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Original Issue


Thoreau's watering hole should remain a public domain

Miss Nims, take a letter to Henry David Thoreau. Dear Henry: I thought of you the other afternoon as I was approaching Concord...."

So began a charming 1939 essay by E.B. White. He was writing to tell Thoreau that he had recently answered the siren's call to Walden Pond, and that he had found the place still emotionally and philosophically resonant. "As I left, a boatload of town boys were splashing about in mid-pond," wrote White, "the young fellows singing at the tops of their lungs in a wild chorus:

Amer-ica, Amer-ica, God shed His grace on thee...."

The other afternoon, approaching Concord, I, too, thought of Henry. I was home for a visit, home being barely a stone's skip off the surface of Walden, in the wooded Massachusetts countryside west of Boston. While there I had become aware of a new battle of Concord, an effort under way to quiet those singing boys.

The Walden Forever Wild committee is gathering signatures to petition the commonwealth for a redesignation of Walden as a historical sanctuary. The ad-hoc environmental group argues that the 411-acre Walden Reservation's status as a recreational park is destroying the pristine nature of "this sacred place." WFW wants access to Walden to be controlled by a permit system, and it wants swimming prohibited. "They are not relieving the stress on the ecosystem," Edmund Schofield, a WFW member was quoted in the local press as saying. "The stress is the visitors."

Although I often side with conservationists, this particular controversy tweaked me in a different, and personal, way. As boys, my brother, Kevin, and I swam often in Walden, and not just in the designated areas. We threw a football in the groves surrounding its shore. We picnicked there with our parents. We went there at odd hours for quiet contemplation. We did all this quite deliberately, choosing Walden over the closer Lake Nabnasset or Crystal Lake. Thoreau certainly figured in our decisions. We were drawn to him and hence to his place. You didn't have to be a kid of poetic persuasion to understand that a dunk in Walden Pond was a special swim.

And so the prospect of a closed Walden bothered me. It sent me back, a la White, to Walden and to Walden itself.

"I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did," Thoreau wrote. I reread this passage while strolling beside the pond on a cloudy, lonely day. Walden and its surrounding glades were as remembered. I was still impressed by the utter simplicity of the site where Thoreau's cabin once stood. There is no grand embellishment, and none is needed.

What constitutes a suitable monument? This seems to be what the Walden preservation issue is all about. The members of WFW say that a serene pond in a lush setting, pretty as a picture, would be the perfect tribute to Thoreau. I disagree. I think the WFW would be doing in Thoreau's name something that Thoreau himself never would have done. It should be remembered that Thoreau did not buy land at Walden to be put off limits for others, he simply went in and used it. Walden was never meant to be bronzed.

Ever since Thoreau picked up his quill, the pond has been one of America's premier examples of public land used for diverse purposes. On summer weekends people gather here to relax, read, sing and swim—to enjoy the pond.

Much of the land that is now Walden Reservation was once owned by the Ralph Waldo Emerson family. In 1922, Emerson's descendants transferred the property to the commonwealth of Massachusetts. They exacted a promise that Walden be kept in a condition that Thoreau and Emerson would recognize, and that it be used by the people of Massachusetts for recreation.

That 1922 deed, the present-day validity of which is being contested by WFW, is not a frivolous legal instrument. In spirit, it is as knowing as Henry himself. The transcendentalists constructed durable philosophical legacies; by means of this deed, a physical one endures to the present day. There's no doubt that Thoreau would not approve of the proposed permit system.

Compromise is called for. Someone wants to build an office development near these banks, and that's exactly the sort of thing that should not be allowed. WFW has made several good suggestions. Sure, the state should monitor and control noise pollution. It should protect the pond's ecosystem: Overuse is never wise use. But end Walden's status as a sanctifying swimming hole? Too extreme. If the pond is closed to singing boys, we will lose a supreme symbol of how property can be used in common. Walden's stilled waters would run less deep in us all.