Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Well-Worn Path - Reflections on a Walk Through Walden Woods

   "The inevitable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

   I made my yearly pilgrimage to Walden Pond recently.  I have been coming to Concord, mostly in mid-Spring, for over 40 years.  It is my spiritual center, my hearts home and the first "thin place" I ever encountered.  I'm not alone in these thoughts. Thousands come each year to walk the paths around Walden Pond and to seek out the peace that Henry Thoreau experienced there over 160 years ago.  They also come here to practice what the Transcendentalists called "self-culture". For Thoreau, self-culture was spiritual growth and the cultivation of the soul. He built his cabin at Walden to more easily practice his own self-culture; I come to Walden each year for the same reason. Truly, I can't think of a better place for a contemplative photographer to spend an afternoon!

   Thoreau liked to go "sauntering" around Walden Pond.  It was a term he gave to walking as a spiritual discipline. The word is derived from the French, Sainte Terre - Holy Land.  A Saunterer was one who was walking in pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the medieval days. Fitting I think. He considered his saunters as his daily "enterprise and adventure", sure to reveal some profound truth to fuel is contemplations. For Thoreau, Walden Pond was his holy land; it has come to mean the same for me over the years.

"They that never go to the Holy Land in their walks...
are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds...for every
walk is a sort of crusade..."
Henry Thoreau

   Most of my prior trips to Walden did not involve photography.  I would just take my journal and my well-worn copy of Thoreau's book Walden.  This time I put my camera in my back pack...just in case.  I had no specific intention of photographing anything in particular that day but I found myself drawn to the "well worn paths" that criss-cross the Walden woods and over which I have "sauntered" countless times. 

   Every time I come to Walden I meet people from all over the world walking these paths. From groups of local school children to the elderly Japanese couple with their canes that I saw this time; they all quietly follow the trails to the site of his cabin and put a stone on the cairn there.  While some come just to enjoy a walk in the woods or a swim in the pond, many come to pay homage to the man and to his ideas.  All those reverent foot-falls have given the paths a smooth, hard-packed brown concrete.  The beautiful sunlight filtering through the not completely leafed out trees created multi-toned spots along the paths and gave me the inspiration to reflect upon why this yearly pilgrimage is so important to me and why it was time to begin photographing the place.

   It was one of those perfect Spring days.  The kind of day that makes you want to linger in a place forever.  As happens in most thin places, your sense of time can become suspended.  As I sat on the edge of the pond, reading my book and jotting in my journal, I watched a dragonfly dart in and out of a swarm of tiny insects hovering above the water's edge and before I knew it an hour had past.  I realized that this place has an almost mystical quality to it.  It isn't because it possesses some character of remoteness and isolation. In fact, I could hear, occasionally, the sounds of the traffic along Route 2 and the airplanes landing at Hanscom Field in nearby Lexington. Thoreau noted the same sorts of distractions when he wrote of hearing "the rattle of a carriage or team along the distant highway" while he sat on his cabins doorstep.  Despite these modern intrusions, Walden woods  is still a singularly solitary place.  Here you can be in nature and still be within the context of the human landscape.  This is why people have worn these paths so smooth and why I continue to come here year after year.  It is a place to find the perfect balance in our modern world...solitude and society.  They seem to blend effortlessly here.

" He (Thoreau) does not advocate "dropping out", but a healthy balance between solitude and society, nature and civilization, materialism and a life of voluntary poverty."
Barry M.Andrews

   Do you have a place that you would call your "spiritual center"?  A place you feel compelled to return to again and again?  When you return to your special spot, take your journal and your camera and maybe some inspirational text.  Try to record the mystery this place holds for you.  What makes it, for you, a place for "self-culture"?
"This spot where you sit is your own spot.
It is on this very spot and in this very moment 
that you can become enlightened.  You don't
need to sit beneath a special tree in a distant land." 
Thich Nhat Hanh - Zen master

If you haven't found your "spot" yet, is this the summer you seek it out?  I wish you joyful "sauntering"!

"May the stars light your way
and may you find the interior road.
-traditional Irish farewell

No comments: