In 1895, the ornithologist Kate Tryon said of Walden Pond, “It is a charming place, and it isn’t.” That remains a perfectly apt description of the park surrounding the pond where Thoreau let his mind graze widely. I stopped by Walden Pond not because it offers untamed wildness today, but because it’s arguably New England’s original wild lake, and it seemed a fitting place to start.
Walden Pond performs the neat trick of being very large and very small at once: small in that it takes less than an hour to walk around it at a leisurely pace, but large in the imagination, as the place where literary and environmental cultures met, had a genteel affair, married, and produced many loquacious offspring.
It was a quiet afternoon when I walked around the pond. Along the pathway I passed a school group, two families, three anglers, and a man in a wetsuit swimming laps, looking like an errant seal. The lake didn’t feel particularly wild. Sounds didn’t really echo grandly, and the space seemed somehow constricted. Adorned with signs trumpeting WiFi on board, a commuter train sped past the far shore.
But efforts to reintroduce the wild were evident everywhere here–especially in the extensive fences set up near the entrance to keep visitors away from the shore, letting the land regenerate. It was working. New shoots were making tentative stands, sniffing the air to see whether it was safe to return.
Thoreau wrote that “the scenery of Walden is on a humble scale, and, though very beautiful, does not approach to grandeur.” I agree with Henry on this; Walden Pond feels more like a chapel than a cathedral. True wildness requires a big dose of grandeur, a place where the slanting sun and drifting clouds define the space: dark here and light there, moving throughout the day, sliding around in three dimensions.
So I headed north, which is the New England equivalent of heading west, where the landscape unfolds and the sky starts to become a major actor rather than a supporting player.
Walden Pond State Reservation
Mass. Department of Conservation and Recreation 617-626-1250; mass.gov/dcr/parks/walden