As he wrote the final drafts of Walden, Thoreau lamented the changes to the pond since he moved out several years earlier. More trees had been cut down, and the town of Concord was even thinking about piping the pond’s water into town.
“Nevertheless, of all the characters I have known, perhaps Walden wears best, and best preserves its purity. Many men have been likened to it, but few deserve that honor. Though the woodchoppers have laid bare first this shore and then that, and the Irish have built their sties by it, and the railroad has infringed on its border, and the ice-men have skimmed it once, it is itself unchanged, the same water which my youthful eyes fell on; all the change is in me. It has not acquired one permanent wrinkle after all its ripples. It is perennially young….”
Pristine nature doesn’t really exist anymore. We have to look past the intrusions to see it. That’s what Henry is doing here. He is looking past, and looking into what remains. He lived in an era of the passing away of wilderness, which was still seen almost exclusively as a resource, something wanting development and improvement, something to be used up for profit.
There’s still a lot of that attitude around today, though many people — often influenced directly or indirectly by Thoreau’s words — work for its preservation and restoration. But the conservation movement was still in the future during Henry’s lifetime. He loved nature and lived with its steady erosion, with little evidence that attitudes would change.
It must’ve been a helpless feeling at times, watching the steady march of “progress” and knowing how short-sighted and narrow it was. I think Henry could have empathized with our generation, watching the progression of climate change even as most of our fellow citizens seem determined to ignore it.
There’s a time to get angry, and a time to speak out… but there’s also a time to simply appreciate what’s before you, the unchanging patterns and perennial youth of nature.
(About “A Year in Walden”)