27 May 2011

Henry David Thoreau's Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts

I first came across Thoreau when I was 17 - and he's intrigued me ever since. So it was a great pleasure to get round to visiting Concord (pronounced 'Concud', I learned), and even more of a pleasure to visit Walden Pond. I'd noticed on reviews on the internet that it fills up in summer, so May seemed like a saner idea than going in the cold. Even then, at 10am, there was a party of schoolkids on bicycles.

As for my initial impressions of Thoreau, it was the idea of exploring the 'private sea' that impressed me so much. From Walden (1854):

What does Africa - what does the West stand for? Is not our own interior white on the chart? black though it may prove, like the coast,
when discovered. Is it the source of the Nile, or the Niger, or the
Mississippi, or a Northwest Passage around this continent, that we would
find? Are these the problems which most concern mankind? Is Franklin the only man who is lost, that his wife should be so earnest to find him?
Does Mr. Grinnell know where he himself is? Be rather the Mungo Park,
the Lewis and Clark and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans;
explore your own higher latitudes - with shiploads of preserved meats to
support you, if they be necessary; and pile the empty cans sky-high for
a sign. Were preserved meats invented to preserve meat merely? Nay, be
a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new
channels, not of trade, but of thought. Every man is the lord of a realm
beside which the earthly empire of the Czar is but a petty state,
a hummock left by the ice. Yet some can be patriotic who have no
self-respect, and sacrifice the greater to the less. They love the soil
which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with the spirit which may
still animate their clay. Patriotism is a maggot in their heads. What
was the meaning of that South-Sea Exploring Expedition, with all its
parade and expense, but an indirect recognition of the fact that there
are continents and seas in the moral world to which every man is an
isthmus or an inlet, yet unexplored by him, but that it is easier to
sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a
government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it
is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one's
being alone.'

The whole of the book Walden is here.

Henry David Thoreau lived in his tiny cabin from 4 July 1845 (the date being a pure coincidence) to 6 September 1847. He didn't live a hermit-like existence, and sometimes walked into Concord just over a mile away. Emerson owned the land, and willingly allowed Thoreau to make his home there. His reasons for staying there are best answered by his own words in Walden:

'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. I did
not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish
to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted 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, to cut a broad
swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its
lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole
and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or
if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true
account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are
in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God,
and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here
to "glorify God and enjoy him forever."'

By the visitor center near the statue, a replica reconstruction of Thoreau's cabin.

Thoreau says in Walden:

'I have [...] a tight shingled and plastered house, ten feet wide by
fifteen long, and eight-feet posts, with a garret and a closet, a large
window on each side, two trap doors, one door at the end, and a brick
fireplace opposite. The exact cost of my house, paying the usual price
for such materials as I used, but not counting the work, all of which
was done by myself, was as follows; and I give the details because very few are able to tell exactly what their houses cost, and fewer still, if any, the separate cost of the various materials which compose them:-


Boards                                         $8.03½  mostly shanty boards.
Refuse shingles
for roof sides                               4.00
Laths                                            1.25
Two second-hand
windowswith glass                      2.43
One thousand old
brick                                             4.00
Two casks of lime                       2.40      That was high.
Hair                                              0.31      More than I needed.
Mantle-tree iron                         0.15
Nails                                             3.90
Hinges and screws                     0.14
Latch                                           0.10
Chalk                                           0.01
Transportation                           1.40       I carried a good part
                                                                     on my back.
                                                      -----------
                 In all                           $28.12½'

At the back of the structure is the woodshed.

And the interior. I was very fortunate in that a horde of schoolkids had just left it.

Opposite the shop and the parking lot is Walden Pond, here taken from the beach, which mercifully was deserted.

And the crowning glory is the site of Thoreau's cabin, marked out by posts and chains.

'SITE OF

THOREAU'S CABIN
DISCOVERED NOV. 11, 1945
BY ROLAND WELLS ROBBINS'

'Beneath these stones lies the chimney foundation
of Thoreau's cabin 1845-1847
"Go thou my incense upward
from this hearth"'

The above quotation comes from a poem of Thoreau's called 'Smoke':

'Light-winged smoke, Icarian bird,
Melting thy pinions in thy upward flight,
Lark without song, and messenger of dawn,
Circling above the hamlets as thy nest;
Or else, departing dream, and shadowy form
Of midnight vision, gathering up thy skirts;
By night star-veiling, and by day
Darkening the light blotting out the sun;
Go thou my incense upward from this hearth,
And ask the Gods to pardon this clear flame.'

Obviously this is at the back of the site, as in the reconstruction.

The cairn, where people leave stones in respect. The sign at the side partly reproduces what I reproduced above about Thoreau's reasons for living by Walden Pond.

The symbol of peace in stone.

A few of the stones are from organizations.

Others give the names of people, this young man presumably having expressed a wish after death.

Some are less professionally presented, and are obviously personal to the individual.

No idea!

This creation is distinctly phallic looking, and I'm unclear why. Thoreau and women is an interesting subject, though. Louisa May Alcott was a little young when, as a pupil of his, she became emotionally fascinated by him - something to do with his affinity with nature, being able to recognize beaver dam construction as distinct from just a pile of logs, or identifying a heron's nest, etc, but Thoreau wisely appears not to have responded. He had a brief attaction for the much older Lucy Jackson Brown, and flung a love poem through her bedroom window. On the other hand, the Emersons' tutor Sophia Foord proposed to him and he was horrified.

In a letter, Thoreau proposed to Ellen Sewall from Plymouth, MA, but she turned him down, as she had his brother David (after her father had brought her to her senses). Nevertheless, and despite the handsome Hawthorne calling Thoreau 'as ugly as sin', and Oliver Wendell Holmes detesting his lack of table manners (he ate with his hands), there was no shortage of women who were attracted to him - he just didn't feel the same way about them. So perhaps what he told his sister on his deathbed is true: that he had always loved Ellen.

Thoreauly Antiques on Concord Main Street? I can imagine what the great man would have thought of that.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Awesome!!!
Thank you for your insight and time in posting this tool.
I am envious of your excursion.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Thank you for the comment! Yes, it was truly wonderful to visit Walden Pond - and more or less at the right time of day and year.