Every winter the liquid and trembling surface of the pond, which was so sensitive to every breath, and reflected every light and shadow, becomes solid to the depth of a foot or a foot and a half, so that it will support the heaviest teams, and perchance the snow covers it to an equal depth, and it is not to be distinguished from any level field. Like the marmots in the surrounding hills, it closes its eyelids and becomes dormant for three months or more. – Henry David Thoreau, Walden
On a recent visit to Walden Pond, my little sister and I had the opportunity to experience first-hand some of the descriptions in The Pond in Winter, a small essay in his Walden collection. The pond, situated about a half-hour’s drive west of Cambridge, is still quite remote and peaceful and alive with intermittent birdsong and there are a number of short hiking trails in the surroundings. It also has one of the best visitor centers I have been to, where, in addition to pond memorabilia, they sell books by Thoreau, Emerson and other transcendentalists. In a small photo gallery adjacent to the visitor center, there are pictures of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, both of whom were strongly influenced by Thoreau’s essay on Civil Disobedience. There is also a poster about the historian Howard Zinn, who wrote A People’s History of the United States and who, despite his advancing years, gives energetic and interesting speeches about the state of current American politics.
Henry David Thoreau lived in the woods near Walden Pond in 1845-46 on land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Here, he wrote two books: Walden and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. He lived quietly in a small cabin (which he had built himself) with few possessions, desiring to be as close to Nature as he could. There is a small memorial now where Thoreau’s little cabin used to sit. A path leads from the cabin site to a cove in the Pond which, in 1846, might have served as a decent place for mooring boats. Walking in the opposite direction, one is greeted by the bizarre sight of railway tracks – the Boston Commuter Rail roars by Walden Pond every now and then, and the water and the adjoining meadows must present a spectacular sight to passengers.
Having walked along the Northern rim of the Pond, we debated the possibility of taking a short cut back, by walking eastward across the icy surface of the Pond. There weren’t too many people about – it being at least ten degrees below freezing – but we did see two men in overalls take something resembling a sledge and making some markings at various places on the frozen surface, so we figured it wasn’t too dangerous a thing to attempt. The ice seemed very thick beneath our feet and the windswept surface was utterly smooth – our shoes left no marks, and we were walking softly anyway. At many places on the opaque white surface, someone had cut holes in the ice, which had then filled up with water and frozen over. The ice in these holes, apparently sheltered from the wind, was translucent and looking down into them, one would guess that the icy sheet on which we were walking was definitely more than 8 inches thick.
I wonder if the holes were made by people who wanted to measure the thickness of the ice, or for the purpose of ice fishing. In the winter of 1846, Thoreau dug such a hole through the ice sheet and tied a weight to a line to measure the depth of the Pond. Interestingly enough, he found that the deepest point was at the center i.e., at the intersection of its major and minor axes of the roughly elliptical pond.
Standing on the snow-covered plain, as if in a pasture amid the hills, I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where, kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlor of the fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants. Heaven is under our feet is well as over our heads. […]
As I was desirous to recover the long lost bottom of Walden Pond, I surveyed it carefully, before the ice broke up, early in ’46, with compass and chain and sounding line. […]
Having noticed that the number indicating the greatest depth was apparently in the centre of the map, I laid a rule on the map lengthwise, and then breadthwise, and found, to my surprise, that the line of greatest length intersected the line of greatest breadth exactly at the point of greatest depth…
In a couple of these dug-and-frozen-over holes, we found something that Thoreau might have loved. The wind had blown oak leaves into these holes before the water froze. So the leaves have been encased in ice.
Here it is, in close up: