Crunch, crunch, crunch. I suck in a sharp 28 degree atmosphere while padding my way around a crispy, half-snow, half-dirt-covered Walden pond. Why did I come out here today? Crunch, crunch. Of all the days. I could be inside drinking tea and playing board games with family. Crunch, crunch. It’s not even that pretty here. Crunch. Maybe I timed it poorly. After all, Thoreau only offers a few lines of opinion on “somber Novembers” compared to his much milked winter and summer sections. Sharp inhale. Loud audible exhale. Crunch, crunch, stop.
I arrive at a small cove, slightly removed from the shoreline, marked by pile of stones and a wooden sign. Carved in the sign is Thoreau’s most famous quote - “I went to the woods because…” - and I realise I’m at the site of Thoreau’s homestead. Wow. I exhale a sharp steamy breath.
I look around, and for the first time on this walk, notice the soft silence of the woods. The snow catching sparkles in the dappled sunlight, a single robin hopping from branch to branch of a pinetree up above. I hear the sound of a small child laughing in the distance, following the same trail I took (with a much more positive attitude, I might say).
I went to the woods too, Thoreau. I wished to understand you and a bit more about this miserable place and see if I could not learn what you had to teach. As I write this now, I realize how much I have grown from this book. One thing’s for sure: I will never stroll a 28 degree November trail the same way again, no matter how deep my California blood runs within me. Crunch, crunch.
Thoreau went to the woods to live with purpose and follow his innate pull to the simpler life. Born in Boston, and raised near Concord, Henry David Thoreau was fed up with the townspeople he rubbed elbows with daily, and the commuters who boarded the morning train with a “blind obedience” to the institutions and factories where they labored - these “mass of men” that led “lives of quiet desperation.” He describes the superfluous spenders, who own houses twice the size they actually need, and who bear a voice twice the size of their importance. He associates frivolity as a kind of “keen and subtle master” that enslaves the North, and the “incessant anxiety and strain” of these individuals as an “incurable form of disease”.
I can’t help but think of my competitive colleagues at my school, who stress over summer internships and jobs, as if the future can only begin the second we leave campus. I find that we are agreeably diseased in this day and age by the expectations of society and of others around us for metrics of success that should not be, yet sadly are, becoming universal. My brother, who attended Buckingham Browne & Nichols, a New England high school notorious for its rigor and prep, can vouch for this more than anyone. And while I think this is a trope especially for New Englanders, who are obsessed with ancestry, degrees, and accomplishments, I believe it rings true throughout most parts of our nation today. Thoreau urges us to settle in, to “wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition that covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston, and Concord, through Church and State, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality”. I agree with him, I believe that often times we get caught in the haze of life choices that are not worth our time, that are not answering our deeper instinctual needs or desires.
I walk a little more around the pond, getting to the shady side which holds more crunch and more ice in each step, to be greeted by a loud whistle and rumbling. The train tracks and commuter rail Thoreau mentioned in his novel!
Thoreau describes the Fitchburg Railroad in his passages as a sort of nuisance that broke his peaceful living every so often, “they go and come with such precision...one well-conducted institution regulates a whole country”. Walden was written during the build up of the oncoming railroad empire that shook our nation in the late 1800’s, and it’s interesting to me that something so modern and so industrial passed right through Thoreau’s dwelling which was otherwise so far removed from civilization and progression. By this time, “the cars are gone by and all the restless world with them,” I continue my stroll with a little more energy in my steps. The bookpacking experience is building my appreciation for this place and I begin to draw more connections.
One of the biggest moments in Walden that inspired me was the simplicity of the start of the expedition. Near the end of March 1845, Thoreau borrows an axe and heads down to the woods, “nearest to where I intended to build my house”. He works for five straight months, cutting down lumber and framing his abode until he moves in by July.
There is always a duality to Thoreau’s writing, one of scientific approach and one of poetic nuance. When he details the spending on his home, the New England frugalness shines through, and he prides himself in the effort to live simply and cheaply. But he also sits in amazement at the simplicity of this life: “I found myself suddenly neighbor to the birds; not by having imprisoned one, but having caged myself near one”, and “I discovered that my house had its site in such a withdrawn but forever new and unprofaned part of the universe”.
I can’t imagine the kind of solitude Thoreau experienced. I’ve always been known as the independent type, I need to be alone with my thoughts, and function the best when I’m in a cave of a study space, all to myself. But to live this way for 2 years, so detached from neighbors, and the amenities a town can provide? I’m not sure if I could give up Trader Joe’s for even a week.
The inspiring part about Thoreau’s meditation on solitude is that to him, solitude is not about being alone, it’s about being deliberate with your life, and true to your gut. “The farmer can work alone in the field or woods all day, hoeing or chopping and not feel lonesome, because he is employed... the student similarly, though in his house, is still at work in his field chopping in his woods.” I appreciate this take on solitude and resonate with its meaning. I have always felt a sense of comfort working, even when I’m alone, when I am working on something I am excited about, because I feel a sense of purpose. This sort of energy alone is a companion.
I also agree with Thoreau on his thoughts on individuality. He mentions that we are all different people, headed on different paths of life. “One man told me he thought he should live as I did... I desire that there be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.” In this way, Thoreau’s philosophies and preachings become universal. He invites us all to find our own Walden’s, our own driving force that energizes us enough to forget the surface world around us.
Most of his preachings, as famously known, stem from his Transcendentalist beliefs. Thoreau often references ancient philosophers (“Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich inward”). He ponders the necessities of life, and dwindles them down to a minimum: Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel.
Fuel is the most interesting essential to me. Thoreau calls it “the grand necessity,” as it relates to keeping “the vital heat in us,” amidst a “cold world, and to cold, no less physical than social.” This thought resonates with me, because of the social coldness our generation has adapted to and decided to make as a normative. Today, relationships can be made and maintained online, and instagram likes can declare status of an individual. For Thoreau’s time however, I believe he relates it in context to the Industrial Revolution pulsing through the East Coast, of the many who blindly followed this dream to make a living, instead of following the vital heat within them, which may have been pointing them towards a different passion and future. I think for the both of us, these things are distractions, temptations, and haze amidst a fresh pond that we seek to bathe in. “The best works of art, are the expression of man’s struggle to free himself of this condition,” a condition of identity, of self-authority, and of maintaining personal truth.
At this point on my walk around the pond, the young squealing kid catches up to me and trots past, stopping every so often to pick up a frosted leaf or pebble from the cold ground. Transcendentalists, including Thoreau, believed in the innate goodness of humans and the inner wisdom we were born with. “Children who play life, discern its true law and relations more clearly than men.” Life has become a sport, when it should really be a past time, something to celebrate and enjoy, rather than to speed and compete through. Thoreau “had this advantage... that [his] life itself had become [his] amusement and never ceased to be novel. It was a drama of many scenes without an end.” I find that I, and others, do not take the time to reflect as much as we should, for what our lives consist of, and what we wish to consist of them. Some of my favorite parts of the book involved the sheer wonder and awe of Nature in its simplest forms: when pine needles “expanded and swelled with sympathy,” when an insect landed on the water’s surface, creating “circling dimples, the gentle pulsing of its life,” when the wind was recognized, rightfully, as “terrestrial music”. These details are beautiful, and remind me of childhood. But why must wonderment stop there? While Walden pond serves as a lasting encouragement to get outside and enjoy our natural surroundings, I think Thoreau was just as much encouraging us to explore our inner pond. “Direct your eye right inward, and you’ll find a thousand regions in your mind yet undiscovered. Travel them, and be an expert in home-cosmography.” Especially at this time in my life, I appreciate advice like this, as I am about to leave the safety of USC and embark on the unexpected adult world.
I finish my walk around Walden, and head back to the warmth of a Thanksgiving home, with relatives, family, and siblings roommates filling the air with laughter and discussion. The kitchen is thick with the smell of roasted turkey and buttered potatoes. I take off my snow crusted boots. “How was the hike, Bri?” My family moved to New England in 2015, and coming from an upbringing in Santa Barbara, I had only a small grasp of what to expect. I was ready to embrace heavy-drinking Irishmen (as we hail from the same homeland), ready to get yelled at by impatient drivers, ready to walk into a loud family-owned Italian restaurant, and ready to get dismissed by affluent brownstone-owning Brahmans. I will admit, most of these things came true. I learned that the drivers in Boston are called Mass-Holes, and the Irishmen are some of the best people to watch sports games with, and that the Brahmans do in fact have beautiful palaces on Newbury Street. I brought the same kind of mentality when I started reading this book. I had a general understanding of the premise, of Henry David Thoreau, and of Transcendentalism. But having read it, and visited, and lived just a blink of the experience that Thoreau lived, I was able to deepen my understanding, sink my boots into the ground and hit the depths to which Thoreau was urging us to hit all along. I brought my biases and opinions with me as I consumed this book, but also opened up my perspective with every page, and with every crunch along the pond pathway. I found it just as interesting to read as I did to walk and see and smell and taste the air of Walden.