As we drove past the humble signage for ‘Walden Pond State Reservation,’ temperatures all over the eastern seaboard were reaching into the triple digits. We immediately found ourselves in a line 10 cars deep waiting to pay the parking fee. As we walked down the embankment toward the pond, it was as if we had suddenly been transported to Copacabana, Brazil; the pond was much more popular as a swimming hole than a transcendental sacred grove. The place was packed. Half expecting a reverential atmosphere, I was a bit taken aback by the YMCA-ness of it all, but was certainly glad people were enjoying themselves. Once we got on the trail that loops around the pond, it got quieter and we were able to take in the forest surrounding the pond. It had undergone some serious restoration efforts in recent years, and the entire length of the pond was surrounded with stern admonitions to stay on the paths, and crudely erected wire fencing to keep us honest. Every 50 meters or so a small section of fence broke so that small groups could set up day camp and swim, meditate or read. Every so often there were small stacks or rings of stones piled on the shore, simple acknowledgement to the canonical work written on its shores. Off a side trail we hiked through young but beautiful oak and pine forest to see the original site of Thoreau’s small cabin, the place he had come to write about the human condition. There were no docents, or programs, just the pile of stones that made up the foundation and an interpretive sign. Making our way along the north side of the pond we finally found a spot to swim, a small sandy beach where a couple in their 40’s sat talking quietly. The water was refreshing and clean, and I had some time to think about Walden, what it meant, and how it compared to Joseph’s experience in Palmyra.
In 1845, one year after Joseph Smith was assassinated, Henry Thoreau, a Harvard graduate built a small cabin in second growth forest in Concord, Massachusetts— owned by Transcendentalism’s founding prophet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau had decided on the solitude of the forest because in his words, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front the only essential facts of life. And see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die discover that I had not lived.” A few decades earlier, Joseph Smith had been a poor farmer, trying to tame the wilderness. Thoreau on the other hand was an educated urbanite; part of the generation that began to reap the benefits industrial capitalism was affording its most loyal devotees. Thoreau worked in his family’s pencil factory for much of his life, and after going to Harvard, opened a series of schools in Concord.
For Joseph, wilderness was understood very much in a Biblical sense. It was a foreboding place, where the devout could be purified and where frontier people went to make a life for themselves. But by the time Henry Thoreau stumbled into the woods, the forests around Boston had been vacated of their Indian caretakers and made safe for the restless Euro-American souls, a clean slate as Emerson believed, upon which they could project their own mythologies. But the wilderness that Thoreau came to cherish through his time at Walden was a very different landscape than native peoples knew. Much of the continent of what we call North America had been judiciously burned by native peoples for thousands of years, a land management practice that kept the oak forests of the Northeastern United States producing copious amounts of acorns and chestnuts. It also created favorable conditions for game animals such as deer, and it kept the leaf litter off the forest floor, allowing hunters to stalk in silence. The forest Thoreau encountered had not been burned in many decades, and had grown thick with trees. Under Native burning, the forest’s structure in some places is said to have resembled a park rather than a dense forest. But dense forest is what Thoreau encountered and informed his valuation of the “wild” despite the fact that human beings had been living in those forests for thousands of years.
Joseph trusted the Bible. It was the words of James that sent him to the woods. Thoreau and other Transcendentalists distrusted the scriptures and believed that nature itself was an encounter with the divine. Truth was not had through revelation found in books, but through intuition and experience with nature. It was Emerson who made this controversial claim, and planted the seeds of modern environmentalism. Ironically, the timeless wilderness which Thoreau saw as being the key to divine encounter was an expression of the yearnings of a particular cultural and historical moment.
As we left the Walden around dusk, I felt a bit morose. I had not really felt any strong emotions here, and the rush of our visit had not allowed me the time I wanted to think about the problem of sacredness. I want people integrated with forests, but with so many people here, it was hard to focus. I began to doubt my own ability to resolve the question I had proposed at the beginning of the summer. Is sacredness even possible in a world where nothing is sacred? A world where commodity culture makes all things equal and all things valuable in terms of cash. Certainly some amount of solitude is necessary to feel the spirit, but what does this mean for my desire to integrate humans and nature. Is sacredness a remnant of the wilderness paradigm?
In my next and final post, I will conclude the series with a few tenuous answers….