Once More to the Pond

by David Rompf

In college I had an English professor who revealed her habit of reading Paradise Lost at least once every year. “I’ve now read it fifty times,” she said with manifest pride and amazement in marking her golden anniversary. Our classy, gracious professor revered the work that seemed, on my first and only reading, difficult and elusive. Milton’s poem thrilled her—she could recite lines from memory and locate them instantly in her note-filled edition—and she had won numerous teaching accolades as well as a devoted following among brilliant, soft-spoken students. If her initial reading had occurred, say, between the ages of fifteen and twenty, she would have been sixty-five to seventy when I, at twenty-one, sat in her classroom, fretting about my inability to finish fifty pages the previous evening.

I’ve heard plenty of stories about people who read their favorite works over and over again. One acquaintance informed me that he first took on The Iliad when he was ten and went on to repeat the act many times since. Another, an actor with several Broadway roles to his name, has read every English translation of The Odyssey and recently embarked on a new quest: to read it in ancient Greek, memorize it, and recite it in a staged performance—reading, rereading, memorizing, and internalizing it, words merging with self and soul.

Just pondering this proposition humbles and exhausts me. Although I certainly understand the desire to reread beloved and important books, I have rarely embraced the practice. I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve reread cover to cover. Lolita twice captured my concentrated attention because I wanted to savor Nabokov’s hypnotic rhythms and dazzling imagery. The Trial because it appeared on reading lists in my junior year in college and again in law school, when it was impossible to say who was undergoing the more surreal and grueling test, K. or I. I’ve returned to Slouching Towards Bethlehem every other year or so for twenty-five years because I’ve imagined Didion as a literary personal trainer for the long haul. I will never be as lithe and coolly gorgeous, but the sweat from a workout infuses me with faith in the possibility. Rounding out this small pack is only one other book, which I am contemplating reading for a fifth time.

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden was first assigned to me by a high school teacher who had shiny black hair and wore Birkenstocks to class. He seized every opportunity to remind us that he was both a socialist and an atheist. No one in our rampantly Republican school district in Orange County, California, seemed to have a problem with his politics or religious beliefs. In his classroom the chairs were arranged in a democratic, confrontational circle. No one stood or sat at the front of this congregation. Our godless teacher took a seat in the circle and explicitly christened himself “discussion facilitator.” He didn’t believe in grades, a stance that brought him immense popularity among the students and, as far as I know, no disapproval from parents or administrators. But since he could not renounce the grading system altogether, he simplified it: everyone who read three books and gave an oral report on each received an A. If you didn’t give three reports, which were not evaluated in any way—no academic judgment in this democracy—you got an F. I could have brought in a copy of Huckleberry Finn and addressed its treatment of race relations or merely said that I liked it or hated it; either way, I’d earn an A. Lo and behold, no one failed, and socialism as we naively envisioned it became an appealing ideology.

Walden was the only required book, to the extent that any book could be required in our idealistic leader’s rendition of a sociology course. We were not asked to submit any proof that we had turned its pages—a term paper, for example, or a list of the vegetables Thoreau grew in his garden—but our teacher asserted that reading it was a prerequisite for being “a fully realized American.” For him, one of the most memorable sentiments in the book had to do with reading itself: Thoreau’s suggestion that a person who did not read was no better off than a person who could not read.

The week after we all supposedly completed Walden, we boarded a big yellow school bus for a field trip. Not to Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains, where we might have sat by the lapping shore to ponder Thoreau’s two years and two months at his pond, but to Rodeo Drive, a gold-leafed shopping district for the very rich. Our teacher had intended the outing as a three-dimensional variation on compare-and-contrast methods in composition class. Life at Walden Pond contrasted with life in Beverly Hills, cabins with palaces, earthy simplicity with otherworldly extravagance, and—implied but never explicitly stated—our young lives with the women draped in white fur and jewels on an eighty-degree afternoon. Were they any happier than us? Did more mean better? In his unyielding insistence on living with only the basic necessities, Thoreau regarded any luxury as a hindrance to “the elevation of mankind.” And in a prescient indictment of those fur-clad denizens of Rodeo Drive, he quipped that “the luxuriously rich … are cooked a la mode.” Thoreau was funnier than our teacher, who hoped that we would question our material yearnings, and I believe our teacher secretly wished that at least one of us might decide, upon graduation, to head for the redwoods up north, build a lean-to, and forage for dinner.

The field trip, not surprisingly, backfired. On that smoggy day in Beverly Hills, my classmates ogled the polished Jaguars and Rolls Royces. Most of us had never observed these icons of fantastic wealth close-up. In California’s car-centric culture, of course those people were happier than us! Look at what they drove! Inside a glassy, gilded boutique some of the enraptured girls slid their fingers into diamond rings worth fifty thousand dollars while our teacher waited outside, peering in. He knocked on the window to get our attention. It was time to board the big yellow bus and go back to school.

I doubt that any of my fellow students contemplated, on the long solemn ride, the tranquil pond in Concord. The gaga-eyed fantasy, studded with precious gems, powered by gleaming race cars, quickly deflated. The mood on the bus was subdued, depressed by a lingering wistfulness. We had seen the promised land of glittering plentitude, and suddenly, cruelly, we were crawling through freeway traffic to our dull suburban slammer. Rodeo Drive had been a dreamy flash of glam. None of us, it seemed, would ever be going back. Our sandal-clad teacher had turned into a torturer and he would not be forgiven. In class the next day he tried to spark a debate about the two extremes—bare necessities and object-packed excess—but his attempt was futile. Hardly anyone wanted to think or talk about Henry David Thoreau. Withdrawn into a postdecadence stupor, my classmates seemed listless and distant, perhaps now dreaming, in the stifling heat, of the summer break ahead, when an old borrowed car would suffice for days at the beach. Before the end of class that day one of the boys asked, “So, where are we going next?”

But the man in his forest cabin intrigued me, and his resolve was more alluring to me than a parade of sleek automobiles. I couldn’t see a hint of my future in Beverly Hills, but I did recognize something of myself in Thoreau’s pages, for I had spent some happy childhood summers at my great-grandmother’s cottage on Horseshoe Lake in the woods of Northern Michigan, far from the heavy glare of southern California. During the summer between high school and college I took Walden with me to Michigan, where I had time to read the book again. On several warm days I sat on the ground, my back against an aging pine. Slowly I made my way through the pages, underlining favorite passages and taking breaks to pick blueberries or to walk down to the water’s edge. A confident and seemingly intimate voice spoke from a distant pond. “I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life … I did not wish to live what was not life,” he said, not to his visitors or to the world that would read him, but to me, the young man sitting in those woods. The image of Thoreau became a mirror image of myself—the self that had broken branches over my knee and stuffed them into the belly of a stove, the self that could not drink enough of the stingingly cold, ore-tinged water that gushed from a hand pump in my grandmother’s kitchen.

Horseshoe Lake was not large or especially beautiful. With a swampy shoreline, it did not invite swimming; we were forbidden from even trying. It was shaped like a horseshoe and so it was called Horseshoe. I imagined similarities between Walden Pond and Horseshoe Lake: they were the same size, for example, and both had water lilies floating on the surface. In my mind the two became one pool fed by a single underground source, sharing molecules as Henry David Thoreau and I shared a name.

As I sat and read, my suburban childhood seemed to dissolve into the musky earth. Temporarily free from authority, I felt unfettered and grown-up. My parents left me alone; no one bothered me, and no one asked what I was reading. On Horseshoe’s opposite shore I sometimes saw a deer drinking from the lake, appearing at once utterly calm and attentive. Or was I merely ascribing to it the qualities I had begun to feel in myself while sitting quietly with my book? The owl that regularly spied me also seemed calm and attentive. So did the lake itself. So did Thoreau.

In the fall, when Horseshoe would begin to glaze over in Upper Michigan’s long freeze, I would go off to an urban college, but already I was becoming a romanticized version of myself. Walden accompanied me on long walks in the woods. When I finished reading it the second time, I used a twig to carve my initials into a birch as proof of my days spent on my grandmother’s land. And as a promissory seal: to remember and to come back, though I did not know then which of these would become impossible. Likewise the woods, the reading, the deer, the water, the berries, and the voices faintly traveling from the cabin had carved their initials deep into my skin.

One Saturday morning some twenty years later, while digging through boxes of books and papers, I found my berry-stained copy of Walden. The cover was half unhinged, dangling like an autumn leaf. Hints of wood smoke emanated from the spine. Since my Michigan summer, I had lived in twenty different apartments or houses in five cities on three continents, and all this time my high school edition had traveled with me. As I opened the book, the years collapsed into a single moment with the scent of sun-warmed peat.

I was living in a one-room cottage, barely four hundred square feet, set on a hillside in Oakland, California. One of the cardboard boxes I had been rummaging through contained my law diploma. I was not a practicing attorney. Two acquaintances from law school lived in grand, multilevel homes nearby. They seemed baffled by my miniaturized quarters—tiny refrigerator, tiny stove, tiny dining table positioned inside the front door. “It’s like a studio apartment in Paris,” one of them said while visiting. “Really?” I said. “Not a mountain cabin?” He looked at me blankly and returned to a story about a tiny kitchen in a “Rive Gauche flat” where he had spent a college semester. “It was very quaint,” he said, glancing around my single-room home. “Like this.”

During my hill years, as I like to call them, I was employed as a university administrator, a job that compensated me lavishly in time rather than money. On Fridays I often worked at home, and the rest of the week I left the office by four. We had every conceivable holiday off—more holidays than I knew existed—plus two weeks in December, a spring break, and a European-length vacation. In my cottage, I read and wrote in front of a large window overlooking eucalyptus trees that quivered in the wind. For breaks, I walked or jogged the steep, narrow roads lined with thorny tangles of blackberry; in late summer and early fall I filled bowls and cartons with the berries and baked pies. Or I drove down to the bookstores and cafés in Berkeley, always hurrying back, gladly trading the psychedelic commotion for lush quietude. Telegraph Avenue offered a wild concoction of smart nouveau-hippy street life, but the Oakland hills provided real wildness: on a daily basis I saw more deer and raccoons than I had ever glimpsed at Horseshoe Lake.

In the cabin I could stretch out in a long window seat and arrange books, magazines, pillows, a plate of fruit, coffee mug, and pads of paper around me. From that nest I looked out upon a tree-filled canyon, a well of rifling evergreens. The nearest body of water was a stream cutting through redwood groves higher up in the hills, but I imagined the canyon as it might have been millennia ago, flooded by a brackish Pacific influx. Here I read Walden again, for the third time. As I read, the pond in Concord, Horseshoe Lake, and the emptied-out seabed of Montclair Canyon folded into one. Youth and adulthood converged; I felt both eighteen and thirty-eight and thought of myself as the average of the two. There was no other way to reconcile the sensation except to employ simple math. I was twenty-eight in my hill years.

Thoreau himself was twenty-eight when he embarked on his experiment in the woods. In Walden, he uses that word—experiment—fifteen times to describe matters from the mundane and domestic to the philosophical. He slaughters a woodchuck that has ravaged his bean field and devours him, “partly for experiment’s sake.” In an accounting of eight months worth of food expenses, he deems the flour, sugar, lard, dried apple, sweet potatoes, one pumpkin, and one watermelon “all experiments which failed,” although it’s not clear how they failed him. He seems especially intrigued by a man who tried to live only on raw corn for a fortnight. “For my part, I am glad to hear of experiments of this kind being tried …. The human race is interested in these experiments.” Thoreau viewed life as a laboratory, eagerly—and self-righteously—serving as both the subject and the principal investigator of his high-minded study. What greater purpose than to tinker in the forest of possibilities and report your findings so that others may learn?

Nearly everything in my life up to this point had seemed an experiment: a year in a dreary dormitory on the river Thames, a year in a one-room apartment in Tokyo—no television, no telephone, and no computer in that preinternet era—a year in Cambridge, Massachusetts (so close to Walden Pond, though I never visited), three years in law school, pursued from a vague notion that I should encounter the phenomenon of a legal education. I felt compelled, like Thoreau, to spend a stretch of time in a certain way, as a test of one’s self. Whether any of the experiments succeeded or not, each offered a beginning, and the accumulation of beginnings bolstered my sense that youth held steady, and before every new undertaking I purged the old. I threw things out or donated them to those who inherited my abandoned spaces. I kept my books and the luggage my parents gave me when I turned eighteen. Books and luggage, tantalizing incitements to experiment, were invitations to leave one place and arrive at another.

Circumstances eventually required that I leave behind the Oakland cabin. For weeks I searched for a new place to live, a replacement cabin in the surrounding hills, but found nothing comparable. And how could I? The only way to repeat the experience of living there was, of course, to live there. My haven in the hills would disappear like my great-grandmother’s cottage. I halted my search for the impossible and left my university post for an experiment of another kind in Silicon Valley.

“At a certain season of our life,” Thoreau wrote, “we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house.” For some time I fixed my domestic ambitions on a composite of my great-grandmother’s cottage in Michigan and my hideout in the Oakland hills: lake, berries, deer, wood-burning stove, pine canopy, ground ferns, the works. I did not want three bedrooms, or even two, and I did not need an industrial-size kitchen. I did not want a yard and all the toil involved; a view of someone else’s trees and grass would suffice. For years I enjoyed living in extremely small spaces; compactness and easy maintenance had become essential. Rounding out my list were big windows, good light, and (more difficult to attain) the illusion—and only the illusion—of apartness, the feeling of living in a parallel but nearby universe. Perhaps the same was true for Thoreau. Far from being a recluse, Thoreau did not shun the town, and his cabin was not especially secluded. Friends and strangers dropped by, leaving notes if he was not at home. He went on walks with visitors through the forest of pitch pines and hickories, and every day or two he ambled into Concord to hear the gossip of the village—“a great news room”—but soon bolted back to the woods, which he referred to as his snug harbor. The monastic notions of the man are mostly our own creation, a projection of an arcadian desire to break the cycle of enervating, people-intensive routines.

I considered sundry locations: the Hawaiian Islands, the San Juan Islands, the woods north of San Francisco, the woods south of San Francisco, lands considered mystical in New Mexico and Arizona, remote plots of land throughout the lake countries of Minnesota and New England. The prospects were replete with beauty. I scoured real estate listings on the internet and tabulated over and over again the costs of living in each region. I went to visit many of the places, peeked into open houses, circled ramshackle cottages on trickling streams, but I did not hear my siren.

After exhausting the options I realized that the possibilities I’d jotted down were fraught with questionable conviction, that I had been misled by my own vision. I could survive a vacation in the San Juan Islands but surely not a lifetime. In my hands, all tools were rendered useless. I would never own a gun and I would never fish and I certainly would not drink from the same lake I bathed in, as Thoreau did. I lacked an understanding of real country living and had glorified the idea of semiseclusion. My little abodes had been conveniently located on the edge of metropolitan sprawl or smack in the middle of it. I needed to live close to cafés and bookstores. I had denied the essential—the very crucial—urbanity of my life. The city, in fact, had always been my next-door neighbor.

Finally, I selected a point on the map that was farthest from nostalgia, or so I believed. A few months short of my forty-second birthday, I left California and moved into an apartment high above midtown Manhattan, with views extending far uptown. From the kitchen I could see the glow of Times Square. A job had lured me here, but I could have stayed in northern California, moved to a quaint, café-studded town, and made do with a small beamed bungalow. But that would have been living the same story, possibly in perpetuity; not a bad life, indeed a very good one, but the same life.

And so I found myself, on a rainy spring day, unpacking boxes in six hundred square feet on the thirtieth floor in a neighborhood known by many names: Hell’s Kitchen, Clinton, Midtown West, the Theater District. My living quarters offered about the same space as my Oakland hill cabin. Two large windows met at the corner of the main room, where, on a clear day, the morning sun would rush in with the fervor and clout of a New York crowd in a hurry.

From an angle I could eye the leaden Hudson, and for several winters the river froze into thin glacial fields that drifted and shattered easily when nudged by riverboats. But in the past few years I have not seen any buildup of ice. Massive development of the island’s far west side also means I now see much less of the river. There is, too, a slice of Central Park, mostly obstructed by encroaching condominiums, but in this city a view of the park is a view of the park. The green strip bronzes in late fall, and fireworks bloom above it on New Year’s Eve. On walks in the park I prefer to begin on the North Woods Trail, near 110th Street, following the least busy paths and skipping the reservoir’s perimeter, which often teems with joggers and tourists. But I always stop to sit on a bench along the eastern edge of the Lake, amidst the black cherry and sycamore groves, before continuing on to the Pond, in the park’s southeast corner, steps from Fifth Avenue. In my imagination, underground streams flowing from Horseshoe Lake and Walden Pond feed these urban pools.

I have few belongings in my apartment: a couch, a bed, a desk, a small dining table, two bookshelves and two chairs—Thoreau had three: one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society. Hosting more than two guests is a challenge, although my first Christmas in New York I managed to entertain seven family members from California. Through steamed-up windows we watched a storm consume the steely towers, filling the urban cirque with soft, airy snow. In those whiteout conditions we could have been in Michigan or the High Sierra. My mother was overcome by nostalgia. But why? She has never lived in any city and spent nearly five decades in the same suburban ranch. Most places, however, become memories of other places. Silenced by the cushion of snow, Manhattan in winter hinted at the backwoods of her youth. For my father, the apartment was the tree house he never had; for me, it was what I had imagined all my way stations to be: the cold, gray hovel on the Thames, the straw-matted compartment in Tokyo, the hill cabin above the Golden Gate, the cottage watched over by my great-grandmother.

Here in the sky I began to read Walden for a fourth time. The pages of my old book had grown brittle; I’d applied tape to keep the cover attached. Although many handsome new editions line the shelf at a nearby bookstore, I won’t buy a fresh copy, which would, after all, be an abridged edition, for my rereading now is as much about the notes and highlights in blue, black, and yellow.

Two voices fill those pages, and many ages. I was sitting in a stuffy schoolroom when I underlined “as long as possible live free and uncommitted. It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail.” That sounded daringly true to me then, and in many ways I lived its advice. At Horseshoe Lake I underscored “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life …. I did not wish to live what was not life. ” In my hill cabin: “I am no more lonely than the loon in the pond that laughs so loud, or than Walden Pond itself.” Thoreau claimed he was never lonesome or oppressed by a sense of solitude at the pond, except once for an hour a few weeks into his stay. He managed to keep good company—just enough visitors, walks to the nearest neighbor and the village, his books, the woods, the pond, and himself. I have had my own versions of all these and have had Thoreau to remind me that our planet sings in the Milky Way.

Thoreau asks how many people have dated a new era in their lives from the reading of a book. I have marked some of mine by reading his. The fourth time, at the beginning of midlife, reassured me that newness is discoverable at all ages. Thoreau himself, I found on this reading, was more irascible and yet more sensitive and charming than I remembered, a human paradox distilled, in the end, to an embodiment of simplicity with substance. Rereading changed the book and the author, and changed my views of the world, not unlike the way the cranes alter the views through my picture window, gradually and completely, and sometimes faster than I can register. My vantage point in midtown reminds me of the perpetual shift. New York City promises to be a wonderful place—once it is finished, as the adage suggests—but the work in this laboratory will never be done. The city, like life, is a longitudinal experiment with ever-shuffling variables. You can choose to hide here, or you can choose to engage with the astonishing motion. You can repeat yourself in your village-within-a-city, or you can leave and come back to find a twist in the mundane—a building that rose during your absence, a coffee shop disappeared.

Rereading Walden in my sky cabin, I began to see myself as Manhattan, an island composed of villages, a person of many epochs and many skins. I sat in my apartment and gazed at a skinny new tower puncturing the sky. Not yet complete, it will be the tallest residential building in the world. Whoever ends up living there will enjoy sweeping panoramas of Central Park and all five boroughs—views of everywhere and everything, those sky dwellers might say. Surrounded by the Hudson and East rivers, and a short walk from the park’s ponds, those eyes of the earth, as Thoreau would have called them, those great crystals and Lakes of Light, I felt the pull of Walden once again. Maybe it was a desire to be grounded in another place in an earlier era, to sit on familiar earth near a tree engraved with my initials. Rereading Walden in a place that has itself become new, I felt the prospect of another beginning. Opening the stained, travel-worn pages, my eyes fell on a passage streaked with the hue of a morning star. “Read your fate,” he tells me. “See what is before you, and walk into futurity.”

Published on November 2, 2020

First published in Harvard Review 55.