The Power of a Pond

Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden during his two-year stay in a tiny shack on the shores of the pond. It became a best-seller when his literary friends promoted it after his untimely death. As Thoreau gained a worldwide following for his environmental philosophy, the pond itself became a celebrity.

Now people are loving the pond to death. It receives 700,000 visitors a year, who come to worship Thoreau’s legacy, or just to swim in one of the few freshwater ponds near Boston.

Walden Pond today.

Due to neglect by authorities, along with heavy use, the shores of the pond became severely eroded. Erosion degraded the pond experience, made of mockery of Thoreau’s environmental philosophy, and harmed water quality.

A few years ago, State officials decided to renovate the shores with “bioengineering”--using sophisticated planting techniques to rebuild and the shoreline with living vegetation. Access to the shoreline from a trail around the pond was also strictly controlled with a waist-high wire fence and patrol by rangers. The restoration effort took years, costing millions of dollars.

Walden Pond continues to inspire people today, just as it did Thoreau. Despite the heavy visitation, one can still find quiet nooks to relax or touch the same vein of insight into nature that moved Thoreau.

Walden was the first pond to become an international celebrity. To a person who cares about Madison's environment, Walden offers many lessons.

Ponds can make a splash in the world

The first is that a simple pond, backed by an idea and people who care, can make a difference in the world.  Without Thoreau, Walden would have always been just an abused pond. With his writings, Thoreau did the hard work to breathe meaning into Walden.

But the meaning of Dane County's five lakes (and many smaller ponds) is still being shaped.  It's up to conservationists, scientists, and artists to bolster the cultural value of our lakes.  For example, recently a group of musicians, poets, and storytellers got together at Arboretum Cohousing for a celebration of Lake Wingra.

Perhaps our lakes will never be more than a scenic backdrop to the Capitol, or a place to fish and rev up the muscleboat.  Or, maybe Dane County could be the birthplace of a new movement of local people--who create “communities of caring” around unique neighborhood greenspaces. When people work together for something they care about, relationships and friendships are strengthened. The whole community—not just the lake, becomes a better place.

The opposite is also true. When you neglect and mistreat our lakes, you are setting an example for children. You are saying to them: “We’re using them up as fast as we can. We don’t care about your future enjoying the lake.”

You are saying to kids: “Freedom to toss bottles is more important than responsibility to safeguard a community resource.” So if you--as a construction site manager--allow muddy runoff, don’t expect your children to do their homework. You have already set an example with your actions that their future isn’t important.

Protect shorlines

The second lesson is that the shorelines of ponds are fragile.  We haven't done nearly enough in Dane County to protect shorelines.  For example, on the vacant property next to the Edgewater Hotel, there is a huge, caving bank, eroding into Lake Mendota.  Much of the University's shoreline is not well-protected.

Neglect means loss

The third lesson from Walden is that it takes some planning and effort to protect a pond. In today’s crowded world, you can’t continue to neglect a resource like our lakes, and expect them to be attractive for your children.

At Walden, there’s a large infrastructure and workforce to protect the pond. There are parking lots for hundreds of cars (filled to capacity the day I visited). There are gift shops and garages and rest rooms. There is even a stable for mounted rangers.

When things got bad enough at Walden, Massachusetts spent over a million dollars on restoration.  Although our lakes endure visitation on the same scale as Walden's, we have no comperable program to restore shorelines or engage in serious protection.

More than just a pond

A fourth lesson is that a lake is far more than just a place to swim or sail.  How we care for our lakes and other special places sets a tone of caring and cooperation for the community.

A coin with two sides

In Thoreau's time, the country was on a fast-track to industrialization.  A few years before he built his cabin by the pond, railroad track had already been laid next to the pond.   But nature was still easy to find near most of America's towns and cities.

If Thoreau were to return from the dead for a week, no doubt he’d revisit Walden Pond for the memories. But I don’t think he’d stay there long.   He'd go looking for a place like Walden that hadn't yet been trashed--he'd have to search far and wide. 

Today, it's a lot harder to find your Walden.  As Thoreau's ghost searched, I think he'd come to realize that what's relevant today is not escaping back to nature, as the Transcendentalists preached, but somehow incorporating nature more into our daily lives.

Today, many small spots around Madison retain some of the qualities that Thoreau immortalized in his writings—greenways, stormwater ponds, and other forgotten spots.  You don't have to travel 1000 miles to Walden to find what inspired Thoreau.

Our duty is clear: Protect greenspace and watersheds, AND build community around these places. Yes, protecting greenspace might be a little inconvenient at times.

All things of great value—your home, your children, your love—are coins with two sides. Responsibility is on the other side of the coin. So it is with a simple pond.

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