Walking Walden

I took it as a sign. Well, it was a sign – one of the thousands of grass-green rectangles that has flashed past my windows since I saw my first one from the back seat of my parents’ Nash Rambler. Highway signs have pointed my way for over 50 years and across almost as many states, but I was looking for a different type of direction these days - less interested in where to go, than how to go. I’d committed myself to a daily practice of meditation in an attempt to tune into some subtle signal of purpose the universe might be broadcasting to me, but I didn’t expect spiritual guidance to come blazoned in six-inch high capital letters posted by the side of the road.

But as I headed south on 495, my eye caught the words “Walden Pond State Reservation,” and sent the impulse to brake for exit 29A directly to my foot - bypassing my brain in favor of a gut decision. Maybe my attempts at cultivating my connection with a will beyond my own were starting to pay off. If so, it made sense that such a union might take place well below my neck. The further I had gone into developing my “mindfulness,” the more I began to believe my brain to be my most over-rated organ. I couldn’t brew my morning cup of coffee or click my way through a day of emails without it, but it really wasn’t much use in trying to discern the larger meaning for my life.

I certainly hadn’t reasoned when I threw Thoreau’s classic tome into my duffel before heading south on a business trip. I’d whipped Walden in on a whim, or at best to address my desire to parse my own passion for the natural world; I’d tried it before, plowing my way through pages of The Maine Woods in an effort to find common ground with an author who seemed to share my reverence for a wilderness that drew me to it again and again, until I finally surrendered and made the state that housed it home. But I had found the gap between the revered philosopher’s mind and mine a distance too great to breach. I was stymied by his antiquated syntax and his long detours into subjects less compelling to me than the mysteries of nature often left me cold, skimming through his work to find words I could warm to. I hoped maybe the time I had spent living in a land we both loved might have granted me the patience and insight I needed to finally plumb the depths of his prose.

The water Thoreau anchored himself by, to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” lies surrounded by 2680 acres of undeveloped woods known as Walden Pond State Reservation. As I edged through the traffic, tract homes and strip malls of Concord, I braced myself for my first view of the pond that lay within it. With its designation as a National Historic Landmark that many consider the birthplace of the American environmental movement, Walden has a reputation I feared would be a challenge to live up to, especially given its position just 16 miles from Boston, a city with a population of over 600,000 that has grown more than ten times in size since the 162 years since Thoreau ended his two-year tenure at the pond. I wondered just how deeply I would have to dive to find any vestige of his spirit left flowing through those waters.

My first experience in the reservation didn’t exactly assuage my fears. My introduction to the home of the great naturalist began with an exchange with a machine. I waited in a long line of cars before taking my turn to swipe my card and punch buttons on the face of an automated gatekeeper that spit out my parking pass. The lot I crept into was chock full, and I made several loops before I found a spot to cut the engine beside a bustling hot dog stand.  

I tried to get my bearings and ended up following the flow of foot traffic towards what I hoped was the path to the pond. Along the way I passed the replica of Thoreau’s cabin that stood on the edge of the parking lot. I arrived amid the monologue of a fresh-faced park ranger. He stood surrounded by a half-dozen people, a number that constituted a crowd inside the tiny 10 by 15 foot structure. 

Thoreau wrote of his desire “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.” The spare shack we stood within certainly reflected that goal. He had spent all of $28 on its construction, and furnished it with only two chairs, a bed, and a simple desk. I was delighted to learn that he locked only the latter, since it contained his writings, and never the door. It seemed the perfect reflection of his transcendentalist values; a belief that the spiritual wisdom he acquired through his experience and introspection were all he could truly claim as his own. 

At the conclusion of the ranger’s speech I descended a hill to get my first glimpse of the pond. I immediately saw that the hope Thoreau had penned in his journal in response to the rapid deforestation he saw in the area had been realized; his wish that “"…all Walden wood might (be) preserved for our park forever, with Walden in its midst." His dream had been first answered in 1922, with the gift of the eighty acres that surround the pond by three families, including that of his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was answered again in 1990, when rock star Don Henley of The Eagles founded The Walden Woods Project, an effort that eventually grew to protect 150 additional acres. 

I now enjoyed their gifts -no roof or road or other sign of man was visible to mar my view. The blue pool I saw nestled within the basin of flame colored trees gave me no reason to believe it could not be sparkling under the same autumn sky in 1845 that found Thoreau enjoying his first change of seasons in his new home.

Walden Pond is roughly shaped like the trumpet of a lily bloom, with a smooth bulb at its eastern end that blossoms into four pointed coves to the west. The 102 foot deep pool was born as a glacial kettle-hole, a cold promise of future waters left by an ancient, receding glacier. A slice of ice had calved and lay buried beneath the plains of sediment left in the wake of its parent frozen river until the ceaseless, incremental addition of days and degrees had finally ignited its thaw.  

The water’s 67 acres are circumscribed by a slightly elevated mile and a half long trail. The main entrance I walked through led me to its start at the broad beach that cradles its eastern end. I began walking westward along the northern shore towards Thoreau’s Cove, which lay nestled at the northwestern end of the pond. 

It felt good to be out of the car and moving through the bright November sunlight. The day was unseasonably warm, and I noted with surprise that the flurry of activity the weather had inspired was not confined to the land. The water was dimpled with the casts of fishermen from the banks, creased with the wakes of canoes and kayaks that skimmed its surface, showered with the splashes of swimmers eager to take the season’s final dip. At first I saw them all as an intrusion, a barrier to the slice of solitude I’d hoped to steal: my private, tiny taste of the isolation that inspired Thoreau to claim the place as home. 

But the longer I walked, the more I appreciated the company I kept. I realized that among the local residents who shared the trail for a casual Sunday stroll were others who were drawn by the same force that turned my wheels from the highway. We made an ironic pack of patrons: a crowd from a crowded world that seemed to spin faster every year, gaining momentum with the added weight of the unintended consequences of our growth as we orbited into an uncertain future. Each of us was here to search for a few moments peace amid a few sacred acres left in homage to one who saw all of us coming long before we’d arrived. By the time I reached the site of his cabin, I had made my peace with them all.

The spot was marked by nine small, two-foot tall, granite rectangles linked by a strand of chain that outlined the periphery of the long-vanished cabin’s foundation. A sign nearby revealed the details of the site’s discovery in 1945 by Roland Wells Robinson, an amateur historian who excavated the cabin’s chimney on the centennial of Thoreau’s move to the pond. 

Nearby was a less formal monument, an arrangement of casual cairns left by a few of the more than half-million visitors who came to the spot each year. I wondered over the wealth of wishes buried amid those stacks of stones, what secret desire each heart hoped for as it added its pebble to the pile: A change in fortune in their life? A change of heart in one they loved? A change in the way the world was headed? A way to become that change?

I stooped to drop my own rock, crowning a cairn to mark my passage through that place. No sign had been placed to designate the area as a shrine, it had simply grown from the need of those who came to that spot to reaffirm their connection to the earth and respect for one who discerned “…that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” What better symbol to honor the spirit of the teacher who unlocked that wisdom than this - a range of tiny mountains that grew from hopes piled upon the earth and pointed to the sky?

I left the site and continued to follow the trail around the western end of the pond, zigging and zagging around three more pointed coves until I skirted its southern shore. The moment I made my detour from the highway I had decided to meditate at Walden. It seemed the perfect place to reconnect with the force Thoreau claimed “will direct us aright”. I started seeking a secluded spot free of the sight and sound of others on the trail. I was far along the southern shore when I remembered the simple lesson that has helped me make the most of the precious half-hour I steal to center myself each day.

There is no place peaceful, or pretty, or perfect enough for meditation. To find that place where I can bask in the glow of the quiet fire that burns within and around my life, I must travel inward. That journey begins with acceptance, my acquiescence to whatever is and whoever I am; both the light and shadow of the world outside and within me.

I turned off the main trail and descended a small path that led to the shore. I sat on a flat rock and began the familiar dance between fullness and emptiness. I absorbed the laughter of children, the murmur of their parents, the wind that brushed my face, the sparks of bright white water that flashed against my eyes. I let all pass into me, then through me, until it had replaced me - and for a few brief shining moments, I became that day. 

I returned refreshed and looked across the pond. The surface was rippled with the colors of the end of Autumn: slightly curved lines nested like wood-grain that aligned with the path of the wind. The short stripes mirrored the colors of the trees, the low hills that ringed the water and the cloudless sky above: filigrees of rose and copper and dry mustard that fired against the brilliant blue.

The lines were finer in the distance, resolving into longer lengths of the colors they captured as they approached my perch on the shore. There they were swallowed by the shadows of the trees that stood behind me. In that dark space a softer, subtler design drifted - a ghostly array of white waves of light that seemed to trace the touch of their creator, echoing the whorls in the prints of the fingers that fashioned that shining pool. The wisps moved like mist towards the shore, clouding over the view beneath them that was just visible next to dry land.

There they formed a scrim over the bottom of the pond, where even finer lines of gold found their way through the trees to light the fallen leaves below: gray echoes of the vibrant green flags that had waved all summer long, their edges now reignited by the light of a season falling farther from the sun.

On the surface in these shadows floated a single fallen oak leaf, rising and falling with each gentle swell. Every few bobs, its stem would break the surface tension of the water, spreading concentric rings across the fluted pattern of the larger waves. The record of it’s passage waivered, rippling in and out of view, at times caught in the currents of the larger world, but occasionally breaking through to make its mark for a brief spell before its wake was swallowed back into a sea of time.

Then time came flooding back to me, the longer shadows and setting sun reminding me of the miles still left before me that day. I rose and strode the last quarter mile to the beach at the pond’s east end. As I made my way up the hill, a young Asian girl sprinted past me - her smile beaming, her jet black-hair streaming - she raced with abandon. She ran so fast I wanted to warn her, protect her, share my worry that she might be headed for a fall. But she was in the full power of that place, immune to caution, drawn to the shimmering blue that mirrored the autumn sky and the hopes of everyone who circled it that day.

I turned towards my car and saw the day’s final sign. It made me instantly forget everything I had learned in the last two hours. It pointed the way to that institution that has become the final stop to cap so many public entertainment, artistic and educational experiences in America: the gift shop. I should have known better. I have often ended a journey through a gallery or museum with my heart and mind uplifted, only to crash quickly back to earth at the sight of the packaging of my experience and the sound of registers ringing it to a close. But, God help me, I was born a boomer with the need to buy baked deep within my DNA, and more often than not could not resist the urge to stop and plop some plastic memento into a bag. 

At least the designs were tasteful on most of the merchandise in the Thoreau Society Shop at Walden. I walked among the wares and began to frame the story of the day I’d tell to accompany my presentation of a cap for my wife, a book or journal for my daughters, searching for the perfect totem with which to brand my adventure. Then I saw it, read it, and left the store empty-handed. 

A deep green T-shirt hung by the door trumpeting Thoreau’s famous double admonition boldly across its chest:

“Simplify, Simplify.” 

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