Thoreau’s Cairn

Henry David Thoreau and I might have had a few spats. Despite his apparent fondness for all things natural, he did not like building stone. In Walden he wrote “To what end, pray, is so much stone hammered…Nations are possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave…I love better to see stones in place.” Perhaps then we might have agreed on cairns.

No they are not stones left in place but at least they are not stones altered by man or nation. One of the things I like best about cairns is that people make them from found rocks and not from rocks cut, chiseled, or sawn for that purpose. As I noted in my section on geology, stones used in cairns invariably reflect the nature of the stone—where and how it formed and where and how it weathered—and not the nature of a person. In that way, I like to think that cairns honor Thoreau’s admonition for simple and honest architecture.

How splendid then that a cairn is “our oldest monument to Thoreau.” Specifically, this cairn rises near where his original house stood at Walden Pond. It has been a central memorial to the man from Walden Pond since a lady from Dubuque, Iowa, placed the first stone in 1872.

Thoreau had died ten years earlier. He had not lived at Walden Pond since 1847, following his 26-month-long experiment “to anticipate, not the sunrise and the dawn merely, but, if possible, Nature herself!” The 10 x 15-foot house he had built had long been gone from Walden, too. In 1849, it had been moved across Concord. The new owners stored corn in it. They would later demolish it and use the wood for building projects on their farm.

By the early 1870s, Thoreau’s fame had led to a regular stream of pilgrims seeking out Walden. They found little to mark Thoreau’s life until June 1872, when Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May, visited with his friend Mary Newbury Adams and showed her where the small cabin had once stood. Noting that it was pity that there nothing to mark the spot, Adams suggested building a cairn and “then let everyone who loved Thoreau add a stone.” Alcott, a life-long friend of Henry’s agreed and added a stone to the one left by Adams. He noted in his journal of July 12-13, “Henry’s fame is sure to brighten with years, and this spot be visited by admiring readers of his works.”

The cairn at Walden still stands, pilgrims still visit it, and they still leave rocks. And, I still like hammered stone.


5 thoughts on “Thoreau’s Cairn”

    1. I think both. I suspect that some take down materials and others add stones. You know how that is.

  1. I am writing a book on Mary Newbury Adams of Dubuque and also a play about this cairn event. Mrs. Adams was a leader on the national stage mentoring women’s clubs (“where women could hear their own voices”) and was a frequent speaker at the annual women’s congresses. Mary and her husband hosted Emerson and Alcott a few times when they came to then what was the far west. Frank Potter, Dubuque, April 2021

  2. If you look very closely at the stones in the cairn made to celebrate Thoreau’s life, they are Native American artifacts – stone tools and art. Each one would have been the work of an individual artist and not just anonymous raw material. The first clue is that the stones fit the hand exceedingly well. Then look closely at marks on each stone, as well as features of the stone making it helpful as a multitool – a sharp point (not an arrow, but a sharp point on the stone that could be used to cut reed). A ridge that could be used as a plane to smooth saplings’ bark or straighten arrows. A rough edge to crush nuts or grain. Then look for possible eyes, and see if there are any noses or beaks or snouts and mouths to go along with them. Look along edges for faces too. Just visited the Concord Museum – the 12,000 year-old spear point has multiple faces along both edges! Happy hunting!

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