“In such a day, in September or October, Walden is a perfect forest mirror, set round with stones as precious to my eye as if fewer or rarer. Nothing so fair, so pure, and at the same time so large, as a lake, perchance, lies on the surface of the earth.”
On a calm October morning, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” And thus, I went to those particular woods—the ones surrounding Walden Pond—in a sojourn along the path of one of my intellectual forebears, the irascible hermit Henry David Thoreau, to see if I too could eke out the life discoveries which he had made upon the pond’s shores. This unassuming Walden Pond, the site of Thoreau’s most famous personal (and far-reaching) social experiment, lies an hour west of Boston amidst the regional forests and farmland. It is here where the entirety of the dissertation Walden takes place.
My trip was a pilgrimage to visit the namesake pond to visualize the setting of the lengthy tome I had just finished. “The scenery of Walden,” as Thoreau describes it, “is on a humble scale, and, though very beautiful, does not approach the grandeur, nor can it much concern one who has not long frequented it or lived by its shore.” Walden is a simple pond indeed. A mere half mile long and only half as wide. Its perimeter is smooth and predictable; few coves or inlets add dimension to its waters. The landscape surrounding the pond, though hilly and thickly forested, does not strike an air of distinction. But as Thoreau championed in his many intellectual ramblings, “Our life is frittered away by detail…simplify, simplify!” I could picture Thoreau finding no more an ordinary pond home than this.
Yet at the same time Walden Pond is entirely magnificent. In his personal rhetoric, Thoreau was a fiery exceptionalist, never shy of embellishment or hyperbole. The waters of Walden Pond, he described, were the purist and coldest waters around. He writes about how the quality of Walden’s waters rival the purist known springs. But for his continual exaggerations, he was correct about one superlative; at 102 feet deep, Walden Pond is the deepest inland body of water in the state of Massachusetts. The banks of Walden Pond drop abruptly off into azure oblivion; the water, in this deep watery well, stays cool and refreshing year round.Thoreau knew these depths well, for among his many intermittent occupations, he was a trained land surveyor.
I came to Walden Pond to pay homage to a man who has influenced my own thoughts on life and meaning, if not in words exactly, then by sentiment alone. Intellectually, we share many similar ideas concerning social progress and the higher humanistic yearnings for the species. Thoreau is loud and brash with a pen and passionately rants against the things he disagrees with. His words echo a fiery passion burning deep in his soul. He loathes the nearby railroad and laments material progress for the sake of a dollar. But he also advocates for his better society, seeking to improve the man in the culture; Thoreau preaches continually on freeing mankind from slavery to self and to society. The reclusive Thoreau rants against the ills of contemporary civilization in the mid-18th century and seeks his moral salvation in the woods. Though little appreciated during his own time, and living unwed, unknown, and with his parents until his young demise, Thoreau has become a prophet of the modern day.
Although I feel a tie of kinship to Thoreau, he comes off as a man one would not have wanted to spend time with, myself included. To his village contemporaries, his nature wanderings and isolated hermitage made him appear aloof, yet he was a keen observationist and a scientist at heart, daily making acute observations of the environment and human kind. Though he exquisitely bemoaned the lives of others with his words while simultaneously boosterizing his own noble endeavors—ones that he alone perceived he was discovering in an insipid sea of ignorance—he was quite sociable and gregarious with the right type of company. He lived alone, yet kept three chairs in his house: “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” Though Thoreau the man may have been petulant, his ideas are familiar to anyone seeking self-improvement. His writing is at times very off-putting, egotistical, self-righteous, and even shaming and chastising (with way too many verbose phrases strung together with endless commas), yet his heart and ideals were with the people. His goal: to achieve in humankind a fierce independence and self-reliance to live genuinely and whole-heartedly as one’s best self in society.
I can see a bit of myself in Thoreau. I see a bit of myself in his perpetual longings and desires for something greater and nobler in life, Thoreau’s self-described ‘higher laws’. I see myself wanting to live deliberately and intentionally to the fullest extent, where I can ‘suck out all the marrow of life’.
I can also see myself venturing down the path of Thoreau, whether intentionally or by unplanned drift. Simplify, simplify! A one-room shanty seems plenty accommodating to me. Living independently off the land with little money but lots of means—that too I can see. Work, for Thoreau, was never a major priority either. He spent his days in idle employment ranging the forests, the self-appointed ‘inspector of snowstorms’. At its roots, Thoreau’s Walden experiment cuts to the heart of a desire to break away from society and to live a true and unconstrained life, unhindered by the bonds of artificial society. Like Thoreau, the unpretentiousness of nature provides the means of escape to a better existence.
The Walden Pond of today looks different than in Thoreau’s time. Shortly after moving out of the woods, Thoreau’s shanty was relocated to the village of Concord. The forest lands around the shack as well, harvested many times previous to Thoreau’s day, grew thick and dense, obscuring the very foundations of Thoreau’s presence. Thoreau’s expansive bean field, too, has reverted back to forest. The Fitchburg Railway, the rail-line skirting the pond that Thoreau so loudly laments, has been upgraded to a busy commuter line to Boston. The lands surrounding Walden Pond have become protected as a state reserve. No longer the spot of solitude and isolation, Walden Pond has become a popular destination for recreation in Massachusetts, for both its natural beauty and the outdoor recreation aspects.
Do the many visitors to Walden Pond on a sunny day think about the ideas that were developed here? As they sun-bathe on the beach or swim across the cool waters, do they ponder the intellectual history of this place? Do they know the historical significance of this parcel of land where they are picnicking? Is it perhaps that the modern-day visitor to Walden subconsciously accepts Thoreau’s importance of nature without even realizing it? Surely they must have internalized some of Thoreau’s ideas, given the crowds of people who come to spend time finding themselves in nature.
Alas, after paying my pilgrims’ visit to this important site, the time to leave had come. After all, “I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”