WWTD? What Would Thoreau Do?

A few people have asked about the picture at the top of this page. It is Walden Pond, just outside of Boston, and I took the photo a couple of years ago. This may look like your average pond, but Thoreau’s watering hole, as it were, is quite magical.

I didn’t always think that. Like most high school students Walden was forced on me by a teacher who teared up reading excerpts to the class while we passed notes between our desks. And like most high school students, it was completely lost on us. Thoreau’s commands to “simplify, simplify” were pointless to sixteen-year-olds busy making out behind the lockers. Years later when I was teaching a college course, I’d put an excerpt of Walden on the syllabus because it seemed that no American literature class would be complete without it, not because I had become suddenly inspired. My students, all anti-Thoreaus, found no meaning in the book.         

“Look, I live in Harlem. H-A-R-L-E-M.” One student kindly spelled it out for me. “This guy lived in the woods. On purpose!”

I was never able to get my urban students to find common ground with a man who thought city living was artificial, but hours of research on Thoreau and his work, and possibly being firmly entrenched in adulthood, helped me to see him in a new light. So I decided to make a pilgrimage to the place where it all started.

In 1845 Thoreau built a small cabin in the woods surrounding Walden Pond “…because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life…and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” His time at Walden was an experiment to do away with that which wasn’t absolutely necessary. In his cabin, the size of a dorm room, were the essentials: bed, desk, chair, wood burning stove, and of course, a journal. He kept a small garden (which didn’t do very well) and foraged for food. Walden Pond was only a couple of miles from the town of Concord, but back then it was a world away.

He believed that only by simpifying could you truly be free, for the harder you work to attain all of these conveniences to free yourself, the more the conveniences enslave you.  “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensible, but positive hinderances,” Thoreau wrote.

Henry David ThoreauWhen I got to Walden Pond, I went to the clearing where his cabin once stood. I jotted some notes on a pad making the whole situation very meta. There I was using his life to do exactly the same thing he did: conduct an experiment. My experiment at Walden Pond was to find out if Thoreau’s experiment was still relevant to Americans 150 years later. The last sentence in Thoreau’s journal, and my favorite line he ever wrote: “All this is perfectly distinct to an observant eye, and yet could easily pass unnoticed by most.”

After two years  living at Walden Pond, Thoreau returned to civilized life, far richer and more prosperous than his contemporaries, and dare I say, than many people in this century as well. “I learned this, at least by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

This is just a piece of my trip to Walden Pond as part of a larger project on American places (hopefully coming soon to a bookstore near you!). Learn more about the Walden Woods Project here and visiting Walden Pond here.

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