Walden Pond: A History

by W. Barksdale Maynard

Published by Oxford University Press

404 pages, 2004

Buy it online




Troubled Waters

Reviewed by Edward J. Renehan Jr.


On July 4, 1845, Henry Thoreau retreated to a tiny hut close by Walden Pond in Concord, 15 miles west of Boston. Here, for 26 months, he exercised his choice "not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth century." The resulting book -- Walden; or, Life in the Woods -- appeared in 1854. Only a few hundred copies sold, and the obscure, 44-year-old Thoreau died of tuberculosis in 1862.

Since then, Thoreau's testament to self-reliance, deliberate-living and Transcendental awareness has become a recognized American classic. At the same time, the modest body of water upon which he sought solitude has morphed into a cultural icon: one of our country's most famous and abused sacred spaces.

In Walden Pond: A History, W. Barksdale Maynard -- who teaches architectural history at Johns Hopkins and the University of Delaware -- contemplates the 62 acre kettle-hole in all its guises. Here we have Walden as literary Mecca, environmental landmark and cause celebre. Here we also have the pond as litter-strewn bathing beach, political volleyball and object of parochial infighting.

It seems conservation has nearly always been an issue at the pond. Ralph Waldo Emerson's motives were entirely ecological when, in 1844, he purchased the small slice of Walden waterfront upon which Thoreau would one day build. The Fitchburg Railway had just cut tracks through the woods by Walden. Further extension of the line meant demand for trees. As Maynard explains, Emerson's purchase of the parcel known as the "Wyman Lot" was directly tied to "his dismay at how the coming of the railroad accelerated the consumption of lumber." A local Concord tradesman had set up a sawmill not far from the pond, there to busily convert ancient chestnuts into ties for the train tracks. "The price of wood rose rapidly, and Emerson, at first on a whim but later in earnest, began to buy forested land -- partly for the pride of ownership, partly to enjoy cheap firewood," but chiefly "to preserve the scenic beauties he had come to value so highly."

Despite Emerson's best effort, the real abuse of Walden was yet to come. During the latter part of the 19th century, the proprietors of the Fitchburg Railroad built an excursion park on the pond: concessions, swings, baseball fields. This park closed in 1902, but in 1913 the town of Concord hired lifeguards and began offering swim lessons. A large bathhouse went up in 1917. Ultimately, during the last decade of the 20th century, the crowded swimming hole lay ringed by ever-tighter circles of sprawl, abutted by the town landfill, threatened with still more development.

Such was the situation when rocker Don Henley formed the Walden Woods Project -- a well-funded effort to protect Thoreau's terrain from further desecration. Henley's successful struggles against several would-be developers -- among them Mort Zuckerman, who sought to build a massive office complex on Brister's Hill, near Thoreau's beanfield and house site -- garnered headlines worldwide. More recently, Henley's organization has been instrumental in funding reclamation of the landfill. Reporting on Henley with approval, Maynard nevertheless notes the obvious irony of celebrity-driven high-finance being deployed to save the realm of the Spartan, anti-establishment Thoreau.

The book is packed with interesting anecdotes. Maynard describes Ralph Waldo Emerson taking his last hike to Walden on April 2, 1882, just 25 days before his death at age 78. He shows us psychologist B.F. Skinner (author of Walden Two) and Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius enjoying early-morning swims in the 1940s. And he narrates what happened during the late 1970s, when the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management (DEM) decided to remove the famous cairn built near Thoreau's cove by generations of reverent visitors. Three years and a world of outrage later, the DEM restored the cairn.

Thoreau constantly urged his neighbors to "simplify, simplify." Yet nothing is simple at Walden. Near the end of his narrative, Maynard quotes Concord resident and avid Thoreauvian Tom Blanding, who rightly describes the pond as "a symbol ... an indicator of where we are culturally." Pilgrims routinely go away disappointed by Walden's domestication: the crowds, the bathhouse, the trucks rumbling loudly down Route 126 in plain sight of birdwatchers and hikers. "But if Walden is disappointing," says Blanding, "that is because Walden is true. It shows where our society stands in relation to nature." And where we stand leaves much to be desired. | March 2004


Ed Renehan's books include The Secret Six, The Lion's Pride, The Kennedys at War, and John Burroughs: An American Naturalist. His home on the web is http://renehan.blogspot.com.