Walden, the Place

Walden Pond, presumably named by early colonists after Saffron Walden, England, is located in Concord, Massachusetts, about eighteen miles northwest of Boston and a mile-and-a-half southeast of Concord center, near the junction of Routes 2 and 126. Encompassing some sixty-one acres, Walden Pond is approximately a half-mile long with a considerably narrower but varying width. A path following the shoreline runs nearly a mile-and-three-quarters along the base and sides of rising, forested banks. Railroad tracks at the pond’s western extremity parallel the Walden road (Rt. 126) to the east. Walden Pond is the centerpiece of the approximately 425-acre Walden Pond State Reservation, administered by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, and is the crown jewel in the much larger Walden Woods ecosystem, identified in the writings of Henry Thoreau and now being incrementally secured and protected by The Walden Woods Project.

Walden Pond occupies the bottom of a kettle hole created by the melting of the Wisconsin glacier about ten- to twelve-thousand years ago. Its steep sides were built up from sand and gravel deposited by swirling meltwater eroding a diminishing block of ice left in the glacier’s wake. From 8,000 to 6,000 B.C., the Walden environment was tundra like, inhabited by creatures including mastodons, musk ox, bisons, and caribou. By the time of white settlement in the 1630s, the land surrounding the pond had become densely forested with the chestnut-oak-hickory association that has characterized much of the last three thousand years. By Thoreau’s day, pine trees, among them the “tall arrowy white pines” that he cut down for cabin timber in March 1845, were a prominent part of the hardwood/conifer mix.

A water-table pond, Walden has no springs or streams running into or out of it, above or below the surface. Water is added to the pond’s volume by seepage, rainfall, and snowmelt; it is subtracted through seepage (principally during periods of high water into Well Meadow and the Andromeda Swamp and thence to the Sudbury River at Fairhaven Bay), through evaporation, and through uptake by trees and plants. In 1968 marine technologists confirmed the absence of springs or feeder streams and corroborated Henry Thoreau’s 1846 determination of the pond’s greatest depth as 102 feet. The same scientists also recorded a September surface temperature of seventy-six degrees and a bottom temperature of forty-one degrees.

Notably, Walden Woods, Concord, and, indeed, all of New England were far less densely forested in the mid-to-late nineteenth century (including during Thoreau’s 1845-1847 Walden stay) than they are today. Much previously wooded land was cleared for cultivation or pasturage, while the wood stoves and other requirements of a growing population consumed local woodlots faster than they could be regrown. During the twenty years before Thoreau began his Walden residency, most of the trees on one Walden hillside owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson were cut down. Ironically enough, Emerson then purchased an additional fourteen acres of Walden woodland, including the land on which he let Thoreau built his cabin and plant his beanfield, in large part to preserve the threatened sylvan setting of the pond that charmed him just as it did his younger friend. Yet not without reason is the sound of woodchopper Alek Therien’s ax a persistent refrain in Walden. And not long after Thoreau left the pond, the severe winter of 1851-1852 caused much of Walden Woods to be cut for firewood. Still, the pond and its immediate shoreline remained a woodland retreat, and in 1855 Thoreau joined with Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and William Ellery Channing to form the “Walden Pond Walking Association,” a whimsical yet fitting rubric for their saunterings to Walden and other spiritually renewing destinations.

Despite its relative wildness, the Walden Pond that Thoreau knew from his first childhood encounter had long since ceased to be an untouched wilderness lake. Nor does he pretend that it is one. While Walden’s essential wildness is as unviolated as the inviolable wildness of nature itself’ this is a pond with a long human association. Not just natural history but human history had taken place there for thousands of years before Thoreau’s arrival, just as it has continued to occur there for the century-and-a-half since his departure. More than twenty-five-thousand Indian artifacts dating from approximately six-thousand years ago have been found around Walden Pond; countless others from the centuries since that distant era. Henry Thoreau was famous for his ability to find arrowheads, including one inadvertently discovered point that he whimsically attributed to Tahattawan, the Indian chief who in 1637 signed over to English newcomers six square miles of Concord land including Walden Pond.

Distanced from Concord’s business and residential center and largely uncultivated, the area around Walden Pond was a home to those Concordians who found or placed themselves on the fringes of the community, several of these “former inhabitants” are described in Walden: former slaves such as Cato Ingraham and Brister Freeman, whose “hospitable” wife Fenda told fortunes; Zilpah, another black woman who “spun linen for the townsfolk, making the Walden Woods ring with her shrill singing”; Tommy Wyman, a potter who told tales of an iron chest on the bottom of the pond that was sometimes seen floating toward shore before sinking once again; and John Breed, a barber and drunkard in whose life and death Thoreau found “an extreme instance of the power of appetite for rum” (Journal). The woods were home, too, to families of shanty Irish such as Walden‘s John Field, many of whom helped build the Fitchburg Railroad whose newly laid tracks carried the first Concord train across the west end of the pond the year before Thoreau began his cabin.

In Thoreau’s time Walden Pond served as a nature retreat not just for him but for the town at large. Concord fishermen sought its native pickerel, pout, and perch (since replaced by stocked trout), not letting thick winter ice keep them from their quarry. Hunters and waterfowlers roamed its woods and stationed themselves on its shores. Picnickers, berry pickers, and skaters made Walden a frequent destination, and then as now it was a popular swimming hole. Abolitionists met at Walden and local celebrations were held there. And during Thoreau’s residency, the pond attracted short-lived economic interest as an ice-harvesting site, an activity described in Walden.

In the years after Thoreau’s death Walden was exploited for recreational use. The railroad put in picnic tables in 1866, a bath house in 1868, and in 1880 began conducting excursions to the pond that continued into the next century. A pavilion, merry-go-round, race track, boat rentals, and concessions were Victorian period embellishments. Notably, as early as 1875 Harper’s Magazine urged that Walden be protected from overuse. In 1922 the Emerson family and others deeded more than eighty acres of Walden land to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to secure the pond for appropriate recreation and to preserve its natural beauty. Although Walden today has been restored to pre-amusement park condition, its management as a heavily used (though restricted) swimming site is controversial, especially to the many Thoreauvian pilgrims who visit the pond, the cabin site, and the cairn begun there in Thoreau’s honor by Bronson Alcott and Mary Adams of Iowa in 1872. In 1965 Walden Pond was designated a National Historical and Literary Landmark. About 750,000 people visit it annually.