Saturday, April 21, 2018

Robert Thorson and The Guide to Walden Pond (All You Need to Know)

In this interview, Professor Robert Thorson talks to Alexander “The Engineer” Lim, host of AuthorStory by about his book, The Guide to Walden Pond: An Exploration of the History, Nature, Landscape, and Literature of One of America’s Most Iconic Places.

“There’s nothing selfish about starting from within and defining your relationships in an outward direction.” ~Robert Thorson

Robert Thorson had become enamored of writer Henry David Thoreau, author of the book, Walden, while he was in college. Within a year of moving from Alaska to New England, he finally visited Walden Pond, the centerpoint of Thoreau’s book, and dropped a stone from his former home, marking the start of his relationship with the famous lake. Thor, as he prefers to be called, has been running field trips at Walden Pond since 2004, and it was in the summer of 2017, during the bicentennial celebrations of Thoreau’s birthday, that he turned a student handout into a pamphlet. When his wife found out, she told him to go ahead and write a guide, which was something that surprised Thor since there was no guide at all despite the fact that the pond received around half a million visitors annually. Although Thor has written scholarly books, writing a guide wasn’t on his “to do” list, and while he does admit that The Guide to Walden Pond is a guidebook, complete with images and descriptions, it also has various essays within.

Henry David Thoreau was one of the first main exponents of the American environmental movement. His book, Walden, which took nine years, seven drafts and two bursts of writing to complete, was the starting point for a lot of American nature writing. Thoreau contemplated about a sense of place and belonging, rather than of travel and adventure, and is known for such books as Civil Disobedience. He was an influence on such people as Mahatma Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy and Martin Luther King.

Walden Pond, which is really a lake, is around a mile or so south of the village center of Concord, Massachusetts, which is now a suburb of Boston. Concord itself is known to historically be the place where American transcendentalism began in the mid-19th century. Walden Pond itself is just one small lake in a chain of lakes in the area. As a lake, The Pond is deep and 62 acres in a woodland area at the center of a state reservation (actually a state park). In Thoreau’s time, access to the lake was done via railroad and was somewhat difficult; today, access is east through roads. There were was such a glut of visitors to Walden Pond in Thoreau’s time, both from the United States and internationally, that consequently, the number of visitors was limited by authorities in the 1970s to maintain it in the spirit of Thoreau.

For visitors, Walden Pond is the subject of Thoreau’s famous book about a place, Walden, but for Thoreau, it was a small and otherwise ordinary lake where he could get distance himself from normal, hurried life; a place where he could write, relax and contemplate. The lake’s shape, from his viewpoint, reflected such attributes of Thoreau such as simplicity, resilience, purity and symmetry, and became, to him, a source of inspiration. Thoreau could also see the sun rise from his house by the Pond, which served as a metaphor for rebirth. As for his house, it was a small one-room cabin and was reached by a carriage road, within easy walking access to other human settlements nearby. Thoreau had a lot of visitors to his house during his stay there, with as many as thirty guests at any one time, and held organized meetings there.

Thor noted that four things made The Guide to Walden Pond special. Writing was one of these aspects, given the process by which the book was written, involving a gestation on the various aspects of human social relationships - the relationship between human and nature and what he read of the works of such people as Charles Darwin and Alexander Humboldt. Landscape - that of Walden Pond itself - was another aspect, given its depth and appearance. Solitude was also offered by his location, as he could remove himself from society to a place where he was at a “tension point” between Nature and human society.

Thor remarked that a lot of those who read the book would be “armchair ##s,” who would visit the Pond through the book, while there would be those who would both visit the Pond and read the book. Thor started out with the northeast sector, where the parking area and visitor’s center are, and which is all modern, as is the entire eastern side of Walden Pond. It is the western part of the pond which approximates the environment that Thoreau resided in, particularly the northwestern part of the pond, whose landscape remains authentic to Thoreau’s day. The tradition of leaving a token at the site of Thoreau’s house began in 1872 by a Mrs. Adams and has been continued ever since. The southwestern part of the lake is where the Pond has three coves of interest, and offers an opportunity to reflect on different aspects of Walden Pond’s history. The western end of Walden Pond is also where the original access, by railway, was, as well as a Victorian-era amusement park, which was started in 1886 and burned down in 1902. The southeastern sector of the lake affords a quiet, reflective walk as well as a view of both the natural and the modern landscape, before returning to the real world, which could provide some reflection to visitors on the changes that have happened.

Thor notes that, although Walden Pond is within twenty miles of a major city, it is still completely surrounded by large trees, which isn’t common for lakes closely sited near urban areas. Although one would think that the environs around the pond are untouched, Thor notes that these have all been affected by the hand of man at some previous time. Thor noted a study done on the Pond based on sediment core work since 1979, which showed that the microorganisms within are being affected by human pollution and are changing due to climate warming. He also noted that people go to Walden Pond not just for a pilgrimage but also for such activities as swimming in the lake and training for triathlons.

To those who are seeking some relief from the hectic, daily life, Thor recommends disconnecting and then looking inside oneself and “explore the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of your own consciousness,” as Thoreau once stated, after which one can spread oneself out to the world around, regardless of what others think. Thor then noted that Thoreau reflected on the telegraph, which was a new technology of his day, and expressed concerned about the costs of technology itself, which is reflected in a line in Walden: “Men have become tools of their tools.”

Purchase from Amazon: The Guide to Walden Pond: An Exploration of the History, Nature, Landscape, and Literature of One of America’s Most Iconic Places by Robert Thorson

No comments:

Post a Comment