Category Archives: General

Walden Pond for the First Time

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.


Ashton with Thoreau at Walden Pond

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.




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How We’re Just Like Juno!

Nancy McJennett, vice president, and Ken Lizotte , president, Thoreau Farm Board of Trustees celebrate the Thoreau Farm's first day of going solar!

Nancy McJennett, vice president, and Ken Lizotte, president, Thoreau Farm Board of Trustees, celebrate Thoreau Farm’s first day of going solar!

Roost editor Sandy Stott is on vacation. This post was written by Ken Lizotte, president of the Board of Trustees, Thoreau Farm Trust. 

How is Thoreau Farm like the Juno spacecraft now circling our largest planet? Hey, that’s an easy one. Both are powered by the sun!

For Juno, this was the only way our space engineers could keep Juno on course and, now, keep it circling our largest planet. For Thoreau Farm, solar power was the last ingredient in the environmental recipe set in motion by Henry himself when he insisted that our natural surroundings were sacred and something to observe and persevere, not destroy.

It’s been a long haul for us to reach this pinnacle of self-sustaining reality. This journey began 20 years or so ago when the early saviors of Thoreau Farm wisely decided fulfilling Henry’s ecological legacy was worth building into The House’s very foundation. Since then, a long proud list of respect-for-the-earth practices has been building to a crescendo. As proof, skim down this sample from our “How We’re Green” webpage:

  • Siting – The House faces south for passive solar heat and light
  • Shade tree on the south lawn cools house in the summer
  • Daylighting – use of windows and skylights for light
  • Low or no VOC paints, sealants, adhesives, carpets and composite woods
  • Locally grown and milled clapboards
  • Soy and cellulose-based insulation
  • Roofing made from 95% post consumer recycled material but looking like traditional cedar shingles
  • Clivus Multrum composting toilet system – waste is broken down on site!
  • Night sky friendly outdoor lighting
  • Rain water collected in barrels for watering our gardens
  • Local materials utilized whenever possible

Now one last ingredient has been added, a cozy solar array at the far end of our gravel parking lot, the culmination of literally years of determination on the part of our trusty Board of Trustees and our former executive director Nancy Grohol. As a result, solar energy promises to power most, if not all, of The House’s energy needs. So would Henry be proud of us? Yes, I bet he would.

But wait, a few more thank-you’s: To all of you Thoreauvians who contributed personal donations over the years designated to ensure that this would happen. And thanks too to Solect (Hopkinton) and to Solectria (Lawrence), two Massachusetts solar energy firms who also donated a combination of their own time, equipment, know-how and resources to get this system installed and up and running for a minimum of the next 20 years! That means the sun supplies us with heat, lighting and cooling (yes, AC too!) exactly as it powers the Juno spacecraft. To these solar wizards’ dedication, willingness and expertise, we can only humbly bow and tip our Henry-like straw hats in heartfelt gratitude.

Want to learn more about how we’re green? Just click here for a full list of how we’re achieving that:

Or come by The House sometime and take a good look at the solar array for yourself. Oh, and don’t forget to come inside and visit Henry’s birth room while you’re here. Without that blessed event, none of the rest of this would be happening!










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Furnishing Walden – a poem for Henry’s birthday

Furnishing Walden 

a chair
                  a bed
a desk

The desk came first in 1838 as
it became apparent that the hours
afoot would be brought here

where they could be inked into lines
that would circumscribe worlds -
local paths, thickets, swamps,

birds, insects, plants, the odd
groundhog - all these ligaments
and lineaments, a sort of puritan

golem who would stir drafts later
and one by one readers
would walk out and be saved

for a day and the next day
each would saunter out
again along those lines

and every so often one
would not return. He saw
so far forward, you wonder

if he lived in his world,
but then you see him sprawled
on the young ice inching out,

reading the worm-trail of
history in the mud the whole
lens of coming winter flexing

beneath him and you know
from the seep of cold
that he was there, and you know

now know how you should live.
You push back the chair and
rock for a moment on the rockers

he attached to allow for just
this and you turn like a leaf
in fall contemplative;

it is, this walking motion,
the birth of thought
its pod opening like last year’s

milkweed, its heart-shaped seeds
suspended beneath the wisp
of white sail as they float

forth. All night long
on the modified Chinese sedan
that is your bed, its

rattan hand holding you up,
you dream and the small
night animals in this patch

of borrowed woodland
say that you sleep
and awaken everywhere

at home.

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