Social isolation was getting me down, so I decided to pay a visit to someone who would understand. A writer, like me, only one who self-isolated not to avoid pandemic but, in a purposeful way, to avoid people. I wanted to ask 19th-century Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau how he stayed serene after he chose to “live deliberately” in a tiny cabin on the shores of Walden Pond in Concord.
A pilgrimage was therefore in order to Thoreau’s most well-known place of residence, his 10 x 15 foot cabin in the woods, where the famous free thinker lived for two years in the late 1800s. When I stopped by, Thoreau wasn’t receiving visitors — the author of the American literature classic Walden died in 1862. Nor could I even rap on the door of his cabin, perhaps to rouse his ghost. Only the original foundation remains of the simple structure he purchased and had moved here. With a roof over his head, and town not too far away for occasional supply runs, Thoreau considered himself perfectly set up for his experiment of the effects of living simply, among nature.
Please consider this post nothing more than a bit of armchair travel right now. Although the Department of Conservation & Recreation (DCR) property is open, as are all DCR sites, during my visit I found that there’s no way to walk around Walden Pond and social distance. Much of the trail is simply too narrow. Fencing on either side of the trail is there for erosion control purposes, and thus doesn’t allow for folks to stand aside for each other to keep the requisite 6 feet of social distancing currently recommended.
I was at the pond by 7:30am on a weekday, and had the place to myself. The sound of nearby Route 2 traffic and the roar of the commuter rail mingled with birdsong. It was a cold morning, but as long as the temps are are at least half my age plus 7, I’m good for a hike.
In the middle of the pond, a migrating flock of about 20 mergansers (not pictured — too quick for me) took a break. Suddenly they rose en masse, the males with their black heads and white chests especially striking against the backdrop of pine trees. The birds flew toward me, settling into a cove just around the bend. Would I stress them with my approach? No, they were as unconcerned by my presence as that of the man with his fishing pole and hip waders, sharing their very water.
As I hiked along the pine-needle strewn path, an occasional swarm of lethargic mosquitoes congregated, not yet awake enough to seek blood. A pileated woodpecker was hard at work, his bright red head a dot of color against the backdrop of the brown-barked trees. He’d found the perfect perch on a small branch, which gave him all the stability he needed while giving the tree what for.
The woodpecker took a break from the insect hunt and let out a call that sounded more primate than bird, a series of about ten loud and quick staccato caws. Then it was back to work. A few more pecks. A cock of the head as he inspected his handiwork (beaky-work?). A few more pecks. Another inspection. Then a family of humans came along and scared both of us off, further into the woods on this more open part of the trail.
The early-rising family that drove me further into the woods also drove me closer to my destination — Henry David Thoreau’s house site.
A sign with some of Thoreau’s most famous words greeted me. I read slowly to put myself in the right frame of mind as I toured the site. “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.”
A couple small cairns were stacked atop the sign, along with many larger piles of the balanced stones behind Thoreau’s words. The impermanence of the piles, the remains of the long-gone cabin, seemed a reminder of the ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust nature of the physical world. Yet it was spring, and the birds still called out as they do every spring, their activity seemingly increased around the site. A titmouse chirp-chirped. The chickadees, always curious and ready with a greeting, chittered their chick-a-dee-dee-dees.
I entered the miniature stonehenge area and conducted my self-tour of the cabin’s holy ground. Mostly I wanted to see Thoreau’s view of Walden Pond, assuming the cabin once boasted a window overlooking the body of water. One of the granite pillars told visitors that the previously forgotten cabin site was discovered on November 11, 1945, by Roland Wells Robbins. Robbins was something of a Thoreau kindred spirit who dropped out of high school in 1924 and held various odd jobs during the Great Depression. A similar discovery today would lock in a doctoral student’s PhD candidacy for sure. Like Thoreau, Wells was something of a nonconformist type who researched, wrote, and lectured, all without the benefit of an advanced degree.
Depending on the age of the towering pines, Thoreau and his visitors may have had an untrammeled view of the pond. Yes, visitors, and plenty of them. He was at Walden Pond as an experiment in solitude, not solitary confinement, so the cabin was something less than a hermitage. It’s said that mom helped him out with groceries and a couple loads of laundry every now and then, and no less a personage than his good friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, and many others, popped in from time to time. After two years of a life designed to strip away the frivolous, Thoreau moved back in with his parents and resumed a life of community.
Back on the path, a red-tailed hawk did a low soar across the pond, through the pine trees, and then buzzed the pond’s perimeter. In a tree, a titmouse sharing a branch with his mate sang his heart out to her. Just for spite, a male robin swooped onto a branch above the pair, his chaperone’s presence silencing the smaller songbird. Robin’s jealousy over not yet having a partner was on obvious display. Best to focus less on spoiling the fun of others, Mr. Robin, and more on locking in a mate of your own. In the avian world, cuffing season is right now.
I saw fewer than a dozen people on this early-morning jaunt. Back at the lot, my car is as lonely as I left it, with several empty spaces on either side. In another more civilized time, I’d have set out for this adventure a little later in the day with a couple friends. Then we would have stopped into Concord center for some lunch and shopping and called it a day well spent.
Still, I left satisfied with a spiritual connection kindled by one who embraced simplicity and solitude in his own way. If Thoreau didn’t spend his two years at Walden Pond entirely off the social grid, he at least stayed out of its whirl. To those who expected of Thoreau a more disciplined, Spartan way of being, perhaps the man’s words can help them transcend their narrow thinking: “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”