It is one of the great American sententiae, as sonorous and moving as the Gettysburg Address. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential 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.”
Henry David Thoreau went to the woods in 1845, living for two years and two months in a cabin he had built on the north shore of Walden Pond. The book resulting from his experiment in simplicity was published in 1854, to lukewarm reviews. A century and a half later, however, “Walden” is a fundamental text of the ecological movement, and the pond, a crucial topos of American history, has become a place of pilgrimage.
I come to the woods in a taxi from Logan Airport, leaving Boston on Route 2. My taxi driver is a young Ethiopian woman with a printed headscarf wound around her head, nervous on her first day of work. We leave the highway at the turn-off for Lincoln, and up there on the exit sign I see the name in big letters: Walden Pond. It has become a destination in itself.
The pond lies a few miles out of Concord village in the state of Massachusetts. The pond isn’t really a pond, at least not in the English sense of a small body of standing water, often found at the bottom of a garden. It’s a roundish lake surrounded by forest, with a patch of boggy meadow at its western end. The water in this kettle lake or pothole lake (as geographers variously define it), tinged benignly blue-green at the edges and scarily black towards the middle where it plunges to a depth of 33 metres, is filtered as it pushes up through the sandy soil around it, and has a mesmerising clarity I’ve never seen in any English pond.
Until the mid-19th century Walden Pond was of minimal importance to anyone but the merchants who harvested the clear, clean ice from its surface in winter, for export to India. On the other hand, it lay so close to the town, a mere mile and a half from the railroad station, that it was a place you might walk to for the sheer pleasure of walking. Locals came to fish with a rod and line, or to cut wood for fires.
Thoreau went to Walden out of conviction, but also out of necessity. In March 1845 the poet William Ellery Channing, his companion on the week-long boating trip on the Concord and Merrimack rivers that would form the basis for his first book, wrote to him, “I see nothing for you on this earth but that field which I once christened ‘Briars’; go out upon that, build yourself a hut, and there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive.”
At 27, Thoreau’s published writings had been limited to essays in the Dial, the in-house magazine of the Transcendentalists, and the Democratic Review. He was close to penniless, with no immediate prospects. Helping out in the pencil-making workshop alongside his father was far from a dream job. He was comfortable enough but feared the effects of his too easeful life. More than anything, he realised, he needed to strike out on his own. In the autumn of 1844 he had helped to raise the family’s new house on Texas Street. Now that he knew something about foundations, rafters and roofing, perhaps he would be able to build something much smaller by and for himself.
This would not be the first time he had camped out by a lake. Nine years earlier he had spent six weeks in a hut by Flint’s Pond with a student friend from Harvard. But Walden Pond already held a permanent place in Thoreau’s mental geography. It was among the excursions he had made with his early sweetheart, Ellen Sewell, sister of another pupil at his school. Entries in his journal for December 1840 show how even thinking about the pond had the effect of making him “supple jointed and limber for the duties of the day”.
The first shock is how close this place, so peaceful in Thoreau’s description, now lies to the seething city, to gas stations and roadside fast-food joints and roaring highways like the one we have just exited to join a county road, sliding past the pond on its way to the small town of Lincoln. The second is how busy I find it on this first Sunday in September. Yellow sandwich boards announce that the pond car park is now full up and officially closed to further traffic; barriers block off access roads to left and right. Families pad along the roadside with blow-up floaters, folding chairs and other beach equipment. A woman stands by the zebra crossing, shaking the forest sand out of her shoes.
The afternoon carries a charge of accumulated summer, a weary hangover heat passed on from earlier in the day and the season. From the taxi window I glimpse the lake for the first time, gleaming through a fringe of high trees in the low, late light. I never expected it to look this inviting. I had stored up the pond in that part of my brain reserved for ideals, for places long imagined, and was used to thinking of it, not bright and Brighton-beachy, but in wintry chiaroscuro, leafless and cheerless.
Thoreau’s Walden B&B, where I am lodged, turns out to be the only construction within sight of the pond. It’s a blowsy suburban house that must have been built just before Walden Pond, and the forest around it, became a State Reservation managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.
“You’ll want a towel,” says the landlady, Barbara, almost accusingly. She is assuming that I won’t waste time before heading for the water.
She’s right: I can’t put off the moment. Across the street and into the trees and down the steps to a small grey beach where the scent of coconut oil hangs in the warm air. Children shrieking and running, parents sitting and calling – it could be a scene on any beach anywhere in the world at any point in the summer.
Under the high trees there is shade and dappled light. Against a background rumble of traffic, an old-fashioned ice-cream vendor with a tinny fairground melody echoes somewhere in the woods.
I swim out into the coolness and tread water, remembering how Thoreau compared his daily pond-bath to a religious exercise – “Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again” – and wondering whether any of the molecules he touched might still be here 170 years later, while trying hard to tune out the three teenaged girls bobbing up to their necks a few yards away.
“OK, so you wanna do it then?”
“It means we all haveta touch the bottom at the same time.”
“No freakin’ way!”
“It’s pretty gross, OK?”
“It’s kinda slimy down there.”
“OK, here goes – one, two, three…”
From where I’m floating, the pond water is clear as distillate. To look below your feet is to see through a glass darkly. Thoreau compares the look of a human body in this water to the alabaster whiteness of a sculpture by Michelangelo.
In the sudden silence that follows the girls’ dive, the words “getting away from it all” drop unbidden into my head. Thoreau was perhaps the inventor of this notion, or at least a pioneering exponent of it. But this small lake now receives more than 500,000 visitors a year, prompting the question, who is getting away, and from what? The plain fact is that the pond offers one of the few opportunities for a freshwater dip in the greater Boston area. And then there is the Thoreau effect, the pull of the man.
Both have taken their toll. The weekend high tide has left trash on the beach; nappies used, rolled up and left, plastic forks and cups, a snack packet offering “whole grain goodness”. A sign beside the path says: KEEP MAKING RECYCLING A HABIT.
Next morning at the B&B, Barbara moves around the kitchen making breakfast, a family of overweight chihuahuas yapping around her.
“I liked the pond better before,” she says. “There used to be a big old pier, like a boardwalk, out into the water there. But they demolished it.” She places before me a plate of pancakes drenched in maple syrup.
Certainly there have been changes here, and greater ones since Thoreau’s day. Before the advent of coal, New England families depended on wood for heat and cooking fuel, and it seems, perhaps counter-intuitively, that the Walden forest today is a great deal more luxuriant than it would have been in 1845. But the shoreline would not have had the bald, scruffy look it has now, left by the pressure of thousands of feet on the circular path around the pond.
On Monday morning, I cross the road under the trees, and descend the concrete staircase past the rest-rooms. It has been a cold night, and the day dawns with shreds of mist rising from the pond in gauzy white plumes. There is silence just here, but it’s held as if in a bubble of Monday-morning transport noise, compassed about by the sounds of traffic on Highway 2 on one side, the Lincoln Road on another, the regular rattle of the suburban railway on the triangle’s third side, and the planes and helicopters overhead, all trapped in the bad-tempered grind of a big city on its way to work.
Even at this hour there is a human presence at the pond, though the clientele has changed. These are not weekend trippers, but solitary swimmers and joggers going stoically through their routines. A sign put up by the Department of Conservation and Recreation informs visitors that running around the pond is prohibited – along with dogs/pets, fires/grills, camping, bikes on trails, alcoholic beverages, gasoline engines, wind-powered sail craft, hunting, metal detectors, novelty inflation devices and parking on the streets – and yet the waterside trail is busy with runners. Proximity to Boston has turned the pond into a suburban facility, a leisure resource with no entrance charge combining the benefits of natural swimming pool and outdoor gym.
From Thoreau’s account I always imagined it bigger, more rambling and ragged-edged, with distant corners, a proper wilderness, not this round patch of water the whole of which is visible from any given point on its shoreline. Even so, there is something strangely protean about the pond, its significance, thoroughly disproportionate to its actual size, seeming to make it grow and pulsate in the mind’s eye.
Though Thoreau’s cabin stood on the north side of the pond, a recreated version has been placed near the car park, perhaps to save visitors the trouble of making the half-hour walk to the site itself. There is a bronze statue of the man in an attitude of preoccupation, seeming to stride away through the woods. The cabin stands behind him, a pitched-roofed structure in grey clapboard with the front door at one end, a chimney at the other and two white-painted sash windows on either side. Gingerly, I look about the interior, trying to place my expectations side-by-side with this reality. There is a narrow camp bed, a wooden school-desk painted green, a brick fireplace. It is pretty basic, but the beamed ceiling redeems the space from total austerity and the sash windows lend a touch of conventional comfort.
On the desk lies a visitors’ book, a compendium of gnomic responses to Thoreau’s Walden project. The scribbled comments run the gamut from the ingenuous (“enchanting!”, “great house!”, “OMG”, “weirdo”, and “I ❤ USA”) to the considered (“just enough” and “I don’t think I could live here”), the wistful (“simplicity in life is missed these days”) and the passionate (“give me liberty or give me death”).
For the true site, not the reconstructed tourist one, the pilgrim is required to take a little more trouble. A grey stone marker points the way to Thoreau’s Hut on a woodland path diverging a little way from the waterside trail. He chose the location of his house with evident care. He didn’t want it on the water’s edge, where it would have been too visible, as well as prey to damp, but on a small elevation, where he could peer down at the pond through the trees, with flat land around it which could be cultivated.
He had bought a shack from an Irishman, James Collins, who worked on the Fitchburg Railroad. (The railway had reached Concord in 1843, the track running round the back of Walden Pond.) He paid $4.25 for the shack, used by Collins as a hen house, “damp, clammy, and aguish”, whose wooden boards and roof would be recycled for the cabin walls. He describes digging a rough cellar in the ground, six feet square by seven deep, reaching a seam of fine sand where potatoes wouldn’t freeze.
At the beginning of May Thoreau brought a group of friends from Concord to help him raise the house. Later, he made the base of the chimney from stones hauled up from the water’s edge, waiting until autumn to build the chimney stack, using old bricks he had bought at $4 for 1,000. The windows were also second-hand: $2.43 the pair. He casually mentions a closet (presumably an outdoor privy, a surprising luxury for one so keen on spartan simplicity), a garret and a woodshed. By Thoreau’s accounting, the whole thing cost him $28.12½, which he compares favourably to what a student at Harvard might pay in a year to rent a fourth-floor apartment of a similar size.
He finally moved in on the 4th of July. Thoreau makes no comment on the significance of the date, but it’s now clear that this was not only his own private Independence Day – it was a red-letter day in the cultural history of America. It was the first house he had owned, with the exception of a tent, and he felt that “with this more substantial shelter about me, I had made some progress toward settling in the world.” Yet the house was airy and unplastered, with wide chinks in the wall, which made it cool at night. His slyly humorous descriptions of it suggest a dwelling that, while it provided protection from the worst of the elements, didn’t have the effect of isolating him from the natural world.
Not much is left of the cabin, though the stone fireplace is still visible, the form of the house revealed by concrete markers, with ropes around the site like those around archaeological remains. In fact some genuine investigation has gone on here. When Thoreau eventually returned to Concord, the house was removed and used by some neighbouring farmer as a grain store, and eventually the roof was put on a pigsty. The site was abandoned until 1945, when Roland Wells, an amateur archaeologist, rediscovered the chimney stones after three months of digging and the restoration of the site began.
It’s like looking at the ruin of an early Christian hermitage in which a monk lived alone in righteous poverty. There’s something unmistakably reverential about the grey stone slab on the ground nearby that reads simply SITE OF WOODSHED; and the heap of stones piled up beside it, to which an unspoken tradition dictates that the visitor should add one more, reminds me of the pagan milladoiros along the Way of Saint James in north-western Spain. If the “I went to the woods” passage from Walden, painted on a board in front of the cabin site, has a ring of sanctity, it is partly because, for many Americans, Thoreau has attained the status of a secular saint.
On the morning after Labour Day a few stragglers are still leaving Concord for Boston, driving grim-faced down Main Street, some with dayglo kayaks strapped on the car roof.
Walking out of town along Bedford Road, I stop off at Sleepy Hollow cemetery, the wide acres of rolling lawn and forest where most of the village would appear to have been buried. Thoreau’s tomb stands on the Author’s Ridge, among the family mausoleums of Concord’s literary great and good: the Alcotts and Emersons and Hawthornes. His is a small grey stub of a size more commonly associated with children or pets, carved with the single word “Henry”, and strewn around with a strange drift of coloured biros and pencils left in awkward tribute by legions of admirers.
I return to Walden Pond for the last time on a gloomy afternoon when the low-hanging September sun is obscured in the west by massing clouds which make the pond water look clearer than ever. Thoreau called it a great crystal on the surface of the Earth. A few small fish swim about in the glassy shallows.
I creep around the pond again, straining to capture and store a last crop of impressions. Across a spur of sand on Ice Fort Cove, two walkers approach from the opposite direction and a handsome grey heron takes flight, flapping to where he thinks he’ll be safe.
When Thoreau lived at Walden, the pond was prodigal in wildlife. The list of species mentioned in his account is a long one: there are plants, amphibians, fish, birds and large mammals like bear, bison, caribou, moose, otter and mink. His writing thrillingly communicates his physical proximity to the natural world. Though he never actually saw a moose at Walden Pond, he did find moose tracks along the shore. (The word “moose” is supposed to have been one of the last two spoken on his deathbed in 1862, the other being “Indian”.) His sightings of the goose flailing on the ice, the torpid snake – which he famously compares to the unenlightened human soul – and the hare living underneath the floor of his house, bumping its head on the planks in its hasty departure, stick in the mind like burrs on a sweater.
There is wildlife still at Walden Pond, even if some of it is running scared. This afternoon I see woodpeckers and hummingbirds; by Wyman Meadow a black-capped chickadee – Thoreau calls it a titmouse – is applying itself to the last of the season’s blueberries. Far out on the lake, a big fish flips its tail. The pond and its residents seem to be bidding me goodbye.
As I wander back to Barbara’s to pack my bags, a chipmunk crosses my path and stares at me as I stare back. We both stand stock still for a long minute, weighing up each other’s motives. He holds himself upside down on a tree trunk, snout pointing earthwards towards his burrow in a truculent attitude, tail not bushy but stubby and firm, underbelly quivering so fast it seems a blur of fur, face alert and cross-looking as he observes me, defiant or simply defensive, before fear conquers caution and he plunges into a hole at the base of the tree.