Fighting The Crowds On Walden Pond

Henry David Thoreau's Walden; or Life in the Woods, deserves it's status as a great American book, but let it be known that Nature Boy went home on weekends to raid the family cookie jar.

Thoreau begins his American classic with lines that are memorable for their simplicity, clarity, and ... utter deception.

When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.

Most Americans have an image of Thoreau as a rough-hewn, self-educated recluse, who, following the grand tradition of prophets, disappeared into the solitude to commune with nature. We picture his little shack far off in the woods, the man a voluntary Robinson Crusoe, alone with his thoughts and the bluebirds.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Thoreau could see the well-traveled Concord-Lincoln highway across his field; he could hear the Fitchburg Railroad as it steamed along the track on the far side of Walden Pond.

He visited Concord Village almost every day; Thoreau's mother and sisters, who lived less than two miles away, delivered goodies baskets every Sunday, stocked with pies, doughnuts, and meals; Thoreau even raided the family cookie jar during his frequent visits home.

The more one reads in Thoreau's unpolished journal of his stay in the woods, the more his sojourn resembles suburban boys going to their treehouse in the backyard and pretending they're camping in the heart of a jungle.

The children of Concord visited on weekends and the cabin became a popular picnicking spot for local families. One winter, fellow writer Bronson Alcott had dinner there on Sunday nights; Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne were frequent visitors.

And, on August 1, 1846, the good ladies of an antislavery group held their annual celebration of the freeing of West Indian slaves on his doorstep. The cabin once packed twenty-five visitors inside.

"It was not a lonely spot," understates Walter Harding in his excellent The Days of Henry Thoreau. "Hardly a day went by that Thoreau did not visit the village or was visited at the pond." The joke making the rounds in Concord was that when Mrs. Emerson rang the dinner bell, Thoreau came rushing out of the woods and was first in line with his outstretched plate.

After a year, Thoreau was giving little lectures in the Concord Lyceum on his experiment in simplified living. Words of his shack spread fast so that tourist stated arriving, asking for a drink of water, hoping to catch a glimpse of the inside.

But Thoreau, a meat-eating Harvard grad, did find time away from the crowds to write about man and nature. Walden is a mesmerizing tale of St. Francis on a budget.

However, if you have a hankering to duplicate Thoreau's experiment in simplicity, perhaps you to should build a shack a couple of miles from the family home, just off the road, by the railroad tracks, a five minute walk from the village. And don't forget to schedule the weekend picnics.

[Richard Zacks.(1997). An underground Education. New York, NY: Doubleday.]

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Sources given:
Burham, Tom, The Dictionary of Misinformation (New York, 1975); Harding Walter, Days of Henry Thoreau (New York, 1966)