This pandemic summer of 2020, while trying to know my backyard better, I began to write a book about a man who spent his life getting to know his backyard.
Today, September 26, after six months of sheltering in place with my family while writing about Thoreau and Walden, and a week of working our way up the east coast, it is finally time to pay a visit.
A pilgrimage of sorts, though this close to summer I know the place will be packed. I drop my wife Nina and my daughter Hadley and her friend L. J. off at the Colonial Inn in Concord Center and head out on an evening reconnaissance mission to the pond. The parking lot gates close at 7:00, and I’m cutting it close, but I decide I need to at least say a quick hello to the homesite. What would Thoreau make of this? Hundreds of people wearing masks, herded down a narrow one-way path between chain-link fences on either side. The deep irony of this temple of solitude now overspilling with people, masked people no less, myself of course included. But they are all filing out as I sneak in, and to my surprise, when I get there after a ten-minute walk, I have the homesite to myself. And as people rush toward their cars to depart, most of this, the southeast part of the pond, is mine as well. The water is deep green and the weather is perfect and bugless and though the foliage is not yet peak there are blazes of yellow from the beeches and maples in between the evergreens. Despite worrying that my car may get locked in the lot for the night, I decide a quick swim is in order.
This place feels like home. Not because I am Thoreau reborn but because there is something about the feel of fall, the brisk nap in the air, that reminds me of my actual hometown. I have written books celebrating my adopted homes of Colorado and Cape Cod, and now, at last, the one I’m writing now, celebrating my home in North Carolina. These are all beautiful places, but my dark truth is that my real hometown lies less than an hour to the southwest of here. Worcester, Massachusetts has, so far, mostly escaped the paeans of poets, me included. Thoreau, however, gave it its due, looking toward it—or the mountain to its north, Wachusett—as a kind of symbol of the West. Hardly Yellowstone, but a beautiful mountain. Thoreau wrote in his essay “Walking”: “Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free.” Even Worcester was west once.
The search for home has preoccupied me all my adult life. In that way I am not unlike Thoreau, and not unlike you, perhaps.
I left Worcester when I was sixteen, but returned to live right outside the city during my thirtieth year. The place dragged me down—and a week shy of my thirtieth birthday I had my right testicle removed after it was discovered I had testicular cancer. That May, as I walked around Wachusett reservoir and watched the world bud, I also drove in every weekday to the hospital to get my middle irradiated in hopes of preventing the cancer’s spread. I wrote, only half-jokingly, in my journal: “I don’t know what’s worse, cancer or Worcester.” It has been almost thirty years since then, and the cancer has not returned. Soon after my radiation therapy ended, I escaped from Worcester and have not been back, except for brief visits, since.
The search for home has preoccupied me all my adult life. In that way I am not unlike Thoreau, and not unlike you, perhaps. In this uprooted country in this uprooted time, the search can smack of desperation, especially as more of our homes are burned or flooded or shattered by storms. Having been severed from the places I love, and exiled, by the necessity of taking a job, to a region I was suspicious of, it has taken some work to establish a sense of home. My early places were love affairs, while North Carolina has been an arranged marriage. What amazes me really is how deeply fond I have grown of it. “Deeply fond” is not the kind of language young lovers use, I understand.
Walden, in contrast, was Henry’s first love, a place he dreamed of from childhood on. And of course it is where he consummated that original relationship. What have I tried to do in North Carolina? Unpoetically put, I have tried to make a Walden out of a place I don’t naturally love. Hadley’s having grown up there helps quite a bit. But so does the work of learning the birds and waters, exploring the marshes and waters, and learning the science of the rising seas.
Mary Oliver, another great we have lost recently, puts it better than I can in her poem “Going to Walden.” *
I am up at five. I sneak out of the hotel room without waking my wife. The girls have their own room, which they are thrilled about. At last they have some freedom. Last night they took phone videos of the headless bicyclist who pedaled through downtown Concord. (I’ll later learn that the bicyclist’s name is Matthew Dunkle, and he often rides around down in costume as the headless horseman while playing guitar.)
Before I went to sleep I packed my backpack, including a beach towel and a copy of Walden, and put a travel mug of cold coffee in the mini-fridge. Now I hike out through Concord and down Walden street, past the police station and high school, and see no one except a large silky skunk, who appears to be luxuriating in the very middle of the road. When I try to sneak by on one side of the street, he or she politely strolls over to the other, leaving me unsprayed. As I near Route 2 I hear the deep hooting of a great horned owl and only the occasional truck, and I cross that usually busy highway without hurry. Then almost immediately I duck into the woods and slant down a path toward Thoreau’s cabin.
He knew his was just a new and thin layer atop those ancient lands.
The path has a name: Bean Field Road. Thoreau is known as a celebrator of leisure, of retreat, but it is here he did his work, sometimes from dawn until noon. His job? “Making the earth say beans instead of grass.” As he writes in Walden, in “The Bean-Field,” he planted “about two acres and a half of upland,” and weeded, and fought off worms and woodchucks so he could “know beans.” He felt his relationship with beans was a reciprocal one, and he didn’t hew to the farming methods of the time, so that he occasionally had to endure the mockery of passersby who would yell down planting advice. But it wasn’t the highest yield he was after but something else. He liked “a half-cultivated field” that was the “the connecting link between wild and cultivated fields.” And he asked: “What shall I learn of beans or beans of me? I cherish them, I hoe them, early and late I have an eye to them; and this is my day’s work.”
It wasn’t just beans that he unearthed but an earlier world. As he dug his rows, he “disturbed the ashes of unchronicled nations who in primeval years lived under these heavens, and their small implements of war and hunting were brought to the light of this modern day.” Harvesting arrowheads, he considered the fact that “an extinct nation had anciently dwelt here and planted corn and beans ere white men came to clear the land.” He knew his was just a new and thin layer atop those ancient lands.
Robin Wall Kimmerer also knows beans. Kimmerer, an author, scientist, professor and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, embraces both science and traditional knowledge, and the two, complementing each other, give her a way of looking at the world. In the “Epiphany in the Beans” chapter of her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, she proposes, like Thoreau, that gardens “are simultaneously a material and a spiritual undertaking.” She then goes further, suggesting that while many claim to love the land, few believe something that she has found to be self-evident: the land loves us back. That is, as gardens attest, the earth nurtures and supports, and if we believe that, it changes everything. She writes: “Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.”
It is a sentiment Thoreau surely would have agreed with. And perhaps it accounts for the fact that, as everyone who knew him agreed, he was that rare thing: a happy man. Imagine. Believing the earth will take care of you. That you don’t always need to have more, to be elsewhere. As Kimmerer puts it: “In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition.”
At first, I feel a little self-conscious about the ritual I am trying to create at Walden Pond, summoning up Henry’s spirit as if at a séance. I don’t want to get too groovy but there is something to be said for standing on the dirt where the cabin was and writing in my own journal. I add a rock to the cairn next to the cabin, the great useless but vital tribute to a man who claimed not to need it. My self-consciousness evaporates when I glimpse the water. It is a spectacular deep green this morning, much greener than yesterday. And inviting. Soon I am stripping down to my boxers and diving into it, so clear, so deep, the temperature cool but perfect. I breaststroke out toward the middle of the pond; my eye-level view is the rippling of light, undulating over the flat lake. The pond drops off fast, and fifteen feet out it is over my head.
To someone who grew up so close to here, the pond seems unspectacular but that, as many have pointed out, is the point. As Mary Oliver said, you make your own Walden.
I am not alone, of course, even at this early hour. That is the irony of today’s Walden: you are never alone. I am a just an amateur swimmer, here on a lark, but I can hear the cut and slosh of the professional swimmers, dragging their buoys behind them, as they do laps of the pond. The kayakers are out too, and I hear one of them yell to another in an accent that sounds like home: “Watch out for the sand baah.” Soon enough, the kids will be pouring onto the beach at the west end. I have read that too much human urine is ruining the chemical composition of the pond. It’s fucking always something.
Still I find a quiet corner and am treated to the sight of a Cooper’s hawk working through the trees, the sound of bullfrogs croaking, and an abundance of jays and chipmunks that I never see down south. I watch the sun light up the green leaves and green water. Despite everything, the spirit of the place is still strong. To someone who grew up so close to here, the pond seems unspectacular but that, as many have pointed out, is the point. As Mary Oliver said, you make your own Walden.
We give Thoreau credit for his ideas about nature, as if they were his invention. But where he really deserves credit is in knowing that they weren’t.
It is said you could not go for a walk with Thoreau without him finding an arrowhead. A large part of the reason for that was that he was looking.
From childhood on he had been aware of the previous inhabitants of the land in Concord, and as an adult he sought out the remaining Indigenous People in the area, conversed with them often, gradually began to more formally interview them for his so-called Indian Books, a huge compilation of quotes and facts about Indigenous People, and tried to understand their deeper relationship with the land he was attempting to know. For a long while, however, Thoreau was more enamored of the idea of Indians than with actual Indians, and fell prey to the usual traps, now known generally as “savagism,” of seeing Indigenous People as either simply savage or nobly so.
It was when he left Concord behind that his thinking began to deepen. In the journeys that make up The Maine Woods he travels the rivers and lakes in birch bark canoes with two subsequent Penobscot guides, Joe Aitteon and Joe Polis, and finds in these two men not just complex individuals who undermine the noble savage cliche, but the beginnings of a new way of being on the land that grows out of the old ways. Thoreau was still very much an interloper, that is to say a writer, studying his guides, interviewing them, trying to learn words in their language, but he was moving toward seeing them less as symbols and more as models. Robert Sayre, in his 1977 book, Thoreau and the American Indians, writes that Joe Polis, Thoreau’s guide on his second trip to Maine, was “the most fully developed person to appear anywhere in Thoreau’s writing.” I would qualify that by saying the most fully developed person not named Henry, but the point is well taken. Polis knew the vast Maine woods like Thoreau knew the paths around Walden, and by the end of their arduous journey into the wilderness, they knew each other a little too. Thoreau told Polis he wanted to learn everything and Polis was a willing teacher. In a 1978 review of Sayre’s book, Joy Harjo, this country’s current, and first, Native American poet laureate, writes:
Discoverers of Indians have been appearing again and again, long since the natives of North America were first given the name “Indian,” long since North America was found to be in the way of the shortest route to India by a strange man sailing west from Portugal. American Indians were “discovered” by accident:
“The Europeans were looking for quite a different land, a land of spices, shimmering silks, and dancing girls.”
And the expeditions continue. We are often discovered to be something we are not. “Indians” are named over and over again. From the first report taken back home to someone’s mother Europe, to the bookshelves in contemporary America lined with years and years of books: books on Indians, around Indians, inside Indians, living with Indians, living without Indians, where are the Indians . . . we “Indians” are still in the process of being discovered.
Thoreau began as just such a discoverer. The question that Sayre asks, and that Harjo considers, is “Did he move beyond that?” Sayre believes he did and Harjo, tentatively, seems to agree.
The Thoreau who returned from Maine was a different man. Long gone were the transcendental trappings and seeing nature as mere metaphor. His walks became more rigorous, his observations more concrete, and he collected thousands of pages of notes in what he called his Indian Books. In Henry David Thoreau: A Life, Laura Dassow Walls calls the Indian Books “Thoreau’s attempt to document indigenous alternatives to European narratives of social and economic life.” In them, he “amassed nearly three thousand pages of information gleaned from hundreds of sources: explorers, settlers, missionaries, ethnographers, and Native American accounts and self-descriptions, at a time when Native writers were just breaking into print.” He attempted to create a history of those who had come before, and a vast encyclopedia of their ways, of facts, not romance.
His was just an echo of the truth that the people on these lands had known for thousands and thousands of years. Humanity is not the center of things.
Walls seconds the belief that Thoreau grew past being a mere “discoverer” of Indians. A large part of that had to do with his time with Joe Polis: “In the 325 miles and nearly two weeks they traveled together, Polis shared with Thoreau many stories of his own life, each one revealing something of the Penobscot world.” And: “From then on, Thoreau never failed to praise Indians and defend them against the prejudices of his friends.” Indians moved more firmly from symbol to models for being in nature. No matter how much you believe in individualism, and no matter how strong of an individual you are, it is not easy to stand alone against a society madly rushing in the direction opposite of where you want to go. And while we may be justifiably wary of putting people on pedestals, we need those who can show us a different way. It is helpful to have such a vision, and perhaps more helpful to know that other ways existed on the land where you live for thousands of years.
Implied in this is tragedy. Thoreau began to see his purpose as what Walls calls “imagining a turn to nature not as a return to primitivism, but as a contemporary renewal of the deep communal intertwining of nature and culture,” but he also understood that he was a part of a culture that had not long before destroyed just such a way of life.
The more he studied the cultures that had inhabited the country before him, the more he saw that Native People had been there first, and not just in the physical sense. He saw that what he was saying had been said, and more importantly lived, before. His was just an echo of the truth that the people on these lands had known for thousands and thousands of years. Humanity is not the center of things. Animals must be treated with respect as the people they are. Nature will give you more than you can imagine if you are patient and let it. Our livelihoods on earth are directly tied to nature, and while we must work hard to be competent and ambitious for ourselves and our families, we also must realize how small we are compared to earth’s greater cycles. Thoreau might have articulated these things in a way that is particularly attractive to Westerners. But the ideas have been here since people were, on this continent and others. Nature writers like John Hay and Gary Snyder have long said that we need to rediscover and reinhabit this country. They understood that we were “discovering” nothing that other human beings, many of whom their settler-colonist ancestors had wiped out in a holocaust, didn’t already know.
But to me that doesn’t undermine the idea that it is up to us to keep trying to reinhabit the place we have. Most of us living now, latecomers, have been inculcated in ways of thinking and technology that have already destroyed many of the old ways and that may soon destroy our new ways. And all of us in this country live on wounded and bloody land. It may not be possible to rediscover America. But what are our choices now? To throw up our hands and say, “I will carry on in the maw of the machine until it is time to unplug me”? I would rather try, even if futilely, to recover and reintegrate that older way into my rushed modern life. I have tried for years and failed but I will keep trying. I think the way forward, if there is a way forward, is to draw on ways past. I think we can still learn from the people who first knew this land, and their ancestors, like Robin Wall Kimmerer and Joy Harjo, who invite us to broaden and deepen how we look at the land now. We can also learn from a relative latecomer named Henry Thoreau, who tried to point to a different path forward for this country, who suggested that rather than rapacious progress with the word Freedom plastered over it, there is a way of being that respects the incredible bounty found here, and, better yet, that doesn’t regard it as a bounty but as a living place, a dwelling place. Obviously that is not the path our country has chosen, but it is still possible for individuals to try to choose that path. It is a kind of rebellion to live this way, to make priorities out of things like nature and art, and to do so is to go against the greater machine, but as we do it is good to have allies. Those who came before and pointed the way.
Mary Oliver’s poem “Going to Walden” may be read in the version of this essay in our print issue, available here.