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TRAVELING IN STYLE : LAST STOP : A WALK IN THE WOODS TO WALDEN POND : Thoreau Didn't Invent This Celebrated Body of Water. Years Before He Moved There, Another Noted Writer Enjoyed Its Charms.

October 16, 1994|Nathaniel Hawthorne

Sometimes the footsteps of the famous overlap. When Henry David Thoreau built his cabin in 1845 at Walden Pond, near Concord, Mass., the pond itself and the surrounding woods were already well-known to his contemporaries. Ralph Waldo Emerson owned the land on which the pond stood, and Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the writer and editor Margaret Fuller and other literary lights of the time frequented the area. In the edited excerpt below, Hawthorne (1804-1864)--who had not yet written "The Scarlet Letter," "The House of the Seven Gables," "The Marble Faun" and the other books by which he is remembered--describes a stroll through the autumn-bright woods and a visit to the pond in the early 1840s. The most surprising aspect of the account , which was written in 1843, is the author's discovery of a small settlement of environmentally sensitive Irish railroad workers living at the edge of the pond.

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Yesterday afternoon . . . I took a solitary walk to Walden Pond. It was a cool, north-west windy day, with heavy clouds rolling and tumbling about the sky, but still a prevalence of genial autumn sunshine. The fields are still green, and the great masses of the woods have not yet assumed their many-colored garments; but here and there, are solitary oaks of a deep, substantial red, or maples of a more brilliant hue, or chestnuts, either yellow or of a tenderer green than in summer. Some trees seem to return to their hue of May or early July, before they put on the brighter autumnal tints. In some places, along the borders of low and moist land, a whole range of trees were clothed in the perfect gorgeousness of autumn, of all shades of brilliant color, looking like the palette on which Nature was arranging the tints wherewith to paint a picture. These hues appeared to be thrown together without design; and yet there was perfect harmony among them, and a softness and delicacy made up of a thousand different brightnesses.

Walden Pond was clear and beautiful, as usual. In a small and secluded dell, that opens upon the most beautiful cove of the whole lake, there is a little hamlet of huts or shanties, inhabited by the Irish people who are at work upon the rail-road. There are three or four of these habitations, the very rudest, I should imagine, that civilized men ever made for themselves, constructed of rough boards, with protruding ends. Against some of them the earth is heaped up to the roof, or nearly so; and when the grass has had time to sprout upon them, they will look like small natural hillocks, or a species of ant-hill, or something in which Nature has a larger share than man. These huts are placed beneath the trees (oaks, walnuts and white pines), wherever the trunks give them space to stand; and by thus adapting themselves to the natural interstices instead of making new ones, they do not break or disturb the solitude and seclusion of the place. Voices are heard, and the shouts and laughter of children, who play about like sunbeams that come down through the branches. Women are washing beneath the trees, and long lines of whitened clothes are extended from tree to tree, fluttering and gambolling in the breeze. A pig, in a stye even more extemporary than the shanties, is grunting, and poking his snout through the clefts of his habitation. The household pots and kettles are seen at the doors, and a glance within shows the rough benches that serve for chairs, and the bed upon the floor. The visiter's nose takes notice of the fragrance of a pipe. And yet, with all these homely items, the repose and sanctity of the old wood do not seem to be destroyed or prophaned; she overshadows these poor people, and assimilates them, somehow or other, to the character of her natural inhabitants. Their presence did not shock me, any more than if I had merely discovered a squirrel's nest in a tree.

I have seldom seen anything more beautiful than the cove, on the border of which the huts are situated; and the more I looked, the lovelier it grew. The trees overshadowed it deeply; but on one side there was some brilliant shrubbery which seemed to light up the whole picture with the effect of a sweet and melancholy smile. I felt as if the spirits were there--or as if these shrubs had a spiritual life--in short, the impression was undefinable; and after gazing and musing a good while, I retraced my steps through the Irish hamlet, and plodded on along a wood-path.

According to my invariable custom, I mistook my way, and emerging upon a road, I turned my back, instead of my face, toward Concord, and walked on very diligently, till a guide-board informed me of my mistake. I then turned about, and was shortly overtaken by an old yeoman in a chaise, who kindly offered me a ride, and shortly set me down in the village.

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From "The American Notebooks," Vol. 8 of the Centenary Edition of the "Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne." Reprinted by permission. Copyright 1932, 1960, 1972 by the Ohio State University Press. All rights reserved.

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