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.

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