Meet Thoreau: Henry Finds His Walden
Henry was born into the rural, historical town of Concord, Massachusetts. In his lifetime Concord would transform into the center of activity for some of the most influential thinkers of the time, the Transcendentalists. The development of Concord was known as the "flowering of New England." Just two miles outside of the center of Concord lies Walden Pond, a deep, cool glacial lake surrounded by pine woods, which Henry would pick for the site of his famous experiment.
In this section, you will learn how Henry found his experiment and why he carried it out where he did. You will also learn some facts about Henry's naturalist hobbies and dispel the myth that he went to Walden to get away from everyone.
|What made Concord a special place?
Writing in his journal on December 5th, 1856, Henry expressed his high opinion of Concord, "I have never got over my surprise that I should have been born into the most estimable place in all the world, and in the very nick of time, too." (1)
Though many of his contemporaries were moving west to explore the unknown and wild frontier, Henry chose to stay in the town where he had been born. Concord, Massachusetts in the mid-1800s was inhabited by an exceptional community of scholars and writers. Some of the noteworthy townspeople included Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Transcendentalist thinker and writer of "Self-Reliance" and "Nature"; Bronson and May Alcott and their daughter Louisa May, author of Little Women; Margaret Fuller, journalist and women's rights advocate; and Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter. Not surprisingly, the town had an active intellectual life, including the Lyceum lecture series and the small circulating "Concord Social Library." Concord is also a short train ride way from the cultural center of Boston and Henry's alma mater, Harvard College. Emerson would sometimes bring visitors out from the city to entertain at his house in Concord, and Henry often attended the gatherings.
Even before Henry's time, Concord was rich in history. It was established in the year 1635 as the first inland English settlement, twenty miles from the coast. On April 19, 1775 the first battle of the American Revolutionary War began on the battlefield of Concord. Over sixty years later, Emerson wrote "Concord Hymn," a poem which first called the historic event "the shot heard 'round the world."
As a college student, Henry spent one of his summer vacations living at Flint's Pond with his friend Charles Wheeler. The friends lived in a small cabin and slept on bunks of straw for six weeks. They were not isolated, however, for they stayed close to the rest of the Wheelers and ate all of their meals with the family. Henry and Charles passed the time reading, sleeping, and relaxing. Henry cherished this vacation and would later return to it as inspiration for moving to Walden Pond and building a small house in the woods.
Initially, Henry imagined a variety of sites for his cabin, such as Baker Farm, Fairhaven Hill by the Sudbury River, and Flint's Pond, but eventually settled on Walden Pond. Though Walden was not very good for fishing and the scenery around it, though beautiful, did "not approach to grandeur," Henry was impressed with the pond's depth and clarity. (2) Unlike some of the nearby, muddier ponds, Walden was so clear that one could see all the way to its bottom through thirty feet of water. The pond was so unusually deep that local legend held that at the center it had no bottom at all. Though Henry took a practical approach and measured the deepest point at one hundred and two feet, he was still "thankful that this pond was made deep and pure for a symbol," continuing, "While men believe in the infinite some ponds will be thought to be bottomless." (3)
Henry's friend Ralph Waldo Emerson had purchased some eleven acres in the woods surrounding Walden Pond on a site he frequently visited, presumably to save the trees from being cut down and to construct a small building as his own study. Emerson agreed to let Henry live on his land in exchange for building the house which Emerson could later use as his study. Henry now had the place he needed to try out his experiment in a simple way of living.
No one knows for sure why Henry chose the specific site that he did to build his cabin, although there were many practical reasons for him to do so. Most importantly, it was next to the pond which he observed daily and in which he also bathed and fetched water for drinking. The site was also near several other locations of importance, such as the road to Concord Village, his bean field, and Brister's Spring, a source of cool water on hot summer days. The site also carried advantages such as comparatively few trees to fell, level ground, elevation from floods, and a view facing south, which warmed the house and sheltered it from winter storms.
In the second chapter of Walden, Henry described "Where I Lived and What I Lived For," writing, "I was seated… so low in the woods that the opposite shore, half a mile off, like the rest, covered with wood, was my most distant horizon….it impressed me like a tarn [small mountain lake with steep banks] high up on the side of a mountain, its bottom far above the surface of other lakes, and, as the sun arose, I saw it throwing off its nightly clothing of mist, and here and there, by degrees, its soft ripples or its smooth reflecting surface was revealed, while the mists, like ghosts, were stealthily breaking up of some nocturnal conventicler. The very dew seemed to hang upon the trees later into the day than usual, as on the sides of mountains." (4)
"In wildness is the preservation of the world." (5) This famous quote from the essay "Walking" boldly declares one of Henry's most emphatic beliefs, but it is often misquoted as "in wilderness is the preservation of the world." Though he was a devoted observer of Nature and loved to immerse himself in the woods during his walks, what Thoreau meant to highlight was not an untouched "wilderness" separate from humanity, but instead an independence of the spirit epitomized in the world "wildness." His experiment living at Walden was not meant to be a wilderness excursion or a period of hermitage. In the opening statement of the Walking, he writes, "I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute Freedom and Wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and Culture merely civil - to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society." (6) Thoreau felt that society constrained the individual and he looked to the wildness of nature as pointing to our belonging to a higher, freer way of life.