A History of the Uses of Walden Pond
Walden has been a degraded landscape since early
in the European intrusion. The first industry in Concord was an extractive
one, raking up the layer of bog iron ore that lay under the meadows and
transporting it in carts to smelters. Thoreau was walking through a landscape
which still bore deep scars from those long cart tracks. The smelting of
course required huge quantities of charcoal, so the charcoal-makers were
stripping the woods of anything they could pile into their mounds covered
with earth that would be transformed into charcoal over a number of days
and nights of tending. The circles of charred earth on which the charcoal-makers
had staged their operation were still in evidence in Thoreau's day, as
were the overgrown remains of the smelting facilities.
During what is known as King Phillip's War, in 1676,
the watershed around Walden Pond was the scene of a race atrocity. There
was a "free fire zone" law in effect, according to which any native American
who was more than one mile distant from his or her habitation of record
could be killed, and three women and three children who lived on Flint's
Pond had ventured to the other side of Walden Pond, about one and one-half
miles from their habitation, while picking huckleberries, onto the Hoar
property, so the Concord Militia went out and slaughtered them. (Several
white Concordians later were hanged, for this race crime, by the neck until
dead, on Boston Common.) In other words, Walden was polluted not merely
by human use but also by human misuse.
Walden Pond had been the site of a pottery works,
and even today one can see in the soil shards and remnants of broken pottery
to the east of the pond. There must have been quite a bit more broken pottery
and suchlike residue lying around during Thoreau's time. Prior to Thoreau's
era, Walden Woods had been where Concord's black slaves and housemaids
lived. Thoreau writes extensively about these people and it is interesting
to note that the two books from this period which deal carefully with the
ordinary lives and hopes of individual persons of color are Walden and,
of course, Frederick Douglass's Narrative of 1845.
When the railroad workers came through, they were
of course predominantly Irish ecological refugees of the potato famine.
They lived, of necessity, low. They considered that they were in direct
economic competition with American persons of color, and thus there was
a great deal of race friction. When they erected their shanties alongside
the path they were preparing for the railroad, Concord's blacks needed
to be elsewhere. Thus Concord's black citizens during Thoreau's era were
living in the meadows along the river, and were living farther away from
With all this use by people living in dire poverty,
Walden Woods was not what you would call a clean area, and you may notice
that, in Walden, Thoreau comments about the lingering scent of a
dead horse that had been abandoned in a cellar hole there. In addition,
the woods did not have the reputation of being a safe place, and thus a
woman during Thoreau's era would have needed to be very careful to be escorted,
and to be out of the woods before dusk.
That being the history, it is not remarkable that
when Concord went to establish its official town dump, it positioned this
dump across the road from Walden Pond, and when it went to establish its
trailer court, it positioned this trailer court directly opposite the pond.
Now Walden Pond has the highest concentration of
urine of any pond in New England. It is being loved to death. Walden Pond
is a good place to go, to experience ambivalence. My advice is, respect
ambivalence, work with it.
The remarkable thing about Thoreau's contribution,
Walden; or, Life in the Woods, then, is its recuperative power. It
caused people for the first time to want to respect Walden as a place (as
you, for instance, so earnestly want to be able to respect it as a place).
That, I would offer, is magic, and is a needed magic, and is a magic which
you in turn may apply -- to a place of your choosing. In other words, this
project is not about locating an unpolluted place and then going
there, tourist-like, but is about creating an unpollutable place by
an exercise of the imagination and the will.