By William Urban
Just before the Mexican War David Henry Thoreau moved out of Concord, Massachusetts, to Walden Pond. There he built himself a rude cabin and for two years proceeded to live a solitary life, observing the plants and animals of his new surrounding; he was henceforth totally uninterested in the doings of his fellow humans ó so much so that the only time he even came to the notice of the public was when he refused to pay his poll tax, which he associated with support of slavery and the war. In his view, the less government, the better.
Thoreauís example has inspired Americans ever since. Itís not that people had never withdrawn from society before. In the Middle Ages many people had done so for both religious reasons (to become monks, nuns and hermits) and secular ones (poverty and insanity). In the previous century Jean Jacques Rousseau had made a cult of denouncing civilization and its destructive impact on life; he also began the fad of educating children by not educating them. (Just follow them around, and if they get interested in, say, a frog, tell them about it.) Like Rousseau, Thoreau liked to write, and his essays reached a wide audience.
Thoreauís friends included many members of the Transcendentalist movement ó poets, thinkers and radicals. They were against slavery and for womenís rights. But Thoreauís quiet protest went well beyond politics. He objected to the quiet slavery of routine and obligation, of trying to live up to the expectations of family, friends and neighbors ó to say nothing of distant folks who wanted to regulate the ways that everyone else lived.
Thoreauís writings became popular again in the Sixties. New England, then as earlier, led the social and political revolution that encouraged young people to move into rural communes, smoke pot and think deep thoughts. In New Haven Garry Trudeau began drawing the cartoon strip Doonesbury, using mythical Walden College and its collection of hippies and crazies to summarize what was happening across America.
Fortunately, there was much more to Thoreau than being a counter-cultural icon. His observations of nature, popularized by his descriptions of walks along the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, are one origin of the outdoors movement ó of going hiking, of camping, and of caring for the environment. And right in Monmouth, it might have been one inspiration for turning the yard that is now mine into one of the showplaces of the city. That might have been done by John and Lizzie McPherson, starting in 1913, but was certainly continued by their daughter Ethyl, who married John Gates in 1930. The yardís centerpiece, literally in the center of the three lots, was a pond near the old stepping stone along the carriage path. They dug out a fifteen by ten foot kidney-shaped hole, using the dirt to make a dam/rock garden on the downhill slope. They lined the bed with concrete, framed it with two lovely arborvitae, then cleverly drew rainwater into a flower bed, where a pipe led it to the pond. Fruit trees and flowerbeds were abundant.
When I bought the property in 1970 the pond no longer existed. The concrete was so shattered that I could not find the intake pipe. So I left it filled with sand for the children. When the children grew up and moved away, I saw the pond as Thoreau would have done ó a quiet place for contemplation and conversation. The first year I collected materials, raising the sides so that children could not fall in easily; the second year I installed the rubber lining that had once been a roof; the third year the waterfall went in; and finally there was the patio. A fence kept out children and dogs, and a bridge led across to the far side, making it easier to get at weeds and flowers, and to look down into the four and a half feet of water.
Nowadays I try to spend part of each afternoon there. It is a moment to read or listen to a book on tape. Most walkers would never know the pond is there. Protected by the yard fence, hedges, shrubs and flowers, I hardly notice automobile traffic. My neighbors can hear the frogs and toads spring evenings, and those who sleep with windows open can hear the waterfall.
Somehow two frogs have made their way to the pond. I canít imagine how, but there they are. One will sit not far away from me, eating gnats (together with the goldfish and the running water, it has pretty much eliminated the mosquitoes) and occasionally moving closer to observe me. We have a good relationship. This past week, both frogs have moved to my side of the pond ó a garter snake had taken up residence in the ivy on the other bank. Itís not the large one my wife showed me earlier in the summer, but both probably live from the tiny goldfish (which doesnít bother me, since some years I have far too many) and the tadpoles. Nature always seeks a balance.
Thereís probably a lesson there. Even more than humans identifying snakes with evil, frogs have a strong opinion on the subject. In my little watery paradise, as on Walden Pond, every aspect of life is present. In miniature form, of course, but sufficiently real to have given pleasure to David Henry Thoreau. And to me.
Review Atlas (August 27, 2009), 4.