Ever since I was introduced to American writer Henry David Thoreau in junior year of high school, Walden Pond has always held a special place in my imagination. As Thoreau’s home for two years, it represented, in my mind, his dream of an escape from the vanities of the material world, and his pursuit of freedom and autonomy through reconnecting with nature. These ideas were deeply influential to me throughout the rest of high school and college, so that Walden Pond had come to exist not as a place, but as an idea. It was almost like it could never actually be visited by real human beings. But recently, I finally did just that.
Walden Pond still retains much of its natural beauty from the time that Thoreau resided there in the 1840s. He chose that location, in Concord, Massachusetts, because it was relatively removed from civilization (although the town was just a few miles away). He built his tiny one-room cabin on the north side of the pond, lived off the land, and spent a great deal of time reading, writing, and contemplating philosophy. Eventually he would publish the book Walden; or, a Life in the Woods, which reads as equal parts philosophy and practical guide for self-reliance. Thoreau’s purpose for living alone in nature was to live simply and attain a greater understanding of society from the outside. The philosophy he espoused is known as transcendentalism, which defies a simple definition, but generally promotes idealism, the inherent goodness of the individual, and the importance of nature.
Thoreau’s credo can easily be summed up in this quote from his book, which appears on a sign not far from where his cabin originally stood:
I was strongly pulled to Thoreau when I first read about him in my American Literature class in high school. As we moved through each literary period, I found the rationalists were too dull, and the Gothics too morbid, but the transcendentalists were just right. They were spiritual, principled, and in some ways, quite radical. Thoreau spent a night a jail for refusing to pay his taxes when the U.S. declared war on Mexico in 1846. As I read this in 2003, the U.S. was gearing up to invade Iraq, and Thoreau’s commitment to his pacifism struck a chord with me. In college, when I started reading Walden one summer, I found myself nodding my head in agreement at his ideas on civilization, economy, and human nature. It was like he was writing in the present day.
When my girlfriend and I stepped foot in Walden Pond for the first time, just a few weeks ago, I felt some of that kinship with Thoreau once more. Sure, it was a state park now, with a parking lot, a bookstore, and a swimming area, but I was heartened to find that it had not been too heavily developed. In fact, most of the wooded areas were preserved, and the trails winding through the park were not very crowded. You can no longer find complete isolation at Walden Pond, of course. But that’s okay. We’re not all transcendentalists, after all.
We walked up the path and found the site of the original cabin, which was sadly destroyed many years ago.
But fear not, fellow Thoreau fans, because an accurate replica of the cabin was created based on the detailed description Thoreau himself provided in his book. The size is quite small, smaller than a modern bedroom, and yet he spent two years of his life within these walls:
As I reflect on my experience at Walden Pond, I realize that my own life, and philosophy, has shifted since first getting acquainted with Thoreau years ago. My idealism of the college years has softened considerably as I’ve gotten older and entered the working world. Since I graduated during a down economy, I’ve had to become much more practical in my thinking. Now when I gaze at Thoreau’s former home, I consider that we can’t all up and move to a cabin in the woods to commune with nature when there are bills to be paid and responsibilities to keep up. Would that my wood-fire stove could pay my student loans back for me. In addition, if someone does not agree with a government policy, I wouldn’t find them particularly heroic if they stopped paying their taxes. Principles are important, but so is a well-functioning society, and in a society we can’t all get exactly what we want.
Thoreau also represents the pleasures of solitude and going it alone, a common American trope. His book begins with a scathing takedown of modern society, putting himself in the role of “last sane man on earth”. In my younger days, with my own disillusionment with government and the frivolousness of popular culture, I often felt this way too. But again, my thoughts have shifted over time. Even if we desire isolation and self-sufficiency, is this the right way to live? I’ve found that we fare better in the end when we’re in a group, even though we have to give up some of our autonomy and make compromises. But it also forces us to be less stubborn and judgmental. One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn is the fact that I don’t know everything, and never will. In other words, I’m just as crazy and flawed as the rest of them. If we live in isolation, we may become very content with ourselves and never learn this lesson, growing ever smugger in our own self-satisfaction. I’ve come to believe that, despite Thoreau’s and my own dissatisfactions with certain aspects of modern society, it is ultimately better to remain a part of it.
And now, because no post would be complete without some cartography, here is a map of the trails at Walden Pond State Reservation in the present day. I highly recommend a visit for anyone in the area.