Monday, June 09, 2008

Walden, again

I keep returning again and again to Walden Pond.  Not just physically; it is a given that on hot summer days a few hours at Walden seem like paradise, an easy and bracing balm of clear water, green trees and, these days, humanity, splashing children and local curmudgeons, sitting and swimming.  But Walden returns to my thoughts again and again, memories of times there, anticipation of future visits, thoughtful meanderings in its history, from its glacial beginnings to Thoreau's sojourns to its current status as a jewel in the Massachusetts park system.

It has had a strong presence in my journaling; I started keeping a regular journal three and a half years ago after an October visit with my father.  I bought Robert Richardson's biography of Henry David Thoreau in the park's little bookstore, went home and wrote about watching an Osprey take a nice fish from the pond's northeast corner.  Now, after a succession of cooling visits during a heat wave, I find my journaling reinvigorated as I start working through another Richardson biography, of Ralph Waldo Emerson, another tireless journal keeper, and most likely the person who inspired Thoreau to keep one (Thoreau's journal famously starts off " 'Do you keep a journal?' he said..." and it is generally assumed that 'he' is Emerson).

Today I spent a few hours at Walden, and it was as replenishing and as interesting as ever.  Though the air temperature was beastly (mid 90's), I found a spot in the shade, and the mild breeze was cooled from passing over the water.  The water itself still had a bit of its spring chill, just enough to wake you up and provide some genuine refreshment from the summer doldrums that are quickly settling in.  I swam across the narrow end and back and then sat to read for a while.  Then I took a snorkel, the standout activity of the day.  Bass, both largemouth and smallmouth, were everywhere.  I came across five or six good-sized largemouths lurking by the rocks on the bottom, and at one point I swam right through a school of 40-50 more, first-years, just babies really, hanging in the top foot of water.  They barely noticed me at all and as I splashed through their iridescent green numbers I was taken briefly back to memories of colorful schools of fish in tropical waters.  

The best, though, was a lone smallmouth bass, a big one, that followed me up and down for the entire length of my swim, some one hundred yards at least in each direction.  He would let me approach within about a foot before calmly turning away and giving his tail a gentle swish to avoid my touch, but would then turn and watch me again.  As I would start moving away, he would follow, usually no more than five feet behind and often swimming directly below me.

I wonder why he did this?  What attraction did I offer?  Was I shelter?  I kept thinking of that book Adrift about the drifting life-raft, and the rich ecology that developed around the raft over the course of a couple of months - crabs, seaweed, barnacles, fish, birds, sharks.  Was I the beginning of something like that?  Did he consider me some kind of guide to a food supply?  I did notice a couple of times I dove down to look at something on the pond floor and he scampered in behind me to nose about in the muck and leaves that I had stirred up, but I never noticed him actually eat anything.  A couple of times we ran across a largemouth that was about as big as he was and I thought he might have been spooked off, but he held his ground and kept following (once he and the largemouth actually rubbed their sides together as they examined a patch of stirred up leaves).  Only when I finally re-entered the swimming beach area where many people were splashing around did he finally move off, and I was sad, but unfortunately I cannot swim around Walden all day long.  He was a beautiful fish, and very changeable in the light of the water, sometimes showing that classic bronze-brown color and other times a deeply-contrasting pattern of green and gold on his flanks.

This happened once before during an exercise swim across the lake, when one fish followed me all the way across and back.  I find it a curious and delightful event.  Next time I go back to Walden I will look for him again.  And I believe I have named him - Thoreau.

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