Holy Water

Holy Water

Walden Pond is America’s environmental holy land, the naturalist’s sacred site and Concord’s local swimming pool.


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.

The pond and its literary world had symbolic and historic dimensions in both Thoreau’s days and those that followed, and Maynard takes us step by step through this chronology. He records the work of Thoreau along with the high-minded literary, philosophical and political stewards and sojourners of mid-century, drawing a wide arc from the nineteenth-century reformers and transcendental commune-dwellers of places like Brook Farm. Covering a span of history from Thoreau’s patron Emerson to the odysseys of Gandhi and like-minded conservationists, he also describes our rowdier recent times, as the latest decades witness the rips and tears that rend the landscape’s literary/social/ecological fabric.

Maynard describes this sainted place–its fractious geological, historic and spiritual history–in depth and with detail, elaborating on the tale of Walden Pond, the working/walking waterhole for fishing, strolling and forestry; Walden, the symbolic site for the literati of the New England renaissance; and Walden, an ecological center of the larger environs of Walden Woods. The tale of launching Walden’s creation through Thoreau’s contact with the literary circle of the Concord Renaissance adds texture as Maynard traces the actual construction of the hut in 1845 on the pond where the writer would live for two years, two months and two days.

This book arrives on the 150th anniversary of Walden. Yet it also honors the bicentennial of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s birth, reinforcing this father-figure’s major influence through the formidable author’s own Nature and other essays as well as in the works of his less gregarious student. Maynard dutifully traces the older sage’s inspiration and aid to the young Thoreau. “[Emerson’s] passion was the cultivation of American poets on American soil,” he writes. And where better than Walden to serve the natural, outdoor impulses that transcended our lust of commerce, the more sociable elder observed, thus subsidizing Thoreau’s sojourn into his famous cabin, that “tiny house” in the woods.

Living Emerson’s vaunted self-reliance and “solitude in a tiny space” on the philosopher’s property did not last long for the protégé of this communal, family-oriented, father figure. Maynard’s reading of Walden offers only a modest commentary on the dailiness of his life there (putting pen to paper is, after all, not exactly a dramatic tale), with no parsing of its contents. But Thoreau’s majestic book, much of it completed elsewhere, remains as–if not more–lyrical today as in its youth.

Part lore, part natural history, Walden would be the “choral hymn” of a new age. Surpassing Europe’s wonders, transcending America’s poets, some said, and heralding the perfect New Man: The ode to Nature and the perfect site, a wooded territory not far, of course, from the cozy community of Concord and his family (as so many have noted–often snidely–of late), would stir the world. Meanwhile, Walden; Or, Life in the Woods, as the unabridged version has it, remains an icon, as does its author in this 150th anniversary year offering.

Maynard’s book bears the imprimatur of nature’s most prescient scientist-hero today, Edward O. Wilson. Wilson’s cover blurb characterizes this book as “what will be the enduring chronicle, from Thoreau’s first dream to our time, of one of America’s, and the world’s, most important historical sites.” But for all that praise, and for all Thoreau’s well-detailed accounting of nature’s nobility embodied in the Pond, the site is as much battleground as shrine. The conflict between the earlier era of skinny-dipping historian Frederick Turner and the overtaking of the site in the last quarter of the twentieth century by the “Dirty Diaper Beach” crowd when “eight, ten, perhaps even fifteen thousand” visitors jammed the beach, continues to our day. The conflict expanded in the 1980s when developer Mort Zuckerman, then chief of Boston Properties, proposed building a massive office space in the Walden area. The resulting protest probably protected the property near to the pond itself, but not the wider world of Walden Woods or the town of Concord, which larger-minded naturalists, and town lovers like Thoreau himself, had sought to secure.

Today, the actual pond, offering everything from theatrical renderings by a costumed “Henry David” poised before “his” rebuilt cabin to crowded beaches and parking lots, has become, shall we say, less than inspiring. Still more disconcerting, the new claimant to the Walden legacy, rock star Don Henley, has taken over and squelched even more spiritual values of the place in the name of fixup. His Walden Woods Project is a distorted attempt to extend Thoreau’s city-country values to today’s generation; the so-called eco-guy’s remoteness from the natural man or spiritual guru–that is, from both the mien and the meaning of Thoreau’s world, where woods and town entwine to support historic values–makes him an odd advocate indeed for this sacred space. Alternating lectures by various stewards with Bette Midler fundraisers, the project arouses distrust for being more a publicity machine for Henley than a scholarly inquiry on Thoreau or a true conservation-minded approach to save his environmental heritage.

Unfortunately, such contemporary issues, and Concord’s can-of-worms political fractionalizing and backbiting, get less than perfunctory acknowledgment from Maynard, whose biography lists serving as a consultant and visiting scholar for the Henley-funded Walden Woods Project. Competing organizations and interests have made Walden Pond’s current supervision run counter to their seer’s work and lead observers like the scholar Tom Blanding to see the holy site devolve into a local snake pit of controversy. Those who value Thoreau’s views on the wider impact of Walden Woods as an ecological anthem–and who have promoted the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s listing of the larger territory as one of America’s eleven most endangered historic places–continue to critique the opportunistic showboaters of recent times. While concerned with Walden’s condition as a “community bathtub,” scholars and protectors like Blanding are still more dismayed by the Walden Woods Project’s failure to extend the wider town-country values to the whole of Concord, as Walden’s bard would have wished.

Sometimes it seems that as much is absent as present in this ambitious book, from the specific politics of today’s pond to the last decades of Thoreau’s post-Walden life. Despite Edward O. Wilson’s wonder at how “an amateur naturalist perched in a toy house on the edge of a ravaged woodlot became the founding saint of the conservation movement,” the reader avid to discover more about Thoreau’s work as a naturalist will not find enough to flesh out the writer-philosopher’s botanical and preservation skills.

Nor will Maynard’s book satisfy curiosity about Thoreau’s life, his love, his early death. No mention is made of any connection between his premature passing and his job helping his father tool lead pencils in the so-called Yellow House, the impact of which might have combined with the family strain of tuberculosis to kill him. Nor do we read much of the power of his great tract on civil disobedience. Certainly, the pond was task enough as subject, but some attention to Thoreau’s personal life as well as a mention of the over-politicized politics of the present, which have made some Concordians behave like warriors in a town feud, would have fleshed out and finished this work.

Despite such omissions, Walden Pond: A History is a worthy book on the forested Pond and its community as well as a hallowed writer whose work will last far longer than the political imbroglios surrounding it. The sanctified notions of simplicity, of seeking rus in urbe, country and city, Walden and Concord, are not lost in the telling of a tale that goes beyond the life of the “public hermit” to the place. If Maynard is naïve or reticent about the recent squabbles and recreationalization of the holy land, his insights on the past have real merit.

As symbol and sampler of the congestion that distresses our built and natural environment today, Walden and Walden Pond matter. “At present I am a sojourner in civil life again,” Thoreau wrote in “Economy,” reflecting on his respect for town and pond, communal life and wildness–and the necessity of their parallel health. Today, that aspect of the eco-master’s theology is an even more urgent message to bring to bear on the fate of the earth.

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