One of my favorite holiday cards this year came from my friend Susan Frey, Director of Education for the Walden Woods Project and major force behind the World Wide Waldens program. Ever since I received that card, I’ve been thinking about Henry David Thoreau.
Most people know that Thoreau’s famous cabin was on the shores of Walden Pond (sketch by his sister, Sophia). But they think the site was deep in the woods, far from the hustle and bustle of life in town. In truth, the cabin was 1.5 miles from his parents’ home in heart of Concord (and Thoreau visited often, conveniently arriving just before dinner.)
Thoreau didn’t have to go far from home to find what he was looking for—as well as something he never expected to find. What exactly was Henry looking for at Walden Pond? In chapter 2 of Walden: or, Life in the Woods, he says,
"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."
Thoreau was a smart guy. Maybe even a genius. He was a superb naturalist, a compelling writer, and a philosopher ahead of his time. But he was also human, and he had a heaping dose of Yankee practicality. So even though the lofty ideology expressed in the statement above is clearly at the heart of the classic text we all read today, it’s not the real reason he built his little house (though it is the reason he spent more time there than he originally intended—but more on that in a moment.) Simply put, the man was looking for some peace and quiet.
The Thoreau household was a busy place in 1845, and Henry was trying to complete his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Borrowing a phrase that Virginia Woolf later made famous, Thoreau needed “a room of one’s own.”
Walden Pond turned out to be the perfect spot for a retreat. Not only did it provide the solitude Thoreau longed for, the natural setting sparked the “experiment in living” idea that developed into his most famous book. Tranquility and serendipity—not bad for a 150 square foot cabin that cost $28.12 to build (photos of cabin reproduction at Walden Pond State Reservation).
Thoreau ended up staying at his cabin for 2 years, 2 months, and 2 days. After completing A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, he spent his time exploring his surroundings and contemplating their place, and his own, in the wider world. Only then did he begin writing the first draft of Walden.
Thoreau came away from his Walden Pond retreat with far more than he expected, and I am now having a similar experience as I pay closer attention to the maple tree outside my office window. In September, I started out with a modest goal—to photograph the tree every Monday morning and “write something about it” on this blog.
At the time, I wasn’t sure what I’d write, and I wasn’t sure if I could come up with something new and interesting week in and week out. Well, I underestimated that little tree—and maybe myself too.
Four months into the project, I can’t wait to greet the tree each morning. Even though I took last week off from blogging, I snapped a few shots of the tree anyway. I now have a long list of tree-related topics that I’m hoping to explore. It seems like every time I learn something new, it just leads me to generate even more questions.
If I hadn’t started this project, I might have lived alongside this tree for 30, 40, maybe even 50 years without really knowing much about it. What a shame that would have been!
Thank goodness that little tree—and this blog, too—inspired me to watch and wonder.
And so for 2010, I have the same lofty aspiration as Thoreau—to live more deliberately and focus on the essentials of life. Here’s hoping it’s a wonderful year.