Image courtesy of Art Gallery ErgsArt by ErgSap's Folickr page - vallotton_portrait_henry_david_thoreau_1896: Art Gallery ErgsArt: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ergsart/22191977360/in/photolist-zP2FHj-ePxbNv-ePvjVe-eNuALc-eNqz59-ePzz79-ePFbPU-ePJZSE-gGF3fC-ePpGva-916skD-7BKKWS-ePug6H-p2j4kH-ePpL62-ePqNLe-fv4d12-7G3mow-ePGA1s-ePcBMQ-ePCXAE-ePs136-eNeaXn-oK5RJf-ehQDHX-eNYvci-eNr9C5-ePvAfF-eaB71G-dmyhUd-ePAiuG-ePdtSu-ePBg99-5g9QqC-nPMhXu-ePo3g6-8kSBcZ-61sVh7-4Qz4Gg-eNr8iw-eNYeWa-eNhEnV-ePrmcz-bpPxXp-ePuBXZ-ePuNPT-ePvDXz-ej3DpJ-ePBsry-eiWUxR
Image courtesy of Jeremy T. Hetzel's Flickr page - Walden Pond: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jthetzel/4779852529/in/photolist-8hnZCv-dqniix-g1aktM-8KXYkk-7CnGTM-g1b1XV-96ZP43-ePoGEK-eE8yXG-52u92x-7aBseo-7qD4p3-ePt8eX-ePaF9J-8rrEAj-ePqsXz-eP2Z2F-fr5yhJ-ePGkvf-ePDRZQ-ePuDVn-ePoPwc-eNZRdi-eNAgDf-eNeKm4-ePE3GJ-zP2FHj-ePxbNv-ePvjVe-eNuALc-eNqz59-ePzz79-ePFbPU-ePJZSE-gGF3fC-ePpGva-916skD-7BKKWS-ePug6H-p2j4kH-ePpL62-ePqNLe-fv4d12-7G3mow-ePGA1s-ePcBMQ-ePCXAE-ePs136-eNeaXn-oK5RJf
Image courtesy of Ryan Lowery's Flickr page - Qreat Thoreau Quote: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ryanlowery/458323348/in/photolist-Gv2yG-pwp9Ko-qN1sbB-i7Ynjp-w5ikS-yhfU9-e5FTMX-w5i7H-xd3pn-e5QmYU-8y2Dhr-6nQtWj-qm2rFT-w5h1p-2CUmG-8hnZCv-w5h7F-qxNByH-bBJk48-qm2rJZ-w5gbj-w5hhR-w5hNH-c3rZbL-2CUmE-qCnHBQ-o4f5FM-6uXAfy-9c6Vni-epSLsK-pFrTwd-qm2rc6-bBJkei-2FW9g-eBY5Yn-8TUVF-eqNZsy-apqQp3-gw9Ew-2CUmN-davkmu-qCnHyU-3kamJ-3kakN-ftvegm-w5iDe-4Pzsp-qxDYFw-gSjENQ-eqP1qG
So, here are some previously published posts regarding Thoreau:
"The world is but a canvass to our imagination."
~ Henry David Thoreau
April 18, 1841 Sunday. We need pine for no office for the sake of a certain culture, for all valuable experience lies in the way of a man’s duty. My necessities of late have compelled me to study Nature as she is related to the farmer, - as she simply satisfies a want of the body. Some interests have got a footing on the earth which I have not made sufficient allowance for. That which built these barns and cleared the land thus had some valor. We take little steps, and venture small stakes, as if our actions were very fatal and irretrievable. There is no swing to our deeds. But our life is only a retired valley where we rest on our packs awhile. Between us and our end there is room for any delay. It is not a short and easy southern way, but we must go over snowcapped mountains to reach the sun.
April 18, 1852 Day before yesterday I brought home some twigs of that earliest large oval-catkined willow just over Hubbard’s Bridge on the right hand, a male tree. The anthers just beginning to show themselves; not quite so forward as those above the Deacon Hosmer house, which I have thought to be the same. They looked much the worse for the rain. Catkins about one inch long, not being much expanded yet, opening a little below the apex, two stamens to a scale. There are smaller female bushes further on, on the left, catkins about the same size, with greenish ovaries stalked and rather small and slightly reddish stigmas, four-divided. I thought this the other sex of the same tree. There is also the very gray hardwood-like willow at the bars just beyond Hubbard’s Brook, with long, cylindrical, caterpillar-like catkins, which do not yet show their yellow. And, thirdly, opposite the first-named, i. e. the other side the way, a smaller-catkined willow not yet showing its yellow. Fourthly, near the Conantum Swamp, sterile catkins in blossom on a bush willow an inch and a quarter long, more forward than any, but the stamens one to a bract or scale and bifid or trifid or quatrifid toward the top!! Fifthly, what I should think the Salix humilis, i. e. S. Muhlenbergiana, shows its small catkins now, but not yet blossoms.
THIS DATE, FROM HENRY DAVID THOREAU'S JOURNAL "One world at a time . . . "
"The world is but a canvass to our imagination."
~ Henry David Thoreau
Today, many are beginning to challenge the conventional notion of the merits of hard work and no play. Studies show that a lack of play and free time can stunt the healthy growth of a child, which really should not be a surprise. After all, childhood is the time of maximum imagination and wonder, and play is a way of fostering that. Getting in the way of that with some overly grown up notions of the merits of hard work and an overly serious approach to life is, in fact, detrimental to their creativity and mental health.
Now, we even have people questioning this overly serious approach to life for adults, as well.
Indeed, from my stand point, I understand the need for work. But we should work to live, rather than live to work.
Unfortunately, too many people lose sight of that.
Yet, we had someone who has become hugely influential since warn us of the perils of taking life, and particularly work, too seriously.
Indeed, among many other topics that he tackled and helped our American society, and indeed the world, gain valuable perspective in is that of working too hard, and focusing on leisure time, by way of comparison.
Thoreau on Hard Work, the Myth of Productivity, and the True Measure of Meaningful Labor by Maria Popova
So, yes, I finally read Henry David Thoreau's Walden. For a long time, I had read numerous quotes from Thoreau's works, including quite a number from this, his most famous book.
But this time, I finally read the book itself, from cover to cover (and it included a copy of his famous essay on Civil Disobedience). I started it while on a recent visit to Walden itself, something that had always been a dream of mine, but which had never happened before.
The thing is, this book has obviously been read already by so many. What could I possibly say about it that has not been said already? How to go about with a review of a book that was published almost160 years ago, especially one that has been dissected by so many people, and which has proven to be such a strong influence for so many people, literally numbering in the millions? This is a work that, along with it's counterpoint, commonly known as Civil Disobedience, proved so highly influential, including to such notables as Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.? What can I possibly bring to the argument, or anyone's reading of this work?
Not much, perhaps. But having read it and been influenced (and yes, surprised) by it myself, I figured it was worth a shot. Who could it hurt, anyway?
It has a certain timeless quality to it, and a strong measure of serenity, as well. Once you have been to Walden, and you read the book, you cannot help but think of these woods, and imagine Thoreau going about his daily business within it, fishing in the waters, walking along it's paths, breathing in it's air.
But this is not a book that I would describe as an easy read by any stretch. This was not the first, or the second, or even the third try for me. I am not entirely sure how many times that I had actually tried to read the work before, but there were numerous times, and never had these efforts met with success before. Not sure what was different this time. Maybe it was the moment, that almost spiritual moment, while visiting Walden on such a pleasant, sunny, summer's morning, with the sun shining down, and the pond shimmering, keeping good company while I walked along it's shores. Maybe it was maturity. Probably it was both, and maybe it was something else, as well. Maybe it was just time, because I needed it at this moment in my life, having gone through some things, and needing some measure of guidance that the book could provide.
There were a few reasons for the rather extreme delay, and I don't think it would behoove you to go into detail over any of them. However, sufficed to say, I was familiar with many quotes from Thoreau's written works, and so thought myself more or less familiar with his writings and his way of thinking, his approach towards the wilderness, or at least towards Walden, in particular.
But I was wrong. This book was actually a bit different than anything that I expected, truth be told.
Of course, not all of it came as a shock, or anything. I have long known that Thoreau went out to the woods in order to live in the midst nature, and to appreciate it in a manner that was rather unique among whites living in the middle of the nineteenth century, the way that Thoreau did.
That said, it should be noted, and this is not a minor point, that the natives who were here before us had a much greater appreciation for, and respect or even reverence of, nature. I don't think that it's a stretch to think that Thoreau might have been influenced more than a little bit by the natives approach towards living at peace with nature.
But it was the first time that someone from our modern culture really stopped in his tracks in order to think about where we were (and still are, because his arguments and criticisms of society in general are likely far truer of our modern society now than they were even back in his day). He overcame the general fear and distrust of nature that existed up to that point, the need to dominate, to subject it to our desire to dominate, our need to transform it to our liking. Perhaps to make it more productive, or profitable.
What he did that was unique was voice the opinion, to a modern audience, to leave it alone just for it's own sake. Again, natives had said this many times, but Thoreau voiced this opinion from within our culture, and in that, he was the first.
So, what surprised me about the book? Well, early on, he mentions something that seems actually quite relevant in the present - again, perhaps even more relevant in the present age than when it was written, back in Thoreau's day. That was the part when he focuses on indebtedness, and borrowing money in order to spend it to obtain things (mostly physical property, or land, but not necessarily restricted to it, as he also mentioned, specifically, clothes). He spoke about the tendency to borrow money systematically to buy things, and makes the point that what you "own" is not really "yours" until you actually have worked enough to have earned the money to pay for it.
Another element that surprised me when I first found out about it (although I knew about it before actually reading the book this time around) is to what extent Thoreau did not simply go out into the middle of the woods and live entirely under his own power. In fact, he has been criticized for this, and it is not a minor bone of contention, since he often seems to suggest that this is largely what he did. Yet, he enjoyed evenings out in the town of Concord with friends during his time at Walden, when the impression often times has been that of a complete withdrawal from society. In fact, he regularly saw others, and did not exactly retreat from their company. He was hardly what anyone would have called a true hermit, or anything, although what he did made him unique, and the book itself would go on to achieve a measure of immortality based upon the quality of the thoughts expressed, and not strictly as some kind of documentation of his actual actions and documentation of his exact style of life during these times. He lived close to Concord itself, which is within easy walking distance of the site of Walden Pond and Walden Woods, where Thoreau stayed (it is only a couple of miles, really).
Mostly, the idea of being able to step back a bit from the hustle and bustle that our modern lives demand is what this book tries to awaken the reader to. Taking a different approach, and understanding that there are other, perhaps higher, priorities in life, and that a different approach like this has some value. Being able to reflect, and indeed criticize, the society at large, and to understand how it (we might call it these days a consumer culture) is in fact consuming literally everything. Thoreau's emphasis on the nature, on the woods at Walden, are literally a testament to those woods, but symbolically, it is the "wildness", so to speak, within us (probably on both an individual and a societal level), that also needs to be preserved. The notion that these things have quality and are worth examining on their own was not exactly an accepted, let alone a popular, notion at the time, however much they may be glorified nowadays.
I would have added quotes but, knowing how liberally some people tend to use quotes from this book (and with strong justification, for that matter!), I thought that maybe it would be good to take a different approach in this review. It would be all too easy to buttress my own arguments, or thoughts, or personal philosophy, or what have you, with some of his own quotes, and perhaps would have lent them some credibility. I will admit, this was initially what I was going to do. However, it began to feel more formulaic than anything, so the focus became about a review, rather than a testament to the book, or some kind of personal monument or tribute. Maybe, some time in the future, I will indeed do something with it, and use some of my favorite quotes in the process. But for the purposes of this review, it seemed more direct just to give my impressions of the work, and how it affected me in real terms, rather than employ some breathy moments of supposed inspiration by using some powerful quotes that I read (or perhaps, misread). This has been a more honest review, and I am actually glad for it.
Now, to be fair, I must say that, technically, I may have read this book, or at least huge chunks of the actual book, without fully being aware of it. But that happened back in high school and, thus, really does not count, since I really barely paid it any attention (there was little that I did pay attention to back then, frankly), and so that hardly counts. I must say that this time, attention was paid. And so, if you have tried to read this work, and struggled to get through it, try not to get overly discouraged. It is not an easy work, especially for us now, in the 21st century. We are taught, implicitly, to rush through things, to get them done, and hopefully, to maximize their effects. Thoreau took an entirely different approach, and this is reflected in his writing style. It requires us to read it carefully, to pause and think about some of the quotes within, and to understand what vantage point he was taking. It is not a book that you can simply plow through and get what you are supposed to get out of that. That would be a true of some of my favorite authors, such as Stephen King, who has an amazing writing style in his own right. But we need to read Thoreau quite a bit differently. He almost demands it of us.
So, if you have had difficulty with this work and really want to read it (like me), then my advice is to take your time with it, but not so much time that you put it down to softly reflect on a point, perhaps closing your eyes to focus on a specific point or passage in the book, and then never to pick up the book again, or perhaps to awake yourself by the sounds of your own snoring, and to find saliva dribbling down your cheek. This is an incredible work, and there really are some treasures to be found within, that can truly be appreciated by reading the book through entirely, and not merely being acquainted with some of the more famous quotes and passages (although these have a good quality, as well). Just stick with it, and eventually, you will find that the pace of your progress just might surprise you.
On The Duty Of Civil Disobedience
This famous essay was attached to my copy of the book, and it is fitting. Along with Walden, it is the most famous of Thoreau's works, having influenced Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and helped to provide a spark of influence for both the movement for Indian independence, as well as the Civil Rights movement, both of which were nonviolent in nature.
This is a piece that should be seen, rightly, as a companion piece to Walden, since Thoreau wrote this during his time at Walden, after having spend a night in jail.
In many respects, it is in the same spirit of withdrawal from the power of society that Walden has, only this more specifically addresses the crime of institutionalized slavery, which itself was legal at the time (in some states).
Thoreau talks of the need to stand up to injustice (it is not called "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience for nothing, after all) where one finds it, and that when the power of government is utilized to justify or reinforce something that we know is wrong, then it is our responsibility to stand up to that wrong, because moral right is on our side.
He does not restrict injustice to slavery alone, but also rails against the unjust Mexican War (which was then often disparagingly referred to as Mr. Polk's War, after President Polk, who largely initiated it), and he describes how these actions, and the power of the government behind them, were actually reminiscent of the abusive and tyrannical power of the British Empire that the colonists fought for independence against.
Thoreau also mentions, in some detail, a night that he spent in jail, during which he speaks as if he were the one that was free within the jail cells, and those on the outside, unbeknownst to them, were the real prisoners, although they may have been unaware of it. Thoreau speaks of Concord during that night that he spent in jail, and how it was all very different. He paid attention to noises that he had never quite paid attention to before, including the sounds of passing traffic on the roadway, and he could recognize the relation between this town and an Old World town during the days of feudalism, with the residents like peasants tied to the land. He famously says that in any society that imprisons people unjustly, the just place for a man is behind bars.
This piece was published after his death, but the power of the message carried Thoreau to a fame, and even perhaps some measure of immortality, following his actual death. The essay grew in popularity, and within a few years of it's widespread circulation, the term "civil disobedience" became a commonplace expression, as it has largely been ever since.
It is also here that Thoreau famously said, "That government is best that governs not at all."
Thoreau wrote this essay during the time when he was staying in the woods at Walden, and since it, along with Walden, constitutes his most famous work, they are often viewed as companion pieces.
My Trip to Thoreau's Walden (originally published September 7, 2012):
I already had my excuse lined up, just in case I woke up to the tapping on driver's side window by an officer of the law. I would tell him that I had been in the area, had been looking for a hotel or some kind of a place to stay, and was surprised to find nothing. After a while, I was simply too tired to go on, and just had to stop. That was the responsible thing, right? Right!?
I saw the gas station there in the dark, but only the second time around. It was so dark, that my eyes had not caught it the first time around. Even the second pass, I almost passed it by without noticing it.
What was the worst that he could do after that? Send me away? Give me a ticket, even, perhaps?
Sure, there was a risk, but I thought it was worth it. After all, what were the chances that somebody would find me there, in perhaps the one place in the immediate area where cars were expected to be parked overnight?
So, I pulled into the darkened service station. It was deliciously dark, and seemed promising. It was a little unnerving, admittedly, when the motion sensor lights came on, but I continued on. What choice did I have?
There was a spot open between a car, and a bigger truck, that would have blocked the car from view by the nearby road, which was tempting. But as I was looking, I noticed a much darker area behind the station, with more spaces to park. Obviously, this deserved more of my attention, and so that is what I gave it.
Much like the entire area, it was very dark. There were no city lights to be seen. No lights from a mall or din from a nearby highway. Nope, none of that. This place felt truly like the countryside, like the middle of nowhere. During my search for a decent, adequate place to sleep, it seemed that I was in the middle of a mixture of woods and darkened farm fields. The area was too modern to be reminiscent of the days when Thoreau and Emerson graced the local area with their presence, yet for someone from suburban
New Jersey, this was incredibly quiet. A few cars passed on the road, maybe at the rate of two or three every fifteen or so minutes. Maybe. But I was hoping that I would not be awake to count just how many cars passed by in the later hours in the middle of the night. Fatigue was quickly overtaking me, and I really did need to close my eyes and get some sleep.
And sleep I did. It was a bit awkward at first, and every car that passed surely must be the cop that would investigate the lot for some intruder like me. At one point, I heard this kind of banging noise, and rose up to see what it was, if I could see anything. Nothing there, but I distinctly had heard some weird kind of banging noise. Then, there was some weird shadow or something that I caught out of the corner of my eye. I turned, but again, there was absolutely nothing there. Just the dark night, nothing stirring. I might as well have been the only thing awake in that corner of the world at the moment. Of course, my thoughts raced with the worst possibilities, since my 21st century mind conditioned me to think up the wildest horror movie scenarios. I quickly turned to face the back of the car, half expecting to see some deranged lunatic trying to sneak up on me, about to make his move.
I tried to force this out of my mind, and settled back down; shut my eyes for a few moments. But that was all that it took before that strange noise again. I sprang back up, and scanned the dark and unfamiliar terrain chosen for my abode for at least one fortnight. Finally, I spotted it. Some creature, probably a raccoon, was trying to grab some grub from the trash compactor.
My mind eased a bit. I relaxed a bit, and settled back down. Noticing the time (it was now well past midnight), the urgency of catching some sleep was growing. Knowing that some mechanics arrived to their jobs very early, I had set the alarm for about 5:30am. This may have been overkill, but it seemed to err on the side of caution, and not risk oversleeping, and being woken up by someone who might accuse me of trespassing. So, that would be the time the phone alarm would sound, and that was less than five hours away! Not much sleep, and I was surely going to be exhausted in the morning, and likely for the rest of the day as well, surely. I needed sleep.
My mind was restless for quite a while that night, and I don't remember falling asleep, but know it was fairly shortly after seeing that creature, which was oddly comforting, in a strange sense. It must have happened a bit after that, and the next thing I knew, the alarm was ringing, and instinctively, I turned the thing off.
Sleepy as my eyes still were, I surveyed the horizon. It was not full light out yet, but it was certainly not full dark, either. Everything was quiet, of course. This was not a busy hour yet. That would come later. Still, it felt like I had to get a move on. So, resisting the urge to lay back down and shut my eyes, I turned the key to start the car, and began to drive, just wanting to find a quiet place to empty my bladder in peace, choosing one of the really quiet, tree-lined country roads that I had explored the night before (just a few hours before, really).
That done, I began to head towards my destination, although it seemed assured that everything would be locked up and closed, and that it would take another trip here later on to gain access.
But when I got there, there was a car in the drive, and my eyes widened. Looking around, I now saw quite a few cars parked there, and my excitement began to grow. There was a great feeling that you feel when you accidentally stumble upon something really great, and that was how I was feeling at the moment.
This surely was too good to be true, and I would be met with some kind of disappointment or other, right?
Still, I headed towards my destination, taking a change of clothes, and quite a few books, in my big orange travel bag. Walked away from the car and headed back towards the road, crossing it, and to my destination.
There was quite a congregation of people there already, despite the very early hour. It was not even 6:30 in the morning, probably not even 6:15 or so. Yet, a whole bunch of people, most of whom seemed to know one another, were there. There stood on the sand, putting on their outfits, talking amongst themselves.
Always feeling self conscious, and wanting to keep to myself, I took the far side, taking heart to see these people nonetheless. There were some people already in the water, swimming. Some were actually quite distant, and these exercises were not for the uninitiated.
But that was not why I was there. It was not to test my swimming skills, but to swim these waters, and then to soak in my books, and one book in particular that I had brought with me. This was a book that, though it shames to admit it, I had tried to read a few times, but never gotten farther than a few pages or so at most. There was a well-known essay in the back that had been highly influential, and I had never even read that, either. That was a relative blemish on my reading history, and a source of personal embarrassment (although nobody else really knew). But starting today, I intended to change that.
Before stripping off my shoes and shirt, I wondered if there was anything like this scene in another lake or pond in the country. It was hard to imagine that there was, since this was nearly a religious experience for some. Not sure that it was for me, but this also was not just an ordinary swim, or anything like that. I held this place with a certain measure of reverence and respect. There was a reason, after all, that I cam here, specifically. There was a reason, too, that these strange people gathered in such numbers shortly after dawn to catch a swim, or perhaps a hike.
I tested the water, expecting it to be prohibitively cold. But it was, and so I swam, and simultaneously bathed and purified myself, in the waters at Walden in the early morning hours of dawn, and watched as the approaching sunrise began to hit the upper parts of the trees surrounding the pond.
The water was refreshing, restorative. Suddenly, spending a night crouched inside of a car in the back of a gas station was not such a big deal. Was, in fact, okay. How long had it been since I felt so alive, awake? God, it was wonderful!
I swam for a bit, then got out of the water, and sat, facing the pond. Pulled out that book that I had never managed to successfully get through, or even to get into beyond a superficial reading of the first couple of pages or so. It was an old, beat up ex-library copy of Henry David Thoreau's Walden that I had found at a thrift store for all of maybe fifty cents. It certainly was not more than a dollar.
Reading while feeling myself drying off, looking up every now and then to inhale and take it all in, before exhaling and getting back to my reading, it all felt very good. I was finding the reading far more enjoyable and enlightening than ever before. Perhaps I had needed that maturity, because now, I could appreciate it. Perhaps the surroundings helped as well. Whatever it was, it was working.
After about half an hour, when I felt myself really drying off, I went back in the water. This time, I went out further than before, and really began to feel it in my arms and legs.
How long had it been since the last time I swam so much, and so seriously? Usually, I am with my son, trying to teach him, and hardly go past shallow water that reaches past my shoulders. So this was a new experience to me, of sorts. Or, rather, it was an unfamiliar one that required reacclimatizing.
There came a point when, braving a swim to what was approaching the midway point of the pond, I looked toward the shore, and it was looking rather distant. So, I turned around and headed back.
It was the most real swimming that I had done in ages, and my arms and legs were actually feeling it. They were tired, and had that burn of exertion. I reflected yet again that this was not a bad way at all to get up and get a morning going.
I got back to shore, and got back to reading, too. It was still early, and I was still feeling good.
There was one other thing that I really wanted to do, and that was going for a hike. Now, I love hiking, and getting a hike in here, of all places, seemed paramount. But time was starting to be a factor, because later in the day, I needed to drive home to
New Jersey. Still, I wanted to make a point of hiking here, and fulfilling my desire to have done everything I wanted to finally on a trip to Walden. This was as good an opportunity as I ever had thus far, and I meant to take advantage of it this time.
So, I found a quiet place (this was harder than you might think, because although some people had filtered out of
Walden Pond, others had joined them, and it seemed likely that the later the hour, the more people would show up. But there was a quiet corner, and I changed into dry clothes, ran up back to the car to drop off my bag and books, and then headed back towards Walden Pond, after a brief visit to the replica of Thoreau's self-made home (they seemed to refer to it as his "hut" on the trail, which was not entirely accurate, I don't think, since it was a house in the western style, and not a more basic hut, which would have been living even closer to the wilderness, to nature, as it were).
So, there was a trail that wrapped around the pond, and I decided to take that. At the entrance to it, there was information about the trail, claiming that it ran a total of 1.7 miles. Pretty short, and should be a quick hike. About a half a mile into it, I learned after reading more, was the site where Thoreau's house once stood. I couldn't wait to finally see it, and wondered what it would look like.
There was another pond just before you reached it, and this one was much more like the image of a pond that I conjure up in my mind. It was tiny and kind of tucked away, and filled with green algae and lily pads, and with ducks swimming in the water. There it was, shining in the morning sun, sitting very prettily. This was a very nice little corner of the world.
Right after that came a bit of a rise in the land to get to the site, and I followed the signs. Finally, I saw it.
It is indeed small, and the tiny replica of the house nearby the parking lot and Route 2A that divided the lot from the grounds of Walden Park, is indeed probably quite accurate, in terms of size, as well as what was stored inside – a bed, a desk for writing, a fireplace and some logs, and that was just about it. But it's easy and efficient to heat during the winter time, surely, and seemed rather quaint.
But this, this was the actual site where he stayed. I had assumed it was set deeper in the woods, but it was quite close to the pond. Makes sense, since he would have needed to water, on many levels. The site of the house itself has clear borders around it, to mark where the walls once stood. There is a gap to mark the entrance, and you can step inside, and look at the memorial in stone.
Nearby was a pile of stone, some painted and with design. Many were stacked together, there were numerous such stacks. Next to this pile of stones, on the far side of the house from the piling, there was a wooden placard, with a fitting, and rather famous, quote from Thoreau.
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essentials 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."
I remember the first time I had heard that quote and having it made an impact, was seeing the movie "The Dead Poet's Society". Since Walden, I have had the urge to once again watch this beautiful movie. That particular line of Thoreau's had really given the boys pause for thought, and they had been very impressed.
A lot of people gather here, obviously. But it is strange, because although there is an air of reverence and solemnity, it is, nonetheless, not exactly a tomb, or a memorial, or any such thing. In fact, it had been lost for some time, but discovered midway through the twentieth century, when the remnants of the fireplace gave clear indication of where the house.
Perhaps people were simply paying respect to the man, and his unique efforts in the woods of
Concord. Mostly, I think there was a sense of awe at the power of his words and his thought, which was quite unique and ahead of his time. Like the quote that was on the wooden placard, there was much in poetic quality in Thoreau's words. Yet, on some levels, he was just reiterating (or recycling, if you will) something that others had said before him. Specifically, the natives of America that had resisted the advance of our "civilization" had largely stated many of the same things, albeit in different wording. They, too, had been quite critical of the lifestyle that we have inherited. I am writing this, and you are reading this, and that means that there is a connection between you and me in terms of our culture. We belong to this "civilization" that surrounds us. Thoreau can be credited with being the first member of our culture to make an attempt at thinking differently than the conventional wisdom of the time, and taking an entirely different approach.
Perhaps the most ironic thing about Thoreau was that he was in the shadow of the much more famous (at the time) and established Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was also a
Concord native. In fact, many felt that Thoreau was rather a cheap knock off of Emerson, if you will, and so Thoreau was not really given much credit until much, much later. In many respects, their relationship was that of master and student, or perhaps rather that of master and underling. However way you want to put it, Thoreau was clearly in the subordinate position. Emerson had fame, was well known for his writings. He owned a house, and was more firmly rooted in the community, while Thoreau seemed forever the outsider. People of his time simply did not take to him, and perhaps not only did not understand him, but did not try. This defined him for some time, but things change.
These days, it is Thoreau who is likely the most famous writer/philosopher to have come from
I hiked on after stopping at the ground where the house had once stood. The earth was soft under my feet at points, leaving that soft impress in my wake, much as Thoreau himself had written. At this point, I should admit that I did not take Thoreau's advice, and leave things alone, but rather took a small but colorful rock (more like a pebble) that I had found, as well as an acorn, a bit of water from the pond in a recyclable bottle that I had spotted along the way. While I had been gathering the water, my copy of Walden accidentally fell into the pond. I quickly scooped it up, but not on time, as the pages got wet. It seemed the book was ruined.
But it wasn't. The pages did not get soaked, they just got a bit wet, and they were still legible. The book could still be read. I was thankful for that. In a few days, much to my surprise, the pages dried out entirely, and you would never know that they had fallen into the pond, or had even been wet. Sometimes, if they get completely soaked, that ruins the entire book.
I hiked around the pond, getting vantage points of it from various angles. It was truly beautiful, sparkling in the summer sun like jewels laid out on a blue canvass. It was so bright, that I had to squint a bit and shield my eyes, another thing that Thoreau himself had mentioned in his writings.
The track around the pond is about 1.7 miles. I usually hike at least 2.5 miles to 3 miles, when I hike, and I had a lot of energy (and still had some time before needing to head back), and so I went back to the site where his actual cabin had been, soaked it all in, and then finally, turned back, heading back to the beach by the entrance near Route 2A, then crossing that, back to the parking lot, to my car, which would take me back to the modern world, and my modern life.
My stay at Walden had been nowhere near as long as Thoreau's, of course. He had stayed for two years, two months, and two days, and I had stayed for a bit more than two hours (actually, probably more like three and a half, and it was not my first time there, but who's counting?). Still, I had the book, and I felt compelled to finally finish it this time around. And that is exactly what I managed to do, too (it will be the subject matter of a new blog in the very near future).
The thing is, although I physically left Walden Woods and
Walden Pond, Walden itself is more than that. Yes, it is the physical location of the woods and the pond within. But it is also the book, and it is also the spirit of the ideas, and the place, in your heart (if you allow it, of course). And so, with my copy of Thoreau's Walden to read, I kept it close to me for a few weeks, which made me feel close to Walden, even when far – even when I took a trip quite a bit farther west. I took the book while hiking, and would stop at times in whatever piece of wilderness I happened to be in (there is one place that I love to hike which has an idyllic waterfall, and that wound up being a favorite place that I would go to sit and read with that specific book a few times).
Now, I am done with the book, but Walden still somehow feels close to me…