In Thoreau’s Footsteps
Walden Pond endures, thanks to the author’s legacy and inspiring love of the natural world.
Walden Pond in Massachusetts endures, thanks to the legacy of Henry David Thoreau.
Its landscape is nothing special. There are no lofty peaks, ledges of rock, oldgrowth forests or flowing streams. Rather, Walden Pond is an ordinary body of water surrounded by sterile sand and gravel soils, and covered by woods. It’s one of perhaps 50,000 small lakes sprinkled between Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, and Great Falls, Montana. Walden Pond matters because of the book it inspired. This is where Henry David Thoreau translated his experiment in living deliberately into his masterpiece, Walden. In the woods surrounding a 62-acre lake in Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau built a one-room house with his own hands. He lived there for “two years, two months, and two days” between July 4, 1845, and Sept. 6, 1847, waking with the rising of the sun; finding the right balance between life and work, and between society and solitude; eating a simple diet and drinking the purest of cold water—and, most importantly, being immersed in nature for hours on end. Walden became an important work of 19th-century American literary nonfiction. Its central ideas are these: live your life, not the life others have in mind for you; live each day anew with amazement and gratitude; live in the present movement; and live with nature in mind. In short, an ordinary place inspired an extraordinary book, which made this place world famous. In 1922, the parcel of land surrounding the pond was donated to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to create a park that has since become an international shrine. Through the years, millions of appreciative readers, including me, have made their personal pilgrimage to the epicenter of that park, the place where Thoreau lived. The home site is now marked by a memorial cairn of stones begun in 1872 by Mary Newbury Adams of Dubuque, Iowa. Pilgrims of the 19th century included writers Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, John Burroughs and John Muir. Those of the 20th century included Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, a book that revisited many of Thoreau’s major themes and launched America’s modern environmental movement. Competing with Walden’s fame as an international literary site was Walden’s local fame as a swimming hole for Boston-area residents. This led to serious overcrowding of the beach and nutrient pollution in the water. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the shoreline of the pond was dramatically modified to accommodate tens of thousands of recreational swimmers. Architects, engineers and contractors created access roads, asphalt parking lots, new beaches, concrete piers and stairways, trails and retaining walls. Pond historian W. Barksdale Maynard reported that on the hot day of July 14, 1935,
the Walden crowd reached 35,000. This number staggers belief. Since the 1970s, a massive restoration has taken place to fulfill the conservation-minded terms of the original deed, and visitation is currently limited to a thousand people at a time. My first visit was on a hot summer day in 1985. For me, it was a personal pilgrimage. For my wife and toddlers, it was a happy family adventure. I recall a crowded sandy beach, a trout fisherman in a kayak, a young woman reading in the woodsy shade and the clarity of Walden’s turquoise water. The pond has changed since Thoreau’s time. The trees are larger, the woods thicker, the trails more eroded and the visitors more diverse. Swimmers continue to impact the water quality, which is a problem being addressed through public education. Throughout it all, Walden Pond endures as a source of inspiration for all who follow in the footsteps of Thoreau.
A replica of Thoreau’s original hut stands in Walden Woods; left, the pond glistens in autumn sunshine.
This story is excerpted from Robert M. Thorson’s The Guide to Walden Pond, which takes visitors and readers on a tour of the pond’s shoreline.