Walden Pond is America’s environmental holy land, the naturalist’s sacred site and Concord’s local swimming pool. The iconic image of living in solitude amid nature’s wildness, immortalized in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, has made the pond’s power as place endure. Long after the transcendentalists of Thoreau’s generation worshiped its deep waters, latter-day pilgrims seek out its shores as poets and philosophers once did. So, alas, do the crowds, who, towel to towel, jam the narrow beach, splash in the cool waters and blare boomboxes as the twenty-first century rolls along.
As much artifact and feel-good brand name as national treasure, Walden Pond, with its precious shores and wooded surrounds, creates a burden for our times: How shall we preserve the waters and wildness? How conserve the cairn of rocks piled by passing worshipers who throw a stone on this hillock at the far end of the pond as a marker–and more: How shall we make the memories of Thoreau’s Walden, set in the historic town of Concord, into a map of the mindset of this scribe and his New England literary peers and heirs? How relay Thoreau’s genius as science or natural history writer and guiding light to such spiritual seekers and holy men as Gandhi?
Still more problematical: How do we maintain the Pond’s ongoing life, the ecology of the larger Walden Woods and the use and beauty of the town of Concord, whose village values defined Thoreau’s core as much as the woods honored by his classic volume? Scribe and saunterer in equal measure–a precise four hours a day devoted to each, one biographer has written–Thoreau is a whole man hard to blend with this holistic environment. Blessed, or cursed, with this intellectual-cum-physical legacy, W. Barksdale Maynard has taken on no small task as biographer (or is it topo-biographer?) in Walden Pond: A History.
The architectural historian must combine the stories of the physical life of the pond and its surrounding environs with the intellectual life of the author (and his congregation of Concord writers and philosophers), all the while revealing the natural and political philosopher-cum-conservationist writer himself. He must bring us the oft-described Henry David Thoreau whose stirring injunctions defined a world of nature that embraced the beauty of human settlement along with the essentiality of the wildness that surrounded it.
Thoreau’s coda for community– “every town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever”–resonates still, perhaps more than ever, as the town of Concord becomes less town and more sprawling suburb, its wildness more tame. Walden matters, Maynard notes, because it is of the “earthy and profane.” And a look at Walden Pond and its environs must–and in this case often does–illuminate the role of both, recording the lexicon of impulses toward nature and the back-to-the-land movements of Thoreau’s time and ours, the mishaps caused by users of both the sacred site and the larger township. It must be a biography of a man, a lake and a shifting approach to the larger natural world. This ambitious book covers many, but not all, of these essentials.
From the early years, when local bathers shared the forty-foot-deep kettle hole–which, Maynard tells us, could hold a “102-foot, seven-story office building…in the middle”–the pond has served workaday fishermen and foresters, with much damage caused by the latter (which Maynard chronicles well). No idyll, the pond and Thoreau’s mid-nineteenth-century world suffered the smoldering, smoke-spitting railroad. “That devilish Iron Horse, whose ear-rending neigh is heard throughout the town,” Thoreau wrote of this clamorous invader, as his heirs might describe the raucous use of today’s Walden Woods, invaded by the seeping sprawl and blatant McMansions consuming the twenty-first century’s Concord.