Kingsley Park overlook

On Thursday afternoon, Leslee and I walked at Fresh Pond in Cambridge, where I’d somehow never been. When I lived in Cambridge years ago, I didn’t have a car and thus relied on public transportation, my bike, and my own two feet to get around; daunted by the traffic that converges near Fresh Pond, I’d never ventured there, preferring to make the longer, less-hectic pilgrimage to Concord to visit Walden Pond when I was in the mood for shore-side contemplation.

Land, ice, water

There are many ways that Fresh Pond in Cambridge is unlike Walden in Concord. Fresh Pond is a reservoir providing drinking water for the city of Cambridge, so you can’t swim there in the summer, as you can at Walden. Fresh Pond sits next to a busy intersection across from a shopping mall, and the trail around it is paved, unlike the wooded trails at Walden. You can pay to park at Walden, although the lot regularly fills in the summer, when locals come to swim and tourists come to visit Henry David Thoreau’s house site, but if you don’t have a City of Cambridge parking decal, you can’t park at Fresh Pond any time of year. The thing that Fresh Pond and Walden have in common, however, is ice: not just the present-day ice Leslee and I saw (and heard) on our Fresh Pond walk, but a history of ice-harvesting.

Ice along shore

During our walk around Fresh Pond, Leslee and I saw a loon in drab winter plumage, two soaring red-tailed hawks, and a handful of scaups: I couldn’t tell with my bare eyes whether they were lesser or greater. We also heard the ice that remains after an unseasonable thaw chiming and knocking: chiming as bits of broken ice jingled in the water like rows of wine glasses tinkling in a rickety china cabinet and knocking as wind-blown waves hit the bottom of thin ice sheets near shore, the percussive sound amplified through melt-holes in the surface. In Walden, Thoreau observed how a frozen pond thumps like a drum when struck, and at Fresh Pond Leslee and I heard a partially thawed ice-drum struck from below by the watery slap of the pond itself: a wintery percussion section of ice drum, ice marimba, and ice chimes.

Ice shards

This ethereal ice-music is the kind of thing Thoreau himself would have been fascinated by: Fresh Pond’s own original composition. Ice groans and grunts when it breaks up in spring, and Thoreau describes the whooping and booming of Walden ice at various times of day as it warms and chills with the sun’s diurnal passing: “Who would have suspected,” he wrote, “so large and cold and thick-skinned a thing to be so sensitive?” These rhythmic sounds remind us, Thoreau suggested, that ponds are living, breathing things, with their own songs and calls as they molt from one watery plumage to another:

I also heard the whooping of the ice in the pond, my great bed-fellow in that part of Concord, as if it were restless in its bed and would fain turn over, were troubled with flatulency and had dreams.

Lone goldenrod

Leslee and I saw lots of dog-walkers at Fresh Pond—that is what the pond is most renowned for today, featuring prominently in both Caroline Knapp’s A Pack of Two, which celebrates the bond between humans and dogs, and Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home, which commemorates Caldwell’s friendship with Knapp, including their many walks at Fresh Pond with their dogs. In Thoreau’s lifetime, however, Fresh Pond wasn’t a place to walk your dog; instead, it was renowned for its ice, as was Walden itself, both ponds growing a thick winter rind that icemen harvested and shipped to cities by the slab:

Southern customers objected to [Walden ice’s] blue color, which is the evidence of its purity, as if it were muddy, and preferred the Cambridge ice, which is white, but tastes of weeds.

Semi-frozen

Today, when we want to ice a beverage, we go no further than our refrigerator, but during Thoreau’s lifetime, northern ponds were the appliance that supplied massive blocks for city-dwellers and southerners, who had enormous cakes of ice shipped in to be stored in cellars and iceboxes:

Ice is an interesting subject for contemplation. They told me that they had some in the ice-houses at Fresh Pond five years old which was as good as ever. Why is it that a bucket of water soon becomes putrid, but frozen remains sweet forever?

Ice along the edges

In the age of global warming, I doubt that either Fresh Pond or Walden freezes thick enough to yield the harvest Thoreau described, when “in a good day they could get out a thousand tons, which was the yield of about one acre.” On Thursday, most of Fresh Pond was open water, with only the frozen fringes singing an icy song. But after hearing the rhythm of wind-swept waves amplified through ice, I can easily imagine the tinkle of Fresh Pond ice cubes in 19th century tumblers, the sound of cool summer beverages echoing across the ages on a warm January day.

Click here for Leslee’s (illustrated) account of our afternoon walk around Fresh Pond. I shot several short videos of the wind-blown water and ice in an attempt to capture the chiming and knocking sounds. Although the sound quality is disappointing, you can check them out here and here and here.

Fingertips

Last Thursday, on my way back to Massachusetts from New Hampshire, I stopped at Walden Pond, which was thronged with swimmers and sunbathers, to say pay my respects to the statue of Henry David Thoreau that stands outside the replica of his famous one-room shack.

Thoreau with replica house

Thoreau moved to Walden Pond–where he would live in that one-room shack, write, and grow beans–on July 4, 1845: his own declaration of independence. Thoreau believed freedom is acquired through relinquishment: the more things you let go, the freer you’ll be. And so it seemed perfectly apt to stop and say hello to Henry on my way back home from Keene State, where last Thursday I cleaned out my office after having let go, at last, my teaching job there.

Desk with guestbook

Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for two years, vacating his shack in September, 1847 because he suspected he had “several more lives to live” and “could not spare any more time for that one.” I vacated my office at Keene State after having taught there for nearly eleven years–from September, 2001 until this June–because I also suspected it was time to move onto other things.

Weathered

When I started teaching at Keene State, I was married and living in Hillsboro, NH; over my years teaching at Keene State, my then-husband and I moved to Keene, I completed my PhD, my then-husband and I separated then divorced, I met then married J, and I ultimately moved to Massachusetts. It made sense to keep my job in Keene while I was teaching there full-time, but when my course-load was cut, commuting between two states for a part-time job made increasingly little sense. Why complicate your life by clinging to something that has lingered past its season?

Thoreau's right hand

Last Thursday night, I drove from Walden to Cambridge to give a talk at the Zen Center, my trunk still packed with piles and files: the accumulation of a nearly 20-year teaching career. At the Zen Center, I talked about letting go. The second of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths says we suffer because we cling to impermanent things, and my practice has taught me that sometimes there’s great solace in simply letting go: instead of clinging with a tight fist, relief comes from opening your hands into a gentle, receptive shape that simply gives way to gravity.

Thoreau's left hand

At Walden, a bronze sculpture of Thoreau shows him with both hands open, receptive: Henry carries a bag over one shoulder, but nothing else, his fingers cupped into a gesture of acceptance. At the Zen Center, I compared the experience of letting go my job at Keene State to the experience of putting Reggie to sleep: sometimes, after spending precious years of your life tending to something you loved without limit, the time comes when you need to let go, loosening your grip so that both you and the thing you loved can move on.

Spartan

After Thoreau left Walden Pond, he moved in with the Emersons, looking after Lidian Emerson and the Emerson children while Ralph Waldo Emerson traveled abroad. During this time, Thoreau worked as a handyman and surveyor, and he spent the next seven years polishing and perfecting the book–Walden, or Life in the Woods–that would become his masterpiece.

View from Thoreau Cove

Now that I’ve left Keene State, I’ll spend the next few months teaching online, then in September I’ll start teaching first-year writing at Framingham State University, a college much closer to home. I hope to spend more time walking and less time driving; I hope to spend more time writing and less time fretting about a job I always worried I wouldn’t be able to keep. Once you’ve let go of a thing, you don’t have to worry about losing it: you’re free to simply live without limit, your hands no longer clenched but cupped, receptive to whatever windfall the Universe decides to cast in your direction, the float of time being enough to support you, for now.

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