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Walden Pond: a place to think, or swim?

Why here is Walden, the same woodland lake that I discovered so many years ago . . . it is the same liquid joy and happiness to itself and its Maker . . . . He rounded this water with His hand, deepened and clarified it in His thought, and in His will bequeathed it to Concord. . . . One proposes that it be called God's drop.m

- Henry David Thoreau

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I remember all too well my feelings of disillusionment the first time I visited (Walden) pond . . . and saw the chain-link fence, the diving float, and the crowds of recreationists. The only thing that saved the day . . . was the sight of a pair of rufous-sided towhees scratching about and a Jack-in-the-Pulpit blooming nearby, apparently oblivious to the inappropriate activities going on around them.

- Letter to Edmund A. Schofield from a recent visitor

It seemed too warm for early May in New England, and that has brought out the crowds. Although the water was still too cold to swim in, the sunbathers stretched out their towels along the small beach and spilled onto the paths leading from each side of it. A visitor trying to walk the shoreline to the far end of the pond stepped carefully over and around lotioned bodies. He paused to listen for the wind swirling across the water; he heard only the warm murmur of the beach crowd punctuated by bursts of laughter.

He wandered farther on, away from the beach, and the crowd thinned a bit. Two men fishing from the shore were discussing their bait. ''I use marshmallows,'' the older one offered. The younger man smiled and shook his head. ''I used dough as a kid,'' he said, ''but never marshmallows.'' All the while, people filed by, hunting for a place to stretch out in the sun. Some announced themselves with the beat from their radios or tape players. The fishermen didn't seem to mind the noise; they didn't appear to be catching anything anyway.

Around on the far side of Walden Pond, away from Route 126 and the beach crowd, the scene was different. In a clearing in the woods about 30 yards uphill from the pond, a dozen or so people gathered around a park ranger. Some leaned against stone posts marking the outline of a one-room house that once stood there - the home of Henry David Thoreau for two years and two months, from 1845 to 1847. The ranger, a young woman, passed out notecards with quotations from Thoreau's book ''Walden.'' One by one they read a passage. Some spoke gingerly, perhaps wondering if the famous naturalist and essayist might somehow overhear them speaking his words at his cabin; others spoke thoughtfully, as if trying to imagine themselves as Thoreau, gazing out from the tiny cabin's doorway and scribbling in a notebook.

The talk over, the tour group headed down the hill, past a cairn of stones brought by visitors from around the world to honor the site of Thoreau's encounter with nature and himself, back along the well-worn path to the radios, the sunbathers, and the beach.


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* ''. . . A lake, a hill, a cliff or individual rocks, a forest, and ancient trees standing singly. Such things are beautiful,'' wrote Thoreau, who rarely strayed from his native Concord, Mass. ''They have a high use which dollars and cents never represent. If the inhabitants of a town were wise, they would seek to preserve these things, though at a considerable expense; for such things educate far more than any hired teachers or preachers, or any at present recognized system of school education. . . .

''It would be worth the while if in each town there were a committee appointed to see that the beauty of the town received no detriment. If we have the largest boulder in the county, then it should not belong to an individual, nor be made into door-steps.''

The trouble at Walden Pond, says a group called Walden Forever Wild (WFW), is that the pond has become a doorstep - with a welcome mat out for people looking for a beach, not a literary shrine. To WFW, Walden is more than a National Historic Monument, a status it has already achieved. It is the birthplace of the American environmental movement, the fountainhead of conservation thought, the symbol of the philosophy of Thoreau and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, his friend and fellow Concordian.

But according to Robert D. Yaro, deputy commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Envrionmental Management, Walden is also ''probably the premier freshwater swimming area in the (Boston) metro area.''

That, of course, is the problem.

It was Emerson who permitted his friend Thoreau to build a cabin on his land at Walden Pond. When care of the pond was passed to Middlesex County by Emerson's family in 1922, it agreed that swimming should be allowed, says Edmund A. Schofield, co-chairman of Walden Forever Wild. But what the family hadn't foreseen, he says, was how the automobile and the lack of adequate swimming facilities in eastern Massachusetts would soon lure a beach crowd from the entire metropolitan area, creating a kind of ''Coney Island'' atmosphere on hot summer days.

In 1957, the county began expanding the beach facilities to accommodate the crowd. But three years later the Thoreau Society (a group dedicated to studying the life and works of the philosopher) succeeded in a court action to force the county to return the area to its previous condition. After further public pressure, care of the pond was finally handed over to the state Department of Environmental Management in 1975. Today, state officials are trying to strike a delicate balance between the needs of recreationists and those who come to try to retrace the footsteps of Thoreau.

It hasn't been easy.

''There's no question, (Walden) had gotten out of control'' under county management, says Gilbert Bliss, director of forests and parks in the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management. What groups like WFW don't appreciate, he says, is the amount of time it takes to make significant changes. Much has been done, he says, and more will be, although ''we probably aren't going to see an end to recreational use. Walden has always been used that way. But recreation will have a place that fits in with historic values.''

''We appreciate that Walden is unique,'' adds Mr. Yaro, who oversees the development of the 62-acre pond and the 415 acres of land around it for the state. ''But we must balance the historical element with public access.''

Among the steps taken by the state since 1975, say the two officials, are:

* A reduced number of parking spaces. A single remaining lot, hidden in the woods out of sight of the pond, holds 350 cars. Although many people still walk in from parking spots off the Walden grounds, the parking limit and fee ($3) have greatly contributed to cutting the numbers of visitors, says Mr. Yaro. So too, has the cooperation of the local police, who tow illegally parked cars.

* Crowd control. State police horse patrols have cut rowdiness among the beach visitors.

* Acquisition of a trailer park across the road from the pond. The residents have been given lifetime leases, but once they are gone, the trailer park will close and become part of the buffer zone around the pond. About half the residents have already left, says Mr. Bliss, who is in charge of all the state's parks and reservations.

In addition to these steps, about $600,000 will soon be spent to improve the appearance of the swimming bathhouse and its landscaping. Another $600,000 is being asked for in this year's state budget to help check erosion caused by heavy use of the trails and hills around the pond.

WFW is seeking its own list of improvements, including a visitors center and the closing of the Concord town dump across from the pond. But the key issue, WFW argues, is swimming. A 1981 state study estimated visitor figures as high as 20,000 for a peak summer day. Mr. Bliss estimates the size of an average summer-day crowd at 2,000 to 3,000, which he admits is still ''too many.''

''Swimming at Walden is like a Trojan horse,'' says Mr. Schofield, who is also an associate editor of Horticulture magazine in Boston. ''It brings all kinds of intractable problems in its train, and is the cause of nearly all the destruction at Walden.''

''Swimmers come early in the morning, bring their lunch, and hog the parking spots all day so tourists from Indiana, Virginia, California, etc., cannot find a parking space,'' adds Mary P. Sherwood, who co-chairs the WFW with Mr. Schofield. With the state's blessing, Mrs. Sherwood has been single-handedly replanting the hills around Walden for the last several years in an effort to check erosion. ''No matter the rules,'' she says, ''it's the swimmers who bring in all kinds of liquor, they bring in the most dogs which pollute the beach and the water, and are the least caring of the environment. . . . To anyone who works at Walden, as I do, you soon realize that the Walden park is run primarily for that special swim group.''

Some critics have answered WFW's arguments by saying that efforts to have the pond more closely managed would run counter to Thoreau's own philosophy, which celebrated the individual rather than the masses. The pencilmaker-turned-philosopher once spent a night in jail protesting a poll tax. Might modern Thoreaus protest restrictions on the use of his pond?

Far from wanting to shut off the pond to visitors, answers Mrs. Sherwood, WFW wants Walden to stay open to a wide variety of appropriate recreational uses: fishing, hiking, bird watching, picnicking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and horseback riding on back trails.

A long-range goal of the group, adds Schofield, would be to merge the pond into the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, parts of which exist nearby on two sides of the pond. ''We think this would give Walden the best protection possible,'' he says. ''It would be managed for wildlife, not recreation, yet people would be allowed in, as they already are at Great Meadows, to observe wildlife, to hike, and so on.''

WFW would also like to see alternative swimming sites developed. State officials agree there is a need for more swimming areas and say that some state money will go into improving a site in Ashland, Mass. But they also point out that some of the same townspeople who complain about conditions at Walden are unwilling to make other, less historic ponds available to out-of-town swimmers.

According to parks supervisor Bliss, even if other sites can be found, ''Swimming is a legitimate use of Walden. It does not necessarily preclude appreciation of Walden from a Thoreauvian point of view. . . . During the spring and fall, the Thoreau visitor is OK. Only in summer is he probably disappointed.''

The state's goals for Walden, Bliss contends, ''are not that different from Walden Forever Wild's.'' If people are patient, he says, they will see more improvements in the next few years. ''I see Walden finally getting healed a bit, '' he says.

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