I tried to get into Walden, I really did. In the end, all I wanted to do was just go outside instead. I tried four different means of trying to connect with Henry David Thoreau and his book Walden: Or, Life in the Woods, but I just couldn’t.
Thoreau went to the woods to live intentionally. Sort of. What he really did was squat on his friend’s land by a lake, write a book about living simply away from humanity, and in reality walk home for dinner. Ok, maybe not every night, but Walden Pond where Thoreau built his cabin is about a two-mile walk from Concord and the neighborhood where his good friend Ralph Waldo Emerson lived, as well as his parents. While he talks of catching fish from the lake and growing beans in his small garden plot, Thoreau often walked to Emerson’s for dinner and discussions with his fellow Transcendentalists. He visited home to pick up clean clothes after his mother did his laundry. So you see, he didn’t exactly practice what he preached.
Walden, The Computer Game
Planning my trip to Walden Pond reminded me that I had read a New York Times article about a computer game based on Walden so I thought trying the game might be a fun way to virtually get into the book.
Disclaimer- I’m notoriously bad at computer/video games and get bored after about a half-hour of play of any game. So take what I say here about this game with a grain of salt.
I wondered if this game might:
- Be the first video game I like because it’s virtually stepping into a book.
- Make me excited to read the book
- Make me excited to visit Walden Pond and Concord
According to the article, the game lets you build Thoreau’s cabin, fish in the lake, chop wood, walk to Concord, and visit with (a virtual representation of) Ralph Waldo Emerson. Amid all that action, however, you must regain your strength by sitting by your fire pit beside the lake or contemplate extracts of Thoreau’s memoirs. It sounded like just my speed.
In actuality, it seemed I ran out of energy far too quickly. First the low food box, then the low chopped wood box, then the clean clothes box would turn red, then heavy breathing noises would start. As I tried to find my way to the firepit at the water’s edge the view would go grey then black. This happened over and over. I could never find that balance of contemplation and getting the chores done I needed to keep going. Life, right? In frustration I would click through the readings that appeared on screen to get back to game play. In the end I decided I’d much rather just pick up the book than deal with the game play. So it did encourage me to go read.
As for a game where you virtually go outside, I suppose it might appeal more to someone in a city with little access to nature? For me, stepping out my back door to my firepit was more enjoyable than running out of energy virtually chopping wood and then staring at a virtual lake. So it did get me outside.
Walden, The Book
So I picked up the book. The writing seemed like Thoreau had written a stream of consciousness into a journal while sitting by a lake and then published it without much editing. His mind wandered just as anyone’s might while contemplating nature by the side of a lake. It wandered from the beauty of nature, to solitude, to problems with society, and various topics in-between. What I couldn’t get past, was that some of his opinions were just… wrong! Recognizing that the 1850’s were a different time in terms of social norms, I could forgive him for describing certain groups of people as savages. It was when he began to deride social systems like the local train which ran close enough for him to hear as it went by, or the post office, I got annoyed.
“For my part, I could easily do without the post-office. I think that there are very few important communications made through it.”
I shook my book and said OUT LOUD, “BUT YOU PUBLISHED BOOKS! So you CLEARLY needed the train and the postal system!”
And he argued that men who had to work did not live with integrity. Like the man who helps society keep running doesn’t live with integrity!
“[…] whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools […] Actually the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day[…]”
Soon after I put down the book, unfinished.
Walden, The Audio Book
Still planning to visit Walden Pond, I wanted to make a wholehearted effort to finish the book, so I downloaded a copy from Audible. I hoped that being stuck in the car with the book playing during my commutes would at least get me through the book, if not also help me find parts of the book I enjoyed. Sadly, though part of the fault may lay with the monotone narrator, my mind wandered rather than listened. Thoreau talked of the outdoors and I began to plan after work hikes in my head. Realizing fifteen minutes later I’d stopped listening.
I also found myself choosing podcasts, music, or other books to listen to instead. Even during the airplane ride. I did not manage to finish the book before visiting Walden Pond.
Walden, The Lake
After walking the approximate two miles from Emerson’s House in Concord, I arrived at the parking lot of the Walden Pond visitor center only to wordlessly stare in horror. I knew that I wouldn’t be the only one visiting the lake, but somehow I wasn’t ready for exactly how crowded it felt. Large families, children in bathing suits, all noisily crossed the road from the parking lot towards the lake. This was not the quiet escape I had envisioned, nor did I think the lake’s former sole inhabitant would have been pleased. The small patches of beach next to the lake were nearly shoulder to shoulder with people enjoying the sunny weather!
Navigating past the beach, we found the trail that would take us around the lake to the site of Thoreau’s original cabin. This trail was less crowded, but the sign at the beginning had said “No Running, No Biking!” so that explained a certain lack of traffic other than those on foot- at walking speed. Without great signage, and a little bit of guess work, we eventually found Thoreau’s site. Concrete pillars mark where the edges of the cabin once stood and a stone plaque at the back marks where his fireplace was.
To really get a feel for how he lived, however, we had to make our way back to the parking lot where a replica of the cabin and its furniture is open for the public to walk inside. He had a bed, a desk, and a fireplace.
Walden Pond itself was as beautiful as I expected. The one thing I could relate to Thoreau on was that spending time in a sparsely populated nature setting is restorative. I could see how this pond was once the perfect escape for the introvert Transcendentalist.
In the end, the game, the book, and the pond each in their own way made me want to spend time outside in a quiet spot. Which is really the whole point anyway. So rather than trying to find Thoreau’s Walden, go outside and find your own Walden.
Have you read Walden? Did you enjoy it? Do you love spending time in nature? Have you found your own Walden? Let’s discuss in the comments below!
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