Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, is one of those well-known texts we learn in school and quote regularly, especially as we long to "live deliberately." Yet although I was certainly familiar with this famous piece of work, I had never actually read it in its entirety. I took ownership of it, visiting Walden Pond itself and quoting my favorite lines, but I didn't realize that the excerpts I read in school were part of a much larger work. So when I finally sat down to read the book, I was immediately intrigued and in complete agreement with his assessments. I felt inspired as Thoreau stressed the need to escape the mundane routines and live more thoughtfully.
However, many passages were verbose, presenting themselves as diatribes rather than reflections. Other parts were so intimately detailed as to be excessive in description, tempting my eyes to skim the page quickly rather than capture every word. At times I smirked in my dissent with his views, inwardly chuckling at the pretentious nonsense he considered to be self-evident truths. And then suddenly a passage would strike me at my core, resounding deeply through my mind and body as I encountered it.
Allow me to give an example. I was working through his chapter on “The Ponds,” which is full of lavish descriptions of his most beloved landscape. However, I have seen this pond in person, and I am not nearly as impressed with its beauty as this chapter would indicate. It’s just a pond. You can see the whole thing quite easily in one glance, as it is not very large. It’s quiet and still, with no evidence of teeming life and movement within its waters. The woods surround it on all its edges except where we have now inserted a paved road. In the summer, it is full of people splashing and swimming in it, and the autumn offers some lovely fall colors around it. Nevertheless, it’s just a pond.
Yet to Thoreau’s eyes, this was the embodiment of heaven on earth. He had no trouble filling pages and pages with descriptions of it and sonnets dedicated to it. He would not have had to travel very far to reach the more beautiful coasts of Cape Ann or Cape Cod, which share the same borders but offer far more extravagant views. But nothing would have been able to surpass the quiet elegance of Walden Pond for Thoreau, and I have a feeling that no amount of persuasion could have convinced him to change his mind.
(This is one of my personal photos of Walden Pond)
I have seen some spectacular landscapes in the world, even within this past year. And yet reading Walden has brought me to wonder how they truly appear outside my biased viewpoint. When I return to the places I love the most, will they still contain all of their majesty in my eyes? Despite his lavish descriptions of the pond, Thoreau has one moment of self-awareness in this chapter, which struck me deeply. He wrote that despite the adjustments people had made around Walden Pond, “it is itself unchanged, the same water which my youthful eyes fell on; all the change is in me.”
It's hard to fully explain why this line meant so much to me, particularly at the time I read it. When I find myself traveling in other parts of the world or returning to the places I already know well, I think it's incredibly healthy to recognize that all the change is in me. We have very little control over the circumstances in our lives, and we have to continually adjust ourselves in order to keep moving forward. During this process, we might have the tendency to see things differently, tinged with nostalgia or bitterness, joy or heartbreak. And while I think it is fine to prefer some locations over others, we must always remember that we are influenced by our own perspective. Wherever we go, we have to bring ourselves along. Thoreau's subtle insight broke through the screen I had unknowingly placed before my vision, helping me to appreciate my present situation but also look forward to the future ahead of me. Regardless of my next step, there has certainly already been a lot of change within me, and I will bring that with me as I move forward.
There is so much wisdom in this beautiful piece of work. Thoreau says that each man ought to make his life worthy of a person’s deepest contemplation and live it earnestly. Reading this does remind me to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” so that when I die, I may know that I have truly lived. That is why I am here and that is what I must do.