Walking Home From Walden

Part 1: A Navel-Gazing, Suburban Post-Boomer Awakens to the Climate Crisis
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June 21 2011 3:18 PM

Walking Home From Walden

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Portrait of Henry David Thoreau, 1856. Click image to expand.
Portrait of Henry David Thoreau in June 1856

The first time I walked to Walden, six miles north of my house in the thickly wooded suburbs west of Boston, it had nothing to do with the planet. And it didn't have much to do with Henry David Thoreau. I'd never been a communicant in the cult of Thoreau, never made my devotions in that temple. I'd done the assigned reading in college—"Civil Disobedience,"obviously, and Walden (OK, parts of it)—and that was about all. Wasn't really my thing. And while I'd spent a lot of time in the Great Outdoors, imbibing sweet draughts of nature in what I thought was wilderness—in the mountains of California, where I grew up, and in Arizona and Utah, Idaho and Montana, New England and Nepal—by the age of 40, I'd somehow never read the line from Thoreau's essay "Walking," those words most quoted by environmentalists and nature writers everywhere: "in Wildness is the preservation of the world." In any case, I wouldn't have had a clue what they meant.

No, that first time, in the summer of '07, it wasn't about the planet. It was about me. All about me. And the changes going on inside my head.

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A year or so before, in the spring of 2006, I was emerging from a "personal crisis"—in my case, I was battling burnout and anxiety. And in my effort to regain "balance," I not only decided to quit drinking (something I should have done, no doubt, much earlier), but I started meditating in the mornings before going to work, before the sun was up, and I re-explored the Zen and Taoist classics that I'd first dipped into in my twenties, traveling around Asia. I won't pretend that I understood everything I was reading, or that I became any sort of adept. It was private, experimental, yet sincere and diligent. (And I'm still at it.)

It's impossible to exaggerate how far this all was from the Christianity, conservative and evangelical, in which I was raised—my incongruous Bible Belt upbringing in the '70s and '80s suburban L.A. (by way of Texas, where my family is from). My parents and sisters remain devout, and we're still close. I may be estranged from their faith, but not from them. How can I put it? We differ on ways and means, but I empathize with their deepest yearnings—it's hard to shake the feeling, instilled since childhood, that I'm in need of salvation.

It was also around this time that I started walking on weekends—taking relatively short walks along trails in the nearby woods and open fields. The walks were a kind of therapy, a kind of drug—or better, another kind of meditation. I felt my senses coming back to me, as if from someplace far away, and I experienced—why should I be embarrassed to say this?—what I can only call an awakening, or reawakening, at once sensory and, yes, spiritual (an unfairly derided word). In any case, something was happening—and I was acutely aware of a new sharpness of perception, a new clarity. Whatever it was, it was real.

I know it's a cliché. But maybe you know what I mean—maybe you've stepped off into a sun-dazzled meadow on a morning in late autumn, and stood there, dumbstruck, watching frost melt on a blood-red leaf, just you and the meadow. Or heard the crack of ice beneath your boot in winter echo like a rifle shot through the woods, startling birds into flight against the glow of sky at dusk. Or stopped in your tracks as a great blue heron took flight only yards in front of you.

These walks, you could say, were getting serious—and I looked to extend their range. Instead of driving a mile or two and parking at the entrance to a trail, why not really use my legs and go somewhere? Not just for exercise, but for the sake of walking, of seeing, of hearing. I wanted full immersion. I wanted to get saved.

I often drove past Walden Pond on my way from Wayland, the town where I live, to Concord—indeed, it was one of the places I occasionally parked and walked the trails. Why not walk there from my house? Six miles is walking distance, I said to myself, just north from Wayland through the southwest part of Lincoln, to the Concord line and the pond. Why not walk to Walden?

It sounded hokey, ripe for parody. ("Suburban man discovers nature and walks to Walden. In other news, Arctic ice recedes at a record pace …") But I didn't care. This wasn't about the planet and it wasn't about Walden. It was about the walk itself—it was about liberation. My private footloose adventure into the not-so-wild. If only for a morning.

And so I walked: through the leafy suburban streets at dawn, past the organic farm fields, the crops and livestock, protected woods and wetlands, historic conservation land—rolling wooded landscape, broad bright clearings, hayfields, ponds and swamps, windblown wildflower meadows. A suburban idyll, pastoral paradise.

I don't remember many details of that first walk, but I remember striding beside an open field in morning sun, air fresh and damp with dew, cool breeze before the heat of the day, elemental colors—yellows of wildflowers, greens of full foliage, blue sky and white clouds—and an exhilaration, an energy, pumping through my legs, my entire body, moving, breathing in the open air, alive and awake in the world.

Of course Walden itself, the modern reality of the place, was a buzzkill. Morning joggers chatted loudly on the trails, swimmers churned the water in caps and Speedos, an early tour bus unloaded. I'd been to Walden any number of times, joined the crowds of leaf peepers streaming out of the city when we lived in Cambridge. Just another tourist site, is how I thought of it, picturesque but hardly breathtaking. (Isn't it supposed to be bigger, and, you know, wilder?) In fact, as you circle the pond you're never quite out of earshot of a major commuter path—Routes 2 and 126 are not much farther than a stone's throw, and the MBTA tracks, the same railroad line Thoreau knew, skirts the northwest shore.

None of which really bothered me—I expected all that. It was the walk home that I hadn't counted on. If the walk to Walden was liberation, the walk home was work. Footsore from all the pavement, the breeze no longer so fresh and cool as the sun climbed, by the time I stepped back onto my driveway, sweat-soaked and thirsty, it was almost midday, and the weekend had resumed its relentless slide into the week. My transcendental trip dissolved back into the realities, and unrealities, of daily life.

But the memory, the sense of liberation, stayed. There was no denying I'd entered the landscape in some entirely new and unfamiliar way—and it had entered me, taken possession. If the trails close to home were what first reawakened me to nature, now the vista opened wide, the perception deepened. I knew the lay of the surrounding landscape—or at least one six-mile stretch of it—and knew it in a new way, with almost a child's awe and wonder. I want to call it grace, but that's only a word. It was a tactile reality, a place my own feet could carry me, and all I had to do was wake up, walk out, and touch it—out there, in a clearing, beside a pond, in a cloud's reflection, on the way to Walden.

Click here to read Part 2: The moment I realized I had to do something.

Wen Stephenson has been the editorial director of TheAtlantic.com, managing editor of PBS's Frontline.org, editor of the Sunday Boston Globe's Ideas section, and most recently, the senior producer of NPR's On Point. He has written for all of them, as well as for the New York Times, Grist, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter: @wenstephenson.

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