Walden was never a wilderness - even when he lived there 150 years ago, it was still within a 30 minute walk of Concord's busy downtown, where Thoreau managed the family's pencil-manufacturing factory. The commuter rail line that skirts the western edge of the pond today was still there in Thoreau's time (he'd often walk along it as a shortcut from his cabin to the town).
But, inspired in part by Thoreau's writings, people have changed the woods around Walden tremendously in the past century and a half. Americans following Henry David's suburban impulse ("I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself," Thoreau bragged in a chapter of Walden titled "Solitude") have transformed Concord from a small agricultural and manufacturing center into a convenient bedroom community halfway between Worcester and Boston.
Three miles east of Walden Pond, modernist cubicle farms for software and pharmaceutical companies crowd along the Route 128 corridor, surrounded by greenery designed to be enjoyed at 55 miles per hour.
From there, a four-lane expressway, the Concord Turnpike, runs within a hundred yards of Thoreau's homestead site. In the time it took him to make his daily 2-mile walk to Concord, modern Thoreauvians can drive themselves all the way to Logan Airport (albeit with less self-reliance).
The road goes two ways, of course, which means that Walden Pond has also become an extremely popular destination for anyone in the metro Boston region who wants to live deliberately and front only the essential facts of life for a few hours after a rough day of shopping at the nearby Burlington Mall.
The state has gradually tried to buy up the land around Walden Pond to turn it into a state reservation. Still, in doing so, the remaining privately-owned parcels nearby have become increasingly valuable as tourist traps and highway rest stops, making additional land conservation asymptotically difficult.
And as a public park, several acres of Walden's former Woods have been cleared to make way for parking lots, a replica of Thoreau's cabin, and the "Thoreau Society Shop" (Thoreau's famous quotation on poverty - "Do not trouble yourself to get new things, whether clothes or friends... Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts. God will see that you do want society" - graces the shop's best-selling t-shirts).
A large bathhouse overlooks a tiny beach on the eastern end of the pond near the parking lots and souvenir shop. The spring-fed pond itself is facing serious erosion problems in the face of all the foot traffic and bootleg sunbathing clearings on every shore, and the state has built a long concrete wall to keep the land nearest the beach from sliding into the pond:
The pond's circumferential footpath in many places runs within inches of the water, compacting the forest soils and making it difficult for plants to take hold and establish their natural filtration functions.
Thankfully, the agency in charge is taking a more aggressive stand against erosion, and erecting fences that keep people from treading on every inch of shoreline. The conserved forestlands that surround Walden Pond do a good job of filtering out the oil- and pesticide-soaked runoff pollution from surrounding freeways, parking lots, and McMansion developments, and so Walden Pond itself is remarkably clean, in spite of its metropolitan surroundings. It's one of my favorite swimming holes anywhere - and I say this as a connoisseur who lives in a place with a bounty of swimming holes.
In a follow-up post tomorrow, I'll write about one of my favorite Boston bike rides: downtown to Walden Pond in about 2 hours, which makes for an ideal summer day trip.