If Thoreau had worn a fitness tracker, he would have easily reached 10,000 steps every day. But Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) didn’t think of walking as we do.
“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements,” he wrote in his essay, “Walking.”
Born 200 years ago on July 12 in Concord, the writer, naturalist, land surveyor, Transcendentalist philosopher, abolitionist, teacher — the list goes on — is being celebrated this year across the United States and abroad with everything from performances and conferences to guided walks and the first-ever Massachusetts Statewide Read. For listings, check the ever-expanding Thoreau Bicentennial calendar at www.thoreaubicentennial.org.
Perhaps America’s most quoted author, his ideas about nature and society emerged as he meandered through the woods of New England, taking copious notes.
“Thoreau’s idea of walking was to be totally immersed in a place, really paying attention, getting to know it well,” says historian Jayne Gordon. “He wasn’t out to make speed records or to exercise as we know it. He often walked the same routes and felt you can always find new things to fill you with wonder if you allow yourself to slow down, be awake, present, and alive.” What we now call mindfulness. Gordon will lead a two-mile walk in Minute Man National Historical Park, Concord, on Sept. 10 from 1 to 4 p.m. through landscapes Thoreau knew well.
So how better to celebrate the man’s 200th birthday than by walking in the great outdoors? Start by retracing his footsteps around Concord.
Walden Pond, a National Historic Landmark, is where he came “to live deliberately” for two years, two months, and two days until September 1847. He sought its solitude to write his first book, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” and began his next, “Walden: or, Life in the Woods.” He meticulously logged the first signs of spring at Walden Pond. Those logs now help scientists evaluate climate change.
Walden Pond is considered the birthplace of the conservation movement. The State Reservation’s new Visitor Center is a model of sustainability. Later this year, its debut will feature interpretative exhibits on Thoreau’s life and work and a video executive produced by Ken Burns for The Walden Woods Project. Visit a replica of Thoreau’s cabin before following easy trails that circle the pond and lead to the cabin’s original site.
At the Concord Museum, 12 months of special programming is highlighted by a major collaboration with the Morgan Library & Museum in New York. The exhibition, “This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal,” runs here from Sept. 29, 2017-Jan. 21, 2018 following its NY run June 2-Sept. 10. At the museum, pick up their Thoreau Trail guide, which identifies 11 stops and routes in Concord including Thoreau Farm, where he was born, and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where he’s buried near his mentor and friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, on Author’s Ridge. One trail is the 1.7 mile Thoreau-Emerson Amble, a meandering route the two men often took from Emerson’s house, near Concord Center, through the town forest to Thoreau’s cabin on land owned by Emerson at Walden Pond.
Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge covers more than 3,500 acres of protected freshwater wetlands along 12 miles of the Concord and Sudbury rivers in 12 historically significant towns. Thoreau certainly knew the 250-acres that became its Concord Unit where trails include a 2.7-mile loop around a marsh pond with interpretive signs and a wildlife viewing tower. This tranquil place is a popular birding area.
Or, “to really honor Thoreau,” says Jayne Gordon, “find a place to walk in your own home town, as he did. Find your own Walden.”
But sometimes we long to explore farther afield.
For Thoreau, one such place was Cape Cod. He walked the length of the Cape four times between 1849 and 1857. He knew the ocean’s brutality as well as its vitality having witnessed the death of immigrants killed by crashing waves. For him, the shoreline is a bridge connecting nature and civilization, the place where human voyages, real and imagined, begin. His book, “Cape Cod,” was published posthumously. Share his experience at the Cape Cod National Seashore.
In Maine, Thoreau constantly took notes on three trips over three years to the wild and largely unexplored northern regions around Mount Katahdin, Moosehead Lake, and beyond. He climbed mountains, paddled a canoe and learned from his Abenaki Indian guides, all chronicled in “The Maine Woods,” also published after his death.
In Maine but closer to home, about 90 minutes north of Boston is Wells Reserve at Laudholm Farm. While not a Thoreau area, its seven miles of interpretive trails lead from a 19th-century farm to gentle meadows and the ocean. These 2,250 acres are home to the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve, where marine biologists and others monitor data on water quality, weather and fish and wildlife habitat. On peaceful walks here, I’ve photographed textured landscapes of salt water marsh and upland fields, trod boardwalks to wonderful wildlife viewing spots and spied on piping plovers enjoying the pristine sandy beach. Among activities based at the restored farm buildings are evening programs, guided bird walks, and other programs led by York County Audubon.
Back in Massachusetts, the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge has unusual features that supply fertile ground for imagination. Partially hidden in the woods are 30 mysterious earthen-covered ammunition bunkers built in 1942 to store war material at what then was Fort Deven’s Sudbury Training Annex. Ammo stored behind massive steel doors in the “igloos” was sent by rail to Boston Harbor when needed during World War II. Coming upon them in the woods is spooky. The mounds with rusty doors can be found along 15 miles of trails. The 3.5-square-mile refuge extends into Maynard, Hudson, Stow, and Sudbury where there’s a small Visitor Center.