The Struggle for Walden

By Andrews, Joseph L., Jr. | The Humanist, January-February 1997 | Go to article overview

The Struggle for Walden


Andrews, Joseph L., Jr., The Humanist


Walden Pond in Lincoln and Concord, Massachussets - a worldwide symbol of the conservation movement - has become a battleground for often-angry opposing environmental-action groups. Some seek to preserve It as a "sanctuary," accessible only to walkers, while others desire to maintain its current recreational uses for swimming, fishing, and boating. With over 600,000 visitors from all over the world flocking annually to Walden's shores to rediscover the beauty of its waters and the inspiration of its forests and meadows, this is a dispute of some urgency.

Meanwhile, the surrounding Walden Woods - recently threatened by developers who sought to bulldoze trees to make way for homes, office buildings, and parking lots - has been rescued for now by Don Henley, a Texas-bred, Hollywood, based rock-and-roll musician, whose Walden Woods Project has so far raised over $11 million and purchased 96 critical acres. But serious questions remain regarding some of his organization's other expenditures. And the long-term future of Henry David Thoreau's Walden is not at all certain.

As the Pleistocene glacier covering northern New England retreated some 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, meltwater and suspended sand and gravel poured downward from the mile-thick glacier to produce an 80-foot-deep deposit. Huge chunks of ice broke off and stuck in the sand and gravel as temperatures warmed. When these chunks melted, they formed depressions filled in with melt-water called kettle holes, one of which was the 100-foot-deep Walden Pond, a body of crystal-clear water with no streams entering or leaving it.

From that time until Europeans settled Concord in 1635, there was no appreciable change. Then some of Concords woods were cleared for farming and grazing. Two centuries later, though, Walden Woods still remained - a stand of pine forest used only for cutting fuel wood. Track for the Boston-Fitchburg Railroad was laid adjacent to Walden Pond in 1844, a year prior to Thoreau,s move there. More trees were cut for railroad ties and locomotive fuel by Irish workers who were housed in shanties around the pond.

Thoreau was born in Concord in 1817 and returned home after graduating from Harvard in 1837. It was then that he began spending his mornings "sauntering" in Concord's woods and meadows or floating over its ponds and rivers, and his afternoons recording detailed natural and philosophical observations in his journal, which later became the basis for his books and lectures. He also began a life-long friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, the minister turned American transcendentalist philosopher. Emerson's 1836 essay "Nature" profoundly influenced Thoreau with its revolutionary theme that each individual should seek a personal, fulfilling relationship with the natural world. Concord became the setting of the "New England Renaissance," where Emerson and Thoreau, along with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May and Bronson Alcott, and Margaret Fuller, befriended and visited each other, walked together through the woods, and penned literary works of international significance.

In 1845, Emerson offered Thoreau the use of his newly purchased wood lot on Walden Pond to build his small cabin and live as a naturalist. Thoreau wanted the solitude to write a book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, in tribute to his lately deceased brother. He also wanted to observe nature directly.

So Thoreau began his famous sabbatical, spending most of each day walking, observing, and writing. Yet he was no hermit, frequently hiking along the railroad track to visit his family in the village and renewing numerous visitors with whom he shared chairs in his cabin - "one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society." He planted and harvested a bean patch behind his cabin and sold the beans for money. He also hired out as a surveyor.

In September 1847, having completed his experiment in simplicity, he became "a sojourner in civilized life again" and returned to Concord Village.

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