The colours of the trees are vibrant in the strong sunlight, set off against a deep blue sky on a clear October day. Walden Pond is where Henry David Thoreau built a cabin in the woods ‘by his own hand’ in order to get closer to nature. The site he chose is a flat spot in a dip just above the pond, sheltered on three sides by slightly higher land. The site is marked with a set of granite pillars indicating the outline of the cabin, and through the trees you can get a view of the water.
The peace and quiet that Thoreau sought here is harder to obtain today. Walden faces problems that are familiar to many ‘protected’ areas, over-use, congestion, and loss of the qualities that make the place desirable to visit. The fine weekend weather has brought people out from Boston and the surrounding towns on what might be one of the last opportunities to enjoy foliage before bad weather strips the tress of their leaves and winter sets in. The beach just down from the road at the far end of the pond from the cabin is busy. People come to look across the lake at the shoreline foliage, a couple of hardy swimmers are experiencing the cold clear water, a few canoes are paddling around, there are people fishing from the shore, and even a group sitting in a circle on the sand, eyes closed in meditation. The trail around the pond is also busy. It’s a relatively short walk that takes in the site of Thoreau’s cabin, but due to the popularity of the place the trail is fenced in on both sides all the way around to reduce erosion of the slope leading down to the water’s edge. It seems to be working but it means you can only access the water in a few limited spots, and the narrowness of the trails makes it feel crowded as we constantly have to squeeze past groups going in the opposite direction.
The area is now managed by the state and numbers are only limited by the size of the (extensive) car park and an $8 parking fee. There is a large visitor centre along with a replica of the cabin and the furniture it would have contained, which was very simple: a bed, a wood stove on which you could cook, a small rocking chair, a table, and a writing desk with a chair. The area is easily accessible from the road and close to a large urban population. One can see what attracted Thoreau to come here but now you have to look to less well-known areas to find untrammelled nature, and that means having local knowledge of the location of small-scale public assess areas. The area around Boston is under pressure from development, both industrial and residential, and natural areas are under pressure and disappearing. The whole area of suburban dormitory towns surrounding the city, lying either side of Interstate 95, are growing, bringing economic development to rural areas, but also high land prices and loss of affordable housing making it difficult for young families and those on low incomes to live in the area.
Thoreau came to Walden to live simply and try to gain new perspectives on the society in which he lived.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Henry David Thoreau
After two years, two months and two days, he left the cabin and ‘rejoined’ society. Today with a rapidly expanding global population, exceeding the planet’s life-support limits, it is even more imperative for us to step back. We need to take the time to understand what observation of the global ecological systems is telling us, and how we might re-organise our social, economic and political systems in order to ensure our children have a future. We do not want to discover, when our time is over, that we have made it harder for our children to survive, through our ignorance and destruction of the natural order.