Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond in 1845 in order to "live deliberately." He became attuned to the natural cycles of nature and discovered the meaning and purpose of his life. Last summer, I went to Walden to go swimming with a friend – and in the process, I found so much more than the cool water I had expected.
At 6 a.m., the sun was still below the trees. Light filtered through the leaves and illuminated the ground. At Walden Pond, the mist slowly rose from the water that bathes the imagination in its ethereal light. Somewhere over the rise and beyond the centuries, I could hear Henry Thoreau's sonorous flute playing morning notes. The local bird chorus joined in the song.
My friend, Tim, who'd traveled with me to a conference in Concord, Mass., had already spotted our jumping-off point in the cove up ahead. We trod our way along the same path Thoreau walked more than 160 years ago.
Back then the world was a slower and quieter place. Travel by foot and carriage were the preferred methods. However, just before Henry left town for the wilds of Walden, the Fitchburg Railroad had laid tracks just a few yards above his retreat. It is still there and rumbles commuters into Boston several times a day.
By 6:15, I could feel its approach. The sound of Henry's flute gave way to the clamor of steel wheels on steel rails. The morning peace and stillness were broken, and for a moment I had my feet in both the 19th and 21st centuries. In this place, I found, chronological time gives way to ceremonial time: The past and the present merge. "Time is but a stream I go a fishing in," wrote the bard of Walden. I'm sure Albert Einstein would have approved.
The pond was clean and cool in the early morning. Images of trees and clouds were reflected in the mirror of its still waters. Back in 1845 Henry observed these reflections when he wrote, "Heaven is below our feet as well as above our heads."
It seemed a shame to break the spell, but Tim was already dipping his toe into the pond so if I didn't hurry I'd have to put up with his taunting. He hesitated. I jumped right in. For a moment it seemed as though I was leaping right through the sky, but the illusion was broken by the icy water.
Thoreau knew this pond intimately. He loved to swim, paddle, and skate upon its surface. Many journal entries extol the wonders of this place. On May 27, 1841, he captured the magic when he described how he charmed a perch by sitting in his boat and playing his flute while the reflected moon traveled overhead. "Nature is wizard. The Concord nights are stranger than the Arabian nights," he wrote.
As I torpedoed just beneath the surface, I looked for fish to charm. The murky depths were all shadow to me. A little deeper, I reached out for a stone and grasped it tightly in my fist. Its smooth sides told a story of years beneath these waters. When I broke the surface, Tim called, "How is it?"
I looked at the rock, measured its weight, and followed its purple veins around the sides. "It's beautiful," I replied, describing both the water and the stone.
Thoreau lived at Walden for two years, chronicling its progress through the seasons. He came to see that the earth is really like a book that cries out to be read, and he spent the rest of his life doing just that.
Tim plunged into the water, and we spent the better part of the next hour swimming. I felt cool and clean and free. Like the stone I plucked from the muddy bottom, Walden Pond had smoothed and softened my edges.
As we later walked the mile back to town, I knew even then that I would often relive this morning swim in coming years.
As Thoreau said at the end of his Walden experience, "The sun is but a morning star." I resolved to follow that morning star more faithfully and step along that brighter path on which it falls.