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The Cliffs of Fair Haven, on a beautiful day in October, 2013

Story of the Book

Note: This is written more for my sake than for any reader.  I wanted to get it down before I became inevitably drawn into something else. 

This book began on early  Sunday morning in July 2010 on the  granite cliffs of Fair Haven, shown above.   I was one of about twenty participants on a field trip being led by the professional guide Pete Alden, and sponsored by the 69th Annual Gathering of the Thoreau Society.  After our pause to overlook the Sudbury River Valley with Fair Haven Bay in the distance, he asked me to say a few words about creation story of Walden Pond.  After my extemporaneous remarks, one of the trip participants suggested I write them up for the Thoreau Society Bulletin.  One thing led to another, and Walden’s Shore was the result.


Things had been leading up to this moment.  I was at the meeting to give a talk with the not-so-engaging title “Geology as the Fourth Derivative of Geology,”  one that came off fairly well, notwithstanding the great heat in the stuffy half-basement of the Masonic Temple in Concord, MA on the previous afternoon.  That talk was part of a camplagn to share my book “Beyond Walden: The Hidden History of America’s Kettle Lakes and Ponds” (New York: Walker & Company, 2009), which had been published earlier that year after three years of work.  Despite my title, the intellectual gravity of Walden kept pulling me back to Concord.


After those field trips in July, I migrated to Maine, By August I had a draft manuscript, most of which was written in a cabin in Bethel, Maine overlooking Sago Pond.  At that  point, the manuscript was restricted to the geological narrative of Walden Pond, filled out by quotes from Thoreau’s Walden.


Returning to a full teaching load, I had to wait until the January break, during which I spent several weeks bringing it to the stage that it could be read.  My colleage Wayne Franklin, a Professor of English with plenty of experience teaching Walden, agreed to read it and comment.  By February, we had met, he was encouraging,  and we agreed that John Kulka, editor of the Fully Annotated Walden (which we were teaching with), would be a good person to start with.  He had recently moved from Yale Press to Harvard Press.  Within a few days, John and I agreed to work together. Within a month, my agent had a  contract, and I began working on my geo-narrative, which was then destined to be a fairly short book.

In May, and as a self-reward for turning in my semester grades, I took several weeks off to read Thoreau’s  Journal.  As I read, I  became more and more amazed with Thoreau’s prescient scientific observations about  watershed hydrology, limnology, and geology.  Eventually, I realized that the creation story of Walden Pond I had just completed could be told much more effectively by expanding my focus beyond Walden Pond and Walden the book.  The geo-narrative would be only the first half of the story. The other half would be the story of how Thoreau’s scientific observations got turned into his masterpiece.

This larger project required the creation of of a searchable matrix of Journal passage having over 43,000 cells.  This I created  that summer while spending  two-week hideaways on Conanicut Island in Narragansett Bay and  Frye Island in Sebago Lake, Maine.  When this was complete, I began to read my way through Thoreau’s other works written (but not necessarily published) before the submission of Walden, notably Cape Cod, the Maine WoodsWalking, a Natural History of Massachusetts, a Winter Walk, a Walk to Wachusetts.    By the end of summer, I knew there was enough material to have Thoreau tell the geological story in his own words, and to interpret his use of this material in composing his masterpiece.


That fall, a heavy teaching load brought the project to a screeching halt.   During my January break, however, I was able to convert nearly two hundred pages of quotes and notes from Thoreau’s published essays into a series of annotated lists organized by topic.  Originally, this was a prelude to expanding my matrix, perhaps to 100,000 cells,  though I decided to skip this step because the topical organization was already fairly strong.

Assembly of the book took place during a bitter cold week in Bethel, Maine.  Assembly is the right word, for never did I sit down to write it.  Rather, what I did was create a very detailed outline of the entire project , and then “stuff it” with thousands of quotes, each of which was accompanied by a citation and perhaps a few lines of text providing context for it.    The outline consisted of three basic parts: Part I – The creation story of Walden Pond; Part II – The way the Pond works as a natural system; and Part III – and the means by which Thoreau used the geoscience material when composing Walden.  After a week of ten hour days, I had a bloated, disjointed manuscript.

That  spring, with a light teaching load, I was able to convert this stuffed outline into a crude rought draft in which nearly every sentence was followed by a bibliographic citation.  Conversion took place by lumping discrete quotes into sentences and paragraphs, and –by using my notes– write bridging sentences, paragraph set-ups, and summaries.  Much of this work was done between mid May, when I was done teaching,a nd mid-June, when we were forced to leave a house we had rented for the academic year.  Just before leaving, I sent this ugly draft to editor Kulka  because he had agreed to advise me at this stage.

With the manuscript sent off, I went into hiding for nearly seven months, the summer in a rental at Mirror Lake in Tuftonboro, New Hampshire, and the fall semester in a rental house in Madison, Connecticut. The first thing I did was  select nearly twenty five illustrations from historic sources and my own photographs, and create seventeen technical illustrations for the science-rich parts of the book.  This took nearly three weeks. By that time, I had received Kulka’s comments. They forced a re-organization of the text, a change in emphasis, and the elimnation of two long chapters, which were culled and the materials inserted elsewhere.

The last month and a half of summer was spent re-reading Walden several times,  reading the fairly small bibliography about the science of Walden the Pond, and taking on the enormous –impossible to read it all–  scholarly literature about Walden the book.  At one time, I remember having nearly eleven feet of books, most of which were from the University of Connecticut library.  My main purpose was to detect and then assign precedent to any ideas or claims I was making.  What surprised me was how much I learned from what I thought would be perfunctory reading.  It seems that everthing I read helped clarify the context for my own ideas, and helped shift my writing toward the literary audience.  Never have I been so single-minded for so long a time.  Practically every day was the same for two full months.  After getting up early and greeting each day, I read, wrote, revised, and re-arranged, taking time out for meals, a daily swim, and a daily walk to bid the sun adieu.

From Tuftonborough, we moved to Madison, CT, where we had rented a cottage to live in during my sabbatical.  Though this was the semester of my guest appointment at Harvard University in its American Studies Program, I only made it there once.  Instead, I began the process of preparing my manuscript for submission. Initially, this meant the grunt work of building seven hundred end-notes, often one at the end of each paragraph. Some of these notes had up to thirty citations, each of which had to be cross-checked.  For one stretch in October, I recall averaging about sixty notes per day.  And then there was a bibliography to build.   The second half of this process involved  re-writing, re-writing, and more re-writing. I must have combed through the complete text a dozen times, a text that takes two days to read in its finished form of 429 pages.  By the time I submitted in late November, my backlog of other things to do had reached epic proporations.  This gave me something to do while I waited nearly two months for the reviews to come back.


January 3. This is the day when I got back the good news that all three external anonymous reviewers recommended publishing the book.  For the next month, Kulka and I began to work together to write the official response to comments, write the catalog description, fill out the Author’s Questionnairre, and respond to suggestions for the jacket design.  Meanwhile, I began to incorporate the reviewer’s comments, improve the text, add new information, and re-submit the final version for approval, this time with a ten page glossary. I did so on February 11, eleven days after my contracted deadline.  Within a month, I heard that it was officially approved, and was being moved into production.   Things went slower, now that I was back teaching, and because I began to make more frequent visits to Harvard, especially to the Ernst Mayr Library at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and the Houghton Library

While waiting for the galley proofs to be returned, made several new discoveries that would shape the book. The first, was learning that Henry Thoreau had a collection of rocks and mineral, then in storage at Fruitlands Museum.  This would put a solid rock foundation beneath the castles of my ideas.  The second was the degree to which the young geologist Charles Darwin influenced Thoreau’s natural history projects in Concord, especially his understanding of the landscape.  This required re-reading Darwin’s Journal of Researches and his autobiography.

The copy-editing process was slowed down by the new material, so that I didn’t finish it until May 23.  On that day, I considered myself largely done with the project.  I begged and pleaded that the page proofs be returned to me so that I could finish them before July, when I had two family weddings two weeks apart.

Naturally, the manuscript came back to me between the weddings.  I recall carryinig the box of paper and my red pencil everywhere.  Luckily, the indexing took less than a week because I had used some of the previous slack time to prepare a draft.

By the end of July, 2013, I was truly done. With the book-making, part of the project, that is.  Still to come was the publicity component.   In early September I began working with my publicist, who joined me for a trip around Walden Pond.  By late September, we had a copy of the jacket design. Very handsome.  By early November, we received our first review, by Kirkus.  By November, I received a single copy of the book. That was quite a moment.  The release date was set to December 16, at which point the book could be sold in stores.  On December 5, I launched the book at the University of Connecticut’s bookstore, the first book talk in their new space in Storrs Center.  Suzy Staubach has mentored me through the process of releasing four previous books.


There were the first few dribbles of external reviews, Harpers, Nature, and so forth.  I was delighted to have the Boston Globe feature it, along with Richard Primack’sWalden Warming, as the Boston Globe’s “Literary News,” and later, to have it reviewed by them.  Then things went pretty quiet.


I was invited to participate in a panel on Thoreau Studies for the biennial meeting of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, which was held in late June at the University of Idaho.  There I had a chance to meet and discuss the book. Also about this time, I learned of a number of favorable reviews. Finally it became clear to me that the effort was not for  naught.

In late August, I learned that Harvard Press will release a paperback edition on September 7, 2015.

The Cliffs of Fair Haven, on a beautiful day in October, 2013.  This, I believe, was Thoreau’s favorite place in the universe.  There, he could revel in granite, what his role-model Charles Darwin called Earth’s “fundamental rock.” At the same time, he could look out over the landscape of the Concord River Valley in his favorite direction, which was west-southwest.