The Fake Solitude of Walden Pond
Walden Pond isn’t like it used to be.
As I walked the two mile loop that Henry David Thoreau’s Walden describes as a “narrow shelf-like path in the steep hillside… as old probably as the race of man here,” my gut reaction was one of disappointment. Some time in the past 160 years, Walden has been refitted to safeguard against a tourist horde along its shores, seeking “the work of a brave man surely, in whom there was no guile! He rounded this water with his hand, deepened and clarified it in his thought…”
The pond trail is now penned in with wire fencing on both sides, binding a trekker to a rutted, muddy path. The image of Walden we want to take a way, the famous image from the pond’s western shore, was for me replaced by the image at left: a pond guarded away with the best of intentions.
I was about halfway around the pond when I thought of Hameau de la Reine, the Potemkin village Marie Antoinette had built to play at commoner. Like that place, Walden is where we come to talk big about returning to nature, to “suck the narrow out of life,” and all that, but our bluster comes as we follow a preset route. Like a tired movie critic plotting his hatchet strokes even before the credits are rolling, I was thinking of all the mean things I was going to write once I reached my closest Apple product.
But I had a change of heart twice during the second half of the walk. First, at the train tracks. In 1845, when Thoreau built his home on Walden, the Fitchburg Railroad was already a year old. Freight trains passed within 30 feet of the shoreline several times a day. The tracks are still active, and I think there is perhaps no place at Walden more authentic than the space between the rail ties and the water.
The Fitchburg Railroad touches the pond about a hundred rods south of where I dwell. I usually go to the village along its causeway, and am, as it were, related to society by this link. The men on the freight trains, who go over the whole length of the road, bow to me as to an old acquaintance, they pass me so often, and apparently they take me for an employee; and so I am. I too would fain be a track-repairer somewhere in the orbit of the earth.
The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer’s yard, informing me that many restless city merchants are arriving within the circle of the town, or adventurous country traders from the other side… I watch the passage of the morning cars with the same feeling that I do the rising of the sun, which is hardly more regular. Their train of clouds stretching far behind and rising higher and higher, going to heaven while the cars are going to Boston, conceals the sun for a minute and casts my distant field into the shade, a celestial train beside which the petty train of cars which hugs the earth is but the barb of the spear.
Thoreau’s Walden isn’t an artifact lost to the ages, I realized. It never existed in the first place! Yes, the man was removed from society, as in he was outside of town, but hobos were sleeping by the tracks a few hundred yards away; he was just a bum with a nicer roof. In addition, he went in to Concord regularly, inviting dozens of friends down to the cabin on many evenings. And what about the emaciation of the hermit? Hardly. The only hunger Thoreau writes of in Walden is a hunger for vitality and a starvation from lack of purpose. If it was wisdom through solitude he sought, he was fairly casual about it.
Now, two-thirds of the way around Walden Pond, I was thinking not of its phony present but its phony past. Here was just another example of an intellectual craving the enlightenment of isolation, and defeated by a love of creature comforts. I remembered in Augustine’s Confessions, how Augustine envied those ascetic monks who inspired even Imperial soldiers to throw it all away and become hermits:
“Tell me, I beg you, what goal are we seeking in all these toils of ours? …Can our hopes in the court rise higher than to be ‘friends of the emperor’? …But if I chose to become a friend of God, see, I can become one now.” …He was inwardly changed… and the world dropped away from his mind.
I thought too of another book on my nightstand, Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt, where the eponymous hero has a limp desire for solitude:
He pictured loafing… beside a lake in Maine. It was as overpowering and imaginative as homesickness. He had never seen Maine, yet he beheld the shrouded mountains, the tranquil lake of evening. …”I’d like to get away from—everything.”
Neither man follows through. The callow Mr. Babbitt quickly gets sick of “facing the dark pond, slapping mosquitos.” Augustine never forsakes the real world, but, post-conversion, only gets more involved in the issues of the day. And Henry David? His idea of roughing it was building a cottage on his buddy Emerson’s property, a half hour walk from mom’s house where he did laundry. By Thoreau’s definition, I was quite the adventurer when I camped out as a kid in my parents’ backyard.
My pessimism compounded when I reached the site where Thoreau’s cabin once stood. There is a write-up on a plaque about how 1840s Concord was almost completely clear-cut for farmland, with just a few decorative maples and oaks doting property lines. What had saved the small copses around Walden was the sandy, unarable soil. The woods we see at Walden now are much denser and secluding than from any time since the 1600s. Thoreau’s so-called life in the woods could be more aptly called life in an arboretum.
I was nearing the end of my walk, my attitude about the whole experience swinging violently. Would I write about the commercialization of a once tranquil Walden or would I write about the great ruse of Walden’s past solitude? But there, at the cabin site, I pulled out my (electronic) copy of the book and read Thoreau’s description of the view from that spot. Two passages stood out. Both dinted the Thomas Cole-like Arcady with a touch of urban grunge:
As I sit at my window this summer afternoon, hawks are circling about my clearing; the tantivy of wild pigeons, flying by two and threes athwart my view, or perching restless on the white pine boughs behind my house, gives a voice to the air; a fish hawk dimples the glassy surface of the pond and brings up a fish; a mink steals out of the marsh before my door and seizes a frog by the shore; the sedge is bending under the weight of the reed-birds flitting hither and thither; and for the last half-hour I have heard the rattle of railroad cars, now dying away and then reviving like the beat of a partridge, conveying travellers from Boston to the country.
My nearest neighbor is a mile distant, and no house is visible from any place but the hill-tops within half a mile of my own. I have my horizon bounded by woods all to myself; a distant view of the railroad where it touches the pond on the one hand, and of the fence which skirts the woodland road on the other. But for the most part it is as solitary where I live as on the prairies. It is as much Asia or Africa as New England. I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself.
These are not fabrications of an Elysian wilde. Even on December 21, 2012, I might see and hear some of these same things that Thoreau saw in 1845. Here was wilderness and solitude. Not endless tracts of it, but solitude enough to create, as he writes, “a little world all to myself.” Walden is a great book because it is a sincere book. It is not a story of, as the subtitle suggests, “life in the woods,” but rather life in oneself.