Friday, August 23, 2013

Postcards from Walden Pond

“We need the tonic of wildness...At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.” ~ H. D. Thoreau.

“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.” That, of course, is one of the more popular quotations from the man who made Walden Pond famous. The quote is popular enough to be carved into a wooden sign that stands next to the site of Thoreau’s even more famous cabin in the woods. That site is marked with granite pillars and iron chains.

Lots of people still “go to the woods,” that is, to Walden Pond, but few, it seems go to “live deliberately.” Fewer still go to find the solitude that Thoreau famously craved.  “I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude,” he said. (So he claimed, though society was never far off. He also said, “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”

Mostly the multitudes come to swim in the pond, which is a fair sized lake (and quite warm, especially compared with the ocean. I can attest to that!)

They come in droves. Some find their way to the replica of Thoreau’s cabin that has been placed conveniently between large parking lots, across the road from the actual pond and quite a distance from the site of Thoreau’s actual cabin on the far side of the pond. That is to say, about a leisurely 15-minute walk, or 10 minutes at a brisk pace.

The replica of the cabin, along with interpretive signage and a curiously small bronze statue of Thoreau contemplating…what exactly? It appears to be his own hand.

Inside the replica of the cabin are replicas of the three chairs, a replica writing table, replica stove, replica bed with a replica moth-eaten woolen blanket neatly tucked in around it. Also, there were actual tourists. Here a boy holds up his illustrated copy of Walden for his mother who is wielding her cell phone camera. Others came through while I lingered, commenting on the size of the space, or its Spartan furnishings, or the smell. 

"It smells like ham," a group of four unaccompanied young girls all agreed. As they left, the tallest - presumably the eldest - told the others with authority, "This is his real cabin." One of the other girls asked plaintively, "Isn't this like a replica?" The first reasserted, "This is the real one." 

"Did he die here?" I heard one of them ask as they all strode off towards the pond. They were out of earshot before I could catch the answer. Just as well, I suppose.

I made the walk to the actual cabin site, of course. It took me longer than 15 minutes because I stopped frequently to observe, and photograph, the wildlife. All of it was of the human kind, although the sign on this unkempt pile of wood reads, "Turtle nesting site; please do not disturb."

The narrow path is lined with barbed wire. Thoreau wrote, “Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe.” I personally have no problem with a little make-believe now and then, but I'm with Thoreau on this one. This is Walden Pond, the straight facts.

At intervals were hung signs that read “Please stay on the trails…. Violators are subject to fines.” Neither the signs nor the barbed wire, it seems, are enough to thwart some people determined to enjoy the blessings of nature. Thoreau again: “All change is a miracle to contemplate, but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant.” Much has changed here at Walden; miracles, however, seem to be in short supply.

“A lake is a landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”  ~ H. D. Thoreau.
With apologies to Thoreau, I went to the woods deliberately because I wished to pay homage, to front the essential facts of life as it unfolds at Walden Pond in 2013, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach. I learned something. After all, "Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn." 

I paid my respects. I also paid the State of Massachusetts to park and for the honor of owning a T-shirt inscribed with that most famous quote: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” (Which, of course, was not among his writings from Walden, but the essay, “Walking.”)

In the end I went back to my car, which I had parked at the farthest corner of the lot, and I got out the picnic lunch that I’d brought along. I went a short distance along a trail that led away from the pond and the people. Warm sunlight dappled the scene before me. A low, marshy spot was visible through the trees. I sat on a boulder while I ate. No one passed. The solitude of the woods was a refreshing tonic.

“If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal- that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.” ~ H. D. Thoreau

Unlike the one on my new T-shirt, all of the other quotes in this post are from Walden, Thoreau's reflection on his two-year stay in this woods, near the pond. Before leaving I pause to reflect, to greet the day with joy, to understand that there is cause to feel momentarily blessed. I have taken my pictures, made my notes and learned a little of what this place has teach, but the true harvest is intangible.

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