Visiting Walden Pond: The roots of simple, spiritual living

Henry David Thoreau’s iconic refuge is where he learned to live simply, intentionally and at one with nature.

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The plan for my visit to Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., is to plunge into its deep, still waters. Simply dipping a toe in won’t do - my secular baptism will require a full immersion in one of America’s most iconic ponds, made famous by writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who experienced a spiritual awakening when he moved to its shores at age 27 on July 4, 1845.

He lived alone here for two years in a small house he built himself, and often started his day with a swim. “I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise,” he wrote in Walden, his masterpiece of non-fiction published in 1854, which urges readers to live simply, intentionally and in harmony with nature.

Thoreau’s ideas are as relevant now as they were 150 years ago. He’s considered a major influence on modern ecology, the grandfather of the simplicity movement, a hero of social activism and the inspiration for forest therapy and tiny-house living. More than a dozen books about him were published last year for the bicentennial of his birth.

A lapsed Unitarian, Thoreau chose the woods over the church, trading the hard pew of the cathedral for the spires of the arrowy white pines that surrounded his 10-by-15-foot cabin. He believed the best cure for just about anything was the “tonic of wildness.” His hours were spent walking, playing his flute, writing in his journal and scrupulously examining every bit of flora and fauna as if they held the mysteries of the universe. To him, they did. He had a poet’s soul and a scientist’s eye.

The son of a pencil manufacturer, he graduated from Harvard and later earned a living doing occasional work as a handyman for $1 a day. Walden’s initial print run was 2,000 copies, but it has since become a spiritual guide for millions, beloved for its indictments of modern society, dreamy musings and urgings to focus on the things that really matter.

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