📷 Dr. Robert Thorson of the University of Connecticut spoke at the annual fundraising dinner for Opacum Land Trust, held at The Publick House in Sturbridge.
By Sarah Champagne, Managing Editor
Henry David Thoreau is famous for his experiment in intentional living at Walden Pond here in Massachusetts. His writing on conservation, spiritualism and a life well-lived has continued to be relevant and thought-provoking more than 150 years after his death. It seems that something unique can be garnered from his body of work in every era and generation following his original body of work.
The Opacum Land Trust hosted their fifth annual fall fundraiser, a dinner event at The Publick House in Sturbridge, Wednesday, Sept. 19. The event’s featured speaker, Dr. Robert M. Thorson is a professor of geology at the University of Connecticut who has written several books, primarily about Walden Pond and Thoreau or the ubiquitous historic stone walls that are found throughout New England. The event’s title asked the intriguing question, “Where’s Your Walden?”
Dr. Thorson first read Thoreau in the late 1960s as a young man and the book helped give him a sense of moral direction in the tumultuous social and political setting of the era. Thoreau’s thoughts on civil disobedience and intentional living have remained thought-provoking for Thorson in the decades since that time.
“I was so angry,” Thorson reflects on his younger self, encountering Thoreau in the sixties. “That is when Thoreau saved my life.”
Thorson went on to earn his bachelor’s degree at Bemidji State College in Minnesota, his master’s degree from the University of Alaska and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in Seattle. He is now a professor at The University of Connecticut. Although his formal education is in geology and teaching earth sciences, Thorson’s professional work has crossed over into conservation, journalism, literary studies and other cross-disciplinary pursuits.
Of the seven books that Thorson has written, four of those have centered around themes related to Thoreau and Walden Pond. His latest book, presented at the Opacum Land Trust event, is based on his work as a tour guide at Walden Pond. The book, The Guide To Walden Pond, could be described as a written version of the tours he has given, coupled with his historic and geological knowledge of the surroundings at Walden Pond State Reservation.
Thorson said during his talk that when he moved to New England after living most of his life in states like Minnesota or Alaska, he was afraid that he would be disappointed, losing the openness and landscapes of western states. Instead, upon his arrival he found the rich geographic and human history of New England to be enriching and endlessly fascinating.
“I thought I’d lose out on the majesty of Alaskan landscapes. Instead, I found that the texture of the New England landscape more than made up for it,” he explains. “And also, as a bonus, I would be that much closer to Walden Pond.”
As a result of the rich geographic history of New England, Thorson says that he tells his students that The Grand Canyon is “boring” compared to New England due to its geologic variance and complexity.
The central message of Thorson’s talk centered on the question found in the event’s title: “Where’s Your Walden?”
This question, asked of the audience, goes to the core of the purpose Walden Woods served for Thoreau. Walden was a physical place that the historic author went to find solitude, to reflect and to become grounded. The modern author, Thorson, describes “your Walden” as a place that provides you with the stillness and clarity that many find in nature. For Thoreau, it was an immersion experience that was marked by the qualities of “solitude, purity, simplicity, sensitivity, strength and renewal,” as described by Thorson. Each person has a place or can find a place, where this grounding experience is available to them. For some, it is the ocean and for others, it may be a river or the woods.
“Walden is so potent that it’s not even a place,” Thorson commented to the audience of Opacum Land Trust supporters. “It’s an idea. It’s wherever you go to ground yourself. It’s a notion more than anything,”