I was 13 when I first visited Walden Pond. It was 1976, the Bicentennial, and my father had a professional conference to attend in Boston. He and my mother decided we would drive from Michigan, making stops in Lexington and Concord, Mass. We visited Louisa May Alcott’s home, where I remember thinking the rooms were so small, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s house where I seem to recall an etching on a downstairs window purportedly made with a diamond, and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home. It was astounding to me that all of these writers I’d been reading could be so concentrated in one place. But I think stopping at Walden Pond made the biggest impact. To see the land that had inspired so many of Henry David Thoreau’s ideas--to walk where he had walked and planted and harvested--made his journal real.
Thoreau at Walden by John Porcellino impressed me greatly because his graphic novel format captured visually the feeling of setting foot on that land, and what it’s like to be alone beside the water and to smell the earth. His images of the landscape render words unnecessary in many of the sequences of panels, and he gives you room, as readers, to take in what it’s like to stand where Thoreau stood, to see what he saw.
Young people are so in touch with that sensory experience. Right now I’m staying with my seven-year-old nephew, Tiger, for a stretch here in Austin, Texas, and he and his classmates are so connected to the present. We’ve had a series of overcast and rainy days, and at the first sign of sunshine, they’re out the door, riding bikes, zipping on their scooters, playing hide-and-seek among the trees in the park. There’s something about being in nature that makes us more alive, more awake.
That’s what John Porcellino taps into in the quotes and episodes he’s chosen from Thoreau’s journals, and it’s the reason I’ve returned to his book again and again since its publication in 2008. In an interview, Porcellino said he discovered Thoreau in high school, at about the time that he began to experiment with comics. Porcellino said that his advice to young people is to “Find that spark that’s unique to you and express that.” He believes that that is a large part of what we can take from Thoreau’s philosophy, too, as a man who lived differently from his peers in 19th-century New England. Though Thoreau may not have been fully appreciated in his own time, his ideas continue to influence us today.