There was a Roman writer (and naturalist, and philosopher, and historian, and military commander) called Pliny the Elder who you may or may not have heard of. Actually, his name was Gaius Plinius Secundus — which is just so gangster that I had to include it. He died in AD 79 in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which is also somewhat gangster, but not the reason that we’re talking about him… No, what I wanted to mention about Pliny was something Classical (and classic) that he wrote down, sometime during his short 56 years on earth: ‘The only certainty’, he wrote, ‘is that nothing is certain.’
I am not going to argue with him, except I think there’s one additional thing to add to his shortlist of certainties, which is: you are certain, at some point in your life, to feel disappointment. In fact, you’ll likely be disappointed at multiple points in your (hopefully) long life. But what’s important to remember is that the effect of disappointment entirely depends on your reaction to it, and/or the expectations you had built up prior to the disappointing event.
For this writer, the most recent disappointment I can remember came during a spring visit to the infamous Walden Pond outside of Concord, outside of Boston, with a woman who I love. If you aren’t familiar with Walden, (shame on you), allow me to shake loose from the cobwebs of your memory something you may have learned in high school literature class.
Walden Pond was made famous by the Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau (remember him?) who lived and wrote on the north shore of the pond for 2 years — land that Ralph Waldo Emerson (remember him??) owned at the time and allowed him to use. The journals that Thoreau kept were eventually published in Walden; or, Life in the Woods which advocated for a get-your-ass-into-nature mentality and stressed the importance of self-sufficiency; of noticing and appreciating your surroundings and thereby living a more fulfilling life.
In his own words: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Sounds idyllic, right? I agree! Thoreau’s was the classic case of self-sufficiency, respect for nature, and simple living — or so we were told. In reality, he wasn’t alone or self-sufficient for the entire two years; he often went into Concord for supplies and news updates, and invited lots of friends over to his one-room shack for a chat and a smoke. (All good legends are just that: legends.)
But there is a lot to be impressed by in Thoreau’s little experiment in the woods, and it really popularized (in the mid-1800s through today) this idea of a simple life outside of traditional society, a profound respect for the natural world all around us, and what that can mean for your mental health, physical health, etc. etc. At one point in his journals, and I really hope I’m not misremembering this from class, Thoreau notes that he would try his hardest not to walk the same path through the woods, for fear of actually creating a path in the brush that would then be used over and over again. (If you’re suddenly recalling the Robert Frost poem about ‘the path less traveled’ well done, you!) In the bucolic setting in which Thoreau found himself he was intensely aware of the beauty that surrounded him, and thus, fearful that even his presence, one solitary man among the trees, could alter it, if not destroy it. (Oh, if only timber and mining companies had the same presence of mind!) Because if you aren’t destroying it outright, altering that landscape at all destroys something of the essence of that landscape; the untouched natural world, as it is ‘supposed’ to be, free from human or mechanical influence or interference.
It’s that idea — that fear of acting on nature and thus bending it to your own ends — that stuck with me, and probably why, in such a goshdamned pretty place with such a goshdamned pretty woman by my side, that I couldn’t shake an overwhelming feeling of disappointment for what the pond has become almost two centuries after Thoreau lived there. (I should note that some good has come from the changes or “improvements’’, namely that the pond is now a designated National Historic Landmark and thus managed and protected with federal funds; and that the Walden Woods Project has prevented the area (85+ acres) around Walden Pond from being developed. One shudders at the thought of what would have happened without that protection.)
BUT, never-mind that the Walden Pond State Reservation website entices visitors to be brought “back in time to the mid-1800s”… let me quickly list a few things about the place that would made Thoreau pull his fucking hair out:
- There is a pavement parking lot, almost always full of cars, complete with electric vehicle charging stations and a gatehouse;
- It costs $30 to park there (as a non-Massachusetts resident);
- There is a sandy ‘beach’ area, with a two-story recreation/visitor’s center, almost always full of people hauling picnic supplies and beach chairs and all the rest of the shit they need to make their day at the pond just like a day at the beach; chairs, towels, umbrellas, toys, food, drinks, etc.;
- Planes fly overhead, trains chug through the woods nearby, and teenagers with Bose outdoor speakers play Miley Cyrus’ ‘Party in the USA’ at a volume so high it can be heard across the lake and probably back in Boston too;
- It is never truly quiet and you never feel quite alone;
- Perhaps most egregiously, and certainly the aspect most out-of-line with Thoreau’s idea of the place, there are PAVED HIKING AND BIKING TRAILS THROUGHOUT THE WOODS
So, yes, all of the above thrust upon me an unshakeable feeling of disappointment; that there is nowhere sacred or untouched by the ever-increasing spread of human beings and their interference in the natural world. And, yes, I realize the hypocrisy latent in these complaints because I too paid the money and parked the car and walked the trails and did everything (except the loud music) that I am upset at other people for doing during my time there.
And yet, my time at Walden was one of the loveliest days I’ve had in recent memory. I smiled at the countless chipmunks that darted across the walking paths; I shivered and swam in the crystal clear fresh water; I lounged on the shore under a spring sun, surrounded by thrushes and weeds, listening to birds chirp and people splash and children laugh; I marveled at the trees lolling gently in the breeze and tried to imagine, standing at the marked-off site where Thoreau’s cabin is said to have stood, what it must have been like, 168 years ago, to step out of the front door and look through the trees at the water, mirroring the blue sky above, and to know that you were the only person around; that this idyllic scene was here, happening, and you had the privilege of bearing witness to it.
The world is what you make it, after all, and it’s up to you to decide with which lens you view it. Do you choose to put on the rose-tinted glasses (so to speak), or do you let every little thing that isn’t up to your expectations taint and ruin what would otherwise be a happy memory? Do you focus on the bad, or sad, or disappointing things that’ll get you down and affect your overall impression of a place, or do you simply note those things, and then decide to overlook them in favor of the beautiful experience you are so lucky to have? Did Thoreau complain about the size of his cabin (which was truly tiny — you can see a replica of it on your way back to the parking lot) or marvel at the size of the lake and the purity of the water and the beauty of the trees? These are rhetorical questions because I hope by now you realize the answer.
So which of those lists (the pros or the cons) will I remember when I think back on my time at Walden Pond, years from now? Will I recall all the disappointing aspects of the place that left me jaded and upset with the world, or will I remember a truly spectacular afternoon that made me appreciate, all over again, the natural world and my place in it, swimming and talking with a woman I can only hope to hold on to for as long as I live?
I suppose the answer, and (finally) my point in all of this, is that I’ll remember what I choose to remember — and what I choose to remember will not be the fleeting disappointment at what change has brought about, but rather, all the wonderful human moments I shared with my woman; moments that disappointment could never overshadow no matter how hard it may try. That, dear Pliny the Elder, I am certain of.