Who Destroyed Thoreau’s Cabin at Walden Pond?

A few weeks ago, our family visited Walden Pond for the first time. Walden was made famous by author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau. Born in Concord, Thoreau was good friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott and Nathanial Hawthorne. For two years (from 1845-1847) Thoreau lived in a self-built cabin on property owned by Emerson adjacent to Walden Pond.  This period served as the basis for Thoreau’s book Walden, or Life in the Woods. Today Walden Pond serves as a destination place for many people attracted by Thoreau’s vision of simple living, and for many other people, who were no doubt, forced to read Walden during high school English class.

Although our family has lived in the Greater Boston area for around fifteen years, it wasn’t until this September that we finally visited Walden Pond. Although, we love to take the girls to parks, we just never got around to visiting Walden, which is only thirty minutes from our home.  It would be fair to say that we had nothing more than a passing familiarity with Thoreau. We basically knew him as this famous naturalist guy, who lived next to this pond and who wrote a book. I was also aware that Don Henley of Eagle fame, had supported the preservation of the area around the pond. Carla, my more literate half, once tried reading Walden, but stopped midway, feeling somewhat unimpressed with Thoreau as a person. In her words, Thoreau was “self-absorbed” and “entitled.”

Casting away all aspersions against Thoreau, we decided to visit Walden Pond this past Labor Day weekend. More lake than pond, Walden was a very pleasant visit. Walden has a rocky beach encircling part of the pond. The fact that this was a rocky beach was of great interest to my girls who hold great love both for rocks and beaches. If given the opportunity (which we didn’t give them), they probably would have taken every rock off that beach, stuffing them into their pockets. (What is it about kids and rocks??)  Not far off the beach, we saw a sign advertising “Thoreau’s Cabin site”.  I’m still not sure how we got started on our little quest. It went something like this. . .

“Hey Look, Johanna!” remarked Carla, “There is a sign for Thoreau’s cabin. Shall we go and take a look?”

“Yeah!!!” responded Johanna with a full throated roar, as she ran down the trail alongside the pond.

Keep in mind that up to this point Johanna had never heard of David Thoreau. This is the first time she ever heard Thoreau’s name, and at this point she largely knew him as “that guy who lived next to a lake.” Of course, the fact that Thoreau actually lived next to a pond in a cabin, probably made him a person of interest for Johanna. I mean, who wouldn’t want to live in a cabin next to a lake!!??

So our family walked around Walden Pond. With each sign announcing “To Thoreau’s Cabin site”, Johanna got more and more excited. Finally, we crested a hill and saw the site of Thoreau’s cabin. Unfortunately, the signs were only too accurate in their description, because that’s all we found at the top of the hill, a pile of stones with one final sign announcing that this was the site of Thoreau’s cabin. Apparently the cabin was long gone.

Johanna was crestfallen.

“Where is the cabin?” asked Johanna.

What could we say?

“It’s gone honey. It’s not there anymore” we sadly told our very disappointed daughter. Of course, by this point, the absence of the cabin was pretty obvious, but what could we really say?

The fact that there was no cabin was pretty awful for Johanna. She was near tears. She roamed around the site, going into the nearby woods and looking over the hill, thinking perhaps they might have misplaced the cabin, but this was it. We had walked all this way and no cabin. How can I describe this in a way you can understand? Think for a moment if Dorothy and her friends had walked all the way down the yellow brick road to the Emerald City, and were turned away at the gate before seeing the Wizard. This pretty much describes Johanna’s emotions in the moment.

“Who destroyed Thoreau’s cabin?” asked Johanna, “Why did they destroy Thoreau’s cabin? They must have destroyed his cabin, so we couldn’t see it!”

We weren’t really sure about who the “they” were who destroyed Thoreau’s cabin. We tried explaining to Johanna how we were just as disappointed as she was, but that the cabin was likely gone for a very long time.

Nevertheless, Johanna insisted someone must have destroyed the cabin in order to prevent her from seeing it.  Putting myself in Johanna’s place and knowing my daughter as I do, I can imagine what she must have been thinking. Many times in the past Johanna has built things around our home, out of cardboard or Legos only to have her little sister Emma destroy her creation. In those moments, Johanna would rage against her sister, the one who destroys everything of beauty she tries to create. In this case, it was obvious that Emma could not have destroyed Thoreau’s cabin, but clearly there was someone out there, someone sinister, someone evil, who destroyed Thoreau’s cabin.

Even in the moment, it was kind of funny. Johanna, who wouldn’t know Thoreau from our neighbors dog, desperately wanted to see that cabin. Failing to find it, and bitterly upset, Johanna took it personally.

Overall, while it was funny, and if I had dared, I probably would have laughed, my Johanna’s response to the “destruction of Thoreau’s cabin” was priceless. It was endearing, because our little girl, for a moment let her imagination run wild. She imagined an almost ancient cabin trapped in the woods, where a man, long dead, lived next to a beautiful pond. Johanna had these incredible expectations and those expectations were dashed. Yeah, I suppose if Johanna’s parents were a little more literate and aware, we could have deduced that Thoreau’s cabin was long gone, but there’s also something beautiful about my daughter’s innocence.

In our world, we try to avoid disappointment by getting rid of expectations. We refuse to expect, we refuse to hope and we settle for what is sitting in front of us. As we get older and wiser, we rid ourselves of expectations and dreams. Those things are for the young. Those things are for the naïve. Those things are for kids. While we might be wiser and more realistic, we are also somehow poorer. For a glorious moment, Johanna found herself on an adventure. She was Johanna the explorer going through an old forest in search of a cabin. Unfortunately she was disappointed this one time, but far from wanting my little girl to give up and become more realistic, I want her to continue to dream and hope and never fail to have expectations of what might be possible.

After our visit, we learned that there is actually a replica of the cabin in the parking lot. Maybe next time. To be sure, next time we will tell Johanna that this is only a replica and that the real cabin turned to dust long ago.

The Site of Thoreau’s Cabin

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7 thoughts on “Who Destroyed Thoreau’s Cabin at Walden Pond?

  1. Oh my goodness, what an awful missed opportunity! The cabin between the pond and the parking lot is lovely — Harvey loves opening and closing the door, lying in the bed, and pretending that’s it his house.

    • Hey Leah:
      Truly irony of ironies. We quite possibly walked by the replica cabin in coming from the parking lot, but we never saw it. Can totally imagine the girls doing the same as Harvey. Oh well, I guess it just gives us another reason to come back!

  2. That’s so cute. :) I know I shouldn’t be smiling at this story – poor Johanna! – but it really is a funny thought, that a kid would take the “destruction” of Thoreau’s cabin so personally. I can see my youngest doing that.

    I always have fantasies of reading something old and full of wisdom, like “Walden”, to my kids. . . but I’ve tried it (and with the Hobbit, can HOW COULD THAT FAIL!?!?) and my kids are just not interested in books without pictures. Oh well.

    • Wow! You are ambitious!

      I have the graphic novel version of the hobbit and Johanna really enjoyed it. I was also thinking of reading Little Women to Johanna, but I wanted to find a version with illustrations.

      • I’m not sure that I’m ambitious, so much as I have this anachronistic view of fatherhood that I wish I could live up to! I want to be able to sit down in a comfortable chair in front of a fire, while my (amazingly well-behaved) children sit at my feet and listen with rapt attention while I read to them from a large, leather-bound book. Of course, in this fantasy we’re all wearing powdered wigs, and I’m sure I’d lose at least one of those kids to smallpox, so. . . perhaps it’s best to just hang out in the hear-and-now. ;)

  3. As individuals live and age, our perspective changes. As a proud father and grandpa to our little Johanna, I offer this perspective to your Thoreau’s adventure.

    Disappointment and tragedy in life exists along side hope and success. Many writers and scholars have proposed that it is not the prize at the end of the journey that matters most, but the journey itself that holds the significance and opportunity for realizing the goodness of life.

    As you stated, “For a glorious moment, Johanna found herself on an adventure. She was Johanna the explorer.” You and Carla are fueling the life of expectations and dreams for your children, and I hope for yourselves as well.

    As The Little Prince says, (from the The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupery) This (your family journey to Walden Pond) is a matter of consequence!

    And finally, I observe that by writing and sharing on Momentary Delight, you are kindling your own expectations and dreams.

    Dream on Darren, I hope and dream that the best is yet to come!

    • Hey Carl:
      Thanks for the encouragement and the wise comments.

      I think this is one of the hardest thing to teach our children. The importance of disappointment. You can’t have disappointment without hopes and dreams. When Johanna, or Emma for that matter are disappointed, it’s usually not a great moment. When they are crying and upset, it’s hard not to think, “When is this going to end?” At the same, time there is something beautiful there, as I watch them work through their disappointment and grief. Whatever growing and maturity gives them, I hope they don’t become too pragmatic. I hope that they remain young women who dream and pursue big dreams.

      This is the journey as you so aptly describe it. In the end, as you state, the goal or the objective can be almost inconsequential, in light of what we gain along the way.

      I love the fact that you decided to pitch in with your comments. Keep them coming! We treasure your influence!

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