – stood in front of the rocks.
The whole thing felt like a shrine; it smacked of the pulpit. Mary Sherwood had the audacity to state, “It amazes me people put swimming before very valuable historical things. You wouldn’t put swimming at the Taj Mahal or the Washington Monument, would you?”
Thoreau, eerily prophetic, has a response at the ready: “But possibly the day will come when [unowned, undeveloped land] will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only, – when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road, and walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it.”
So many times I stared up the slope alongside the fenced-in trail and wished I could break free without violating whichever law. Instead, we shuffled down the centralized path that is Walden Pond Trail. Coming toward us, a little girl was exploring ahead of her family – on a hunt, I tell you! I suspected that she was looking up at the wire fences and pretending she was in a giant maze. Kids play and this kid was playing! Just ahead of her she'd come to a clearing – wide, well-travelled paths to offer her choices. She would consider her options. She would act. She would go on forever.
Her father waved to us lazily, not far behind, pushing a stroller. I hope her little sister gets in on the adventures in a few years.
Thoreau wrote, “We hug the earth – how rarely we mount! Methinks we might elevate ourselves a little more.” He means to get out there and walk, saunter, swim, explore, adventure, climb, crawl, live your life and love living it, dammit!
The funny truth about the activism of folks like Mary Sherwood is that her actions speak louder than her words. It is much more wonderful and restorative to this earth that she planted wildflowers all over the country than building a slope and telling people they can’t leave the hot, congested city to spend a day at the beach, all because of some author they’ve never read who lived there for a little while. She has built many Walden Ponds of the future. That is her real contribution.
I say this: Find your own Walden Pond! Create it if you have to.
V. “Rise free from care before the dawn, and seek adventures.”
After Kristin and I left the cemetery, we held hands in the dark and walked back to the hotel, beneath the old white pines along the cemetery fence. I vowed to sneak into more graveyards, to embrace my inner-wildness, to be more mindful of my experiences, and to walk ever more “in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return.”
Thoreau took his experiments with wildness pretty seriously. He even lied in the rain to see what it was like to be part of Nature. I think this is why he died in his forties. But he certainly never regretted it.
“Life consists with wilderness,” he wrote. “The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him. One who pressed forward incessantly and never rested from his labors, who grew fast and made infinite demands on life, would always find himself in a new country or wilderness and surrounded by the raw material of life.”
I think back to when I stood at Henry's grave, and I realized I love to live. I stomped down on his grave in applause just once. A good, hard kick to wake the dead, and I swear I felt him roll. He rolled for me that night. He rolled for the world. But we are just people, and we don't have forever, so we had to get on with our own adventure.
That requires stepping on sacred ground. It requires stomping over it, kicking on graves, and taking the best from the past, while looking to the future. The wild must reclaim its lost, and new explorations can be made.
It's time to find my own adventures, away from this place.
Roll, Henry, roll. Until the dawn.