Walden Pond: A History

By Marschall, Laurence A. | Natural History, July/August 2004 | Go to article overview

Walden Pond: A History


Marschall, Laurence A., Natural History


Walden Pond:A History by W. Barksdale Maynard Oxford University Press, 2004; $35.00

Asked to name the most important bodies of water in the U.S., an Australian schoolboy in the 1940s listed the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River-and Waiden Pond. That's mighty impressive company for Walden, a freshwater lake outside Concord, Massachusetts, that is popular with residents of the western Boston suburbs as a picnic area, fishing hole, and bathing site. Measured by its area (barely sixty acres, depending on seasonal rainfall) or commercial value, Waiden Pond surely isn't worth much more than any similar plot of real estate in New England. Yet the schoolboy was right: it is hard to think of a place of greater importance to the intellectual and spiritual development of the U.S.

A century and a half has passed since Henry David Thoreau wrote Waiden; or, Life in the Woods, a chronicle of the author's two years of "deliberate living" in a small cabin on the lake's northeast shore. But that brief historical connection has made Waiden Pond a holy shrine of the environmental movenient. W Barksdale Maynard, an architectural historian, begins his exhaustively researched narrative with Thoreau's first visit to the shores of the pond, at age four, in 1821. Maynard's real story, though, is the sometimes rocky history of the pond's "beatification," which he brings up to the present day.

Even before Thoreau's essay, Wilden Pond exerted a magnetic appeal on writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, who saw the pond and its surrounding territory as an American counterpart to England's Lake District. There, William Wordsworth and other English Romantic poets advocated rusticity, in the form of rough-hewn cottages and quiet country lanes, as an antidote to the corruption of industrial civilization. Concord, even wilder and more rough-hewn than the English countryside, was a natural pulpit from which Emerson could preach the "Transcendentalist" gospel of nature, urging his contemporaries to leave the bustle of city life and seek peace and spiritual renewal among the pines.

Maynard puts Thoreau's great work squarely in the context of the Concord Transcendentalists, and shows how the modern conservation movement took root along the shores of Waiden Pond. …

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