A Pilgrimage

So, this post will be about Walden. Not Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s magnificent gift to us all. Instead, it’s about the pond.

A little background: I first read Walden during my junior year of high school. Looking back, I think I was pretty insufferable at that point in my life.  I was a moody know-it-all (problems that still haunt me today) who thought I was too good for Idaho.  I had dreams of going to a fancy school back East–I was into the idea of The Great Books in a very big way.

But, I loved the outdoors of the West (how much wasn’t yet clear to me) My family went on a trip to Yellowstone, and being a pretentious teenager, I packed a cheap recently purchased blue Barnes and Noble Classics edition of Walden (I also had Adventures of Huck Finn to read for English class). But, even if I had questionable motives for bringing it along, reading that book at that moment changed my life. Not all at once, but slowly. Here was someone who was a judgemental as I was. But he included himself. And he was funny, witty. But he was also compassionate and impassioned. Wise. It was like I had found a soul that spoke to mine.

Now, getting close to 20 years later, I visited Concord for the first time. I’ve read Thoreau consistently since then, and written a Master’s thesis and several seminar papers trying to gain more insight into a man I have come to feel is a friend. Yes, I know he’s dead. But he also lives on. I read his words and hear him speaking as if from the next town over. We’re on a first name basis, Henry and me. And I’d learned that we share a birthday, July 12th, 168 years apart. We both graduated from college into profound economic downturns: his in 1837, mine in 2008. But through all this, he’s taught me to be me. To observe closely, not just the phenomena, but my own experience of them. To love both neighbors and solitude. To value making things for the making and for the new ways making shows me to grasping the world. He loved sailing, sought justice, was awed by the beauty of the natural world. He is the man whose life I most would like to emulate in its details as best I can.

So I had been planning to visit Concord and Walden pond for several years, ever since I realized it would be his 200th birthday. And how glad I am that I did. At dawn, my AirBnB roommate and fellow Idahoan, Jake, and I went to Walden. We walked with Richard Smith, a talented Thoreau impersonator who welcomed us especially–the only two first time pilgrims in a group of at least 20. When I stepped inside the foundations of his cabin, I removed my hat–almost without thinking. I stood ankle deep in the water, a sort of communion and baptism at the same time. It was a most auroral hour.

Later in the day, Laura Dassow Walls, one of the most generous and brilliant scholars in my field, released her new biography in Concord on July 12th. We’ve had several conversations and she is as warm and inviting as I imagine Henry was to his friends, or to the fugitive slaves he housed in his cabin. She inscribed it, “Happy Birthday to you, and Henry too!”

The day was full of speakers, Henry’s friends from several continents, speaking in the First Parish church which he attended until his conscience made him resign. Over the week, we presented in spaces that he had lectured in. I visited his grave, which modestly reads merely, “Henry”. I left my pencil, a tool he did much to modernize, back engineering–somehow–the process the French were using to make a uniform graphite-clay amalgam. I walked from Concord to his family farm, something over two miles outside of town. That evening, rain poured down on Concord in a deluge unlike any on record. It momentarily flooded the streets to impassability, requiring us all–the whole town–to pause. The TVs and cell phones went out. Thunder rumbled and water streamed like rivers down the windows. We all stopped. We listened to the earth, the water, the wind. We were being invited to wake up.

Thank you, Henry. Happy Birthday, dear friend.

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