Tag Archives: Walden Pond

Interview with a pilgrim

by Natasha Shabat

For the past 16 months, I’ve been video-interviewing visitors to Walden Pond. Approaching random strangers at the pond requires going out of my comfort zone. Normally I photograph nature at the pond and post my photos on Facebook — on my own page, on the Thoreau Society group page, on other Concord-related pages — and print them on greeting cards. And, with the encouragement of some Thoreauvian friends, I created a Facebook blog called “Walden Pond People” and turned my camera toward people, talking with them about why they were visiting the pond.

Come summer of 2016 and the Annual Gathering of the Thoreau Society (AG16), I invited attendees to meet me at Walden Pond, Monday morning after the Gathering, to be interviewed at Thoreau’s Cove. I chose this rendezvous point since it’s easy to find, and it’s quieter near the western end of the pond.

Meanwhile, thanks to my Walden Pond photos on the Thoreau Society Facebook group, I had befriended Punit, a man from India, who had been in the U.S. for less than two years and was starting to explore the country.

“Walden Pond is one of my dream places to visit,” Punit told me last April.

In July, Punit traveled to New England to attend AG16. He had never been to Boston, Concord, or Walden Pond and attended AG presentations over the weekend, including mine on “Walden Pond People.” He waited to make his pilgrimage to the pond for when we met at Thoreau’s Cove for his “Walden Pond People” interview.

“I wanted to read more about philosophy. I picked up Gandhi, because of the impact he made on the destiny of India, the future of India, so I wanted to know more about him. When I read his autobiography there was something on ‘Civil Disobedience,’ which I later came to know was inspired by Thoreau’s essay. Another reason why I was attracted to Thoreau’s writings is because one of my friends recommended Walden to me. There were a lot of things which were telling me ‘Hey, go read Thoreau!’ So, first I got my book. I just bought it and put it on the shelf. I didn’t do anything with it!”

When Punit described his path toward Thoreau, he reminded me of my own experience. I, too, had bought a copy of Walden, put it on the shelf, and proceeded to not read it. I simply continued going to Walden Pond to swim, kayak and read and write, as I’d already been doing for a couple of decades.

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“Yeah, it was a fun way to read a book. I’ve never done anything like that with any other book.”

Punit continued, “But my friends influenced me. They started reading Walden before I did. Then there were three of us reading this book at the same time. There are certain things in the book which are difficult to understand. So what we would do is, we would discuss these with each other through email, or by phone, or during the in-person meetings. Yeah, it was a fun way to read a book. I’ve never done anything like that with any other book. It was a really interesting way to study these ideas. ‘What does this guy even want to say in these lines?’”

As Punit, I was influenced by others finally to take my book off the shelf. In my case it was a bunch of Thoreauvians presenting at AG11, which I had spontaneously attended. There at the Masonic Temple in Concord I was surrounded by people who knew Walden and had plenty to say about it. I was intrigued enough finally to read Walden for my first time. I read it in small bites, chewing on Thoreau’s words, while sitting in my kayak on Walden Pond. I did this over the next six weeks, until I turned the last page on September 1, 2011.

“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.” — Walden, “Reading”

Punit: “I think of Walden, and Thoreau’s writing in general, I think of them as something which is connecting the dots. Think of civilizations which existed in a different time. On a scale of time. Think of Chinese civilization, Indian, or Hindu civilizations, or American, or European civilization. So Thoreau’s trying to connect the dots. As if he were saying ‘Hey! There really isn’t much difference between these different civilizations. The core philosophy remains the same.’”

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“Think of civilizations on a scale of time.”

After I finished reading Walden that summer of 2011, I, too, observed some dot-connecting, but of another sort: I was overcome by the parallels between Thoreau’s masterpiece and the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes. (More on this another time.)

Punit: “That core philosophy is one of the reasons that Thoreau got inspired by Eastern philosophy, even though he lived so much later afterward. That’s just amazing for me! And since I’m from India, Hindu philosophy especially attracted me to Walden. I think it’s really important to figure out what you want to do in life. This is one of those books which actually helped me to figure that out.

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“I really like the site of his cabin.”

“Walden Pond is exactly what I was thinking of, how I imagined it to be: a simple place, just trees, pond, that’s it. It’s very peaceful, very nice, very green. Just the kind of place you want to be in when you want to think about the higher purpose of life, bigger things in life. Well, the cabin actually looks smaller than what I thought, so I’m wondering how Thoreau lived in such a small cabin. I would find it difficult. . . .  he was here for a grander purpose, so it probably suited his purposes here.

“I really like the site of his cabin. I think he probably must have walked around the pond a lot of times. Probably there is some specific reason why he chose this as his site. I brought my camera – that’s really important, because I wanted to capture at least a part of what Thoreau felt. And I would love to visit this place again.”

I was impressed with Punit. Imagine living in India, learning about Thoreau as a result of studying Gandhi — and then, eventually, actually coming here to Concord, hoping to see what Thoreau saw and feel what Thoreau felt. Punit had graciously awarded me the privilege of accompanying him on his first-ever pilgrimage to the place where Thoreau wrote Walden. I felt honored.

You can find my video interview with Punit here.

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, The Roost, Thoreau Bicentennial, Walden

Thoreau’s Walden house, Pennsylvania style

By Corinne H. Smith

“I have thus 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. … I thus found that the student who wishes for a shelter can obtain one for a lifetime at an expense not greater than the rent which he now pays annually.” ~ Henry Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

This week, I walked down a paved path and caught a glimpse of the Thoreau house perched quaintly beneath a stand of tall trees. This structure had been built to Henry’s specifications, 10 ft. by 15 ft. It even had its own pond, just two dozen steps away from the front door. But this was not Walden, and this was not Concord. This house sits on the property of Tyler Arboretum in Media, Pennsylvania, less than 20 miles southwest of downtown Philadelphia.

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Thoreau’s influence found in the Pennsylvania woods.

Four years ago here, I wrote about my visit to the Penn State Altoona campus in western Pennsylvania. Students there had built a Walden house replica in an adjacent woodland referred to as “Seminar Forest.” At the time, I thought this was the only such replica in the state. Now I’ve learned about and seen firsthand the one at Tyler, which is just a short drive away from my own home.

Tyler Arboretum consists of 650 acres of gardens, woodlands, wetlands, stream valleys, and meadows. The site began as a Quaker farmstead in the 1680s, when Thomas Minshall bought this land directly from William Penn. Generations of Minshalls, Painters, and Tylers lived here and planted representative trees, bushes, and flowers. In 1944, descendent Laura Tyler bequeathed the property to a board of trustees. It has operated as a non-profit public garden ever since.

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Front of the Walden replica

In 2008, the arboretum launched a project called “Totally Terrific Treehouses.” Seventeen new, fun, and kid-friendly buildings were installed around the property. Some of them are still standing and are still in use. The Thoreau house is one of them.

At the time, arboretum executive director Rick Colbert explained to a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer that the exhibition was “about connecting people to trees and our natural world. And what better way to do that than to have visitors experience a cabin like the one where Thoreau chronicled his life in the woods?”

The Walden replica was created by Pine Street Carpenters of West Chester.

Company president Brendan Dolan said, “While not a traditional tree house, it captures the essence of what many of us long for in a tree house — a counterculture sanctuary that provides an intense experience in nature.”

His brother, Mike Dolan, who is also Pine Street’s marketing director, had been turned on to the Transcendentalists in high school and had majored in English at Villanova. He described the building as “a metaphorical tree house, a symbol of Thoreau’s effort to help us appreciate not only the beauty of trees but the splendor of nature in general.”

The workers followed Roland Robbins’ plans, based on his excavations at Walden Pond. They used cedar shingles for the exterior, horsehair plaster for the inside walls, and one thousand bricks for the fireplace and chimney. Two bark-covered logs for the rafters came from Maine. The two windows are reclaimed period antiques, with 16 panes over 16 panes. Unlike other replicas, this one includes a sleeping loft above the fireplace. It took six craftsmen about five weeks to build this Thoreau house. The final cost was about $30,000, with a dozen companies donating time, materials or money. Watch the video of the construction here .

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The loft looks comfortable enough to sleep in.

Inside, the walls are decorated simply enough, with a picture of Thoreau, a brief biography, a description of his original Walden house, and seven framed quotes. Two benches and a bookcase are the only furniture present. Many children’s books are scattered around for visitors of all ages to read and enjoy. I recognized D. B. Johnson’s Henry Hikes to Fitchburg and Henry Builds a Cabin, as well as Henry David’s House by Steven Schnur and Walking with Henry by Thomas Locker. Other picture book favorites like Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar are also here. What a great use of this space!

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Inside the cabin

Kelly Nicholson, who works in the education office at Tyler Arboretum, showed me around the property. We walked and talked for more than an hour, admiring many of the unique trees here, including the tallest sequoia east of the Mississippi River. She pointed out the garden area near the Thoreau house and explained that this part would soon be reconstructed and reconfigured. A new edible garden will be planted, using an integrated system of both vegetables and perennials. It will serve as a model for what gardeners can do at home. A new classroom and community space will be created here, too. Kelly showed me the beds of the previous garden that will be replaced over the coming months.

“I think that last year, the groundhog benefited the most from our garden,” she said.

Sounds Thoreau-ly familiar. But she warns that if people come to see the Thoreau house before fall, they may find that at least one of the pathways could be blocked by construction. If you’ll be traveling from some distance, you may want to call first to check on the status of the project.

Pond in front of the Tyler Walden house

Pond in front of the Tyler Walden house

But the Walden house is just one singular feature among the beautiful blossoms, fragrant flowers, and tall, majestic trees that you can walk among at Tyler Arboretum. It’s a restful place that is perfect for walks and thoughtful contemplation. An appropriate setting indeed for one of Henry’s houses.

This whimsical wood caterpillar is sure to delight children and adults alike!

This whimsical wood caterpillar is sure to delight children and adults alike!

Visit here for more information about Tyler Arboretum.

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, The Roost

RESISTANCE TO CIVIL GOVERNMENT [1] … FOREVER! New Slogans Out of Old Memes

By Tammy Rose

“I think that it is not too soon for honest men and women to rebel and revolutionize.” – Civil Disobedience

I never know where I’m going to be in my life when Henry’s words speak to me.

I was lucky enough to grow up near Walden Pond, close enough to think of it as a swimming hole primarily. The general aura of Concord as an historic and literary capital was something murmuring in the background. I just wanted to jump into the water on a hot day.

Henry’s words have always existed around me, I keep a beat-up copy of Walden in my beach bag and read a line or two, sitting in the sun in between swims. I’m still convinced it’s the best multimedia book of the 19th century, a meta-commentary of time travel and (at times comic) instruction manual for how to experience a pond. Reading Walden in a library is just not the same experience as having the sand between your toes on a hot day, as you are being careful not to drop the book or iPad into the water.

Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? – Civil Disobedience

His quotes about environmentalism populate the bumpers of SUVs. On Facebook and other social media sites, memes with his picture pop up, sometimes accompanied by a quote which may or may not be his original words. Take note, the comment threads of the incorrect quotes are, ironically, always the most educational and fun to read.

IMG_5782I have always felt that I’m on a first name basis with Henry. Like he’s the crazy uncle I always wanted (and still want) to grow up to be. I write plays about him and the Transcendentalists, which are based on direct quotes from primary sources. Some phrases have such resonance that they demand to be spoken out loud. It starts with one quote, then another joins the conversation, then another. And the voices get stronger, building into a larger narrative, a story from the past that wants to be told.

Civil Disobedience is suddenly relevant and speaking to a lot of us.

Other works are having a new moment of relevance, too. The novel turned non-fiction book 1984  became the #1 best seller on Amazon even though it was published in 1949, (exactly 100 years after Resistance to Civil Government). Or the Broadway show, Cabaret, about Berlin in between the wars. Even the movie Casablanca has a more poignant storyline now because the plot turns on crucial papers of transit, refugees who are caught between countries, trying to stay alive. And I bet you thought it was just a romantic movie.

Let every woman and man make known what kind of government would command her and his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it. – Civil Disobedience

With the internet, catchy phrases are democratized now.  Anyone with a Twitter account can come up with a phrase, and anyone with a sign can contribute to the conversation. The goal is to keep it short and strong. Every hashtag is a reference to a larger story. #NoDAPL is about the protest of the Dakota access Pipeline by Native Americans and allies.  “Nevertheless, she persisted,” about Elizabeth Warren speaking truth to power on the floor of the Senate and now a reminder of every bad girl who made history. And one of my personal favorites seen at a recent march, attended by a few million people: “So bad, even introverts are here.” Emphasis by understatement.

The new administration is intentionally trying to throw everything into chaos. They are trying to weave a narrative of #AlternateFacts. It is a strategy of disorientation. No matter what an individual’s political leanings might have been, every day seems to bring a new questioning of reality. Fortunately, as students of history, we may be well aware that this kind of upheaval has happened before. This new strategy of disorientation is ironically helping us to see parallels in history in relatable ways. How have the people of other regimes fought back?  History doesn’t repeat itself, it just rhymes.

“Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” – Walden

It seems that we have reached a moment in which his words are speaking to us now.

Most of the people reading this post may have spent most of their lives in a time and place where Henry is known primarily for Walden and his writings about nature. Civil Disobedience can seem like an outside echo to those living in peace, we understand that it is relevant in only the most abstract sense. It’s not even enough to be published as a stand alone volume, coming in under 10,000 words. Even a fan of Thoreau, is more likely to own it as part of a package deal with his other writings.  But those words crystalized into movements, and spoke to Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and millions more, and touched the evolution of humanity in ways that cannot be quantified. Millions of people in history suddenly finding a voice.

And now, in this political moment, we are speaking out on social media, staging marches, addressing our congresspeople. Making our voices heard.

“Civil Disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience.” -Howard Zinn 

I’ve always seen his words as powerful ideas waiting for their moment. Sometimes it’s the sense that you are dipping your feet into the same pond that he swam in. Sometimes it’s the sensation that you must make your voice heard, especially against a government that perpetrates evil. That’s what makes this country great, the ability to criticize with your right to free speech (at least for now).

This is Henry’s 200th birthday year. There is no better birthday present (or Valentine) for an author than for his/her words to become relevant. What a gift.

Tammy Rose is an award winning playwright and artist. In 2016, she wrote & presented “Skimming the Surface: Thoreau vs Schultz at the Thoreau Society Annual Gathering and “Transcendental Ghosts of Fairyland Pond” in the Hapgood Wright Town Forest of Concord as part of the Emerson Umbrella Summer Art Ramble. In 2014, she brought SENSE (another one of her plays) to the Thoreau Annual Gathering.

Note to reader: To remind everyone, in Henry’s day, women did not have the right to vote in America.  I’ve decided to “collaborate” with him to help him update his language to the current legal voting status of women.  Thus all male pronouns will have female pronouns standing in solidarity next to them.  Dear reader, if you feel this offends you, or worse- if you feel this does not matter- take heed, it will matter to your daughters.

FOOTNOTES

  1. “Resistance to Civil Government” was Henry’s original name for the 1848 lecture. It was published in 1849 by Elizabeth Peabody in the “Aesthetic Papers.”  Before Hollywood got a hold of it.  Okay, before Ticknor and/or Fields changed it to the catchier “Civil Disobedience” in an 1866 publication. Read the original here: https://archive.org/details/aestheticpapers00peabrich .

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Filed under Civil Disobedience, General, Henry David Thoreau, News and Events, The Roost