Don’t go to “Walden Woods”

We awakened to a clear, cool autumn day. I spent the morning writing, and after a late lunch I decided I’d drive out to Walden Pond State Reservation in Concord. I wanted to walk from the parking lot there down to the Concord River, figuring I might see some interesting birds and get to walk through the autumn woods. When I got to Walden Pond, I discovered that the state now charges for parking year-round. I don’t blame them for doing so; parking fees help pay for the erosion damage all the tourists do; but it didn’t logically follow that I was going to pay to park.

So I drove a mile down the street and parked at the town forest. I walked past Brister’s Spring, which still doesn’t have an interpretive marker even though Thoreau mentions it. A little farther on, several acres of land had long ago been bulldozed, stripped of topsoil in anticipation of a hotel being built right off the highway. The hotel never got built, and the land had grown up with grass and scrubby trees. People used to ride dirt bikes and go off-roading up there; that, and the fact that it looked pretty barren, tended to keep casual walkers out. A good place to look for birds. Fewer people to scare the birds away.

When I got up to where I could see the old dirt bike track, I saw that someone had erected a stone marker, thrusting up three feet into the air. The word “phallic” comes to mind. The stone had been carefully and neatly cut, and on the side, in laser-cut letters, was the slogan “Walden Woods.” On top was a bronze cap that turned out to be a tablet with a crude map that purported to show “Thoreau’s path on Brister’s Hill.” Well, maybe, but any evidence of old paths got stripped off with the topsoil. A sappy quote from Thoreau, in raised bronze letters, encircled the map.

A hundred feet down “Thoreau’s Path on Brister’s Hill,” a discreet metal marker informed me that I should “Please stay on the path. Restoration Area. Walden Woods.” It looked like the signs you see on the mall in Washington, D.C., where there’s a D.C. cop lurking in the distance daring you with his eyes to step off the path so he can politely reprimand you. Then I realized that the black pipe I had seen in the ground earlier, a pipe with a funny piece of metal across the top, had once held another one of the signs. Someone had ripped the sign off. I tested the sign that was still intact. The metal was flimsy, and I guessed that if you bent it back and forth half a dozen times, it would break right off the black pipe. I was tempted, I even looked furtively up and down the trail to see if anyone was lurking and watching, but I didn’t.

Another hundred feet, and I looked down at four long pieces of granite, about three feet long and eight inches wide, embedded in the ground. A quote from Thoreau had been engraved into the stone, like that judge in Alabama had the Ten Commandments engraved into a piece of stone in his courthouse. I kicked at one of the pieces of granite. It was firmly anchored to the ground in anticipation of potential Vandals like me. I kicked again, It still didn’t budge, so I walked off the trail into the “Restoration Area.”

I slid down a steep slope into a shallow gravel pit. Someone had dumped several truckloads of wood chips down that slope. I followed deer tracks up the other side. There in some scraggy pitch pines and white birches I saw a warbler. Unbelievably, instead of flitting about and hiding in the leaves, it stayed in plain sight long enough for me to really see it (and the light was perfect, slanting autumn sun through crystal-clear air): olive-green back with light streaks, wing bars, streaking on its white breast, white undertail coverts: a Blackpoll Warbler in fall plumage. I watched it pick insects off the leaves of one small birch tree, and then fly away. I crashed through the brush, stepping on leafless blueberry bushes, and suddenly I was surrounded by birds. If you kiss the back of your hand, sometimes the birds will come quite close: a dozen chickadees and Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted down to perch on branches not twenty feet from me.

I found my way out past more granite markers, and crossed the highway to the site of the old Concord dump, where the town still maintains a composting facility. Birds flew from one big compost windrow to another: sparrows, a flycatcher or two, and bluebirds — bluebirds! I love seeing bluebirds. I walked up onto the hill that used to be the dump, now capped off and planted with some kind of grass that grows six or seven feet high, proud to think that I had dumped lots of trash here over the years. I saw my first Ring-billed Gull here, and my first Lesser Yellowlegs, here at the dump. When I got up to the top of the huge trash pile, two meadowlarks flew up out of the grass and circled around me. I love town dumps.

With a little bushwhacking, I skirted the Walden Pond parking lot and found the road up to the top of Pine Hill. It goes straight up the steep hill, so I went up it as fast as I could, my heart pounding. Ahead of me, two people went up more slowly. I reached the top at the same time they did. We all stopped where you can see Mount Wachusett through the trees. I recognized one of the two (name and gender withheld to protect the guilty) from conservation meetings we both attended seven or eight years ago, someone who worked for the Walden Pond State Reservation; I was pretty sure he/she recognized me, too.

“Wow, what a great view of Wachusett today,” I said. “The air is so clear today.”

Silence. They pointedly turned away from me, sat on the grass, and carried on a conversation in low tones. Who can blame them? If you work at Walden Pond, you must feel like you’re in a constant state of siege from hordes of tourists, Thoreau nuts, swimmers, and anglers. The park gets ten thousand or more people on a hot summer day. I’d probably be just as hostile as those two if I worked there.

The view of Wachusett was incredible, though, the mountain’s flanks reddened by the fall foliage. “The air is so clear, I can see the flashes of the car windshields from the top of Wachusett,” I said out loud.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw their backs stiffen. I could almost hear them thinking to themselves, “He’s talking to us, the bastard. He wants to engage us in conversation.” The one who knew me had enough remaining human instincts to half turn towards me, until catching him or herself. They turned back to each other and pretended to be carrying on their conversation in low tones. Merrily I bounded off down the hill, running in the sheer exuberance of a perfect fall day.

As long I was experiencing the Walden hostility, I figured I might was well walk all the way around the pond. Dozens of people clogged the narrow paths along the shore of the pond, even though it was a weekday. Some of these people obviously had been deluded into thinking they could find some kind of Thoreauvian solitude at Walden, and I watched them flinch as I hove into view, smiling at them as if I might talk to them. They avoided my eyes as we brushed by each other — you have to brush by each other because the trail is only about two and a half feet wide, and lined on either side with four-foot high wire fence to keep you safely separated from Walden Woods. God forbid you should go into the Walden Woods.

So I skipped up to the trail that follows the high ground around the pond. It’s wider, less crowded, doesn’t have fences, and one woman I passed actually said hello and exchanged pleasantries with me, my first human encounter at Walden that day that lacked all hostility. Thoreau’s misanthropy must be infect most people who visit Walden Pond. Or maybe the hostility comes from the increasing numbers of signs and interpretive plaques and stone commemorative markers. They now have a granite marker commemorating Thoreau’s bean field, for Pete’s sake. We should just develop all the land around Walden Pond into luxury houses. Think about it — the state could get millions for a single house fronting onto Walden Pond. A luxury house development could generate fifty to a hundred million dollars, which could go towards conserving what little wilderness is left in the state. Enough of Walden Pond.

Across the highway, back in the town forest, I walked around the little pond there. A man was fishing at the far end. “Catching anything?” I asked.

“A couple of small ones,” he said. “I just missed one.”

“Sunnies?” I said.

“Yep, bluegills,” he said. “There’s bass in there too.”

“Bass?” I said.

“Yep,” he said. “Once I talked to a guy who caught a twelve-pounder and brought it over and released it.”

It was hard to imagine that a twelve pound bass would find enough to eat in that little pond, but you never know. The man was fishing with long cane poles, not rods, dangling his bait and bobber twelve feet out into the little pond at the ends of the poles. They were beautiful, burnished a warm brown, with silver-colored ferrules. I secretly admired them while we chatted. He was from North Cambridge, he said, and he took the train out to Concord and walked over here to fish.

I wandered off down paths lit by the slanting autumn sun, and after a time found myself in the middle of a pine woods, of not very great extent, with no underbrush, only a soft covering of deep, quiet pine needles. On the northwest edge was a field, and there the pine wood was bordered by red maples covered in bright yellow and red leaves; the light filtering into the wood was golden. The black trunk of the pines drew my eyes up into the heights of the trees with mysterious dark pine needles. To the north, through the neatly spaced black tree trunks, the setting sun lit another line of red maples into a blaze of orange and red, and the light made me catch my breath. I may have stayed there a while, or maybe I just passed through. I could find no path leading out of this wood, so I pushed my way through the underbrush between it and the field, and emerged under blue sky and pink clouds. Transformed.