Walden Pond was all it took for the gusher to start.
The place and the man who made it famous had lived only in my imagination for two and a half decades before I finally made today's pilgrimage. My relationship with Henry David Thoreau began when I was in high school. Today I found myself sitting on the very spot that held his cabin ... the place where he wrote so many of the words that would guide me through my life to find its joys and comfort me in its pains.
I pulled out my own journals today and sat on one of the stones that marks the outline of where his cabin stood.
I see Walden Pond as he saw it from this very door. This place is so much more magnificent than I had imagined. People have always told me that the pond was small and the area too developed. Though I can imagine the tiny beach fills with swimmers and sunbathers on warm days, this is on the other side. The pond is a big one as ponds go and more resembles a small lake.
Here, in the back of the woods where Thoreau lived, it is quiet. I hear only the sounds of acorns falling, the leaves rustling in the wind while turning red and yellow by the moment, birds chirping, and the occasional person passing by. A few fat drops of this morning's rain pelt these pages as they dive from the tree tops. This place seems filled with as much solitude now as it did then.
If you have not had the occasion to get to know Thoreau yourself, you should race to a book store and buy a copy today. It could change your life the way it did mine. Thoreau can help you figure out what's important, give you the courage to do things you didn't know you could do, and make you see the world as if your eye sight suddenly magnified. He'll also give you a giggle or two. (The scholars often forget the man could crack a joke or two.)
I took Thoreau's words to heart at an early age because he spoke to me both about the meaning of life and what it means to be a writer.
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately," he wrote, "to front only the essential facts of life, and see if i could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. ... I wanted to live deep and suck out the marrow of life, and to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion."
He also placed inside me a land conservation ethic before I knew what the term meant. (It's certainly no coincidence that I now work as a communications director for The Wilderness Society.) He affirmed my love of solitude. He taught me the virtue of living simply. He showed me that a man can in the course of his time get as much out of life as he puts back into it.
Perhaps more important than any of those things, he helped give me the courage to chase every wild dream I conjured up ... to spend my life taking big swings, to overcome failure, and, well, to thump my chest a little when I pulled off something spectacular.
"As I have said, I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up."
Thoreau's words lingered in my head as I sat there scribbling in my own journal, whose pages are now
Now I think it's time to honor him by continuing my own walk in the woods so that I might drink in this experience more deeply. I can spend all day here if I want. "Time," after all, "is but the stream I go a fishing in."
Then I pulled out the dog-eared copy of Walden Pond I've kept with me for the past 17 years -- its pages held together with equal parts hope and tape -- and read a few passages aloud to myself.
I resumed my walk and felt Thoreau's presence so strongly that I kept staring at the mud as if expecting to see his footprints and discern which way he was going today. My mind, as it always does when I get a good hike going, slowed down. Part of the reason I came on this trip was to think more about some of the new dreams I harbor for what I'd like to do with my life in the years ahead ... to set a few compass points that I might check each morning.
I inhaled a quick lunch and drove to the Concord Museum to see Thoreau's desk. I also saw one of the lanterns placed above Boston as old Paul Revere made his famous ride. Both artifacts were thrilling discoveries as I didn't know the museum existed before today.
Nor did I realize Thoreau was buried here and that his grave still exists.
I quickly found his resting place at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and was overcome in a different way, feeling an urge to pull out my journal again and write him a letter. It went like this:
I sit now by your grave, Mr. Thoreau. I confess I only moments ago learned I've been mispronouncing your name all these years. A woman at the Concord Museum said you pronounced it like you were a very thorough man, not like I throw a baseball. Everybody else gets it wrong, too, so I hope you can forgive us.
I can't believe how tiny your tombstone is. It's like a baby's. It can't be more than nine inches high and wide. And it just says "Henry." No epitaph. No nothing. Your name and birth and death dates are as you know with the rest of your family's. I see your parents John and Cynthia and your siblings Helen and Sophia.
I guess I expected something grand, something that in death represents how big you were -- though I realize your fame multiplied by an infinite factor as the years went on after you died. Still, it's puzzling. Such a humble little stone for a man who made such a big impact on the world -- not only during your time but in the generations that have followed.
I came here today to thank you for everything you've done for me. I'm not really sure how to properly thank a dead man but I at least wanted to visit you to pay my respects. I've known you for more than half of my life, which puts you in the company of but a select few of my friends.
How do I thank you? You saw that I spent the morning at your cabin by Walden Pond. I could feel your presence there as I do here. You must still entertain a lot of company these days. I see a note on your grave and that some people have built tiny little cabins with twigs. I see someone left coins in a language I don't recognize. Russian maybe. I see someone else left a tiny piece of metal with perhaps Chinese characters on one side and the English word "balance" on the other. A group of German students just came. I see that note is from a pair of people from Galicia, Spain, and they left their names for you. I'm not sure if you read Spanish but Irisarri and Maria left you the note. It says "All of us who love nature are in debt to you, father of conservation and grandfather of ecology."
Even 147 years after your death, you continue to touch the minds and hearts of people around the world. You have clearly achieved what every writer, and would-be writers like myself who pale in comparison, dreams of -- eternal life. One of my darkest fears, apart from never publishing more than I have now, is that all of my words -- my magazine articles, news reports, newspaper columns, blogs and these journal pages will also disappear with me when I move on from this world.
This moment of self pity aside, I do want to thank you again for what you've done for me. I'm wearing your face on my shirt right now and everybody is asking me where I got it and what my connection is to you, H.D. (I hope you don't mind I have long called you that.) I told a woman who is on the board of The Thoreau Society I met this morning that you have guided me through much of my life. I guess you heard that but I wanted to tell you again. Your words expanded my mind at a tender age and made me think the world offered me much greater potential for living greatly than I might have otherwise believed. You at different times helped build my internal compass and at others helped me stay true to it.
One of my worst fears in college -- one that I rebelled against -- was that I would graduate and go work a normal job to the day I die without ever having truly embraced life. Thanks in part to you, I ventured to Alaska and to Spain and had all kinds of adventures -- not only in travel but in the personal and professional facets of my life. For the most part, I have made mighty good use of the time I've had on this planet. I've certainly sucked a lot of marrow out of it. I've always made consistent efforts to give back to the world, too, again following distantly in your footsteps.
You will live in my heart forever, and I hope that you continue to bless me with your guidance.
Christopher D. Lancette