Six years ago, I was asked to lead a group of Harvard freshmen on a trip around Walden Pond as a way to acclimate them to Massachusetts. The pond—located in Concord, about 20 miles west of Boston—is where Henry David Thoreau built his famous cabin and wrote about simplicity, being true to oneself, and living deeply in his seminal work, Walden.
I was a writer (they knew this in the freshman dean’s office) who wrote sometimes about nature. Could I lead the trip? Pleeease? In the end, I couldn’t refuse the chance to ruminate on Henry, himself an 1837 graduate of Harvard. The day was set, and because the topic never arose, I assumed I was to be paid in pine needles and oak leaves.
I have since led the trip four times. Twice it was canceled by rain. But it’s become part of my autumn—to think about how to present Henry, and then to visit Walden for a day. I’m no expert in Thoreau, I should hasten to say, but shall I apologize for being a generalist? Nay. Thoreau was arguably the greatest of American jacks-of-all-trades—writer, lecturer, teacher, carpenter, apple tree grafter, surveyor, botanist, and self-appointed inspector of snowstorms. But I’m getting ahead of myself (or perhaps he is ahead of me).
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Each year, I arrange for 12 to 15 students to catch an early train from Cambridge to Concord, one of the most influential towns in American history. Early revolutionary battles were fought there. (The “shot heard ’round the world” was fired at the Old North Bridge, which spans the Concord River, on April 19, 1775.) Just as important was the town’s role in the development of the new nation’s conscience. Ralph Waldo Emerson—minister, philosopher, and writer of important essays (“Nature” and “Self-Reliance,” among them)—lived there in the 1800s, along with Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thoreau, and other luminous but lesser-known citizens.
Disembarked from the train, my charges face a mile-long walk up Walden Street to its junction with State Route 2. Along the way, they pass old frame houses, a bean field, a high school, and a Starbucks. Once they cross the highway, there I am at the corner of Walden Woods.
Thoreau may be the chiefestof the United States’ original thinkers. Are three hours spent sauntering around a pond enough to convey his exuberant life? Not a chance. But I do have allies: the 61-acre pond itself, a half-mile long and lined this time of year by trees turning red and yellow; the original site of his cabin, marked by eight granite columns; a replica of the cabin, farther downshore; and nature.
What I offer here is a recollection of one tour—because as a teacher, in these days of skyrocketing energy prices and foreign wars, it seems to me that even from a different era, Thoreau offers an insightful perspective on facing precisely the same issues.
It was a cool morning in mid-September as the students approached the corner of Walden Street and Route 2. They paused at the light, then crossed. There were seven freshmen and one chaperone, a junior named Marielle. She was of medium height and had a silver bar piercing her upper right ear.
“Here we are,” she announced, and I invited them into the woods, into a grove of white pines, stately trees, where we could talk easily, away from the hiss of traffic.
“You’re only eight,” I said.
“Yeah,” Marielle acknowledged. “We had 15, but when we met this morning, only seven showed.”
“No matter,” I said. “By the way, you came a way Thoreau took hundreds of times.”
It was good, I thought, that there were so few. Eight was an easy number to connect with in a short time. As luck would have it, I had decided to divide my talk into eight sections, which I’d sketched out ahead of time. The breakdown looked like this:
1. Cabin site: economy/recycled building
2. Materials/farming/true cost of things in terms of time and effort
3. Thoreau’s theory of the succession of trees/ hat scaffold/identifying the white pine
4. Transcendentalism: having a personal relationship with the sacred
5. Harvard education
6. “Civil Disobedience” and his opposition to the war with Mexico/Why are you here?/ other works (Cape Cod, The Maine Woods, et cetera)
7. Concord as community/Emerson as mentor/traveling “a good deal in Concord”
8. “We are constantly invited to be what we are”/defense of John Brown—opposition to slavery in 1859
Each number was keyed to a specific site at the pond. I had a plan. But, as a veteran of many teaching assignments, I also knew I might have to chuck it all.
As we stood among the trees, I offered a few words of introduction: “I’m Dan Robb. I’m a minor American writer. I have a couple of books. Suffice it to say we are here to study Thoreau’s writing, not mine. I’ve worked as a teacher, a carpenter, political consultant, and editor, and this beats the heck out of any of that. I’m here today because I like to be. There is no pay involved but your company, and you are free to escape at any time.”
They smiled at this, but no one budged.
“I want you to know,” I went on, “that your walking up here, and walking around the pond with me, and back to Concord, was something Thoreau considered holy in life. He was a ‘saunterer,’ to use a word he liked, from the French sainte and terre, together meaning ‘holy or sacred land.’ To Thoreau, walking was a holy act, the way it is for pilgrims on pilgrimage. But for him, there was no need to go away—he felt Concord was as sacred as anywhere. He wasn’t odious about all this, though. He really loved to walk in nature. So let’s go about 200 yards downhill, to where he built his cabin, and just consider as we go whether you are a ‘sainte-terrer’ or not and where a holy land might be for you, if anywhere.”
Which we did, the nine of us, walking easily down the broad wooded lane, wide enough for a Jeep, carpeted in needles, descending toward the northeast corner of the pond.
Near the water’s edge, after we’d climbed a small rise to the cabin site, I asked, “How many of you, when you decided to come on this trip, felt like you knew something about Thoreau?”
Two hands went up. “I wrote a paper on him last year in English,” said Kip, a tall blond guy from Iowa who had one arm in a cast. A young woman who’d raised her hand said, “I did, too, and I was wondering the whole way up here if he had walked that way.” Her name was Nancy, she was from Kansas, and she wore work boots and a dungaree jacket.
“OK,” I said. “You two guys are going to help me today where you can, but I want the others to chip in, ask me questions. What was your paper on, Nancy?”
“Uh, it was about his attitude toward John Brown and slavery. Brown spent time in Kansas, working on making it a free state, so I was interested in, like, what others said about it.”
“When was Thoreau speaking about John Brown?” I asked.
“That was 1859, I guess,” said Nancy, “and he only lived until 1862.”
“What’d he die of?” asked Adia, who was tall and from Mississippi, her short hair in cornrows.
“Tuberculosis,” said Kip. “I was writing about ‘Civil Disobedience,’ about how we owe our allegiance to what we feel is right, not the law, and how if there’s a law we consider unjust, then it’s our responsibility to get the law changed. He went to jail for that, for not paying his taxes to protest the war with Mexico, which he thought was a sham. But then this guy Emerson paid his taxes for him, so he was out the next day, which pissed him off. But Gandhi read all about that, and used it in his campaigns, and Martin Luther King learned some things from Gandhi, so he had his effect there.”
“That’s right,” I said, a little alarmed at how quickly things had taken off. I hadn’t intended to talk about Brown or “Civil Disobedience” until later, so I decided to delay our discussion of them.
‘Thoreau, just to back up a little, was born in 1817 and died in 1862,” I told them. “His parents weren’t rich—they had a small pencil factory—but they sent Henry to Harvard. He was young when he died, and one of his lines I like he said on his deathbed, when someone asked if he’d made peace with God. Thoreau said, ‘I did not know we had ever quarreled.’ He was a spiritual man and saw God’s works everywhere in nature. Nor did he see conflict there with Mr. Darwin’s work.”
“So this is where he built his cabin, huh?” said Sean, following his own course. “How big—like, tall—was it?” Sean was short, with spiky brown hair, from South Boston.
“Just one story, with a gable—a pointed roof,” I said.
“So was he, like, a hermit?” asked Margy, a tall student from Connecticut with long brown hair.
“That’s a great question,” I said. “No. He liked people. His motivation for the cabin was economic, philosophical. He wanted to know exactly what it would take, in time and money, to live simply in New England and said, ‘The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.’
“His mission was to live wide-awake and to get others to wake up to a life fully witnessed. A large part of that, to him, was creating a consciousness of what things actually cost. So he wasn’t a hermit as much as an experimenter, philosopher. The cabin was his laboratory. He did say, ‘Fire is the most tolerable third party,’ though, by which he meant he’d rather hang out with just one friend and a woodstove. So he wasn’t necessarily a party animal.”
“How long did he live here?” asked Ralph, a big guy from Brooklyn with a flattop.
“Well, two years, basically, age 28 to 30, but he liked to walk four hours a day, so he was in town all the time for the newspaper or to visit a friend, and he was very close to his family. I’ve got this by heart: ‘I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.’ That’s from ‘Walking.’
“What I’d like you to do now,” I went on, “is to imagine him—college graduate, 28 years old, taught school, had been a carpenter, plasterer, laborer, surveyor, decides to come out here and build a cabin to live in and write in. His friend Ralph Waldo Emerson owned the land and lent it to him. So he cobbled together his cabin for $28 and 12 and a half cents. He hewed the timbers right here, out of white pine, with an ax, and then bought the boards to sheathe it from an Irishman who lived with his family by the railroad.”
I pointed to the tracks running by the pond on the heights 200 yards away.
“He brought the lime and the horsehair for plaster and the laths on his back, and the shingles. He built the chimney himself out of a thousand used bricks—did everything on his own.”
I stopped there, conscious that I was going on too long. Jason, a tall guy from Boston wearing a New York Islanders hockey jersey, raised his hand.
“Did he write Walden here?”
“Largely, he did,” I answered.
“And how did he feel about John Brown?” asked Adia.
“He thought he was a great man,” said Nancy, “and I kinda agree.”
“Tell us a little about Brown, Nancy,” I suggested.
“Well, he was the guy who took over the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, hoping a lot of slaves and free blacks would join him and start a rebellion. Thoreau hated slavery. Brown failed, got caught, and they hung him.”
“That’s right,” I said. “Thoreau said they’d found the best man they could to hang. But that was 1859. He was here in 1845, and he also grew crops—corn and beans—in a field nearby, to know what the cost of that was, too.”
We walked down to the pond, which stretched out before us, half a mile long and about 400 yards across. It was ringed by autumn trees of various hues. When we’d strolled for five minutes or so along the narrow path, I stopped at a clearing. On the hillside behind us were bear oaks, hardy little trees that grow in mean soil, and a couple of gnarled pitch pines.
“Thoreau,” I said, “was something of a scientist, too. He carried in the crown of his hat what he called a scaffold, a little framework where he’d put plants that he wanted to take home to identify. He knew literally every plant in Concord, and he’s credited with the theory of succession, which says that a given ecosystem will evolve until it reaches its climax—around here, maybe a beech forest or white pine forest—and will hold there until fire or storm or age knocks it down, when it begins the evolution again.”
Just then a pop! came from beneath Margy’s foot. She jumped back, then leaned forward to see what it was. “I stepped on something, and it exploded!” she said.
She came up with an oak leaf with a golf-ball-size protuberance attached, now somewhat crushed.
“What is it?” she asked.
None of the others knew.
“It’s an oak gall, made when a wasp lays her egg,” I said. “She injects the leaf with chemicals that interact with the leaf’s growth hormones, and the leaf grows the gall, inside of which the little wasp grows. Let’s spread out a little and see if we can find more.”
Within minutes, Jason, Ralph, and Adia had found leaves with galls, and we saw in each the small hole from which the young wasp had escaped.
“That’s how it left?” Jason asked. “Amazing.”
We pressed on along the trail and soon came out on a beach at the northwest corner of the pond.
“I want to talk a little about Transcendentalism,” I said. “Anyone know what that was?” We discussed it some, the notion of whether one can find divine inspiration within oneself, rather than in church or temple. And then— because Emerson had been both a friend and mentor to Thoreau—I repeated a few bits of Emerson that I had in my head. “God enters by a private door into every individual,” I said. And then: “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”
The freshmen heard each of these, blinking, and all remained silent when I asked for comments. So we walked some more.
Soon we were back where we’d begun, at the little crescent beach where Thoreau often swam, just below his cabin. We ate lunch there and had a dip, tied up a few loose ends. And then I offered what I feel is one of Thoreau’s most important lessons for anyone, high school or college graduate, who will soon be thrown into the world of work.
“He was a hardworking man,” I said, “but his work was not typical. He felt that many people marked time in service to business or farm and didn’t ever get down to real work, considering why we’re here—how to move humanity toward freedom and happiness. He felt that his contemplations, travels, and writings, his experiments into simplicity and attention, with four hours a day for walking, was his real work. So when they’re driving you hard at Harvard, remember how Henry responded to that. Consider building your own cabin.”
Not long after, I walked them back up the Jeep road, paved with white pine needles, to the corner of the woods where Walden Street meets Route 2. Along the way, I asked Ralph if he liked the needles we were walking on.
“How do you know they’re white pine?” he asked.
“I know that the tall pines around here are white because of their stature, their bark, and because their needles come in bundles of five, same as the letters in ‘white.’ ”
We pulled down a branch and he saw.
“Five,” Ralph said, “same as in ‘white.’ Cool.”
He then pulled the bundle of needles off, placed it in his hat, a retro Dodgers cap, and put the hat back on.
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2006 edition of Teacher as A WALK IN THE WOODS