Some time ago, I was given an essay by Rachel Alt, who is a student at James Madison University. The essay was a comparative piece which used a section of Henry David Thoreau's Walden, 1854, and relating it to something from the student's own life experience. (This most famous section is commonly known as "The Ponds") Rachel's essay came to me by way of Rachel's grandmother, Julanne (Dudy) Alt and her friend, Marilyn Scozzafava, who thought visitors to the Sylvia Lake website would enjoy it. As a former English teacher, myself, I agreed.
Rachel, now a Senior at James Madison, recently emailed her permission for me to publish the essay here on the website. (On the note that accompanied the essay, her grandmother noted with pride, that it had received an A+.)
Walden's "The Ponds," is Thoreau's nostalgic rememberings of what life had been like for him as both a visitor and resident of Walden Pond. This section is very detailed about all aspects of the pond(s) and he reveals his recollection of everything from the water temperature and the beauty of the environment to the taste of the huckleberries. An annotated, online version of Thoreau's Walden, including "The Ponds," can be found here...
Perhaps it is not so ironic that the photos of Walden Pond and Sylvia Lake, bear a striking resemblance. Rachel's childhood memory is quite vivid, as you will see in the essay.
Sylvia, My Walden Pond
by Rachel Alt
I have always had difficulties connecting and finding personal meanings when I read works by romantic writers, so when we were assigned this paper I was worried that I wouldn't have anything to write about. It wasn't until I read, The Ponds that it struck a chord in me and I knew exactly what I wanted to write about. Thoreau's description of Walden Pond reminded me of a lake that my family and I used to visit when I was young called Sylvia Lake. I haven't been there in years, but the last time that I went I became deeply touched by the beauty around me, and that lake helped me develop from a child to a young woman.
My family never took normal vacations. While other families were busy going to tropical islands to lie on the beach and bathe their bodies in the radiant sunlight, or taking wild excursions abroad in far off countries, my father was determined to show me the beauty of the world that surrounded me right in my own backyard. I was not surprised when for Spring break when I was about 16; my father told me that we would be going to Sylvia Lake in Upstate New York. I had been there when I was young, about two or three years old, but I was not able to appreciate the beauty and the serenity of the lake when I was that young.
We drove 12 long hours, transitioning from highways congested with the cars from the city, to one lane roads leading us to "fresh woods and pastures a new." We turned onto a lone dirt road that lead us to an old log cabin on the cusp of the lake. I got out of the car and meandered down to the lake, expecting to take one look at it and turn around and go back into the house, but when I saw the lake something inside me changed. The lake that had failed to capture my emotions now snatched a hold of my heart and took my breath away. The lake seemed like, "a perennial spring in the midst of pine and oak woods, without any visible inlet or outlet except by the clouds and evaporation." It seemed like I was the only one basking in the beauty of what was in front of me, but I was brutally pulled back into reality like, " a faint jerk, which come to interrupt your dreams and link you to Nature again," when I heard the screams and laughter of my younger sister.
Determined to be alone in the moment that I was experiencing, I bid my family farewell and took a canoe out onto the water to be alone with my thoughts. Sylvia Lake was clam and serene, like floating on glass, and though the wake of my canoe rippled her, she quickly returned back to her original state. I proceeded around the edge of the lake taking in the ebb and flow of the lakes natural patterns. Paddling to the middle I could see her bottom and the smooth rocks, dressed in algae that layered her depths. In her clear reflection I could not only see myself, a confused teenager struggling to become a woman, but I could also see the sun, sinking slowly into the horizon behind me, like the last of my childhood sinking into the distance. Her waters comforted me seeming like Walden where she was," blue at one time and green at another, even from the same point of view. Lying between the earth and the heavens, it partakes the color of both." Sylvia was my heaven on earth, away from the struggles and confusions of a troubled teen. Here I didn't have to conform to anything or anyone's expectations. Here, on this, lake I was able to just be myself.
Breathing in what was around me, I became overwhelmed by Sylvia and her perfect beauty. She was more than a lake, she was earth personified and she was coming alive in front of my eyes. "A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. The fluviatile trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows." I sat in the boat, in the middle of my Sylvia, reveling in the beauty that I felt she was only showing to me. She exposed herself to me, and I exposed myself back, drinking in all that she was giving me, and giving back myself to her. Overwhelmed not only by Sylvia, but also by the decisions that were being brought upon me, tears hit her surface creating, "circling dimples," that disappeared as soon as they fell. As the sun was setting in the distance disappearing from sight, so was my childhood. And there I sat, floating between womanhood and childhood.
" I seemed to be floating through the air as in a balloon, " as I let Sylvia carry me around her, trusting her with my entire being. The motherly moon began to rise, blanketing her surroundings in a pale blanket of light, illuminating that which could be seen, and creating dark shadows over what could not. I seemed to be, "dreaming awake, until I was aroused by the boat touching the sand, and I arose to see what shore my fates had impelled me to do." Sylvia had taken me right back to where I had begun, knowing that although I was becoming a woman, I was still a child. The rest of the trip I allowed myself to experience the nature around me, ; and while I had arrived a child, I left a new woman.
It has been years since I have been back to Sylvia Lake. She had now been taken over by developers like, "that devilish iron horse whose ear-rending neigh is heard throughout the town, and has muddied the Boiling Spring with his foot." Though she is not the same, she continues to be my, "Sky water," the place where I discovered myself.
She continues to be, " a great crystal on the surface of the earth," and she will always be mine.