Roost editor Sandy Stott is on vacation. The following post is by Ashton Nichols, Professor of English Language and Literature, Dickinson College.
So there I was, over half a century old, a professor of literature and environmental studies who has been teaching Henry David Thoreau for over thirty years, but I had never been to Concord or to Walden Pond. So, at the end of a recent trip to give an academic lecture and visit friends in Boston I decided to head west, to get out the map and not stop until I reached the pond itself. For those who may not know, Concord is roughly 20 miles northwest of Boston, and Walden Pond is just a short hop from Emerson’s house in Concord (Emerson was the man who owned the Walden property and offered it to his friend Thoreau as a spot to build a naturalist’s hut—without any specific thanks or acknowledgement from the great naturalist anywhere in his legendary book). I reached Walden Pond without any trouble, parked my car, and walked slowly to the lapping edge of the shore.
The pond was crystal clear at the shoreline when I arrived: every stone and waving water plant, all the tiny aquatic grubs visible amid the rocks, the occasional minnow swimming slowly by, and insects galore: midges and mosquitoes, dragonflies and Dobson flies, water striders, and tiny mites invisible to the human eye. Dobsonflies are those great centipede-like larvae that turn into thick-bodied hellgrammites, mighty underwater caterpillars that are among the best fresh-water fish bait in New England and all the way down the East Coast shoreline of the Middle Atlantic States:
I was sorely tempted to jump in for a swim, but instead I decided to watch the shore for a while, all the way along the southwestern edge to the stone posts that mark the sight of the great man’s original cabin. This is where he built his hut; this is where he lived for two years. Most importantly, perhaps, this experience inspired him to write Walden; or, Life in the Woods, the book that made him a legend and made this geographic location into a spot of secular American pilgrimage. Walden Pond is now like Plymouth Rock, or Jamestown Harbor, or Washington’s Mount Vernon, or Lincoln’s mighty marble memorial near the Potomac River in Washington, D.C.
Here was the exact spot where Thoreau sat for entire mornings, watching the day go by, watching the world unfold before him. Here is what he said: “Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and sumacs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been . . . Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune.“
There is surely something very special about this small 64.5 acre lake on a plot of land that has now been saved, thanks largely to the efforts of Don Henley and other caring musical stars, actors, and notables: Arlo Guthrie, Jimmy Buffett, and Bonnie Raitt among others; but this effort includes not only musicians. Other names involved in the effort to save this humble national landmark have included, over the years, Meryl Streep, Ted Kennedy, and Michal Douglas, and more. But, just as importantly, we can all now come. We can come by plane, train, bus, or automobile from wherever we live, and once we get here, we can all look long, and hard, and especially closely, the way Thoreau himself looked, with care and attention, with steady focus on the objects in front of us. They deserve our scrutiny; they deserve our concern. I have students who have swum in the pond, and others who have hiked almost every inch of the shoreline of this “sacred” spot. One brought me a small rock from the water’s edge that sits on my desk to this day. This is Henry David Thoreau’s pond, the one that has become a legendary spot of American literary geography, right up with Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow, near Tarrytown, New York, or Faulkner’s imaginary Yoknapatawpha near Oxford, Mississippi, or Hemingway’s Key West.
Here is how Thoreau put the central issue of his two-year stay at Walden Pond, in an essay that remains unpublished to the present day: ”What are the natural features which make a township handsome—and worth going far to dwell in? A river with its waterfalls—meadows, lakes, hills, cliffs or individual rocks, a forest and single ancient trees—such things are beautiful. They have a high use which dollars and cents never represent.” This is precisely what Thoreau thinks he had found at Walden, a wild spot that is not in any way linked to the world of money, or to the realm of dollars and cents. Here is the ultimate point for the father of American nature writing. “Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul,” he says toward the close of his masterwork. Nothing in Thoreau’s value system is about capitalism, about any system of exchange that requires money; instead, his world is about the organic exchange of foodstuffs and nutrients, the natural rhythms of day and night, warm and cold, the pumping of blood and the breathing of oxygen. In the end, the world of Walden Pond is the same world I see on this ordinary afternoon of my first visit to this special spot: light cutting across thick trunks and green leaves and branches, a cool breeze blowing from the water’s surface into the Massachusetts forest.
Ashton Nichols holds the Walter E. Beach ’56 Distinguished Chair in Sustainability Studies and is a Professor of English Language and Literature at Dickinson College. His most recent book is Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism: Toward Urbanatural Roosting, described by one reviewer this way: “There is no question that Nichols has written a wondrous book, innovative in its merging of genres, richly veined with intellectual history, literary criticism, and a passionate vision for the future of environmentalism.” – NBOL-19.