Accessibility links

<i>Walden</i>: An American Classic Turns 150 - 2004-08-08

An American classic celebrating the joys of nature, solitude and simplicity was published 150 years ago on August 9, 1854. In "Walden," Henry David Thoreau recounts the two years, two months and two days he spent living alone in the woods of what was then rural Massachusetts, in the American northeast. The book has been translated into many languages and is now available in an anniversary edition, illustrated by photographer Scot Miller. It was published by Houghton Mifflin in collaboration witih the Walden Woods Project, a non-profit group that works to protect the landscape described in Thoreau's famous work.

In 1845 Henry David Thoreau moved into a one room cabin he'd built for himself in the woods, along the shore of Walden Pond. The cabin was just a thirty-minute walk from his mother's home in Concord Center, Massachusetts. But the young essayist wanted to live a life far removed from the comforts and conveniences of his past, a life stripped to the bare essentials.

"He said he went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately, says Kathi Anderson, the executive director of the Walden Woods Project. "He wanted to spend time face-to-face with the natural world, and, quote, see if he could not learn what it had to teach. And it was really a period of rediscovery for him, an epiphany of sorts, a spiritual connection with the natural world that he found by the solitude."

Henry David Thoreau published an account of his stay at Walden Pond in 1854. The book has not gone out of print since his death in 1862, and some 600,000 people visit Walden Woods each year. Among those pilgrims is Scot Miller, a landscape photographer who's spent several years taking pictures there.

"What I decided to do was to engulf myself in the Walden Woods of the turn of the 21st century, and like Thoreau did 150 years ago, just observe and take photographs. I would say if there's any lesson from Thoreau, it's slow down, take a look at things, and appreciate what we have," he says.

The results of Scot Miller's work can be seen in the anniversary edition of Walden. His photographs capture the pond and surrounding woods in a range of colors and moods, from dawn to dusk, in all four seasons. Photographing the area some one thousand hectares in all gave him an appreciation for the rigors of Thoreau's life in the woods. "From the standpoint of the seasons, there were definitely challenges. In the summertime it can be very hot and humid and lots of mosquitoes. And then in the wintertime it gets extremely cold at times. There were many mornings I wondered what am I doing out there at 4 o'clock or 5 o'clock in the morning waiting for the sun to come up," he says.

The photos vary dramatically in scope as well from panoramic aerial views to close-ups of a log, a leaf, or a flower: "A lot of the photographs are very intimate views of details. There [are] photographs of mushrooms that if you stop and look at them, you see these amazing pieces of art work. We're always in a hurry and we don't stop and notice these things," says Mr. Miller.

Kathi Anderson believes the photographs do in pictures what Thoreau did in words. "I think Walden's message is timeless, that humankind really has a need to be one with nature. I think we're learning that more and more now, as increased pressures on our natural world surround us. Every community has its own Walden. Everybody has a place that resonates with them, and we can all do something about saving these places," she says.

That was the hope of recording artist Don Henley, who founded the Walden Woods Project in 1990. The project was able to buy up land poised for commercial development, and it's since managed to obtain other parcels of land in the area. Kathi Anderson says that while Walden Woods is now part of suburban Boston, it's remained remarkably rural. "Seventy percent of Walden Woods is protected, so that now we still have an opportunity to set aside land in its natural state as Thoreau called for in many of his writings, for people to enjoy for recreation and for education. And that's precisely what we're doing with the land. We're bringing teachers and students out into Walden Woods to learn about forest [growth], to learn about the spiritual connection to nature, to learn about all the things Thoreau taught us," she says.

Near the site where Thoreau's cabin stood lies a large pile of stones left in tribute by people from around the world. There are even pieces of the Berlin Wall there. Scot Miller says when he photographed the cabin site, he could imagine what Thoreau must have felt standing in the same spot. "It's easy to stand in the morning, when you hear the birds singing and the sun's coming up and imagine what it must have been like to be there, not only that morning to see that, but he lived there for two years, two months and two days. It is a very special place," says Mr. Miller.

The anniversary edition of Walden has an unusual price: $28.12. That's half a cent less than Thoreau spent to build his cabin in the woods. For every copy of the book that's sold, Houghton Mifflin and Scot Miller are making a donation to the Walden Woods Project, in hopes that the words Henry David Thoreau wrote in his book will continue to ring true.

"Of all the characters I have known, perhaps Walden wears best, and best preserves its purity. It has not acquired one permanent wrinkle after all its ripples. It is perennially young, and I may stand and see a swallow dip apparently to pick an insect from its surface as of yore. It struck me again tonight, as if I had not seen it almost daily for more than 20 years. Why here is Walden, the same woodland lake that I discovered so many years ago."

The 150th anniversary of Walden is being celebrated at bookstores around the United States. The seventh and final draft of the book, written in longhand, is currently on display at the Thoreau Institute Library in Lincoln, Massachusetts.