Going to Walden

Status report: a terrible night. Sometimes I do all right with caffeine, so I forget the times that I don’t. Yesterday afternoon, I stopped in the Japanese bakery in downtown Lexington and bought myself an espresso jelly, which is basically espresso as a cold jell with whipped cream and a coffee bean on top. It’s absolutely delicious, but by midnight I realized that I was not tired at all, and by five in the morning I realized that I might as well just get up because I wasn’t going to sleep. So I had breakfast. After some oatmeal and orange juice, I was finally able to get to sleep, and when I woke up I felt better. But that’s the last time I’m going to have an espresso jelly, no matter how much I love it. I just can’t handle the caffeine.

When I finally woke up again, I was able to work for a couple of hours, and I finished the revisions to Chapter 1. Tonight and tomorrow, I’m planning on revising the abstract, and then it’s on to Chapter 2 and more work on the introduction. I think I’ll be working on the introduction for the next three weeks. I initially thought I would be able to write it separately, but there’s too much I need to borrow from and coordinate with the other chapters. I need to write it during the revision process. But I feel better about that process today. It’s going all right.

By six o’clock I was tired of working, so I went to Walden Pond. I took some pictures, because I know that many of you have read Henry David Thoreau but have never been to Walden. So I’m going to show you what it looks like.  First, I have to tell you: the most surprising thing about Walden is that you expect it to be a sort of sanctuary, a place kept sacrosanct, and it’s not.  At one end of the pond is a public beach that has been there since at least the 1940s, and wherever you walk, you can hear the distant shouts of bathers.  I haven’t taken pictures of the public beach, and it’s not large, but know that it’s there.

First we come to a replica of Thoreau’s cabin.  The place his cabin was located is actually across a road, much closer to the pond.  But I’m glad they built a replica, because it’s nice to be able to visualize where he lived.  “Simplify, simplify,” he said.  The cabin is indeed as simple as possible.

“As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.”  I think there’s a great deal of truth in that.  Simplifying your life allows you to redefine other parts of it as well.  Solitude, poverty, and weakness are in part (although certainly not in whole) what we say they are, what we define them to be.  I need to simplify too, Thoreau.  To redefine. And I’m trying.

I wonder how closely the furniture in the cabin matches what he actually owned?  I love everything in the cabin.  I love the colors, the shapes, the peace that seems to inhabit it.  Thoreau wrote, “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”  I would want more than three chairs, but I find the simplicity of the cabin restful. (I would also want a bathroom.)

“Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.”  I feel as though that’s what I’m doing, nowadays.  Although I’m tired of gnawing the dissertation bone specifically.  It’s getting very dry, that bone. I’d rather gnaw on a novel.  Well, that will happen, almost soon enough.

When I realized I was going to post pictures of myself as well, I thought, I should at least have tried to look moderately presentable.  Because what you see here is Dissertation Dora, in glasses and old clothes, looking tired.  I came straight from typing to Walden.  “I say beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.”  I don’t know, I should probably have changed.

“There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.” After looking at the replica cabin, let’s cross the road and walk around the pond.  Somehow, when I get out into the natural world, I do feel that: the anxiety and sense of toil go away, for a little while.  Especially around water.

It should really be called Walden Lake.  As you can see, it’s quite large, and wooded all around.  And all around there are paths, close to the water.  “Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence.”  The paths around the lake are relatively narrow, although I’m not sure how reverent I was feeling.  You always need to approach Thoreau with a sense of humor.

“Every man casts a shadow; not his body only, but his imperfectly mingled spirit. This is his grief. Let him turn which way he will, it falls opposite to the sun; short at noon, long at eve. Did you never see it?”  I included that quotation because here I was walking under the shadows of the trees.  I’m not sure what other applicability it has, except that whatever shadow is inside me, I carry it with me always, even to a place as peaceful as this.

At one point, there is a bridge.  On one side of the bridge is a small extension of the pond with water lilies, almost a separate pond.  On the other side is the main pond, with open water.  I didn’t take a photograph of the bridge because there were people on it.  “Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.”  I guess that’s some consolation, isn’t it?  I’ve been very, very busy lately.

“Great men, unknown to their generation, have their fame among the great who have preceded them, and all true worldly fame subsides from their high estimate beyond the stars.”  I wonder to what extent Thoreau was thinking of himself when he wrote that?  It’s obvious, from the way he pontificates, that he thought he was one of the great men of his generation.  He was right of course, but that’s also why you need to approach him with a sense of humor.  You can’t be entirely reverent.  This is where his cabin was located.

To the left is a large pile of stones.  People have been coming for many years and leaving stones in Thoreau’s memory.  “The Artist is he who detects and applies the law from observation of the works of Genius, whether of man or Nature. The Artisan is he who merely applies the rules which others have detected.”  Because he is a Romantic, he has to say things like that.  Otherwise, he’ll lose his Poetic License.

Of course I left a stone.  Wouldn’t you?  You’d want to be able to say you did.  “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”  I sat down on the pile of stones.  Honestly, I’d stand up to live if I had more time.  Right now, it’s all about the writing – the dissertation writing.  But I’ll start living again as soon as I can.  Really.

Of course there is the requisite Thoreau quotation, on a sign by the rock pile.  What is Thoreau to us nowadays?  A source of quotations that we think we understand out of context.  But I do want to live deliberately, to learn what life has to teach so when I come to die, I will know that I have lived: fully, completely.  I check myself sometimes.  I ask myself, am I living today?  And if I’m not, I ask myself, why not?  And what can I do to experience something – beauty, joy, grandeur?  And then sometimes I look at the moon, and sometimes I listen to music.  And sometimes I dance.

The trees around the pond are incredibly tall.  I wonder if they were as tall when Thoreau was alive?  “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”  I am consciously endeavoring, right?  Although I’d have to ask Thoreau what specifically he means by elevate.  I mean, Bronson Alcott tried to elevate his life by consciously endeavoring not to wear wool.  That works a lot better after the invention of acrylic fleece.

Thoreau talks a lot about solitude. “I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will.” I have to admit, I am often more lonely in crowds than I am when actually alone. But I think Walden is the sort of place where you should bring a friend.  You need someone to whom you can make snarky comments.

“If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer. But if he spends his days as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is deemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.” I guess I have to count myself among the loafers, then.  I would like to be able to walk in woods, more frequently than I do now.  If I had a piece of land with woods, and a pond, and some space for a cabin and a garden, I wonder how often I would leave it?

We have taken a detour to see where Thoreau’s cabin was located.  Now we follow the path back to the lake.  Thoreau said, “A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” I have to admit, I always find myself happiest around water, just as of all sounds, I most love birdsong or the chirping of crickets.  Or the hooting of an owl, in the early morning.

You can see the bathers above.  It’s difficult to take a photograph of the lake without some of them getting into the frame.  As you go around the pond, there are regular intervals at which large stones have been set into the banks, as steps.  They go down to the lake, and almost each set of steps has its bathers, gathered on them.  I have always loved the idea of stone steps going down into the water, I’m not sure why. Thoreau also wrote, “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” Sometimes I do think about how much of my life I’m exchanging for something.  That’s why I try to buy only things that are beautiful or useful, that are worth a part of my life.

On the way back, I saw a family of ducks. I was surprised by how close the mother duck let me get to the ducklings. “Nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask. She has long ago taken her resolution.” That’s what I find so restful about nature. It is so completely itself. So completely resolved.

“In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society.”  And I kind of did, actually.  At least, after walking around at Walden, I felt much, much better about myself and my work.  Thanks, Thoreau. Honestly, sometimes you sound like a parody of yourself, but that’s probably not your fault. It’s probably the fault of a hundred dorm posters with sayings that are supposed to be inspirational, but by which you meant something more complex, and more politically motivated, and more revolutionary, than we realize.

“Our moments of inspiration are not lost though we have no particular poem to show for them; for those experiences have left an indelible impression, and we are ever and anon reminded of them.” I’m going to remember Walden and draw from it in some way. I find that all the important things I do affect my life and my writing, which are intertwined anyway. And I’m at a point in my life when I don’t really bother doing things that are not important. I don’t have the inclination or time.

But going to Walden is one of the important things. Like a pilgrimage. With, don’t forget, a sense of humor.

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6 Responses to Going to Walden

  1. Thank you for sharing such a wonderful story. The name, Henry David Thoreau, is one I’m familiar with, but as name alone. You have brought to me a sense of wanting to know more about him. In this complex world we live in, the ability to find a way to simplify our lives should be sought after; and you have made me aware of it. I will seek out Thoreau’s writings and hopefully make my life a bit more simple. Thank you.

    I’m glad your writing is progressing well and I can relate to the problems of caffeine. Your version of it seems more tasty though. I liked the photographs that accompanied your post. It brought everything into “focus.” Sorry, I sometimes can’t help myself with a little humor.


  2. Lynn says:

    Lovely post – thank you.

  3. For anyone who wants to read Walden, there’s an online edition here: http://thoreau.eserver.org/walden00.html

    Although I highly recommend buying it as a book (not an ebook!) and keeping it your pocket and reading bits and pieces throughout the day, as the fancy hits. It’s that sort of book. 🙂

  4. What an effective pictorial story. This from the Writers Almanac at http//npr.org might interest you as well:
    It’s the birthday of Henry David Thoreau (books by this author), born in Concord, Massachusetts (1817). He got his first glimpse of Walden Pond as a young boy; he wrote later: “When I was five years old, I was brought from Boston to this pond, away in the country, — which was then but another name for the extended world for me. […] That woodland vision for a long time made the drapery of my dreams.”

    Thoreau was a bright young man, but also good with his hands, and he planned to become a carpenter. His parents sent him to Harvard, and he excelled there, but he didn’t like it much. He graduated in 1837, but had no career ambitions, and after a failed two-week stint as a teacher, he moved back home to work in his family’s pencil factory. He and his brother opened a school, which also failed. A few years later, his beloved brother died, and Thoreau was even more lost. He spent a couple of years working for the Emerson family as a handyman and tutor, then went back to the pencil factory. He improved his family’s business when he discovered an economical way to bind graphite and clay, and he seemed on track to spend the rest of his life manufacturing pencils.

    Then, in 1844, 26-year-old Thoreau took a vacation and went fishing on the Sudbury River with a friend. It hadn’t rained much lately so the woods were unusually dry. The two men lit a fire to cook up some fish chowder, but they lost control of the fire. The fire spread from the grass along the river to the trees, and eventually burned down nearly 300 acres of the Concord woods. Local citizens were furious, and whispered “woodsburner” behind Thoreau’s back for years.

    No one knows whether Thoreau’s guilt over burning the woods had any connection to his decision, about a year later, to move to a cabin in the woods on the shore of Walden Pond — the experience that would inspire his most famous book, Walden (1854). He didn’t write about the fire until six years later, in 1850, by which point he acted nonchalant about the whole thing. He wrote: “I once set fire to the woods. […] I said to myself, ‘Who are these men who are said to be the owners of these woods, and how am I related to them? I have set fire to the forest, but I have done no wrong therein, and now it is as if the lightning had done it. These flames are but consuming their natural food.’ It has never troubled me from that day to this more than if the lightning had done it. The trivial fishing was all that disturbed me and disturbs me still. So shortly I settled it with myself and stood to watch the approaching flames. It was a glorious spectacle and I was the only one there to enjoy it.”

  5. Margaret Fisher Squires says:

    Enjoying Thoreau with a sense of humor seems like an excellent choice.

    Walking near trees and plants, under sky, is indeed restorative.

    Thanks for sharing this with us!

  6. I’m glad you all like the Walden pictures! And thanks for the story about the fire, Michelle! I wonder if he was really that nonchalant about it at the time . . .

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