“And for many,” says the man I presume to be a tour guide of some sorts, pointing to a freelanced cairn, “this site is even more meaningful than his grave.”
I overheard this when one of my sisters and I went to visit Walden Pond on this last Patriots’ Day, Marathon Monday. We were standing at the cabin site, thinking our own thoughts and watching other groups and pairs and individuals do the same and stroll around where Henry David Thoreau lived for those two years.
That also others find his life and living place more powerful than where his bones were laid to rest makes sense to me, that life outshines death. Particularly for a man who was so deliberate in how he lived, where he lived, and what he lived for, it seems the deeper tribute. Bones decay, but if you bend down and touch the stones around the cabin site, something powerful remains or has been created.
My understanding of Thoreau has evolved about as my entire ethos of how to be in the world has done the same. When I was nineteen and living in yurt on the edge of a lake, I wanted to be like Thoreau and Edward Abbey, a maverick living in wild places, in being alone and apart and independent from the world. I was living in the yurts in the fall of 2001, a particularly poignant time to wish to disconnect from mainstream culture and find balm, equilibrium, and solace in the patterns of woods and wild places.
First, Abbey burst that blindly idealistic bubble when I learned he was not, in fact, solitary in the desert—his wife and young son were present for much of the seasons that became “Desert Solitaire.” Some part of me—much as I admire that he complemented his wilderness work with being a social worker in Hoboken—cannot quite forgive that omission of his family. It just seems rude.
And then there was Thoreau, with his pesky walks into town, with his mother doing his laundry, with Emerson having him over for dinner, and all the rest of his interactions with Concord. My sister pointed out that, as an 1840s bachelor, Thoreau's mom would have been doing his laundry regardless of his living in the woods or no. A valid point. But, at nineteen and for many years between now and then, I wanted Thoreau to be a paragon of isolated and wilderness and wildness, and there he was, leaving the woods more than I thought seemed appropriate.
I hadn’t yet come to realize that wildness was more the point than wilderness, and that can be found anywhere once you learn to look. Or that paragons are not as rewarding to love as the contradictory symphonies of human beings.
As I spend more and more of my time these days trying to figure out how to live more like I do in the woods when I am out of the woods, I am newly struck by Thoreau’s genius. That, yes, it is an isolation of sorts, but it is also an intentional, deliberate way of being in the world. I find that when I go into the woods or the mountains or along the ocean, anywhere that is different and away from clocks and cell phone coverage and constant connection and demands for my time, there is a difference in how I am, how I perceive the world and how I engage with everything that lays before me. Those open eyes and heart are what I keep trying to bring to better life away from those places. By walking to town, by not isolating himself, Thoreau made the boundary of nature and culture porous, irrelevant. How he lived, there could be only one way of being.
I don’t say “one way” like a one-way street, there are as many paths to whatever this good balance, further shore, sustainable lifestyle, happiness, human-erred enlightenment, etc. may be as there are walkers of these ways. But only one way of being in his own skin—that he didn’t have different hats or costumes for who he was playing his flute alone the woods and who he was talking to his mother and sisters about abolition. That constancy is what I am after. I doubt I am alone in scrabbling towards this, and we all make, as Wendell Berry says “more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction.”
Mistakes are allowed, wandering and sauntering encouraged, but the intention of getting somewhere—and enjoying the journey—more whole and less splintered is as good a beacon as any I know to go towards.
I had wanted to go to Walden on Monday not just as an escape from the city to a beautiful lake with my sister, but to go there as a pilgrimage on a day when there was so much remembrance of a freshly dark and strange time in Boston’s history. I wanted to be in a place where the infallible salve of nature and the peaceful bravery of human justice merged seamlessly. I’ve read that the Concord Ladies’ Antislavery Society met at the cabin at Walden Pond. At the recreated cabin by the parking lot and gift shop, there is a quote that “I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof,” and I like to think that some of those gatherings of bodied souls were working for justice, talking about the great horrors of an unjust, unsustainable system and the yawning need for personal actions when the powerful were sitting on their hands, orchestrating who was bringing snacks for the next meeting and who was guiding and guarding the former slave towards freedom. All of those actions have a sort of mundane holiness, a brilliant humility about them.
This was a place where the beauty of the world met the challenges of the world head on, with courage and action and joy, and where there were no boundaries between such things. I wanted to be reminded of that the way some folks go to church—sometimes the choir wants to hear the words again, to be preached at, to rekindle the faith they sing out with.
Anywhere, I believe, can be that boundless place yet if in your head and heart you deliberately live it into being.
Although, Walden Pond itself is particularly lovely for a reminder and renewal.
|My sister, requesting entrance to Henry's cabin (and life).|