The National Catholic Review
George M. Anderson

Walden Pond is, happily, still intact, despite efforts by developers to destroy its surrounding woods and thereby the pervading spirit of Henry Thoreau, who lived on its banks for a year in the mid-1840’s. During a vacation week spent in the Boston area this past summer, I traveled to the pond (really a small lake) on an unusually clear day that showed off both pond and woods to their best advantage. The commuter train from Boston’s South Station (the Fitchburg line, already in operation the year before Thoreau’s experiment) let me off at Concord. A half-hour’s walk along the same route that Thoreau would have taken on trips into town to visit family and friends brought me to my destination.

Why did he choose to live for a year in a small cabin he himself built, this young Harvard-educated man who was a friend of the Alcotts and other prominent Concord intellectuals? He gives us the reason in his classic, Walden: I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to [con]front only the essential facts of life. This desire to live deliberately, to be free of unnecessary externals, was the basis of the great principle he expresses in Chapter Two: Simplify, simplify. On the same page, he conveys the concept in noun form too, to emphasize its importance: Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! Caught up as we now are in the midst of a consumption-obsessed society, my visit served as a reminder of how far we have come from this principle; for many, life has become increasingly complex and, often, more and more driven by the desire to accumulate possessions.

Not far from the pond is a replica of Thoreau’s cabin. Only 10 feet by 15 feet in size, it has a long window on either side that casts abundant light onto the small interior. The door was open and no park service guard kept watch, so I was free to enter and admire the clean sparseness. Items of furniture were at a minimum. Thoreau comments in his book, Thank God I can sit and stand without the air of a furniture warehouse. No danger of that! All I saw there was a cot, a three-legged table with an open copy of a mid-19th century Greek New Testament beside Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a green slant-topped desk and three chairs. Why three chairs? One for solitude, he explains, two for friendship, three for society. Despite living alone in his cabin, Thoreau was not unsociablethough he found some of his friends in unusual places, as we learn in his comments about the stove in the fireplace. Its efficiency notwithstanding, he was not happy with it: The stove not only took up room...but it [also] concealed the fire, and I felt as if I had lost a companion, he writes, adding: You can always see a face in the fire. He had reservations about the plastering too, but he admits that it kept the cabin warmer during the long winter months. Comfort, within bounds, was not a breach of his desire to simplify.

Approaching the pond, I heard the voices of other tourists like myself. Fortunately, however, because the day was windy, the rustling of the leaves overhead diminished those voices to a murmur as I sat beneath a tree 100 yards above the original site. Only the hearth remainsre-discovered in the 1940’s after an amateur archeologist spent months looking for it. Even more than the replica of the cabin, the hearthstones suggest Thoreau’s palpable presence, one that may have left its imprint on the lives of many visitors who sense the burdensome trappings of their outward existence. Near the Park Service gift shop, a group of Japanese tourists were snapping pictures. Perhaps the spirit of Thoreau was touching them too, visitors from another complex society.

From the window of the train back to Boston, I caught glimpses of the pond, blue-green in the sunlight. They were worth straining for, those glimpses, in their evocation of a man whose message the world increasingly chooses to resist: Simplify.

George M. Anderson, S.J., an associate editor of America, is author of With Christ in Prison.

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