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After 150 years, Americans still see their reflection in that famous pond

Walden and Walden Pond: A HistoryWALDEN
150th Anniversary Illustrated Edition of the American Classic
By Henry David Thoreau
Houghton Mifflin, 288 pp., $28.12

A History
By W. Barksdale Maynard
Oxford University Press, 416 pp., $35

reviewed by Edward Hoagland

Nhoreau doesn't go away, no matter how incongruously disparate the world seems to have become. Like Herman Melville, his contemporary, his reputation enters the new century far more brightly burnished than a hundred years ago (and in contrast to the undeserved eclipse of their particular mentors, Emerson and Hawthorne). The very word, Walden, from the famous pond, is appropriated in marketing campaigns for its lovely connotations. Luckily Thoreau hadn't built his celebrated cabin on Flint's Pond, a nearby choice. But he lives freshly for broad audiences not just because of a woodsy idyll. He went to Maine or the White Mountains for wilderness experiences, but chose to live a half-hour walk from town, not cutting himself off from family and friends, in order to universalize this experiment. Thus we can see ourselves replicating it if we so wish. We really don't, if the truth be told, yet are wistful nevertheless, as we tend our bird feeders or flower boxes, and his credo of bristly individualism and simplicity holds our affections like dragging anchors in a time when, quite importunately, we do need anchors. Big new biographies of the founding fathers are similarly popular, or Lewis and Clark as an itchy-foot parallel, plus the so-called Lost Generation writers (Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald hardly strike us as "lost" anymore) as posts we can hitch to. Emerson was an inspiration to Thoreau and Walt Whitman -- another present-day icon -- but wrote less illustratively and didn't exert himself to such vivid lengths to prove his points that his name might function, like both Thoreau's and Whitman's, as a virtual synonym or tabulation of root values.

Most of us wouldn't want to embrace "rough trade" on the waterfront, as Whitman did, or live in Thoreau's 10-by-15-foot shanty (it ended ignominiously as a corn crib) for 26 months, walking from Concord to Boston on occasion instead of catching the odious train (though, not being a dogmatic Luddite, he enjoyed the harplike singing of the telegraph line alongside), and volunteer as the first citizen to spend a night in jail in passive resistance to American imperialism, in this case toward Mexico. We prefer to grow legumes and light candles in tribute to him. But Thoreau and his precious pond, "earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature," are indelibly embedded in our national imagery, like Paul Revere, Johnny Appleseed, Babe Ruth, Daniel Boone. We can place him, as we could Melville if Moby Dick had been a memoir instead of a novel, and Whitman if he had hung around Brooklyn Bridge on his New York walks while writing Leaves of Grass (it wasn't up yet). Thus Thoreau embodies, doesn't just narrate, his New World mythology.

Emerson had bought the shore on which the cabin stood, and told his daughter once: "I will keep these woods until everything else is gone. They are my camel's hump" -- by which he meant of course that you could live awhile in thirsty circumstances by keeping them in mind. The pond's 61 1/2 acres, with no visible inlet or outlet, were originally a glacial kettle hole, says W. Barksdale Maynard's kaleidoscopic history of the area, but now, at 102 feet in the middle, constitute the deepest of Massachusetts's 1,100 lakes and draw 700,000 visitors a year. An architectural historian, Maynard examines the geographical, historical, political, ecological, and quotidian aspects of the place. He is prodigiously informative in the comprehensive way of current chroniclers who have at their fingertips via cyberspace encyclopedic resources, yet manages to be breezy and fair-minded too, peppered as the book is with the antics of Thoreau's disciples, parti-colored in their purist feuds, their dedicated anguish, during the long to and fro of desecration and reclamation. A lot of elbow grease went into the book, as Maynard records nineteenth-century outings by juggling countless diary entries, or twentieth-century legal tussles over the neglect or protection of this and that neck of Walden Woods.

He's also good on comparable veins in English writing, like Wordsworth in the Lake Country, Gilbert White in Selborne, and poor Richard Jefferies, who is a neglected figure here. Yet spiritually, Walden Pond: A History is rather pedestrian, when set next to the most recent Thoreau and Emerson biographies, by Robert D. Richardson, Jr. -- whom Maynard scandalously scants, although duly praising Walter Harding, Richardson's worthy predecessor. It's about, but not imbued with, transcendentalism, and therefore best thought of as auxiliary to their several books, and Maynard as being like the landscape architect who comes to a project and fathoms the competing interests of a bunch of squabbling clients, yet whose design winds up less than inspired. Thoreau himself, in other words, is quite missing, though cited in the index abundantly. And John Muir, a major adjoining force in American conservation, is myopically left out (or lumped with Ernest Thompson Seton, the animal fabulist!), like George Perkins Marsh, from nearby Vermont, whose Man and Nature, published 10 years after Walden, while not a literary masterpiece, was a more farsighted, impassioned fountainhead of environmental awareness. Edward Abbey and Robinson Jeffers, perhaps Thoreau's and Marsh's closest modern counterparts, receive short shrift as well.

Maynard is well schooled in Concord lore, however, and never like the art historians I've met who seem to think the paintings of the Renaissance they study were actually painted in the Uffizi's galleries, not the untidiness of a third-world country with lepers in the streets. Context is his strength. But the materials scholars nowadays "access" and work with are such a contrast to the fragmentary knowledge from which Thoreau's penciled, intuitive densities were achieved (Darwin's Origin of Species didn't come out till five years after Walden, for example, though Thoreau promptly accepted its premises) that one wonders if this is what is lacking in our quintessential information age: the gaps that generate the electricity for imaginative leaps.

"The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands; even ... drown out all our muskrats," Thoreau wrote, shortly before rising to Walden's immortal close: "The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star." And Emerson, in an essay collected in The Conduct of Life, said around the same time that "our first mistake is the belief that the circumstance gives the joy which we give to the circumstance. Life is an ecstasy.... We see God face to face every hour."

The days themselves were gods, creation was continuous, and everything alive divine. Jokingly, Emerson interpreted the yellowthroat's birdsong as "Extacy! Extacy!" Nor was a mere respite of peace what Thoreau sought at Walden Pond. "Surely joy is the condition of life," he wrote. Like Whitman in New York, he was after rhapsody, discovery, and, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who later were heartened by him, he was a parson, too -- properly rapt but defiant and seditious when necessary, ready to suffer contumely for principle, and seldom trying to consider two sides of an issue if that might be confusing. Since he could borrow everybody else's property for rambling, or "sauntering," as he liked to put it -- to the holy land, the Sainte-Terre -- he never bothered owning any, leaving to Maynard's painstaking maps and library photographs the task of delineating all of that.

Maynard's subject is Thoreau country right to the present, not "the conduct of life." So on these modest terms, and bubbling with assiduous research that meshes social crosscurrents with the poignancy of a supporting cast of characters, he's done a solid job. Not coincidentally, 2004 is the 150th anniversary of Walden's first publication by Ticknor and Fields (Ticknor had not been a fan; fortunately Fields had), the forerunner of Houghton Mifflin. And they have marked the moment with a large-format edition priced at no more than the author spent building his blessed hut. It's adorned with color photos by Scot Miller, who the jacket indicates was on a busman's holiday from photographing Muir country. He's fine; these do pique our pleasure. Yet don't allow the spacious pages to dilute Thoreau's intensity. That 1854 edition was about the size of the dog-eared paperbacks where most of us experience the sandpaper of his succinct pronouncements: "When a man dies he kicks the dust" (of his accumulated possessions).

On the life of the village, or July 4th, or the aggravating matter of his beans, he's cidery, he's cutting; and so we trust his exhilaration. Heaven is on earth and everywhere, not posthumous, somewhere in the sky. It's not a complicated theology. We even know this from how our moods swing independently of circumstance. Young children, too, appear to enlist themselves as transcendentalists as they initially discover the natural world and human love. Earth's eye, indeed.

The War Against the Greens by David Helvarg
Johnson Books, 384 pp., $19

Ten years ago, David Helvarg revealed the Wise Use movement for what it really is: not a critical approach to scientifically based environmental regulation, but rather an anti-green assault launched by right-wing extremists who claim that environmental protections violate property rights, cost Americans jobs, and throw the brakes on economic growth. It seems that not enough people heard his cries, and he has now issued a revised and updated edition of his book, The War Against the Greens, with an additional chapter on the seeding of the executive branch of the federal government with Wise Use's political offspring, including Vice President Dick Cheney; Interior Secretary Gale Norton and her deputy, J. Stephen Griles; and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and her undersecretary, Mark Rey.

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Edward Hoagland has published 19 books and lives in Vermont.

OnEarth. Fall 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council