I. “His spirit was the spirit of Concord; he gave out Concord with every breath; he lived Concord.”

My gal and I recently spent the weekend in Concord, Mass. The Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord happened here. Transcendentalism happened here. Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts all lived here — at the same time. Thoreau lived here. In fact, for most people, Thoreau and Concord have merged to become more than man and more than place.

20150426_141451

me at the “Little Women” house

 

Concord today is perfectly quaint and very unlike the rest of Massachusetts. Once you turn off the stuffy, grit-scraping I-95 and onto the farm roads of Concord, you might feel at home. You’ll pass some obscure breed of cattle in an old farm field under a big ocean sky, and drive by Minute Man National Park, which is nothing but dirt paths and old colonial estates. Then you’ll turn into the picturesque, pedestrian-friendly downtown, banked by old graveyards and churches all ’round a roundabout. Ignore the granolas waving signs and playing mandolins — we didn’t know it was Earth Day. Do turn right onto a road that looks like it might lead back to where we came from and enjoy getting lost in the narrow, winding residential backroads of Concord — lush, green properties with big, fancy houses on the Sudbury river, perfectly upkept, complete with plump grampies in ballcaps and khakis walking their yorkies.

Turn down Walden Ave. and drive past Thoreauly Antiques and turn a few more times — just follow the signs, you’re still in Massachusetts — and you’ll end up on Rte. 126, a straightshot to Walden Pond, the “cradle of the environmental movement,” that “most important body of water in the literary world.” The road narrows and the trees grow taller and lean in on you. Might they be whispering? Are they welcoming us or telling us to go?

Before visiting Walden Pond, we visited the place where Henry Thoreau has lived for 151 1/2 years longer than he did in his “sacred” cabin. In fact, we visited Henry, himself, in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

II. “I live in the present. I only remember the past and anticipate the future. I love to live.”

20150425_194828

After strolling past all the historical sites of Concord, we stood under this big old tree in the middle of town. I asked my gal to look at her map and figure out where the Sleepy Hollow cemetery is. It’s right there, she said, and pointed. Some perfectly-placed graves on some perfectly green grass on a perfect knob of a hill behind a church taunted us. She wanted to explore immediately. I hesistated — I get in trouble a lot with the cops for stupid reasons.

Nonsense, she said, let’s just go find it. When we got there, she insisted we just go in and find the sites. Wah, I cried. I get in trouble a lot, I repeated. This cemetery closes at dusk, the sign says. Whatever, she said. Once we were in, I was game. Sneak me in and watch the fun — though I was on edge the entire time. Maybe I’m just scared of the dark.

We studied a map of Sleepy Hollow on display behind the gate. There is a place called Author’s Ridge. Conveniently, every famous writer from Concord is buried in the same neighborhood. It makes sense, really. All the writers were from wealthy families and are buried in family plots. It’s premium real estate, facing west on the ledge, overlooking a marsh.

20150425_195234

Thoreau’s site was littered with pencils. Exclusively pencils. The “environmentalist hero” was a pencil-maker.

His simple little stone reads “Henry.” How perfect. How Facebook-friendly.

I stood right on his grave site and looked down. I knew his casket and skeleton were below me, but some tree roots separated us. I thought that was fine. He felt comfortable embraced in tree roots, too, I’m sure. I let my mind wander as the sun set beyond the ridge into the marsh. Here is simple Henry’s simple grave. What is his legacy, but complicated? People worship him and the state promotes him. He is known for saying, “Simplify, simplify.” The gift shop at Walden Pond sells t-shirts with that quote on it. Thoreau mostly disliked people and hated the state. Today the village that mocked this silly, bearded fellow in the 19th century profits off his ghost and names streets after him.

I looked past his simple grave and down to his body. I knew I was alive and he wasn’t. That’s all that mattered. I love to live, too.

I stomped down on his grave in applause just once. A good, hard kick to wake up the deadest of souls, and I swear I felt him roll. He rolled for me that night. He rolled for the world. We are just people though, and we had to get on with our adventure.

We snuck out of the cemetery and walked back to our hotel, holding hands in the dark. We passed a cop sitting in the dark on the side of the road, under the white pines of the sleepy cemetery.

Then we passed these two kids on bikes — good old Concord chums-to-be.

One said, “I had a dream last night that I met Tom Brady.”

“Yeah?”

“It was aweeeesome.”

We walked back to our hotel, and I pondered what being alive really was all about. Thoreau knew. I think one of the reasons he died in his forties is because he would lie in the rain just to know how it felt to be a part of Nature.

“Life consists with wilderness,” he wrote. “The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him. One who pressed forward incessantly and never rested from his labors, who grew fast and made infinite demands on life, would always find himself in a new country or wilderness and surrounded by the raw material of life.”

I vowed to sneak into more graveyards, walk ever more, “in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return,” and to not give a damn about Tom Brady ever again.

III. “Perhaps on a spring morning when Adam and Eve were driven out of Eden, Walden Pond was already in existence…”

Thoreau also wrote, “Thank Heaven, here is not all the world.” He added that he “had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”

SONY DSC

He only lived there for 2 1/2 years. The roof of his “sacred” cabin was used to cover a pig pen in its second life. It was just a place to keep dry when he didn’t feel like sleeping in his drifting boat on the pond, only to be woken up by a bite on his fishing line. It took decades before someone thought to go and find the site where his cabin was built. That’s because no one cared about Thoreau until decades after he died.

We finally drove down the hallowed Rte. 126, which one article from 1993 in the Concord Saunterer describes as “annoyingly close” to the pond. The state had to ban parking along the road in 1983. As many as 35,000 people in a single weekend would flock to Walden Pond for the beaches and activities. Emerson purchased the land around the pond in the 19th century specifically to protect it from woodcutters. It was perfect for Thoreau to set up camp upon.

However, the Walden Woods were no primeval wilderness. From the Saunterer: “To get to Walden, Thoreau often walked along the newly laid tracks of the Fitchburg Railroad.” Not only did Thoreau have numerous visitors at his getaway, but he could hear church bells, wagons, and even cows in nearby fields from the stoop of his cabin. And get this: “The railroad…built an ‘excursion park’ whose attractions included bathhouses, boats, dance halls, and later, a baseball diamond and cinder track.”

Walden Pond was well on its way to becoming a major getaway destination before Thoreau ever set up camp. And to boot, he didn’t seem to mind the railroad, either. He praised trade and technology, when it could be used to improve life. Biographer J. Brooks Atkinson argued, “To Thoreau the true harvest of any enterprise was the divination of the individual as a sovereign being far more noble than the tools of his trade.” But Thoreau didn’t hate the tools. He loved to go down to the wharf and smell the spices in the air. “If the machines do not actually release us from drudgery to the true freedom of life, if we are not happier men with finer capacities, we have missed the point entirely. If we are not always more exalted than the means of our living, then we are the slaves whom Thoreau despised — saddled with farms, oppressed with mortgages, the unburied dead, whose every motion seems futile and ghastly.”

As tourists flocked from the city down to Concord in the 1920s, the weary landowners of the Walden Woods deeded their holdings to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, with a stipulation: there would be no camping, hunting, games, etc. Walden Pond must be available for the “public” to “enjoy the pond, the woods and nature, including bathing, boating, fishing and picnicking.” Inevitably, it was a win for the state, and a loss for the hardcore environmentalists that would sprout from the progressive era.

One such progressive activist is Mary Sherwood. She led a project to rebuild the slopes at Walden Pond, which had been removed to build a bathhouse and other amenities. She considered this a great victory for conservation. In her free time, she would found wildflower nurseries all over the country, and otherwise cause curmudgeonry on the Concord scene: “Local Thoreauvians tended to be well-to-do, cultured, and decorous people; not renegade female foresters….Sherwood once brought a homemade sandwich to a fancy catered lunch.” My gal and I stopped at a fancy Starbucks on our way to Walden Pond, and got fancy drinks that required a wait time. Locals sat at a large center table and shared papers and conversation.

“First, first first,” Sherwood told the Saunterer of her activism, “it is in honor of Thoreau,” that demi-god, that satyr — half-man, half-Nature. “Then it is for what he represents. It’s for ecology, for understanding the whole of nature as a system.”

A lawyer for Sherwood’s conservation group Walden Forever Wild said that “Walden Pond is being loved to death.” I find it fascinating that they all forget that Walden was destined to be a getaway spot before Thoreau ever set foot there. They are clearly trying to hijack a man and his ideas for their own motive while ignoring history. Indeed, as the article quandaries, “One of the trickier aspects to the debate over the pond’s use is that Thoreau himself loved to swim there, and was generally opposed to government infringement on people’s activities.”

Thoreau wasn’t the only one who loved to swim there, and still isn’t.

IV. “Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.”

It’s important to recognize here that the state knows what Walden Pond is: a cash cow. They banned parking, they installed parking lots and parking fees. There is a reason Walden Pond isn’t the “sanctuary” — a “serene shrine to Thoreau” — that the progressive conservation groups wanted. It’s close, though.

I paid ten bucks to park my car — a potbellied government employee explained how to place a piece of paper on my dashboard — and we crossed the road to a beach. A beach!

Walden Pond has a beach! Sand and fat dudes with fishing rods tucked over their coolers. I just laughed. It’s expected in a place like Massachusetts. We followed signs for the trail. It was less than a trail. It was fenced in — seriously — with wire. Hills to our right, birds calling; pond to our left below, waves beckoning. It was a tight hike. A dad and daughter were behind us. I suggested we wait up and let them pass. “Excuse me, excuse me,” we all said. We watched a painter touch his canvas with just the right color below us on the shore. It was a blessing in disguise.

We got to the site of Thoreau’s cabin quick enough, but I wasn’t expecting the line.

SONY DSC

Thoreau’s cabin site is at this calm, little spot, looking down on the pond. It was calm and little for Thoreau in the 19th century. Next to the cabin site were all these piles of rocks that folks have left over the years. A guy with his hood up gently played his acoustic guitar, a 3/4-size with an Apple sticker on it. He told the fellows ahead of us in line that he was seeking inspiration as he walked around the rock pile. I saw individual rocks piled up, born out of the progressive era of reactionary responses to information. A wooden sign quoting Thoreau — “I wish to live deliberately….” — protected the rocks from the harsh reality of the pond beyond. I saw the terrible future: a big rock pile surrounded by people who want to protect it. I was terrified.

20150426_103742

Humor keeps terror at bay. I stuck our Starbucks cup on the corner of the monument and took a sadist’s quota of photos with the fancy camera my mom just gave me. I’m a tourist. I know what I’m doing.

SONY DSC

This monument is fake. It’s silly. I’ve been to Mount Vernon, Monticello, and all over Washington D.C. I’ve never seen such worship outside of a church. Mary Sherwood had the audacity to state, “It amazes me people put swimming before very valuable historical things. You wouldn’t put swimming at the Taj Mahal or the Washington Monument, would you?”

Meanwhile, Thoreau wrote of his own experience, “I would not have anyone adopt my mode of living on any account; for beside that, before he has fairly learned it, I may have found out another for myself. I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue HIS OWN way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbors instead.”

Yowsa! Thoreau died during the infancy of the industrial revolution. And most people today like beaches and railroads and the turnstile record player. They especially don’t like being fenced in while being told they are in “Nature.” Guess what Thoreau wrote on the subject…seriously, he wrote this, being typically prophetic: “But possibly the day will come when [unowned land] will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only, — when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road, and walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it.”

SONY DSC

up, or straight?

 

So many times I stared up the slope alongside the fenced-in trail and wished I could break free without violating whichever law. Instead, we shuffled down the centralized path that is Walden Pond Trail. Coming toward us, a little girl was exploring ahead of her family — on a hunt, I tell you! I suspected that she was looking up at the wire fences and pretending she was in a giant maze. Kids play and this kid was playing! Fortunately, she would come up to a clearing before long — wide, travelled paths to offer her choices. She would think. She’d grow up in a little way. God bless her.

Her father waved to us lazily, pushing a stroller. I hope her little sister gets this adventure in a few years.

Today’s Walden Pond is a laugh for Thoreau, but an adventure for the locals who live in the Commonwealth (which is just another word for “oppressive state”). This is their freedom. It need not be a “sanctuary,” not a “serene shrine.” Just keep some trees and some dirt and let the large foreign families fish and sunbathe. A power walk around the pond to feel hearty and vigorous for another week at work in a cubicle in Boston. I craigslisted rent in Concord. It’s $1400 monthly for a small apartment. $2,000+ for a home. That railroad still lugs by, carrying commuters to-and-from Boston. Let their eyes bulge wide with beauty every morning. It’s right there, waiting to be walked around, Henry’s paradise.

Thoreau wrote, “We hug the earth — how rarely we mount! Methinks we might elevate ourselves a little more.” He means to get out there and walk, explore, adventure, climb, crawl, lie in the damned rain and catch a cold, live your life and love living it, and forget everything else, dammit!

Don’t just shuffle to a “sacred” ruin to take some pictures and say you’ve seen a place. It’s important to remember that Emerson bought the land in the first place to preserve it. Once the state got hold of it, it became a tourist mecca. The funny truth about the activism of folks like Mary Sherwood and her progressive kind is that her actions speak louder than her words. It is much more wonderful and restorative to this earth that she founded wildflower nurseries than building a slope and telling people they can’t leave the hot, congested city to spend a day at the beach because of some author they’ve never read who lived there once.

Henry’s message, if I may dilute it to one expression, is this: Find your own Walden Pond!

The sun is setting now in my westward-facing window. I think back to the night I stood over his grave and realized that I don’t just love being alive, but I love to LIVE. That requires stepping on sacred ground. It requires stomping over it, kicking on graves, and living the lives our ancestors lived. In honor of them.

“Rise free from care before the dawn, and seek adventures.”

Roll, Henry, roll, until the dawn.