Knocking on Thoreau's Door

Last week, I took a flash business trip to Tewksbury, a Massachusetts suburb tucked halfway between Boston and the New Hampshire border. Selected photos are posted on Flickr.

As it turns out, I had four free hours before my flight was scheduled to leave from Boston. Naturally, in a strange place, I was going to try to make the most of it. One of my favorite things about the northeast is the American history that is represented there. The place I really wanted to find was Concord, location of the first battle of the Revolutionary War.

I wish I had picked up that map at the rental car office. Or maybe I'm glad I didn't.

I couldn't find the battlefield, which I now know is Minute Man National Historical Park. But, on the road into Concord, I learned that this is the home of Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden.

Walden Pond Panorama

I was seated by the shore of a small pond, about a mile and a half south of the village of Concord and somewhat higher than it, in the midst of an extensive wood between that town and Lincoln, and about two miles south of that our only field known to fame, Concord Battle Ground; but I was so low in the woods that the opposite shore, half a mile off, like the rest, covered with wood, was my most distant horizon.

--Chapter 2, "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For"

I bought Walden in Missoula, Montana, as I was passing through on my way from Mojave back to Illinois. I tried to read it once, failed after about 50 pages. Tried to read it again, maybe 20 pages this time. Gave up. It's one of those classics that you understand you're supposed to read for some reason or another, but why? It's clunky and Thoreau is pompous. I put the book away and forgot it.

Sometime in spring 2006, I picked it up again. This time it was different. I flew through it this time. Thoreau was still pompous and stuffy, but I followed the thread of the story more than the way it was told. I packed the book with me when I went to France, finished it there in Strasbourg, then performed what I consider to be the greatest compliment: I gave the book away to someone so that they could read it. (Natalie, did you finish it?)

Walden Pond

Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness—to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.

--Chapter 17, "Spring"

Someone asked me what Walden was about. I told her it was about eliminating the junk that we quietly shovel onto ourselves every day. Thoreau went to Walden to figure out what unnecessary weight was hanging around all of our necks. There's a ton of it. You don't see it because it's familiar. You don't feel it because you don't remember what you felt like without it.

I've had my time alone in the desert and in other places, albeit in shifts. It's good to get away if you can manage it. But, on the other hand, it's good to look into those away places through a window like Walden, instead of wandering out there ourselves. Not all of our load can be dropped responsibly in order to get away to the outskirts. You don't need to get away to have perspective.

Read Walden. I recommend it. You won't agree with all of it, but it's a welcome change in perspective; in that regard, you need it.

Walden Pond from Thoreau's Cabin

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct.

--Chapter 18, "Conclusion"

Mike, I offer those last lines from Walden to you as an explanation for why Ed Abbey could -- needed to -- transform from Ed of The Desert to Ed of The City. Maybe you need to step outside of the frame to appreciate what lies within it.

2 thoughts on “Knocking on Thoreau's Door

  1. Pradeep

    I tried reading Walden but I lost it after page 5. I put it down more to cultural differences than not understanding the text.

    Good luck with reading him, it looks awfully big.

    1. kirk.kittell Post author

      Oh, I already read it three years ago. Because it was written in the 1840s-1850s, it is written in a strange language, even for me. To complicate matters, Thoreau plays a lot with the origins and roots of words.

      Try it again sometime, but in a really quiet place (probably there are few quiet places in Mumbai).


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