Thoreau’s Legacy

Walden PondWhat is the legacy of Thoreau’s time at Walden Pond?

After Henry moved out of his house at Walden Pond, it was sold it to Emerson’s gardener. It passed through other hands before eventually being disassembled. The roof ended up covering a pig pen and the rest of the wood was later used to make a stable shed and patchwork on a barn. Over time, the site of the original house was lost. In 1945, archaeologist Roland Robbins began to search for the house site by exploring Walden Woods and reviewing as many historical documents as he could for information about the house’s location and construction. Over the next two years, Robbins excavated and documented the foundation of the chimney, the house corner stones and the cellar. The knowledge of Thoreau’s house gained from the excavation improved the building of replicas on the park grounds and at the Thoreau Institute.

During Thoreau’s time, the woods around Walden Pond were viewed primarily economically as a source of firewood for local residents. In the late 1860s the railroad company noted the capacity for recreation at Walden and installed picnic tables and a bath house, followed by regular excursions around the pond. By the turn of the century, Walden Pond had been converted to a pleasure destination, with swimming, boating, concessions, a race track and a merry-go-round. The heavy use of the land and water gave rise to concern, and in 1922 local landowners donated over 80 acres to the state of Massachusetts for responsible management. Today the state Department of Conservation and Recreation operates a park of over 300 acres. Hundreds of thousands of people visit Walden Pond each year to see the cabin site, leave a stone on the cairn, take a swim in the water and enjoy nature.

In the 1990s Walden Woods faced another threat. Plans were nearly finalized to develop large tracts of land around Walden Pond into residential and office buildings. Recording artist Don Henley heard of the plans and led the effort to preserve the natural environment of Walden. He founded the Walden Woods Project to raise the necessary money to buy the land and save it from development. Since then, the Walden Woods Project has continued its work in conservation, while expanding its mission to include education and research. The Thoreau Institute Library at the Walden Woods Project attracts scholars from all over the world to its over 8,000 volumes and 60,000 other items related to Thoreau.

Henry David ThoreauHow has Thoreau influenced people all over the world?

“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book,” Thoreau wrote in Walden (120; “Reading”). Little did he realize how true that statement would be for so many people who read his book! Today Walden has inspired millions of readers and is considered Henry D. Thoreau’s masterpiece. Since Emerson brought copies of Walden to England, its worldwide impact has never ceased to spread. Walden has been printed in hundreds of editions and dozens of languages. It has influenced conservationists, writers, philosophers, activists and individuals of all professions and passions. None of that would have happened, however, if Thoreau had carried out his experiment and kept it to himself; it was by sharing his story that he inspired so many people and changed the world.

Henry’s messages of simple, deliberate living; spirituality in nature; and conservation are present throughout his works but achieved little recognition in his own lifetime. It was only after his death and in the following century that his writing became well known and appreciated. Thoreau’s writing did not change, society changed. In the second half of the nineteenth century, America came face to face with the consequences of its lack of foresight in managing the environment. Many of the birds of New England, such as the once ubiquitous passenger pigeon, were all but extinct. The need for wood to warm homes, fuel the steam engine and make way for farms left forests depleted or destroyed. People began to react. The first Audubon Society for the protection of birds and wildlife was formed in Massachusetts in 1896. In the next decade, other states followed the example and incorporated into the National Audubon Society in 1905.

Thousands of miles away on the other American coast, John Muir began to note the overgrazing and logging of the precious Yosemite Valley in California. He could not allow the loss of such an irreplaceable landscape and so worked for its incorporation as a park in 1890. After Muir took President Theodore Roosevelt on a camping trip in Yosemite in 1903, Roosevelt pushed to have the government take the park under national control to provide further protection for the land. John Muir went on to found the Sierra Club, a prominent environmental advocacy organization even today. His leadership had its own inspiration, too; on his mantel Muir kept two portraits: one of Emerson and one of Thoreau.

As society became more environmentally aware, its appreciation of Henry David Thoreau and Walden increased. Today Thoreau is considered among the greatest of all American writers and the intellectual inspiration for the conservation movement. His long lasting influence cannot be fully expressed.

Works Cited

Thoreau, Henry David. “Reading.” The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau. Walden ed., Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1906.