You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Walden Pond’ tag.

“A traveler! I love this title. A traveler is to be reverenced as such.
His profession is the best symbol of our life.
Going from ___ toward ___; it is the history of every one of us.”

Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday is this year. I have never quite felt comfortable with the idea of marking birthdays for people who have died, but we do it. I have written about Henry before because I find him an interesting person of contrasts.

He went against the times he lived in. He went to Harvard College and was an intellectual, but in our general image of him, he is a non-conformist. He walked away from society to live in the woods for a year. But he went back. My favorite little anecdote about Hank is that in that year at Walden Pond, he often walked back into town to get some cookies from his mother and have her do his laundry.  It is like camping in the woods, but not too far away from a convenience store.

Thoreau was an abolitionist, a serious and the solitary walker and a passionate naturalist. He modeled his life on religious convictions. He believed that each of us has a connection with divine spirit, though I suspect people generally think of him as less Religious and more spiritual. He never went to church. He never married. He never voted and he didn’t pay his taxes.

He literally talked to trees. He was an environmentalist, although that term was not used in his time. He saw a tragedy coming for future generations because of the heedlessness he saw growing around him.

There is a new biography of HDT out this month that I reserved at my library simply titled Henry David Thoreau: A Life. Will I discover new things about  Thoreau when I read it? Certainly. Will it change my own life, as I feel my first reading of Walden did? I highly doubt that. That’s not a flaw in the book, but a flaw in me. Or maybe it’s a flaw in almost all of us – our lessening ability to change as we get older.

I found out about the book listening to an episode of Radio Open Source, one of three episodes on Thoreau. Pronunciation trivia: “Thoreau” is pronounced like the word “thorough” though most people tend to emphasize the second syllable instead.

Something that I always liked about Thoreau is that he seems to have kept himself very busy. As someone who spends too much time making To Do lists and not enough time doing things on the list, I admire his work ethic.

He worked. He was alternately a handyman, carpenter, surveyor, lecturer, businessman (his family owned a pencil-manufacturing company) and a constant writer.  He spent nearly a decade trying to describe that famous one year on Walden Pond and finally published his Walden or Life in the Woods.

He was a bit of an anarchist. In 1846, he refused to pay six years of delinquent poll taxes because of his opposition to the Mexican–American War and slavery. He spent a night in jail, but was freed the next day when someone, probably his aunt, paid the tax, against his wishes. He used the experience for several lectures on tax resistance, the rights of the individual to self-government, and it eventually became an essay best known as “Civil Disobedience.”

Thoreau studied Indian spiritual philosophies and religions and they appear in his writings. He even followed a diet of rice (“It was fit that I should live on rice, mainly, who loved so well the philosophy of India” and enjoyed flute playing (a musical pastime of Krishna) and yoga.

I found a very interesting website, MappingThoreauCountry.org,  that uses historical maps to organize and interpret documentary materials related to Thoreau’s travels throughout Massachusetts. I am a fan of maps of all kinds and you can view Thoreau’s own work in cartography on the site.

Henry (whose first name was officially David, but he reversed the first and middle name after college) was also very much at home on rivers. Water worlds engaged him. He made his own boat and he paddled and sailed on nearby waterways. He looked into the water in a scientific way and a philosophical way.

Before his Walden year, he had spent A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers  paddling from Concord, Massachusetts to Concord, New Hampshire, and back, with his brother John in 1839. John died of tetanus in 1842 and Thoreau wrote the book, in part, as a tribute to his brother. He did the first draft during that year at Walden Pond along with his journaling that would become Walden

HDT also loved solitary walking. Between 1849 and 1857, Thoreau walked the length of Cape Cod four times, passing through nearly every town on what he described as “the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts.” Along the way, he recorded observations that became the basis for lectures, essays, and, eventually, a book-length travelogue that was published posthumously as Walking in 1864.

After college, came a short period of teaching first in a public school and then in the Concord Academy started by Henry and his brother. The school closed after John’s death.

In Concord, he met Ralph Waldo Emerson who took a paternal interest in Thoreau, advising the young man and introducing him to local writers and thinkers, including Nathaniel Hawthorne. His friendships with Emerson and others in the transcendentalist movement had their ups and downs, but it led to his being a popular lecturer and an anti-slavery activist.

In 1841, Thoreau moved into the Emerson house and served as the children’s tutor, editorial assistant, repairman and gardener. For a few months in 1843, he tutored the sons of William Emerson on Staten Island,  while he was looking to make contacts with literary men and journalists in New York City. That was how he found his future literary representative, Horace Greeley.

Thoreau returned to Concord and worked in his family business for most of his adult life.

In April 1844,  he and his friend Edward Hoar accidentally set a fire that ironically consumed 300 acres of Walden Woods.

His experiment in simple living began the following year on July 4, 1845. He moved to a small house he had built on land owned by Emerson around the shores of Walden Pond. The house was in “a pretty pasture and woodlot” of 14 acres. It was 1.5 miles from his family home.

He left Walden Pond on September 6, 1847 – 2 years, 2 weeks and 2 days after loving there – and returned to the Emerson house.

In Walden, he wrote “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.”

Thoreau moved out of Emerson’s house in 1848 and stayed at a house on nearby Belknap Street. In 1850, he and his family moved into a house at 255 Main Street, where he lived until his death.

When his aunt Louisa asked him in the last weeks of his life if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau responded, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”

Thoreau’s last words were “Now comes good sailing”, followed by two unexplained words, “moose” and “Indian”.

He died on May 6, 1862, at age 44.

During his rather short life,  Thoreau had witnessed the transformation of his world from a community of farmers and artisans into a bustling, interconnected commercial nation. This was not a change that thrilled him.

He did not see those changes away from nature, self-reliance and simplicity as positive progress.

He was a contemplative individual and a proponent of finding the wilderness, wildness, even the bewilderness that remained in nature. Even if that wilderness was just a small woods, park or river near your home.

When I think of a pond, I imagine a small lake. However, when I visit my friend’s cabin on a “pond” in Maine I see a large lake. Relativity in water sources.

I came across a book recently titled Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett which was published last year by a small press in Ireland.  Not a book organized around a narrative, it contains twenty stories most of which are also not narrative.  An odd psychological collection where we enter the narrator’s world of fragmented segments, questions and moods.

One reviewer said it was “a work of fiction that will make you feel pleasantly insane.”  That name-dropping review by Jia Tolentino sets the bar high by saying that the collection “…recalls works by Knut Hamsun and Samuel Beckett, in which characters are more obviously forced into states of isolation… the cottage hymns of Katharine Tynan, the pure formal eccentricity of Emily Dickinson, and the dread-laced, detonating uncertainty of W. B. Yeats” – and that the book is a “photonegative of Walden.”

walden

Walden Pond

Though that collection is not about ponds, it did make me think of Henry David Thoreau who will be best remembered for two years he spent beside a pond. Is Bennett’s narrator like the self-reliant Thoreau. No, though solitude plays a part in both stories, H.D. looks to find  place in the natural world and the narrator of Pond seems to be disconnecting from the world.

Henry David Thoreau lived on the shore of a pond for two years starting in the summer of 1845 and eventually wrote about it in Walden; or, Life in the Woods. In that small piece of woods that he made famous (land owned by his friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson) Thoreau unintentionally sparked a respect for nature and more than a few people on an environmental path.

His pond was Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts which is a kettle hole formed by retreating glaciers 10,000–12,000 years ago. As I have written earlier about Thoreau and Walden Pond, many people often imagine his life there as one of a hermit, he was actually quite social with regular visitors. I was very surprised and amused to learn long after I first read the book that he made frequent visits into town and to his nearby family home to get some of his mom’s cookies.

But he did isolate himself from society with the intention to write about it with greater objectivity. His experiment in simple living and self-sufficiency wasn’t one of survival and wilderness, though compared to the majority of us living today it seems to be a very radical undertaking.

chris

If you read Into the Wild or watched the well done film version (directed by Sean Penn), you are familiar with the story of Chris McCandless who went to Alaska, somewhat ill-prepared but full of the Romance of the adventure.

Chris McCandless grew up in suburban Virginia and was a good student. He graduated in 1990 from Emory University and broke off connections with his family. He gave away his $25,000 to Oxfam and went “on the road.”

He traveled across the country in that road trip that many of us dreamed and talked about doing during or after college, but never did. Eventually, Chris abandoned even his car.

In April 1992, he hitchhiked to the Stampede Trail in Alaska and headed down the snow-covered trail and into the wild. He wasn’t totally unprepared – 10 pounds of rice, a .22 caliber rifle, several boxes of rifle rounds, a camera, and a small selection of reading material – including a field guide to the region’s edible plants. But he wasn’t well prepared for an extended stay or very knowledgeable about the plant and animal life, food gathering or the topography of the area.

He survived for about 119 days. He is thought to have died on August 18, 1992.

He survived by foraging for edible roots and berries, shooting game from birds to a moose. He wrote in his journal. He took photographs, including self-portraits.

Although his plan had been to hike to the coast, summer was not a good time for that as the boggy terrain made it too difficult. So, he set up camp a derelict bus that others had used as temporary shelter.

He tried to leave in July 1992, but couldn’t cross a snow-melt swollen river. Unfortunately, there was a hand-powered tram just upstream that he could have used. He wrote in his journal on July 30, “EXTREMLY WEAK. FAULT OF POT. SEED. It was interpreted by Krakauer to mean that Chris had eaten the seeds of an edible plant commonly known as wild Eskimo potato. He had been eating the roots (“potatoes”) which are sweet and nourishing in the spring, but when later in the season they became too tough to eat, he started collecting the seeds.

A new article by Jon Krakauer covers new evidence that the seeds theory is more likely to be true.  He might have made it if not for the poisoning by the seeds.

Maybe. Starvation seems like it still may have taken him. Some better maps and map skills and more information about the area and the seasonal changes would have helped, as would better food supplies.


I loved the book and I’m glad that this evidence seems to support Krakauer’s theory.  Not that the actual cause of his death is critical to what I got from reading and teaching this book to students.

My own belief is that Chris was a victim of Literature and Romance and the deadly brew they can be when mixed and taken in by some people. Krakauer describes McCandless’ very ascetic personality as having been influenced by reading Henry David Thoreau and Jack London.

His story is a lesson worth sharing. Though some people read the book and see Chris as heroic,  I don’t. I sided with about half of my students who saw Chris as someone not really prepared for the quest – though admittedly better prepared than most of us.

Did they want to do their own on-the-road questing journey? Almost all of them said they would like to do it in some form. We know that very few, if any of them, ever will.

I will tuck the article into my copy of the book as a footnote, but it doesn’t change the power or the appeal of the story for me.

I know that his story has become Walden-ish for some people. People make the trip, pilgrim-style,  to the bus in the way people go to Walden Pond.

It’s hard to explain what people would expect to achieve by going there, but I understand that desire. I felt that way about seeing Walden Pond and even the reconstruction of the Thoreau’s cabin. It had a kind of museum reverence.

Further Reading

Back To The Wild is a collection of the photographs and writings of Christopher McCandless and includes his original photographs, postcards and journal entries from his two years of traveling throughout the Western United States, Mexico, Canada and Alaska.

The Wild Truth written by Carine McCandless, Chris’s sister, tells another side of the story after 20 years. She fills in some of the blanks in his story and portrays a family that was dysfunctional and violent.

Visitors to Paradelle

  • 348,444

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,893 other followers

Follow Weekends in Paradelle on WordPress.com

Recent Photos on Flickr

I Recently Tweeted…

Archives

Tweets from Poets Online

On Instagram

Latest time-traveling verse from my continuing #ronka project at https://writingtheday.wordpress.com Family Guy pinball.  I have lost all claim to being a wizard. Easier to spot them in the morning after it rains Nice walk in the woods but more wildlife in neighbor's yard Paterson Light and Shadow tells the story of Paterson, NJ through Maria Mazziotti Gillan's poetry and Mark Hillringhouse's photography. #patersonnj #mariamazziottigillan #markhillringhouse Feeling as lazy as a daisy
%d bloggers like this: