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On a recent gloriously beautiful morning, I decided it was a good day to make my more or less annual pilgrimage to Walden Pond.

I first visited there nearly 50 years ago, when I was still in high school and had just read Thoreau’s essay on Civil Disobedience and Walden. I knew I had found a kindred spirit, and had to see the place he had made so famous.

That first visit was a bit of a disappointment.

Instead of an isolated spot deep in the woods, the pond was just off busy Route 2, and instead of gentle birdsong all I could hear was traffic. And because it was a summer weekend afternoon, cars were parked bumper-to-bumper on the side of the road for the better part of a hundred yards (there wasn’t much of a parking lot in those days) and the place was crawling with people, like so many ants.

My spirits lifted a bit when I realized most everyone was interested in the swimming area, so by the time I reached the site where Thoreau’s cabin had stood, about a half-mile away, I was pretty much alone.

I learned my lesson from that first visit. This time I went on a weekday, and I went early in the morning, while the schools were still in session.

After Thoreau left the cabin, it was sold to a farmer who carted it off into obscurity, and nature began to reclaim the spot where he had lived for two years.

During his lifetime, Thoreau was known only to a relatively small circle of intellectuals. His reputation grew only after his death, as did the popularity of Walden. People wanted to see the place.

One such person was Mary Newbury Adams who was visiting Concord in June of 1872. She asked her friend Bronson Alcott to show her the spot. It had been 25 years since Thoreau had lived there, and there were few who could remember exactly where it had stood.

Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May) had been a lifelong friend of Thoreau’s and was one of the few who remembered, and took her there. She regretted that there wasn’t some permanent marker to mark the spot. Then she got an idea.

The took a stone from pond to mark the spot, as did Alcott.

“Let everyone who loved Thoreau add a stone,” she said, and visitors have been adding their stones ever since. In the 142 years since, a sizeable cairn has grown.

As a footnote, the foundation of the cabin was rediscovered on November 11, 1945, just a few feet away from the stone cairn, and today is marked by a rectangle of granite posts.

 

 

 

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I read Rachel Carson before I read Thoreau. Silent Spring came out 50 years ago, and I read it for a 7th grade book report. I’m not sure how I got hold of a copy, but it must have been from the library. I remember my mother picking it up and looking through it.

“So this is the book everyone’s talking about,” she said. When I was done, she read it. “It’s an important book,” she said. She went on and wrote a book review for the newspaper she was working at.

It influenced much of my thinking, and much of what I’ve done since. Thoreau, Muir, Aldo Leopold and so many others have all shaped my thinking in their own way.

I was going to write something about Silent Spring and Rachel Carson to commemorate the anniversary. But then I read an article on autism in the New York Times this weekend. I’ve linked to it for anyone who’s interested.

It’s been all over the news that 1 in 88 American children are now diagnosed with some form of autism, and the numbers are growing. Trying to figure out why this is happening has the experts scratching their collective backsides. Some suggest it doesn’t exist at all. Others point to as-yet-undiscovered genetic reasons.

What’s Silent Spring have to do with this? The Times article has an interesting sentence: “The C.D.C. was … holding out the possibility of unknown environmental factors.” They don’t elaborate.

I will.

Consider the following: a 2011 Stanford University study showed that 38 percent of autism cases could be traced to genetic factors, while 62 percent came from environmental factors. The sharp rise in autism cases cannot be blamed on genetic factors, because genes simply don’t mutate that fast.

That would leave environmental factors as the chief culprit.

Consider all the toxic substances we are exposed to: something like 85,000 different chemicals in our food, in our water, in the air, and in the products we use.

The average newborn has more than 200 different chemicals and heavy metals in its blood at the moment of birth, and 158 of them are toxic to the brain. These children experience 100 times more chemical exposures now than children 50 years ago, when Rachel Carson was writing Silent Spring.

I would suggest there is nothing “unknown” or otherwise mysterious about the environmental factors.

One last thought.

“The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself…”– Rachel Carson

He who hears the rippling of rivers in these degenerate days will not utterly despair.
Henry David Thoreau

When Henry David Thoreau was working on those lines, banks had collapsed from reckless real estate speculations; forests were being decimated all around him; politics had become a side-show spectacle; and the country was plunging mindlessly on into the Industrial Revolution.

Not so very different from what we’ve been experiencing.

Someone once asked me what I “get out of nature.” I didn’t have an explanation at the time. We were too far apart. There wasn’t a way for me to express it in a way he could grasp. If I said fresh air and exercise, or firewood, or blueberries, that would make sense. In his view, I would “getting something out of nature.”

If I told him I just enjoyed sitting next to a stream, listening to the rippling of the water, the sound of the wind in the trees, and letting my mind wander, it would be closer to the truth, but sheer nonsense to someone else.

Talk about weird. Discovery communications is planning to run an 8-part series on TLC featuring Sarah Palin talking about the nature of Alaska. What’s she going to say?

Will she wax poetic over the joys of taking potshots at wolves from helicopters? Gush about colorful oil slicks along the Alaskan coast? The stately beauty of oil rigs on an arctic landscape?

The former Governor and now Tea Party hostess pooh-poohs the notion of global warming and seems to regard nature as something to be destroyed and exploited.

But now comes a story that Friends of the Earth have come up with a unique way to register their protest: a haiku contest. They’ve collected 1,600 haiku in just one week, and these will be delivered to Delivery Communications. You can read more at this Environmental News Service article.

My thoughts about Walden got sidetracked yesterday by the stone I saw in the cairn near where Thoreau’s house stood.

The water in the pond is the highest I’ve seen it in a long time. The beach at the swimming area is completely underwater, and so is the boat ramp. The path around the pond is closed. The shorter path to the house site is cut off … the footbridge is underwater. Taking the long way around is a pleasant diversion.

A red-tailed hawk swooped down crossing the trail just in front of me. Maybe there’s a nest nearby, but I couldn’t spot one. Thoreau would have found it, and climbed the tree to look in.

There was a fisherman in the small cove in front of the house site. He was hip-deep with waders on. We traded pleasantries.

I looked around at the trees – mostly white pine, a few oak. Only a couple looked like they might have been around during Thoreau’s time. If they were, they would have just been saplings.

A steady stream of people made their way to the site while I was there, a testament to the iconic book and author. One group was disappointed when they got to the site. They were mostly college-age.

I was sitting on a rock nearby, not meaning to eavesdrop, but I picked up some of their comments.

It wasn’t as pretty as they expected. They were surprised there wasn’t more of a view of the pond. They were also expecting to see the “remains” of the house.

There aren’t any, of course, just some granite pillars marking the outline of where it stood.

“All this way for nothing, “ someone remarked.

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