15 Oct Swimming Walden Pond

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Swimming Walden Pond

On the New England leg of my From Animal House to Our House book tour, I was driving south on I-495 in Massachusetts Sunday when I passed the sign for Walden Pond. I’d always wanted to visit the little spot of nature that Henry Thoreau made famous, so I took the exit to Concord. I had heard that Walden was ruined now, a tourist trap. So, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that the place was crowded on a Sunday afternoon, the parking lot packed with visitors from many nations and plenty of Americans like me, too.


You can’t drive to the pond; you have to walk; and pets aren’t allowed. I was amazed to find that the pond is beautiful, and not a pond at all but a lake ensconced in its natural setting. “A lake,” wrote Thoreau, “is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” I was staring at the placid lake when, suddenly, I saw someone swimming to shore from far out. This was my third surprise: the the water was not an icon, not a pristine object to gape at, but thoroughly in use: there were swimmers in the pond, and people fishing from its shores.

The swimmers were of particular interest because they were serious swimmers, intent on crossing the lake, which at its widest must be half a mile or more. Most wear wet suits to guard against the chill. The water was 65 degrees, not bad, really, about the temperature of an unheated swimming pool.

The swimmers told me the water is mostly free of vegetation and very clear, which is something Thoreau described with enthusiasm. The pond is also very deep, 105 feet. It and many nearby ponds were products of receding glaciers at the wane of the Ice Age. I asked in jest if anyone had drowned in the lake. Yes, the swimmers said in hushed voices: just two weeks ago. I was stunned. It was a fluke. They said they’d been coming to the lake for 20 years and it had never happened until this tragic instance.

With this sad news echoeing in my head, I walked up the hill to Thoreau’s cabin. I’m not a fan of reproductions but the reproduction of his original is nicely done. The house is about 80 square feet, very well built and quite cozy. It’s not a shack and not a cabin. It has a pitched roof, a brick fireplace, shingled roof and siding. Thoreau was the originator of Tiny Home living (see my post on Tiny Home living).

For kicks, I stopped at the gift shop, which is run by The Thoreau Society, whose mission is “to stimulate interest in and foster education about Thoreau’s life, works, legacy and his place in his world and in ours, challenging all to live a deliberate, considered life.” As I was buying a Thoreau Society baseball cap, I remarked that it was ironic that all of us were buying souvenirs to celebrate a man who said, “I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust.”

My only regret in visiting Walden Pond was that pets are not allowed, so Cleo had to remain in the van, barking her protests. But, later, farther down the road, I stopped and bought her a piece of pizza and thought, “Isn’t that in the spirit of Mr. Thoreau — simple pleasures?”