During most of his life Henry David Thoreau was, by conventional standards of success, a failure.
He rarely left the farm town of Concord, Massachusetts, where he was born in 1817.
There he was viewed by at least some of his neighbours as a marginal figure, standoffish, politically radical, a loner, a crank.
As a member of the New England literary world he cut a graceless figure and had an inauspicious professional start.
His first book, A Week on the Concord and the Merrimack River, self-published in 1849, was a bust.
He sold a mere fraction of its 1000-copy press run.
When the printer dumped the remainders on him, Thoreau stacked them up in his bedroom and wrote in his journal: “I now have a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.”
His second book, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, based on his experience of living in a one-room cabin and in a state of rural semi-self-quarantine, found more readers.
And, crucially, they were ardent ones.
From the book’s first appearance in 1854 his star began to rise.
And within 10 years of his death in 1862, at 44, he was famous enough to be honoured with a public monument.
An odd monument it was: A loose pile of stones set on the site of the one-room cabin Thoreau built at Walden Pond.
The pile, usually referred to as a cairn, seems to have begun as an improvisation.
In the summer of 1872, the suffragist Mary Newbury Adams, a Thoreau fan, visited Concord and asked to be taken to Walden.
Her guide was the utopian thinker Bronson Alcott, one of Thoreau’s oldest friends.
By this point, any physical trace of Thoreau was long gone and there was nothing to signal the site’s significance. Adams wanted to change that.
In his diary Alcott writes: “Mrs Adams suggests that visitors to Walden shall bring a small stone for Thoreau’s monument and she begins the pile by laying stones on the site of his hermitage.”
He too added a stone that day, as did members of a local church group who happened to be picnicking nearby.
Word went out and the custom spread as, over the years, more pilgrims came. (I was one of them.)
The heap of stones, most harvested from the pond’s edge, is still growing (and shrinking; some people take stones away as souvenirs). Like many religious shrines, it’s organic, in perpetual flux.
There are many different Thoreaus to commemorate: The environmentalist, the abolitionist, the ethnologist, the globalist, the anti-imperialist, the Yankee saint who earned the devotion of Tolstoy and Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
But to me, as a visitor to Walden since childhood, the cairn means most as the marker of an event: Thoreau’s two-year-plus experiment in self-isolation.
It’s a condition many of us are experiencing during the present pandemic moment. And we can learn a lot from what Thoreau created from it: Constructive solitude.
It’s important to note that his isolation was not the sheltering-in-place kind.
It was not enforced (unless you consider lifestyle decisions made by a driven personality and deeply principled thinker to be beyond free choice).
And his apartness was far from total.
He went into Concord several times a week to catch up on gossip and have dinner with his relatives.
At Walden, he entertained guests and enjoyed regular chats with Irish labourers who worked on a railroad line close to the pond.
At the same time, social distancing came naturally to him.
He was, or could be, an irritable and thin-skinned guy, someone for whom the human species was a problem. (“I do not value any view of the universe into which man and institutions of man enter very largely,” he wrote.)
When he was in a misanthropic mood, six to eight feet of separation wasn’t nearly enough. Try a mile and a half, which was the approximate distance from Walden to the centre of town.
But if the Walden cabin, about the size of a garden shed, was in some sense a retreat, a refuge from “the noise of my contemporaries,” it had many more positive functions: It was a studio, a laboratory, an observatory, and a watchtower.
Reading Walden – or, better, his more lucidly written journals – as I have done these last weeks, we sense that Thoreau viewed the Walden outpost less as a defensive necessity than as a place of opportunity where he could do what he could not easily do in the everyday world: Namely, concentrate, focus, which I’ve always suspected was a way for him to handle incipient anxiety and despondency.
For one thing, he had that first book to write – an account of a boat trip he had taken several years earlier with his older brother John.
The book would be Thoreau’s first attempt at the blend of field research, philosophy and autobiography that would become his signature mode.
More important, the book would be a memorial to his beloved brother whose death from tetanus at 27 – he had nicked himself while shaving – shadowed Thoreau’s life.
He used his semi-seclusion at Walden, which began in July 1845 and ended in September 1847, to pursue an intensive course in self-education, one that required undistracted reading.
“Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written,” he wrote.
The list he compiled was long, ambitious and culturally far-reaching, stretching from Classical Greece to Vedic India.
The education further entailed a total immersion in nature – in plants, in seasons, in stars, in all creatures four-legged, winged and scaled.
For Thoreau, nature was a communicating consciousness, and he wanted to make himself available to it, antennas raised.
Full receptivity required removal from ego-driven clamour, which was how, in his most stressed moments, he viewed human discourse.
Finally, he used his set-aside time at Walden to clarify his political thinking.
For Thoreau, revolution began at home, one person at a time.
“We must first succeed alone,” he wrote, “that we may enjoy our success together.”
It was while living at Walden that he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay taxes that he saw as contributing to a warmongering, slavery-supporting government.
At Walden he wrote the lecture that he would later shape into the essay known as “Civil Disobedience.”
But the monument of stones at Walden is the opposite of angry, or declarative or, for that matter, monumental.
It speaks of aloneness-within-solidarity – a message we need to hear these days – in a homely down-to-earth way, one that Thoreau, who scorned all pomp and eye-baiting elegance (he once described himself as a “stuttering, blundering clod/hoper”) might have approved of.
It’s a monument designed by no one, built by everyone.
It’s assembled one piece at a time, over time, by individuals who will never meet, but who, in our devotion, form a community of souls.
It’s a monument that honours the dead, but is living, changing, growing.
During the present crisis that is isolating us, this monument has the potential to bring us together: It is an instructive emblem to contemplate, and a consoling one.