In 1845 Henry David Thoreau built himself a cabin in the woods beside Walden Pond in Massachusetts and started the process which led to “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” in 1854. This book has gone on to become a classic of American literature, held up by advocates of self-reliance, resistance to the power of the State, naturalism, and conservation; and studied by generations of school children. Even in the UK, it’s often quoted, with its mixture of philosophy and the outline of Thoreau’s efforts to lead a self-reliant life from the land around his cabin. For me, over the last ten years it’s become an increasingly valuable account of living and working in woodland, of learning and practicing woodscraft, and becoming the amateur naturalist of your own environment.
Thoreau began his experiment with these words:
“Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it.”
My own journey to Walden Pond was near the end of March 2019, with snow still on the ground and some of the surface of the pond still frozen. While he built the cabin and during his stay, Thoreau used the route of the newly built Fitchburg Railroad to walk between his parents’ house near the railroad station in the town of Concord and Walden Pond to the south east:
“The ice in the pond was not yet dissolved, though there were some open spaces, and it was all dark colored and saturated with water. There were some slight flurries of snow during the days that I worked there; but for the most part when I came out on to the railroad, on my way home, its yellow sand heap stretched away gleaming in the hazy atmosphere, and the rails shone in the spring sun.”
I came to Concord from Boston via the same railroad, now a diesel-engined commuter line, delivering locals, tourists, and pilgrims in 40 minutes. The train passes the Pond just before it reaches the town, and the station is still a simple affair of a few wooden buildings and two of the low American platforms that you walk across the tracks to reach.
The true centre of Concord is further northeast and I walked up to Main Street to visit the yellow-painted house at number 255 where Thoreau lived from 1850 to his death in 1862 at the young age of 44.
Main Street leads into the centre of Concord with memorials to the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and to the initial purchase of the land from the Native Americans in 1635. Further east still is the Sleepy Hollow cemetery, where Thoreau and his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson are buried on “authors’ ridge” near to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Thoreau’s friend Amos Bronson Alcott and his daughter Louisa May. Modern visitors leave flowers, foliage, or pens on the graves, and this picture of Henry’s gravestone in the larger Thoreau family plot is no exception. This part of the cemetery was a very deliberate creation by the literary community in Concord, to cement the legacies of their writers by association with each other, and of Concord itself as a place of historic and intellectual importance.
After the cemetery I returned to the railroad station and to the adjacent Belknap Street where Thoreau’s family had their house and business: a pencil factory. Then I walked out to Walden Pond as Thoreau himself did. It does not appear to be legal to walk along the railroad line now, and so my route was along the newer Thoreau and Walden Streets which is a similar distance.
Largely due to the book’s growing fame, Walden Pond became a key battleground between development and conservation from the late 19th century onwards. As recently as 1958 Concord created a landfill site a few hundred metres from the Pond. It’s closure only began in 1994, and there is still this sign saying its finally closed by the gate. The landfill is now under that mound of light brown grass and soil, which itself now supports an array of solar panels.
In 1922 the descendants of Emerson and others who had bought up surrounding land to preserve its character donated it to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, with the state itself eventually managing it from 1975 onwards. In 1990, musician Don Healey became aware of more developmental threats to the Pond, and founded The Walden Woods Project which raised money to buy up more land, to conserve that which had already been saved, and to safeguard the legacy of the lake and its woods. Healey’s music industry connections and the topicality of the cause led to stadium-scale fundraising concerts including appearances from A-list artists.
The state reservation has a large car park on the other side of Walden Street from the Pond. Right near the entrance is a 1985 reconstruction of Thoreau’s cabin (which he referred to as his house.) 10 ft wide, 15 ft long, with a ceiling at 8ft, a small loft and a small cellar for cold storage.
The reconstruction was supervised by Roland Robbins who had identified the exact location of the cabin in 1945 by digging to find the foundations of the chimney stack. Inside are a bed, a table, a writing desk, cast iron wood stove, and three chairs. As Thoreau famously wrote:
“I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society. When visitors came in larger and unexpected numbers there was but the third chair for them all, but they generally economized the room by standing up.”
Next on to the visitors’ centre opened in 2016. This has a small display of Thoreau items, panels explaining the pond and its history, and a model of the pond and the surrounding country. In one of the glass cases they have a copy of Thoreau’s diary open to that day’s date from one year. I was there on the 23rd of March and saw this entry:
“March 23. I spend a considerable portion of my time observing the habits of the wild animals, my brute neighbors. By their various movements and migrations they fetch the year about to me. Very significant are the flight of geese and the migration of suckers, etc., etc. But when I consider that the nobler animals have been exterminated here, – the cougar, panther, lynx, wolverene, wolf, bear, moose, deer, the beaver, the turkey, etc., etc., – I cannot but feel as if I lived in a tamed, and, as it were, emasculated country.”
On the next page, the diary entry continues:
“Would not the motions of those larger and wilder animals have been more significant still? Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature that I am conversant with? As if I were to study a tribe of Indians that had lost all its warriors. Do not the forest and the meadow now lack expression?”
These are striking and prophetic words for people interested in the modern movement towards rewilding, and the reintroduction of larger mammals. Not least because the absence of these pieces of environmental jigsaw has consequences. The canonical example is the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone Park, where their influence on deer behaviour ultimately led to a larger degree of forestation and better river habitats as beavers had trees to dam them with.
Tucked around the side of the visitors’ centre is the Shop at Walden Pond run by the Thoreau Society. I had spent the previous few weeks rereading and relistening in the UK where Thoreau is much less familiar and few people could name Walden Pond. So when I walked into the shop I was confronted by a wall of Thoreau and Pond “stuff”. A bit like stepping from a dark street into a surprise party full of your friends. Overwhelming but also rather uplifting.
This map shows the general layout of the Pond and places I will mention. Walden Street is the yellow road to the right skirts the east end of the Pond, and the visitors’ centre, shop, and car park in grey are to the northeast of the end of the Pond.
To get to the Pond you cross the car park and Walden Street and then go down a long ramp to the Main Beach. You can see almost all of the Pond from this point, including the far shores of Long Cove and Ice Fort Cove at the other end. I could see hints of ice on the left, southern fringes too.
In the summer Main Beach is packed with people enjoying the sun and water, sunbathing and swimming, and there are life guards on raised chairs. It’s necessary to limit the numbers and the car park is closed by mid morning to do this. I was lucky to be there on a cold but sunny day in late March, as I had much of the place to myself, especially up until mid afternoon.
This short video gives a flavour of the day, with the crystal clear water reflecting the sky and woodland.
I walked along the northern shore to the right, along Red Cross Beach and then following the Pond Path which runs a dozen metres back from the water’s edge in the trees.
This brought me to Thoreau Cove, where the shoreline is closest to Thoreau’s cabin. This is the sandy inlet fringed with trees shown in the top picture. Thoreau drew the water he needed here and swam in the cove every morning.
Behind the cove is a marshy field called Wyman’s Meadow, now separated from the cove by a bridge. Depending on the level of the water this is either a field, a marsh, or an extension of the cove. The Pond has no rivers or streams flowing in or out, as it is a depression in a thick layer of sand and gravel left by the retreating ice of the last ice age. Rainwater drains straight into this layer, and water flows through the sand and gravel below ground, and as Thoreau observed, the levels of other nearby ponds all change in the same way, up or down, over several years. Thoreau described the cove and the recently abandoned meadow:
It was a pleasant hillside where I worked, covered with pine woods, through which I looked out on the pond, and a small open field in the woods where pines and hickories were springing up.
Tommy Wyman had sold the land to Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 1844, the year before his disciple Thoreau began to live there in July 1845. Why did Thoreau spend two years doing all this? Up the hill from Thoreau’s Cove we come to the site of his cabin, where there is now a sign showing part of his explanation, in front of a cairn of stones left by visitors.
As he says, he went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately, to find out what was really essential to him, and to discover what it really means to be alive. There were practical reasons too: it was cheaper to live here, and it gave him time and solitude in which to write. But it was above all an experiment into whether the philosophy of Emerson and the other Transcendentalists would work in practice. Their belief was that we cannot know the real world, only our own perception of it, and that put individuals’ experiences and internal truths at the centre. In turn, this raises the importance of the individual as unique interpreters of the world, and led them to reject over dependence on external forces like government, social fashions, and producers of goods.
Emerson’s 1836 essay “Nature” deeply affected Thoreau, and its first chapter includes these lines:
To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars.
The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection. Nature never became a toy to a wise spirit. The flowers, the animals, the mountains, reflected the wisdom of his best hour, as much as they had delighted the simplicity of his childhood.
To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth, becomes part of his daily food. In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows.
Thoreau went to live by Walden Pond to get closer to the nature that Emerson talked about, by getting out of his own room. That last sentence is also particularly poignant as in 1845 Thoreau had just lost his best friend and brother John.
The footprint of the cabin is marked with granite pillars, and I placed my copy of Walden on one of them for the top picture. The stone on the ground towards the back covers the base of Thoreau’s chimney stack, made with stones he collected from around the Pond.
The bottom picture shows the Pond from the cabin site, and gives you an idea how close together they are. If you have a minute, I also made a video of walking up the bank from Thoreau Cave to the cabin footprint. The video was made mid afternoon, but for the first pictures around lunchtime I had the place to myself for minutes at a time. I can’t imagine what it’s like in August!
Further up the hill from the cabin site along a forest track called Wyman Road is the site of Thoreau’s bean field, marked with an inscribed stone. Here Thoreau spent his time
“making the yellow soil express its summer thought in bean leaves and blossoms rather than in wormwood and piper and millet grass, making the earth say beans instead of grass — this was my daily work.”
He also grew potatoes, peas and turnips, and in total planted two and a half acres. He sold the bean crop and some of the potatoes to pay for other things he needed. His diet at Walden was almost entirely vegetarian, although he did fish, eat some salted pork, and once killed and ate one of the woodchucks that continually raided his crops.
But we mustn’t form the impression that Thoreau claimed to be living an isolated, self-sufficient life. He flatly states that he walked into Concord every day or two, and met his family and friends. He frequently ate at his parents’ house in particular.
Back at the water side, I continued along the pond path until I reached Ice Fort Cove where the railroad runs along the top of a bank. A trail crosses the railroad here and I took this photo looking northwest into Concord. I had the timetable so I knew when a train would come next and sat on a tree stump at the top of the embankment on the left to lie in wait for it.
Sure enough it appeared on time, and the bottom photo shows it passing the pond with some of the remaining ice visible.
Ice, trains and the Pond are all connected in Thoreau’s book, as every winter Frederic Tudor’s men came to harvest its thick ice and transport it by rail to Boston harbour, and then down the coast of North America and across the oceans. Such was the famed purity of Walden’s water that some of the ice even made it as far as India:
“Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well. … The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”
In Thoreau’s time the ice was much thicker than today and lasted much later into the year. This was just before the end of the Little Ice Age, when the Thames in London would freeze over to such thickness that winter markets were held on it. In our time the world is not as cold, but I was lucky to come when ice still remained on the more shaded, southern side of the Pond.
The surface of the ice shows tracks of animals and people, and it melts according to unseen flows of water and sand bars. The rightmost picture shows some of the ice washed up east of Little Cove, in the process of being broken up and melting.
Finally I came back to Main Beach and took this photo including the bath house built before the second world war. The beach on the left is Red Cross Beach, where the American Red Cross ran swimming lessons for many years. Thoreau called it his “fireside” as it was warmed by the sun on an evening and a beautiful place to sit. You can’t tell today, but these beaches were battlegrounds between the authorities wanting to provide more recreational facilities, and conservationists wanting to call a halt and bring them closer to their state in Thoreau’s time. Now the efforts of the state reservation are focussed on managing the summer peaks in visitor numbers, the constant erosion of the paths around the lake, and continuing to cater to people’s expectations at such an iconic American location, with sympathetic developments like the new visitors’ centre.
Walden Pond is a beautiful place, but there are many other beautiful places and some much closer to home. But what makes Walden Pond so special is very much the Transcendentalist project: that a man lived there for two years, developed a deep understanding of the place and his life there, and managed to express that to us in a book.
More to read, listen and watch
There are lots of digital copies of Walden available for free online. The printed edition I carry is from the Macmillan Collector’s Library and is a wonderfully portable hardback edition that fits easily into a good sized coat pocket.
In 2009 Walden was the subject of one of Melvyn Bragg’s 45 minute “In our Time” programmes on BBC Radio 4: “Thoreau and the American Idyll”. (I caught some of this when it was first broadcast, and sought it out online, finally reading Walden itself in March of that year: almost exactly ten years before my visit to the Pond.)
In 2017 BBC Radio 3 marked the 200th anniversary of Thoreau’s birth with another 45 minute programme on “The Battle for Henry David Thoreau”.
The Walden Woods Project has a 22 minute film about the book Walden and its legacy.
PBS made a 26 minute programme about Thoreau at Walden Pond.