BOSTON BOOM THREATENS THOREAU'S WALDEN
LAST Christmas Eve, a tiny legal notice appeared in the Concord (Mass.) Journal, informing those who saw it that an obscure realty trust was seeking approval for a plan to develop land ``at approximately 641 Walden Street at Route 2.'' To the casual observer, there was little to distinguish the project from the countless others in Boston's booming high-tech suburbs.
What the notice hadn't mentioned, however, is that the proposed building site is across the highway from the entrance to Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau lived in a cabin and wrote his celebrated ``Walden,'' and which is now a state park. The site was called Brister's Hill, after a freed slave, and Thoreau trekked across it for cool spring water in the summer, says Thomas Blanding, a Thoreau scholar who is working at the Concord Museum.
The building's driveway will cut across a town forest. It will be the only significant development for close to a mile in either direction.
For decades, Walden has been under siege from summertime bathers with plastic coolers and - more recently - elephantine boom boxes.
The office building represents to some a new kind of threat, the violation of what remains of the surrounding hills and woods by the building boom that is overtaking much of New England. Not far away, a developer is pressing approval for a 250-unit housing development.
The threat of development to the nation's historic legacy could not come into sharper focus than at Walden Pond.
Though the subject of wistful articles from Thoreau's time to the present, the pond is actually quite ``humble,'' as Thoreau himself observed. It is smaller than a visitor expects, and in scenic terms pretty much like any number of other ponds that dot the New England countryside.
But Thoreau's genius was his ability to see the universal in the ordinary. What to most Concord residents of his day was primarily a source of timber, ice, and fish (Ralph Waldo Emerson originally bought the land Thoreau lived on to save it from the woodcutters) became in Thoreau's eyes a symbol of ``an inner direction for the society,'' as Mr. Blanding puts it.
Accordingly, he says, incursions upon Walden Pond become part of the symbol itself, an extension almost of the Fitchburg Railroad that penetrated his woods ``like the scream of a hawk'' carrying the ``restless city merchants'' to their ``incessant business.''
``Walden will be destroyed if this [development] continues,'' says Blanding, an amiable man who expounds upon Thoreau's life and thought with an 'elan usually reserved in these parts for discussions of the 1967 Red Sox.
The permit glided through the Board of Appeals ``with a speed that would make a downtown developer dizzy with joy,'' as architecture critic Jane Holtz Kay put it afterward. Opponents put most of the blame not on the developers, but on the indifference of Concord's local officialdom and citizenry.
The scant public notice is an example. Officials at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management, which maintains Walden Pond, didn't learn about the hearing until a day or two before it happened. Members of the Concord Historical Commission - of whom Blanding is one - heard nothing until they read about it in the paper afterward.
While the notice may have met the minimum requirements of the law, ``somebody should have realized there was something more at stake than a typical commercial development,'' says Henry Dane, a local lawyer who assisted in efforts to block the plan.
``It was just another matter before the board of appeals,'' one town official shrugged.
IN an odd twist of history, the owner of Boston Properties is Morton Zuckerman, who also owns The Atlantic Monthly, which played a major role in elevating Thoreau to the top rank of American writers. It was the Atlantic's owner in Thoreau's day - the publishing house of Ticknor & Fields - that published ``Walden,'' making the pond an enduring symbol of simple living and antimaterialist economics throughout the world.
``[The Atlantic's owners] were Thoreau's champions,'' Blanding says.
Mr. Zuckerman is involved in a similar controversy in New York City, where local residents are fighting his proposed 67-story tower that would, they charge, cast a shadow over Central Park. Edward Linde, Zuckerman's partner, counters that in both cases, Boston Properties is doing no more than the local zoning allows.
In Concord, he says, they are providing extra landscaping, putting the parking lot behind the building, and taking other steps that will make the site ``much better'' aesthetically than today.
Town officials contend that the office zoning was already in place, leaving them little choice but to approve the plan.
Still, the town had to approve the site plan before construction could begin.
``What's the point of having these [permit] laws if you can't stop something,'' asks Susan Deane, a landscape architect who chairs the town's Historical Commission.
The commission filed a lawsuit, but dropped it under pressure from the town manager, who among other things reminded them that he had approved their appointments.
Members readily concede that they are nonpolitical types who were untutored in the tactics of the preservation wars.
But then, the Historical Commission didn't have much outside support. Local Thoreau buffs observe that Concord is a town in transition, with many younger families moving in. When both husband and wife are ``traveling all over the place'' as lawyers and consultants to meet payments on a six-figure mortgage, Ms. Deane says, there's not much time to worry about a little pond.
Besides, the crowds at Walden - and the fact that it is run by the state - make it seem a bothersome appendage to many in town.
``It's hard to think of a bathing beach as a historical shrine,'' Deane observes. And some locals consider Thoreau a 19th-century hippie to begin with.
There's hope the office building won't be so bad. Judy Chanoux, the town planner, says that, under the circumstances, Boston Properties did an ``A-1 job'' in planning the site. The building will be only two stories, set back from the road, and the company agreed to close its parking lot to weekend bathers. Besides, she says, ``Route 2 is not a bucolic county road.''
BUT others contend that the building represents a step backwards at a time when some encouraging progress has been made. The two worst eyesores in the area, a trailer park and town landfill, are being phased out, and there has been progress in restoring Walden's natural setting.
``It's a crime to see something like [the office building] go in there,'' says Stuart Weinreb of the State Department of Environmental Management. ``I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how the project could be stopped. I couldn't see anything,'' Mr. Weinreb says.
The role of public officials like Weinreb is the second curious twist in the Walden saga. Thoreau is, after all, the man who wrote in ``Civil Disobedience'' that ``I should not like to think that I ever rely upon the protection of the state.''
The tension between what Thoreau stood for, and the measures necessary to preserve his vision in an urban age, emerge clearly in the decades-old controversy over the use of Walden Pond itself.
Though a sacred spot for Thoreau lovers all over the world, Walden Pond also serves the more pedestrian role as one of the few freshwater swimming areas in the region. On a visitor-per-acre basis, Walden Pond gets 1,000 times the use of Yellowstone National Park.
To be sure, there is a certain charm to the prevailing laissez faire. Park authorities are laid back; they actually let you swim anywhere. But by swimming everywhere, people are trampling the fragile banks. Deep gullies mar the path around the pond. The damage is ``really quite severe,'' says Edmund Schofield, a professional ecologist working at the Arnold Arboretum in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston. And while there are stretches of relative calm, visitors looking for solace will do almost as well at a men's shirt counter in Filene's Basement, Boston's bargain emporium.
The intrusions have a long history. After the Civil War, the railroad built a picnic area and small amusement park at the pond as a promotion. The worst atrocities were committed by the Middlesex County commissioners, who ran Walden as just another municipal pool, erecting a concrete bathhouse and pier and bulldozing the bank to enlarge the beach.
Since taking over in 1974, the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) has embarked on an earnest effort to restore the pond. The concrete pier and bathhouse are gone, and the bulldozing has been repaired. Portions of the bank are planted and fenced off, protected by a biodegradable mesh material.
While conceding the department's good intentions, the more fervent Thoreauvians think the state is fighting a losing battle. Walden Forever Wild, as their organization is called, has been pushing for several years to ban swimming from the pond and make it a kind of sanctuary for seekers of quiet.
Mary Sherbourne, an octogenerian and spiritual leader of, has even suggested a chain link fence around the pond - which, if nothing else, dramatizes the conundrum of trying to preserve the spirit of Thoreau's Walden while letting people somehow partake of it.
Thoreau's own example on the point is ambiguous. A contemplative if there ever was one, he was also a bona fide user. ``I got up early and bathed in the pond,'' he wrote, and took another swim after hoeing his bean field. Before Thoreau moved to Walden, he would go fishing there at night, building a fire on the shore to attract the fish, and afterward throwing ``the burning brands high into the air like skyrockets.''
``Thoreau would be the first to take a blowtorch'' to a chain link fence, critic Kay observes.
The original deed by which the heirs of Ralph Waldo Emerson granted Walden to the state didn't clarify matters much, providing for both preservation and recreation. Back then, as Blanding points out, there was no way to foresee that the automobile and Route 2 would put a local swimming hole within 20 minutes of the Boston hordes.
FOR its part, the DEM has no intention of trying to keep summer visitors out of the pond. ``We're not in the business of managing museums,'' Donald Feron, DEM supervisor, said at a recent forum.
One thing on which both sides can agree is the need for alternatives.
Whether the aim is to stop the swimming at Walden, or merely to reduce the crowds, there have to be other places for people to go. There is no shortage of possibilities. Sandy Pond, just over the town line in Lincoln, is both bigger and more picturesque than Walden, and in fact is where Thoreau originally wanted to settle. Similarly, the Charles River, which runs east from the suburbs into Boston, has been cleaned up to such a degree above its basin that - unknown to many in the area - it far exceeds minimum standards for safe swimming.
Lincoln says it needs Sandy Pond for its water supply. But observers suspect that Lincoln, like many communities, simply doesn't want the weekend crowds. This is demonstrably the case with the Charles. Rita Barron, head of the Charles River Watershed Association, has been trying for several years to get the Metropolitan District Commission to reopen beaches along this river.
But despite the cleanliness of the water - it only looks murky because it passes over wetlands, the vegetation steeping it like tea - she has been unsuccessful to date. ``We don't want busloads of those people pulling in here from Roxbury,'' Boston's predominately black community, she recalls one suburbanite saying.
Perhaps one has to be from another country to appreciate fully what so many in Massachusetts take for granted. ``I came to this area because I wanted to walk the woods where Henry Thoreau walked,'' says J.Walter Bain, a landscape architect from South America now living in Concord. ``Thoreau is a figure of universal appeal.''
Mr. Bain is dismayed at the prevailing attitude. ``Local people are the worst [at appreciating] whatever they have that is of national appeal,'' he says.