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Stepping Away

Sunset Viewed from the Frozen Surface of Walden Pond

At first, I only heard pines sighing in the crisp breeze and snow squeaking underfoot. Birds soared and the sun glinted on the frozen pond. Such peace. The path rounded a corner and a middle-aged couple came toward us, walking resolutely. “Hello,” they said, with neighborly nods, and we smiled and replied as if we knew them. We didn’t, nor they us. So, they couldn’t know that I was ecstatically revisiting snow in my native America after many years on the snowless Indian plains, or that my husband was refreshing memories of the white stuff from a few stray storms that occurred while he attended boarding school in the lower Himalayas.

Behind this couple, a younger pair, pulling children in bright plastic sleds, apologized as they came up to us. “We’ll just get out of your way here…”

An older man said “Hi” and a woman who was grasping the wire fencing at the side told us, as though we needed to know, “You can never tell how slippery it is.”

A woman and her daughter in identical parkas, ski pants, and iPods managed to give a smile and nod as they power walked by us.

After five minutes of shimmering solitude, the atmosphere shifted to folksy friendliness, which was not surprising. Walden Pond is a public park, and American parks are like that. In the summer, they can feel a little like the nation’s communal backyard, where they whole family of man has come for a campout. People flock to places where natural beauty abounds.

During a previous visit on a cloudy July fourth one summer, numerous Russian immigrant families had set up their folding chairs and gone off to frolic in the water, despite the New England chill. Near each of the small stone steps down to the pond, people had spread towels and damp clothing to mark territory. In the sunny days before that, so many people had come that the park had to be closed to further visitors because the parking lots were full. It takes a lot of cars to fill the parking lots of Walden Pond.

This time our visit to Walden was different as we treaded snow covered paths made by the Parks Department; maybe this new trail even encompassed land tread, at some point, by Henry David Thoreau as he thought deep, transcendental thoughts. For some visitors—me, for one—those thoughts may have entered the growing brain at a receptive age, and come to stay. His views on civil disobedience inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.. He wrote about that here. He wrote about wanting “…not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial nineteenth century, but stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by…,” which was what he did here at Walden Pond. He said he wanted to live “deliberately” and not automatically follow the pressures of society and wage slavery. Thus, he built a one-room, ten-by-fifteen-foot cabin. It was here that Thoreau began an experiment in “simple living,” furnishing this tiny cabin with two chairs, a bed, a table, and a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu scripture. He lived on the wooded slope above the water until he felt he’d begun to understand what was important in life. And then he wrote about it.

His words touched many lives. In Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where he’s buried under a simple stone in the family plot, near such literary notables as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott, visitors leave small caches of stones, flowers, and even coins. There are mementoes on other graves as well, but Thoreau is the ”rock star” of Sleepy Hollow; his pile is the biggest.

Like Thoreau’s grave, many people must visit Walden Pond as pilgrims. Pilgrimage is something we really understand in India. While rich Indians could always travel for pleasure, the poor could also leave drudgery behind to toil their way toward sacred rocks, holy hills, and cleansing rivers. To visit the place where a holy man had lived made the pilgrim, rich or poor, feel fortunate. Americans have Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon in which to recreate themselves, while orthodox Indians have Dargahs or temples, rivers and mountains. And melas, of course, like the Kumbh in Haridwar this year or the annual month-long soul-cleansing camp-out on the banks of the Ganga and Jamuna rivers in Allahabad, where the tent city rivals the campgrounds of Yellowstone Park in peak summer.

To go to Walden Pond is a bit like a pilgrimage for me, at least, however altered that scene may be. How could it not have changed, when all the nooks and crannies of the world are becoming progressively more crowded by a combination of population and transportation? Thoreau would have a hard time going for a quiet morning bath in the pond today, and near-naked ascetics at the source of the Ganges rub shoulders with Gore Tex-clad hikers and adventurous yuppies by the score. For the pilgrim, these places are still a bridge between a “present that Thoreau still would describe as “restless, nervous, bustling, trivial,” and stiller, deeper impulses.

Though he never traveled far, Thoreau searched deeply through the world’s recorded thought. He ornamented his writing with examples from Europe, India, and China as often as from ancient Greece. He thought his neighbors in Concord had undertaken penance far greater than the Hindu holy men who surrounded themselves with fire under the burning sun. He could see that those who inherited businesses and farms lived lives of Sisyphean effort, earning and spending, or, in his strange image, pushing their barns ahead of them lifelong.

Even a pilgrim can’t fail to notice, though, that he went off to live deliberately at a spot not far from home. Walking into town for a taste of Mother’s cooking would have taken an hour at most. Friends must have visited. The railway passed right behind his cottage—in fact, the little house itself was made from scrap bought from an Irish immigrant who worked on laying the tracks. Commuter trains still rush along mere feet from the path. Bankers, lawyers, and brokers on their way to and from Boston may, if they choose, look out and give a passing nod to Walden Pond.

Unkind critics may say Thoreau wasn’t much braver than suburban American boys who pitch tents on their back lawns, but how far does anyone have to step back to get perspective on the jumble that is normal life? In a village not far from the Indian city of Benares, there is a handsome old house, built of mud and tiles, which has been carefully preserved by a family, though none of them live there now. The last patriarch, who had seen his sons become scholars and professionals in the cities, held court in upper rooms while the spacious ground floor bustled with relatives. Feeling that he had done his duty, he turned his back on worldly work and went off to meditate and study the scriptures. Now he is remembered as a saint, and family members will point out the grove at the edge of the family fields, where he built his hut. It isn’t even a quarter mile away, but clearly, this was far enough. So maybe we don’t have to go far at all to find that new perspective after all.

Author Bio: LUCINDA NELSON DHAVAN first went to India on a Fulbright Foundation grant immediately after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College. She is still there. After several years devoted to domestic bliss, child rearing, and learning Hindi, she joined the staff of a regional newspaper. She now feels she may have learned enough to write fiction and is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel.

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