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Into the Woods

‘When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from my neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Mass., and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months.”

So starts out Walden; or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau. The book marks its 150th year since publication this summer.

On Aug. 9, 1854, the initial run of 2000 copies of Walden were sold for one dollar each. The book included observations and thoughts Thoreau gleaned from his journals during 26 months of living in a 10-by-15 foot cabin down by Walden Pond. Walden did not shoot up the literary best-seller charts right away.

Things have changed a bit since those mid-19th century days down at the pond. For example, included among the pages of Walden are lists of expenses Thoreau accrued during his stay in the woods. His cabin cost a little over 28 dollars to build using boards, shingles and bricks recycled from abandoned structures nearby. He notes that he carried much of this material to the building site on his back. The median cost of a house in the same area today is over $620,000, or about 22,000 times more than Thoreau’s 150-square-foot home.

While he lived along the pond from July 4, 1845, until Sept. 6, 1847, Thoreau got his food costs down to about 27 cents a week, or less than 4 cents a day. He made much of the money he needed by working with his hands at odd jobs in nearby Concord, where he had been born and where his good friend Ralph Waldo Emerson lived. Emerson owned the wood lot at the pond where Thoreau set up his quaint residence without charge. Prior to heading for the woods, Thoreau had lived in Emerson’s house as a handyman. He also saw Emerson as a mentor for his own developing ideas.

Thoreau also cultivated two-and-a-half acres of land nearby, growing beans, potatoes, turnips, peas and corn to raise additional money and meet his own nutritional needs. He drew water from the pond in buckets hauled from the small cove—now known as Thoreau’s Cove—near his cabin. During his stay in the woods he read a lot and wrote his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which relayed adventures he’d had with his brother on these local rivers. The book didn’t spark many sales.

It was during his first year on Walden Pond that Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay a poll tax in a demonstration against slavery and the Mexican War. His essay “On Civil Disobedience” resulted from this experience and was published five years before Walden. This piece of protest literature would later influence the thoughts and actions of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as they faced their respective struggles and stays in jail. After serving a night in the Concord pokey, Thoreau headed back to his wooded refuge.

At the time Thoreau moved into the woods, the Walden Pond area was not pristine forest. Before he built his house, the Fitchburg Railroad had sunk its rails along the western shore of the pond, igniting a number of fires in the woods from burning embers released from smoke-spewing engines. The woods around the pond were also recovering from an earlier time when they were used to make charcoal to smelt local iron ore. With cow pastures, roads and the village of Concord nearby, Walden Pond was not what one might call pristine woodland. Regardless, that should not devalue the efforts to simplify life addressed by Thoreau. He never claimed to be a hermit in the wilderness.

I first read Walden when I was in high school back in the late 1960s. I first visited the pond back then, on a cool drizzling day when our tour bus of students on a field trip left the only footprints along the water’s edge. I visited there again in the 1990s during a winter weekday morning and slid across the pond’s thick and cracking ice with a couple of poet friends. The location of Thoreau’s cabin is now marked by a stack of stones that people have brought from around the world to leave as a growing tribute to the important symbolism of the place.

Over the years, the book and place have become part of the iconography of the environmental movement in this country. While Walden got good reviews when it was first published, it was not until after Thoreau’s death and Emerson’s heightened promotion that its readership began to dramatically grow. As the industrialization of the country created a forest of smokestacks, grinding gears and soot-streaked skies, interest in what this naturalist had to say seemed to rise in response. Walden went from being a place to a book to an ideal. It seemed to raise the question of how humans can live with nature, as opposed to exploiting it as a resource for pecuniary profit.

As recreational use of the pond and development of the surrounding land (including a trailer park and landfill) accelerated over the last 30 years, serious environmental challenges to this international landmark arose. But defenders of the pond carved thousands of years ago by retreating glaciers seem to always rise to the challenge of its preservation.

“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.”

Henry David Thoreau died on May 6, 1862, from tuberculosis. He was 44. After all these years, his voice continues to live on through the turning pages of each new reader who enters his Walden.

—Tom Nattell

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