Simplicity

June 11, 2018

 

 

Last week, Marion and I traveled to Concord, Massachusetts, a town which the U.S. Census Bureau refers to as part of “Greater Boston.” To refer to Concord as merely a Boston suburb doesn’t do it justice. To the casual eye, Concord is like many other lovely old New England towns; with a quaint Main Street, distinctive white steepled church, and beautiful colonial-era houses. New England is steeped in history, and Concord is a perfect example. Here is where in 1775, British troops arrived after an earlier skirmish in nearby Lexington, hoping to capture a cache of ammunition, only to be repelled by colonial “Minutemen” at the Old North Bridge. Colonists continued to harass the British troops all the way back to Boston, and the Revolutionary War was on. In hind-sight, it might have been in Britain’s best interest to pack it in, hold off for another couple of hundred years, and let The Beatles do the rest of the work in the second “British Invasion,” a much more entertaining, and considerably less bloody approach to invading the colonies.

 

We had come mainly because I had always wanted to visit “Walden” Pond, made famous by Henry David Thoreau by virtue of his most famous literary work. Thoreau was one of an illustrious group of influential writers who largely dominated the American literary scene in the early to mid-nineteenth century.

 The others, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott fleshed out the cadre of local talent who amazingly lived in Concord at the same time, knew each other well, and even occupied some of the same houses at various times. In may be said that during the mid-1800’s Concord was the literary capitol of America. 

 

Sadly, Marion and I had only a few hours to spare, but it was a beautiful day and a relatively short drive from Southern Maine, so we seized the afternoon and off we went. After a quick drive around town we arrived at the Minuteman National Park which encompasses the Old North Bridge.

The park itself is lovely. One might go there just for the scenic views of the Concord River and Old Bridge, which is almost too beautiful to imagine as the sight of a bloody battle. A few yards away is the "Old Manse," home of William Emerson Sr., grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The elder Emerson actually witnessed the battle, as did many other spectators of the town.

 

The Emerson home and garden, which was planted by Thoreau himself, was also the eventual home of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The homes of the other writers, their grave sights at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery as well as other significant Revolutionary War attractions are located nearby. 

 

Concord itself is a great place for an afternoon stroll. The entire “downtown” is easily walkable, featuring some attractive shops, restaurants and a number of real estate offices - always the sign of a community that is in-demand. We stopped at the “Main Street Market and Cafe,” for a cappuccino and pastry and were pleasantly impressed by the menu and relaxed ambience of the full-service restaurant. I was tempted to hang around until dinner time, but the lure of Walden Pond was too great. 

 

I had long been a fan of many of Thoreau’s ideas about simplicity of life, nature, and man’s spiritual connection to nature and one another. Without realizing it in a conscious way, I had absorbed and incorporated many of these ideas into my life: namely that people and experiences, travel, a sense of purpose and connection to nature in a spiritual sense were more important than possessions or material gain. Someone once said (I’m paraphrasing) that you spend the first fifty years of your life accumulating things, and the rest of your time freeing yourself from them. I have found this to be true. 

 

The uninitiated might expect that Thoreau’s experiment in solitary living meant an extended period (actually two years, two months and two days) in isolation with no contact to the outside world. In actuality, Thoreau’s self-constructed little house in the woods was no more than a good walk from the center of town.

 Thoreau visited Concord regularly and received guests during this period as well; more guests, he commented, than normally visited him when he lived in town. The inspiring literary work created here is as much about town life, man becoming caught-up in the world of commerce, materialism and accumulation of wealth, as it is about living in nature. 

 

The Walden site is well presented. There is a parking lot, information center, and a mock-up of Thoreau’s cabin one can enter without supervision; very handy for anyone who might not be capable of walking the half mile or so along the pond trail to the actual location of Thoreau's homesite, which is marked only by a rectangle of small standing stones and a plaque.

We arrived at around six-thirty in the evening, with plenty of daylight left.  A sign informed us that the gates closed at seven thirty. The trail around the pond is a little over a mile and a half long, and of course we wanted to walk every inch of it. It’s amazing how the thought of returning to find your car in a chained lot can put a little extra spring in your step. We made it around the pond in about forty minutes. I thought what a fantastic running trail it would be (should I ever have the urge to run) and a fabulous snow-shoe trail in winter. As we walked, we saw a few people here and there around the pond, and I was surprised and pleased to see that not only is a trail walk offered, but also swimming, fishing and canoeing. There is a sandy beach around the pond, quite wide in places, ideal for picnicking. This was not the kind of place that merely displayed the pond in a museum-like presentation, but instead showed it to be a living, breathing, natural resource, to be experienced and enjoyed by all. It’s nice to see that there are times when the government gets it right. Kudos, too, to Don Henley of The Eagles and others for the formation of the Walden Woods Project, which effectively saved the area from development in 1990. 

 

While Walden Pond is lovely, it has been said that it is not lovelier or more special than a lot of other ponds. This, I think, is a particularly good point to make. I’ll paraphrase the Ken Burns-produced video which is available to watch at walden.org as well as at the visitor center. At a time of global warming and diminishing resources, when precious land continues to be swallowed up by developers all over the world, it’s particularly important to make every effort to save our green spaces, for our own health, well-being, and sanity, as well as for our children and grandchildren. We can all pitch-in, locally, to preserve and protect our own “Walden Pond,” park, wood, or the like. We will all be better off for it.

 

JW

 

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