The birthplace of modern environmentalism . . . an inspiration to one of America's greatest writers and thinkers . . . a living piece of history. So said the park ranger to a group of us standing around Thoreau's cabin site last weekend. October sunlight shining bright and fine through the trees, I listened to the ranger and considered his words and thought for a moment about how quiet this place must have been during Thoreau's two-year experiment. And indeed I felt chastened: by Thoreau's words and deeds--and by his life. And I felt chastened, too, by the thought of what Thoreau would make of the tourist-attraction quality that Walden Pond now gives off with its sandy beaches and wire fences and marked trails. And its out-of-town visitors like me.
But on the pond's far side with my son later, casting rocks into the water and appreciating the splash, I almost forgot about Thoreau altogether. It was easy, in fact. A chilly wind blowing, sunlight glimmering on the water, my boy holding each new rock in his tiny clutched fist as though it were a world unto itself: this was all the transcendentalism I needed. Books and ideas seemed very small right then, and time seemed very large, spreading out before us like the surface of a great pond.