Travels with the American Guide Series, A WPA Federal Writers’ Project: Walden Pond

By Fern L. Nesson 

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.  

   Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854) 

Historical marker at Walden Pond.

Henry David Thoreau made Walden Pond immortal. The Massachusetts Guide, however, gives it barely a mention: 

By the shores of Walden Pond, Emerson’s intimate friend, Henry David Thoreau, the naturalist, fled from society, built his hut and studied the trees and birds he was to write about in ‘Walden, or Life in the Woods. (p.213) 

Strange oversight, and a shame for many reasons.  

Walden Pond

Walden pond is the site of one of the most cherished classics in American literature.   Thoreau built his small cabin at Walden Pond in 1845 and lived in it for two years. His goal was to live simply and to explore the connection between the natural and spiritual worlds. 

“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”  

              Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854) 

View of Walden Pond from the hiking trail.

Thoreau’s narrative of his time at the pond is captivating, beautifully expressed, and offers profound insights into living in deeper communication with nature. 

Even without any connection to Thoreau, the pond is scenic and a wonderful place to visit. It is a kettlehole pond, formed by the retreat of the glaciers after the Ice Age, nearly round and quite deep. The water is calm and clear. Surrounded by woods and hiking trails with evergreens providing green throughout the year, you cannot not find a more beautiful natural setting so near to Boston.

Hiking trail at Walden Pond.

In three seasons of the year, the pond is peaceful, permitting the contemplative experience of nature that Thoreau so prized. Summer is a different story. The pond’s two swimming areas are crowded with families spread out everywhere on the narrow shore. The sounds of swimmers splashing in the lake water dominate the scene. 

The beach at the Walden Pond State Reservation.
The beach at the Walden Pond State Reservation.

Even so, a quieter, Thoreauvian experience is possible. Forested paths lead around the pond. On the north side, a ½ mile path leads to the original site of Thoreau’s cabin home. The site has become a shrine. Stone pillars mark the outlines of the tiny cabin and just a few feet away are rock cairns placed there by visitors, many inscribed with quotes from Thoreau’s book. The scene is lovely and moving.  

Commemorative site at the Walden Pond State Reservation.
Commemorative site at the Walden Pond State Reservation.

The south is even more peaceful—only forest. Even in summer, there is rarely anyone on the trail; a hiker can be quite alone.  

View of Walden Pond from the hiking trail.

The pond and its surrounding woods are an example of good conservation practices at work. In the late 19th century, an amusement park was located at the western end of the pond, but it burned down in 1902 and was never rebuilt. Then, in 1922, the Emerson family, who owned the land surrounding the pond, deeded it to Massachusetts with the stipulation of “preserving the Walden of Emerson and Thoreau, its shores and nearby woodlands for the public who wish to enjoy the pond, the woods, and nature, including bathing, boating, fishing and picnicking.” Since then, Walden Pond has been run by the State.  

In 1961, the State considered selling some of the land, but the Massachusetts courts enjoined the sale, ruling that the Emerson deed required preservation of the land and barred further development.   

In 1990, when developers were proposing to build on land adjacent to the Emerson land, The Walden Woods Project, a privately-organized fund, raised enough money to purchase 85 additional surrounding acres of land protecting it from development forever.  Now all is as near as possible to how it was in Thoreau’s time.  The Massachusetts State Guide underplays the significance of a visit but you should not. 

   Thoreau’s cove 



Fern L. Nesson is a graduate of Harvard Law School and received an MA in American History from Brandeis and an M.F.A in Photography from the Maine Media College. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She practiced law in Boston for twenty years and subsequently taught American History and Mathematics at the Cambridge School of Weston and the Commonwealth School in Boston. Fern wrote Great Waters: A History of Boston’s Water Supply (1982), Signet of Eternity (2017) and Word (2020). She is currently working on a combined history and photography book on the WPA’s American Guide Series. Nesson's photographs have been shown internationally at the Politecnico University in Torino, Italy, Les Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles, France, Ph21 Gallery in Budapest, Hungary and at The University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. In the United States, Fern has had solo exhibitions at the Grifffin Museum of Photography, MIT Museum, The MetaLab at Harvard, the Beacon Gallery in Boston, Massachusetts, the Pascal Gallery in Rockport, and Maine, and Through This Lens Gallery in Durham, NC. Additionally, her work has been selected for numerous juried exhibitions in the U.S., Barcelona, Rome and Budapest. Her photobooks, Signet of Eternity and WORD, won the 10th and the 12th Annual Photobooks Award from the Davis-Orton Gallery. Nesson’s photography work can be found at

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