Thoreau In The Snow: A Writer’s Interlude at Walden Pond

Ice gleamed along the barrier islands thousands of feet below, and I grimaced at my leather dress boots, jammed under the airplane seat. Dispatched on a business trip to the western suburbs of Boston, I’d taken the precaution of wearing my New York Yankees underwear as protection against enemy baseball juju, but hadn’t prepared for the possibility of snow. Not that my winter boots would have fit in my small carryon bag, anyway. Oh well. Frozen terrain would make my planned excursion all the more beautiful…and more dangerous.

I always try to squeeze in at least one interesting detour on my business trips, and with a few hours free in Middlesex County, the choice was obvious: Walden Pond. Once owned by Emerson and famous as the retreat of Thoreau, it’s not only an iconic site in American literary history, but for the environmentalist movement as well. Thoreau’s nature writing inspired generations of conservationists. His meticulous notes about when local flora bloomed help today’s scientists track the progression of climate change.

The climate on the day of my visit was distinctly polar. Plowed snow formed dirty white bulwarks along the roads, and ice glazed the path from the Walden Pond state reservation parking lot. My dress boots were sturdy—I disdain any footwear I can’t run in, and people find my height intimidating enough without heels—but rather than scuff them up before my meeting, I switched into the only other shoes I’d brought along, my trainers. (You know you’re a workout junkie when your overnight bag for a business trip contains only one suit, but three sets of exercise gear).

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“Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.”
― Henry David Thoreau, journal entry, 1856

It proved no worse than winter trail running. The snow was well-packed and dry, so even in spots where I scampered up to my knees, my feet barely got wet. And, as I’d hoped, the frigid weather dissuaded almost all other visitors. Winter held the landscape in crystalline suspension. Nothing stirred except the furry ruff of my parka, blowing in the stiff breeze. If I stood still, silence fell thicker than the snow. Deep groans and clicks of the ice drifted to my ear. The only signs of human presence were a few scrawny snowmen stationed bravely out on the frozen pond and the odd set of footprints. I used the prints as a path through the drifts, imagining I followed the steps of Thoreau.

Henry David Thoreau should be nominated the patron saint of indie authors. Son of a family in the pencil-making business, he attended Harvard, but had little interest in the traditional professions of a mid-19th century college grad. He befriended contemporary writer and thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson, who introduced him to local literary circles and in 1845—when Thoreau wanted to focus on writing—allowed him to build a hut on the family’s land at Walden Pond. While living at Walden, Thoreau completed the first draft of his book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Unable to find a publisher, he had it published at his own expense (long before the age of simple KDP uploads). Few copies sold, leaving him in debt. He worked as a surveyor and in his father’s pencil factory to support himself while writing. Although he never achieved commercial success in his lifetime, his work eventually established such a legacy that, even today, pilgrims leave stones in a cairn beside the site of his original cabin.

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“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.”
― Henry David Thoreau, “Walden”

Snow obscured the cairn when I approached, but the cabin’s outline lay stark against the white, emphasizing its tininess. It was no stylish, IKEA-influenced tiny house, either: a replica at the park entrance held only a cot, a desk, a stove, and a large firewood box. Thoreau made Walden an experiment in “living deliberately”: not reclusively, since he often walked to town and to friends’ homes nearby, but without material excess. I stood in the entrance, gazing down the slope toward the lake. Would my creativity and productivity flourish without the barrage of employment and chores and traffic and distractions, immersed in the soft, steady dynamics of nature? What writer hasn’t dreamed of such an escape?

As my feet wandered, so did my mind, an odd mix of deep thoughts and random frivolous ones, flowing as easily as my frosty breath. My Garmin buzzed when I hit the first mile: 32 minutes, four times what I normally take to run the same distance. But meandering showed me the geometry of bare trees and the shadows they cast on the frozen pond; a hardy pair of sparrows chirping at each other; how partially melted snow crusts shone like silver lichens, delicate frills sloping down to the shoreline.

Digging into my pocket for my phone to photograph the scene, I fished up the small metal entry badge from my trip to the Morgan Library in January. (Yes, I wear this one jacket everywhere from November to March. It’s at least ten years old and popping some seams, but nothing I’ve found can replace it for versatility of wear or capaciousness of pockets). What a strange juxtaposition of my own creative processes! Morgan’s opulent constellation of curiosities prompted new ideas, while Thoreau’s ascetic forest hut encouraged focus to convert whims into words.

I left Walden Pond with snow in my socks and serenity in my spirit.  Later that evening, I attempted a miniature writer’s retreat in my hotel room. TV off, laptop disconnected from WiFi, I concentrated on the manuscript I’d struggled with for the past few weeks…and cranked out about 2,500 words in a few hours. Rarely do I achieve that kind of productivity in a writing session. Thoreau’s extreme approach may not be attainable for most indie authors today–I don’t have any wealthy friends to sponsor me, and even if I did, I certainly can’t take a two-year sabbatical from my job–but practicing his principles of deliberate living might lead to more deliberate writing as well.

“A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips; — not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself.” 

― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

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