We were making a return pilgrimage to Walden Pond, MA, the small body of water set amongst pine and oak trees where the transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, famously retreated (on and off) over a period of two years to consider the meaning of life. Thoreau bought a hut from an Irish labourer who had helped build the Fitchburg railroad that ran along one side of the pond, and “..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.”
This idea of living in a very pared down way for a limited period, of stepping out of the everyday, to contemplate the bigger questions of existence goes the very heart of pilgrimage itself and its hardly surprising that 165 years after Thoreau penned these words many are still drawn to this small body of water which has little else to distinguish it from hundreds of other such ponds across New England.
But context is everything.
Walden is not far from Concord, a rural community which in the 19th century gave rise to a cluster of talents, not least Thoreau’s mentor, the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorn who penned the Scarlet Letter, and Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women. Perhaps more importantly, Concord was the place to which Paul Revere (son of a French Huguenot immigrant) famously galloped through the night of April 18th 1775 to bring the message that ‘the British are coming’. By tradition, the ‘shot that was heard around the world’ was fired the next day as the American Revolution began, bringing an end to colonial rule, as our American friends kindly reminded us.
Therein arose the question of when precisely the Europeans who had settled this foreign land, including many British, had become ‘Americans’. It was a group of settlers from Britain including Major Simon Willard who in 1635 had purchased from Native Americans ‘Musketaquid’, the grassy plain on which Concord was built. In 1854 it was an Irish labourer from whom Thoreau (of Channel Islands’ descent) had bought the hut in which he ‘lived deliberately’ and even as late as 1893 it was the Scottish-born naturalist John Muir who made his own pilgrimage to Concord to see where Emerson and Thoreau had lived and died and who later spurred President Teddy Roosevelt (a descendant of Dutch settlers) to create the US national parks, thereby ensuring the protection of some of America’s most pristine wilderness. Over the course of our holiday in the US we had visited with friends of Irish, French, Polish, Japanese-Brazilian, Portuguese and German-Jewish descent. So in this land of immigrants and settlers, colonisers and indigenous people, what makes an American an American?
Unlike in England, when ‘belonging’ turns on which nation you root for in international cricket or rugby, in New England it hinges on your willingness to stand up for American cheese. We the ex-colonisers had thrown down the gauntlet by suggesting that American cheese only came pre-sliced. ‘No’ our friends said, and to prove it they took us to a cheese store in Concord to buy some delicious Harbison cheese made in Vermont. It was delicious, without question, but as we stood in line to pay, I couldn’t help noticing that most of the cheeses had been imported from Italy, France, Germany, Spain and England. In that sense it truly was an American cheese shop.