Thursday, September 17, 2015

On Walden Pond

It is one of the great American sententiae, as sonorous and moving as the Gettysburg Address. “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.”

Henry David Thoreau went to the woods in 1845, living for two years and two months in a cabin he had built on the north shore of Walden Pond. The book resulting from his experiment in simplicity was published in 1854, to lukewarm reviews. A century and a half later, however, “Walden” is a fundamental text of the ecological movement, and the pond, a crucial topos of American history, has become a place of pilgrimage.

I come to the woods in a taxi from Logan Airport, leaving Boston on Route 2. My taxi driver is a young Ethiopian woman with a printed headscarf wound around her head, nervous on her first day of work. We leave the highway at the turn-off for Lincoln, and up there on the exit sign I see the name in big letters: Walden Pond. It has become a destination in itself.

The pond lies a few miles out of Concord village in the state of Massachusetts. The pond isn’t really a pond, at least not in the English sense of a small body of standing water, often found at the bottom of a garden. It’s a roundish lake surrounded by forest, with a patch of boggy meadow at its western end. The water in this kettle lake or pothole lake (as geographers variously define it), tinged benignly blue-green at the edges and scarily black towards the middle where it plunges to a depth of 33 metres, is filtered as it pushes up through the sandy soil around it, and has a mesmerising clarity I’ve never seen in any English pond. (...)

The first shock is how close this place, so peaceful in Thoreau’s description, now lies to the seething city, to gas stations and roadside fast-food joints and roaring highways like the one we have just exited to join a county road, sliding past the pond on its way to the small town of Lincoln. The second is how busy I find it on this first Sunday in September. Yellow sandwich boards announce that the pond car park is now full up and officially closed to further traffic; barriers block off access roads to left and right. Families pad along the roadside with blow-up floaters, folding chairs and other beach equipment. A woman stands by the zebra crossing, shaking the forest sand out of her shoes.

The afternoon carries a charge of accumulated summer, a weary hangover heat passed on from earlier in the day and the season. From the taxi window I glimpse the lake for the first time, gleaming through a fringe of high trees in the low, late light. I never expected it to look this inviting. I had stored up the pond in that part of my brain reserved for ideals, for places long imagined, and was used to thinking of it, not bright and Brighton-beachy, but in wintry chiaroscuro, leafless and cheerless.

Thoreau’s Walden B&B, where I am lodged, turns out to be the only construction within sight of the pond. It’s a blowsy suburban house that must have been built just before Walden Pond, and the forest around it, became a State Reservation managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.

“You’ll want a towel,” says the landlady, Barbara, almost accusingly. She is assuming that I won’t waste time before heading for the water.

She’s right: I can’t put off the moment. Across the street and into the trees and down the steps to a small grey beach where the scent of coconut oil hangs in the warm air. Children shrieking and running, parents sitting and calling – it could be a scene on any beach anywhere in the world at any point in the summer.

Under the high trees there is shade and dappled light. Against a background rumble of traffic, an old-fashioned ice-cream vendor with a tinny fairground melody echoes somewhere in the woods.

by Paul Richardson, More Intelligent Life | Read more:
Image: Michelle McCarron