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One Generation's Enterprises

WHEN I slip into historical moods - which, fortunately for my family, isn't often - I sometimes envision my four-year-old son Nathaniel as a modern-day Thoreau. This is partly because Thoreau has always been one of my heroes, and partly because we live within ten miles of Walden Pond; but it's also because Nathaniel has a naturalist's gift. He can remember the names of animals, like lemurs and tapirs, which I constantly seem to forget, and he can tell me their identifying characteristics until I'm red with embarrassment at my own feeble efforts. He knows how different species protect themselves and care for their babies; he knows which animals have eggs and which animals give birth to live offspring. He can name the snakes that squeeze and the snakes that bite.

Because I have no skill in this line of work, I can claim no credit for this gift, although I do read him stacks of books about animals and birds. Yet sometimes, as I'm listening to him explain to me something about a siamang or a macau, I drift away from his words and see him in mind on the shores of Walden Pond - not, admittedly, much of a habitat for siamangs and macaus, but a place where, 150 years ago, a man who thought hard about creatures in the world put down his own kind of roots.

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``Daddy, Daddy, are you listening to me?'' he says insistently, pulling me back from my reverie.

``Sure,'' I say. ``Hey - how about if we go out to Walden?''

``Yuck! No way,'' says Nathaniel. ``I hate Walden.''

It's true: Nathaniel loathes Walden. He will do almost anything other than spend an hour or two on Thoreau's old shoreline. He would rather wait in line at the post office, or pick up shoes at the shoe repair store, or go with me to take the car in for a tune-up, than go to Walden Pond. Walden, for Nathaniel, has nothing in common with the natural world that interests him. For him, a trip to Walden Pond is a form of punishment, an adult whim to be stonily endured.

This is so far beyond the bounds of my comprehension that, like most incomprehensible things, it's become a family joke. We'll be at some place Nathaniel really likes - the Boston Museum of Science, the zoo, a toy store, a friend's house - when suddenly someone will say, ``Hey, Nathaniel! Want to go to Walden Pond?'' Even Nathaniel laughs, now, as long as he's sure we're not serious. The problem is, his reaction still hurts - just a tiny bit.

But why? Why should I care whether my son likes Walden Pond, or whether he cares more about foxes and crows than Thoreau? He's only four; Thoreau is no more than a mysterious name to him. And it's true we've visited Walden at some peculiar times. In the summer, we always seem to arrive with everyone else: the beach is jammed, and it's hard to find a place to make a good sandcastle. In the other seasons, we always seem to show up just as the sun ducks behind a cloud or a fierce wind streaks across the pond. Nathaniel associates our trips to Walden with crowds, discomfort, and overcoats. He would rather learn about nature in the quieter, warmer halls of the science museum.

Yet I remain selfish. I want to give my son something I care about. I want to give him the experience of this beautiful pond on a winter day, when the ice spreads darkly from shore to shore and the presence of Thoreau, the genius of this place, adds a spark or snap to the air. I want to play in the autumn leaves with him, feeling wild and free and far from the mechanized world that grinds and hums a half-mile away. I want to play with him and his trucks and boats in the warm sand on a still summer day, where the shouts of swimmers across the lake fade almost to nothing before they reach us.

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But he needs none of this. He needs none of my fantasies of pleasure and of nature. Already he has his own species of imaginings, and their richness and stubbornness make a mockery of mine. ``One generation leaves the enterprises of another like stranded vessels,'' Thoreau writes in ``Walden,'' but I could not believe that it would happen so soon - or even, for that matter, that it would happen to me. Thoreau saw at Walden not constancy but constant change, and yet I come to its shores hoping that some kind of constancy will rub off on me. It is Nathaniel who, lacking all interest in Thoreau, knows Thoreau's lessons; it is I who still have not learned them.

Contemporary adults are too likely to read great meaning into the lives of their young children, and I'm no exception. It may be that, ten or 15 years down the road, Nathaniel will find Thoreau a kindred spirit, and read his work with a private pleasure and a knowing eye. For my part, I will look back at these reflections and laugh at my old, high seriousness. Still, it is a strange experience to have my four-year-old son teach me the meaning of my favorite writer's words. I could not have imagined that Nathaniel, who cannot read, knew Thoreau so well. Perhaps, despite my obtuseness, they are already kindred spirits. If so, I wish them all the graces of companionship; in the meantime, I will make my way around Walden Pond alone, keeping an eye out for the essential changes.

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