Walden, written by Henry David Thoreau, has been a favorite book of mine for nearly 45 years. I’ve long appreciated this record of a life well-spent and, thus, have long resisted the temptation of visiting the book’s post-glacial centerpiece near Concord, MA. “Resisted” is, of course, a fine word from the lexicon of Lexington-Concord life, the place where the American Revolution got its start in 1775.
Despite my eternal interest, I’ve resisted visiting Walden Pond for what appears to be a silly reason: I didn’t want the images garnered from my readings of Thoreau and other writers to be diminished by the Burger King and Dollar General crowd; I didn’t want my understanding of American freedom to be compromised by the discord of the present moment. But my daughter drove us up to Walden Pond on a chilled but brilliant late-fall day– and I wasn’t disappointed.
I’d been told that my visit would be reassuring, that Concord village and Walden State Park would be a good experience. Sure enough. We had a fine 1.7 mile walk around the 62-acre pond. Walden is the deepest natural lake in all of Massachusetts. In the 1840s, Thoreau was the first to accurately plumb its greatest depth (102 feet) while wintering in his cabin on the wooded shore. This glacially created pond is well-preserved today despite its popularity and proximity to Concord, an historic city with a small-town feel.
I had refrained from looking at photos taken at Walden Pond, preferring to keep in mind the human and natural history described by Henry David. I surprised myself in finding that the pond’s reality is pretty close to what I had imagined. Pilgrimage doesn’t often turn out so happily. Yeah, there was a small crowd of visitors at Thoreau’s cabin site, with people reverently adding a stone to the cairn or asking a question like, “Where did the cabin go?”
The Fitchburg Railroad still cuts across a corner of the pond as it did in Henry’s time, but the pond remains a lovely place. It’s flanked by cliffs of large white pine and hemlock trees. Its scarlet oaks reminded me of the writer’s famous Journal. Glancing at Walden’s sandy beaches, its shallow water dropping quickly into the depths of Concord and the world, one could almost grasp the beauty and complexity recorded by the Concord naturalists and philosophers.
If that wasn’t enough, we also toured the nearby Concord Museum and the homes of some literary greats, viz., of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, and Nathanial Hawthorn. The North Bridge/Concord River battlefield behind the “Old Manse” conjured revolutionary daydreams, and the “Authors’ Ridge” (a burial site for Emerson, Thoreau and other Transcendentalist writers) was an evocative, pine-shaded stop in the expansive Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
There wasn’t a Burger King or Dollar General Store in sight. Not in the historic quarters. And I shouldn’t have been surprised to find more than one book store in Concord. It seemed that every block of town, plus each museum and writer’s home, had its own small shop catering to the talk of literature and the selling of books. My god, what was this world coming to? I was grateful, of course, and even bought a massive new biography called Henry David Thoreau, A Life, by Laura Banks. I read this New York Times Notable Book and learned a lot about the brilliant, progressive author that I didn’t know before.
I learned enough to make me want to visit Walden’s shore again, some quiet day, in any season of the year.