Monday, April 4, 2011

Walden Pond and Transcendentalism

Being married to an English teacher, and having many friends that were English majors, I have heard of Walden Pond most of my life. Living in the west, I think of a pond as something very small. We had a pond at our cabin, growing up, which was too big to jump across, but no problem to throw a rock across. When we got to the visitor center at Walden Pond recently (outside Concord, MA), I asked a man, “so where is Walden Pond from here?” He pointed out a window and said, “across the street.” There it was, a huge lake covered in ice with a layer of snow. 
That’s a pond? It was bigger than most of the lakes in the Sierras. All of my prior conceptions were destroyed.

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: or, Life in the Woods has been called the “greatest expression of the spirit of New England Transcendentalism.”  I bought the book in the visitor’s center and read more than half of it on the flight home from Boston later that day. It was more meaningful reading about it having just been there.

Toward the end of the book, Thoreau wrote, “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance…but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry…” If I could talk to Thoreau today, I would like to ask him if he ever found it, that is, truth? His mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who started the Transcendentalism movement was disenchanted with his religion and looked to eastern religions and nature as avenues for finding truth. Where Emerson, in his “Nature,” wrote about the natural world in broad terms, Thoreau, in Walden, talked about nature in experiential specifics.

Near the end of March 1845 Thoreau went to the woods by Walden Pond with an intent to build a house. It was on land owned by Emerson, one and a half miles from Concord. It was on a “pleasant hillside” which allowed him to look out upon the pond. 
He said, “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…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…” They were days in “which the winter of man’s discontent [his own] was thawing as well as the earth and the life that had lain torpid began to stretch itself.” Two years and five months later, on September 6, 1847, he left Walden.

He goes into some detail about the house he built. There is a reconstructed version of his house near the visitors center, 
not near the original site, and they have also marked out the original site which was found in 1945. 
He dug a cellar in the side of a south-sloping hill, seven feet deep and six feet square. In May he began to frame his house. He began to occupy the house on July 4, 1845, as soon as it was boarded and roofed. The walls were of weather-stained boards, with wide chinks which made it cool at night. There was no plastering and no chimney. He laid the foundation of a chimney at one end and brought two cartloads of stone from the pond in his arms. Before winter he built the chimney and shingled the side of his house. The house was ten feet wide, fifteen feet long, with a large window on each side, a door at one end and the chimney at the other. 
He made an adjoining woodshed with left-over building materials. 
He plastered before that first winter when freezing weather arrived. For the plaster, he brought whiter and cleaner sand from the opposite shore in his boat and he got lime by burning shells. He also planted two and a half acres of light and sandy soil with beans, potatoes, corn, peas and turnips which helped to sustain him. He refers to Walden as a “small pond” even though he notes it is a half mile long and 1 ¾ miles in circumference.

I liked that our visit to Walden corresponded with the same time of year he first moved to Walden, the pond still covered in ice. The picture below was taken from the little inlet near where Thoreau's cabin was located. 
In Walden he describes life at the pond through the various seasons. I particularly enjoyed entries relating to when it was covered in ice. He did soundings at 100 different spots to determine the depth. He describes men harvesting ice from the pond for transport to Boston for use commercially. He describes the ice noises as it shifts and ultimately breaks-up in the spring.  
I rather like what he said about homes. I think given what we have just gone through financially in our country, and see what has happened in Japan, it was prescient. He says, if you’re not careful, a home can be a “workhouse,…a museum…a prison.” Many men are “harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious” home. When “the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer for it, and it may be the house that has got him.” We are often “imprisoned rather than housed in them.” Many people are so focused on having a home like their neighbors that they are never content and feel themselves poor. By contrast, he held out his own house. He pointed out that if he lost his own house by fire or other catastrophe, that it would not be a great loss.

I like his take on many of the other practicalities of life, perhaps not taken to the extremes he takes them, as in his 10 x 15 shack, but certainly there is wisdom in much of what he says. Clothing is used to “cover nakedness” and retain heat. But often we are led by “the love of novelty, and a regard for the opinions of men, in procuring it.” After “a man is warmed…what does he want next? Surely not more warmth…, as more and richer food, larger and more splendid houses, finer and more abundant clothing…and the like. When he has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative…; and that is to adventure on life…” Most “men…are so occupied with the…cares and superfluously course labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.” He has not “leisure,…no time to be anything but a machine.” 

I think Thoreau would view the search for truth as the best use of one’s time. He recommended studying the classics. He had Homer’s Iliad on his table throughout the summer. Classics are the noblest recorded thoughts of man. “Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.” We should “laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing…what wisdom and valor and generosity” we can glean from it. The “same questions that disturb and puzzle and confound us have in their turn occurred to all these wise men…and each has answered them, according to his ability, by his words and life.” Thousands of years ago Zoroaster travelled the same road and had the same experiences. So commune with Zoroaster and other worthies.

Some say that moderns, and in particular, Americans, are intellectual dwarfs compared to the ancients. “A living dog is better than a dead lion. Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the best pygmy that he can? Let every man mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made.” I like that. I also like: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” I suspect this is the source of the “different drummer” phrase which is so often used.

Finally, “Our life is frittered away by detail…Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!...Simplify, simplify.”

I think if I were to try and pull off my own Walden, I would do it in the desert. For me, the desert is much more interesting, varied and peaceful than the forest. A place like Carey’s Castle would be cool and comfortable and I’ve already had my much more limited experience of seeing the desert landscape change with the seasons. 

1 comment:

  1. Walking the path at Walden Pond was truly a transcendental experience for me. I loved doing it in winter when we could experience the try solitude that HDT knew. Thank you for these reflections and insights.