If only it were so easy. I’ve long been enamored by Henry David Thoreau and his idealistic philosophies, urging humanity to slow down, embrace nature and “live deliberately.” While I can admire his intentions, I’m not one to give up the comforts of home to take up residence in the woods. But, spending one afternoon hiking around Walden Pond provided ample inspiration.
We had started our tour of Transcendental Concord earlier that day at Orchard House, home of the Alcotts. We then made our way down the street to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home, where we were provided a thorough and personal tour and anecdotes about Thoreau’s connection to the family.
Interestingly enough, as we sat in the dimly lit dining room where it was said many of the Transcendental Club meetings had occurred, my husband asked the tour guide for a definition of “Transcendentalism.” She refused to provide it, sheepishly looking around the room and informing us that she’s not allowed to talk about the philosophy in the house because people come and attempt to perform seances and other ceremonies. It was odd. and a little creepy… kind of like the definition of Transcendentalism, which I’ve always admired yet have found it hard to wrap my mind around. The Transcendentalists were all about self reliance in every aspect of life. They shunned institutional politics and organized religion, instead favoring a genuine commune with nature and self. They focused on creating ideal versions of themselves and fine tuning their mental expression. I find it an admirable venture and a philosophy I’d like to embody myself in a sense, but I have always had a feeling there was more behind it that I haven’t yet grasped, which this tour guide confirmed.
When we exited the dining room, the air lifted considerably and I was pleasantly surprised to learn about Thoreau’s playful nature. He and Emerson started hanging out in 1837, when Thoreau was 20 and Emerson was 34. The two shared a thoughtful and poetic sensibility, Emerson urging Thoreau to write down his thoughts in a journal. Seven years later, Thoreau began building his cabin in the woods on Emerson’s property. The cabin was just about a mile’s walk from the Emerson home, and Thoreau returned regularly for meals and conversation. It wasn’t as solitary an existence as the reader is led to believe. Emerson’s children would stop by the cabin for visits and he’d venture out for companionship. He stayed at the cabin gathering inspiration for his Walden for two years before returning to civilization.
I couldn’t imagine visiting Concord without seeing Walden Pond and was happy that we had enough time to walk around it completely. Visiting the former site of Thoreau’s cabin is a necessary pilgrimage for any literary historian. Only remnants of the cabin’s foundations remain along with a large sign carved with the quote most identifiable to the man:
“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.”
As I stood looking at the towering trees that frame Walden Pond, I couldn’t help but listen for the whisper of the Transcendentalists who walked those paths more than a century before. To stand in their well-worn footprints instills a sense of wonder and yearning.
With the multitude of modern distractions in our midst every day, it’s a challenge to “live deliberately,” but a walk through Walden Pond serves as a good reminder of why its important. When life gets overwhelming, my mind will return to that quiet and serene spot in the woods where the whispers of a thousand philosophers float through the leaves.