An American pilgrimage to Concord
Today Walden Pond is a beautiful state park, with many visitors coming just to swim and sunbathe on its tiny beaches. Without the book-heavy gift shop and a few markers, it would be indistinguishable from many other small lakes in the region. Weekend summer tours led by friendly and knowledgeable state rangers lead you from the recreated Thoreau cabin near the parking lot to the spot by a cove where the actual cabin once stood. There are two markers at the hallowed spot -- chain-linked granite pillars mark the cabin’s exact dimensions, and next to it is a rowboat-sized cairn of stacked rocks, a shrine to Thoreau started by Alcott in 1872. The original wooden cabin was taken apart by a local farmer after Thoreau’s experiment was over, appropriately reused and recycled.
“Walden is blue at one time and green at another… Lying between the earth and the heavens, it partakes of the color of both,” Thoreau wrote in Walden. It seems metaphorically fitting that he picked this particular glacially-made kettle hole because, at 102ft (Thoreau surveyed it himself), it is one of the deepest natural bodies of fresh water in Massachusetts. The water remains clean and inviting (according to a ranger, some people believe the water has healing properties), densely bordered by trees and trails, and a satisfying place to end a pilgrimage, or begin one.
The Old Manse
History, philosophy and literature converge at the Old Manse, a home built by Unitarian minister William Emerson and later given its name by Hawthorne, who lived, wrote and started a family there. William was a vocal supporter of American Independence and while his family watched it unfold from a window in the house, he even participated in the war’s first -- and at only a few minutes long, remarkably short -- battle in 1775. His grandson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, would later write Concord Hymn, a poem that would give the three-minute battle its nickname as “the shot heard round the world”.
Hawthorne, most famous for his novels The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, also wrote a short story collection called Mosses from an Old Manse, in which he christened the house. He moved in on the day of his 1842 wedding to Sophia, and as a wedding gift, Emerson hired Thoreau to create a vegetable garden for the couple. The garden, still tended today, was a present they sorely needed since they were broke after Hawthorne failed to secure a refund upon quitting the nearby utopian community Brook Farm.
About 500ft from the house is the (recreated) North Bridge where the battle took place, which spans the Concord River. Thoreau would leave on boat excursions from behind the house, and Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau skated on it when it froze. One winter, Sophia slipped on the ice and had a miscarriage, a sad milestone she poetically etched into, and is still visible on, a window pane glass in the Old Manse with her diamond ring: “Man's accidents are God's purposes. Sophia A. Hawthorne, 1843.”
Ralph Waldo also lived here for a time and wrote Nature, an essay that embodies the tenets of American Transcendentalism. In the same room where Hawthorne wrote, Emerson set up a writing desk looking out on the Concord River flowing behind the house and wrote lines such as, “Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour and is not reminded of the flux of all things?”
The Hawthornes later moved to Concord’s Lexington Road, next door to a man who would sit outside on a bench built into a large tree and cajole passers-by to sit and talk with him. The man was Alcott, who applied his philosophies to teaching, the creation of several schools and Fruitlands, another failed community experiment in applied idealism. This home where he lived with his wife and daughters was Orchard House, named for the apple trees that once grew behind it.