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In This Place

First encounters with Walden Pond

Walden_Pond.jpg
By Detroit Publishing Co / United States Library of Congress
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Thoreau's Cove, Concord, Massachusetts

The first time I saw Walden Pond was on a bright, crisp autumn day in 1961 when I was a freshman at Harvard College. I borrowed a bike from a fellow student and pedaled out Route 2 to the Walden Pond State Park on the outskirts of Concord Center.

I was filled with great anticipation, since Walden had been one of the seminal works I had read in high school. The book quickly became my indispensable companion, not for its philosophy, even less so for its environmental “message,” but, as E.B. White put it, for “the book’s refusal to bear bad news” and its appeal as “a blueprint for happiness.” But mostly I valued it for its promise that life could be a series of unending adventures, not just the physical adventures described in the book — Thoreau building his cabin in the woods, growing a bean-field, playing tag with a loon on the surface of the pond, or skating across that same frozen pond surface in winter — but even more for its adventures of the mind and the imagination – speculating on what constitutes a “good life,” testing out various principles of behavior in your own life, mining metaphors out of everyday objects, and so on.

Nevertheless, all of these elements of its appeal were always rooted in the place, the actual physical site of these adventures and speculations, the source of the raw material out of which Thoreau forged his one immortal and inexhaustible work — Walden Pond itself. It may be, as Thoreau boasted, that “All Nature is my bride”, but the honeymoon took place in that specific location; he immersed himself naked in its waters; he plumbed its depths, literally and philosophically, and allowed himself a directness and intimacy of expression with it that he shared with no other person or presence; “Walden,” he whispered, “is it you?”

So when I finally arrived at the pond itself on that glorious October day sixty-odd years ago, I was somewhat disturbed to find that my initial response to it was not commensurate with my expectations, but was in fact — disappointing. It was not that Walden Pond was not lovely — it was, and is. Nor was it off-puttingly crowded _ there were, then, only a few other pilgrims or casual visitors in sight. True, at its eastern end a public state beach with a few attendant buildings ruined any illusion I might have had about its “solitude,’ but I was prepared for that. Even in Thoreau’s time a railroad ran within roaring distance of the pond.

No, it was simply that the source of the extraordinary book that had so profoundly shaped my coming-of-age sensibility was just so, well, ordinary. The pond was not especially large or small, but just average in size. It was lovely, yes, but lovely as a dozen other ponds in the immediate area were. If there had not been a few signs and exhibits to proclaim that this was, in fact, the iconic body of water I had come to see, I could not have told you the difference between it and the other local ponds that Thoreau considered as a site for his cabin.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was experiencing one of those fundamental but hard-to-accept aesthetic truths: namely, that it is not the place, or the object, or the face on which a work of art is based — Walden, a Greek vase, the Mona Lisa — that is unique and special, but what the creative mind makes of it. It was what Thoreau made of this nice-enough but rather ordinary body of water that made it resonate in the imagination. At the height of his powers he could have written about a mud puddle and made it seem astonishing.

This is part one of a two-part essay in which Robert describes his first encounters with Walden Pond and Cape Cod’s Outer Beach.