It’s just after dawn at Walden Pond. I’m here earlier than usual thanks to the stirrings of jet lag, and at this hour, Walden is still: like a beast yet to be woken from slumber. The lifeguard chair is empty. The gift shop on the road has yet to open its doors to sell baby onesies and lapel pins engraved with Henry David Thoreau quotes. It’s even possible to mistake this place for the quiet temple of solitude that Thoreau sought out in the 1850s “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”
The pond’s water level today is high, so I take the trail through the woods instead of trekking along the gravelly shore to reach the spot where I ritually plunge into the pond. I swim its width twice, pausing in the center each time to feel like a coin on the verge of being swallowed up in a spiral wishing well. While Walden looks blue and diamond-studded from the shore, immersion reveals it to be a backlit, deep-green abyss. Thoreau thought the color and clarity created a “monstrous effect” when seeing his own limbs underwater, rendering the body an apt model for Michelangelo.
Like Thoreau did, I come here now for solitude, for reflection. But what I find is not a sense of separateness or individuality. It is rather a sense of belonging. And Thoreau found it, too. In his chapter in Walden on solitude, he wrote of an early encounter here with the lack of aloneness: “I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, even in scenes which we are accustomed to call wild and dreary, and also that the nearest of blood to me and humanest was not a person nor a villager, that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again.” At Walden, he comes to know “that we are never alone.”
Along the shore, the treetops this morning are a movie screen, onto which the sunlight projects its impression of moving water. I am mesmerized, for what could be minutes or an hour. Just as I get out of the water, however, the spell breaks. I realize I must now walk back through the woods, wrapped in a towel and wearing flip-flops. With my bug spray now washed off, I am vulnerable to ticks, and this place is crawling with them — and with Lyme disease.
Years after a recalcitrant case of Lyme that I was treated for in 2015, I am now physically well. It took a daily IV drip of antibiotics and the smarts of specialists at Massachusetts General Hospital to kill the infection. And then, I had to recover and relearn to walk. I know I am a lucky one. I relearned to hike, bike, and run, too.
Listen: The forest is not safe
What lingers now is fear. When I was 16, I worked at a wilderness center in Ohio, where I hiked woodland trails all day and picked up trash that I put in my oversize backpack. Each day, I would find a remote spot off the trail to lie on my back and gaze through the translucent tree canopy, with its leaves like stained glass windows, and beyond to the open sky. I felt safe and at home as I did nowhere else in the world. I no longer go to the woods like that; I don’t lie on the forest floor. I cover myself in bug spray and long sleeves and pants and hats. The forest is no more that place of belonging and refuge for me, in the pure sense it once was. It’s not safe.
What I have felt in wild places as belonging and a lack of separateness is the foundation of my commitment to protect the natural world. So what concerns me more than my new fear of the forest — which I am working to overcome — is the growing sense of alienation from nature that many people will come to experience in a world where going outside means being vulnerable to devastating tick bites, malarial mosquitoes, superstorms, and high heat. It is almost unnecessary to say in these times: What’s scary and alien is easier to dominate and destroy.
Thoreau wrote in his essay “Walking” that “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” Isolation from wildness, in turn, might hasten its destruction. At the very least, our alienation from nature will inoculate us against adequately caring for it, at a time when we need to more than ever if we are to protect the places we stand to lose in a changing climate.
I still have the water — the lakes, rivers, and oceans where I swim with abandon. (Not even the great whites along the Cape this summer can keep me out of the sea.) And I practice at Walden the pairing of vigilance and immersion, so that the wildness of the world stays within me, pointing me toward its preservation.