TWICE in the course of the past three years, as I have reported in these columns, attempts have been made to desecrate Walden, one of the most beautiful great ponds in New England and a permanent memorial to Henry Thoreau. The first encroachment occurred when the Middlesex County commissioners, encouraged by the citizens of Concord, cut down three hundred yards of fine trees and bulldozed the topsoil into the water to form a raw, sloping hardpan convenient for young bathers. The second was when the authorities of Concord, in search of a new site for the town dump, finally dug the odoriferous hole at a distance of less than half a mile from the reservation.
Concord is a town more conscientious than most; its citizens and Historical Society have been vigilant in preserving its Revolutionary and literary remains. Yet its attitude toward Walden seems that of an exasperated guardian, and part of the exasperation is doubtless caused by the picnickers (only a few of whom come from Concord), who follow that common American trait of throwing all rejected tin cans and hardware into the nearest available stream. (I remember seeing in one of the loveliest stretches in Upper Connecticut not only an iron bedspring under water but also the top half of an upholstered leather chair.) Walden has long suffered from the population pressure of suburbia, and I suppose that it was only human nature for Concord’s citizens to give first thought to their own privacy and to leave the pond to the mercy of the tourists.
But the county commissioners should have known better, and I am pleased to say that in a recent ruling of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court they have been ordered to halt their bulldozers and to replant trees felled at the site of Thoreau’s cabin. The concrete ramps must be uprooted; a modern roadway must be restored to the semblance of a forest path; and one hopes that the hot dog stands will go too.
In short, the court found that the commissioners, in enlarging the recreation area, were not acting in accordance with the terms of the original gift made by the grandsons of Emerson when they presented Walden and the woods to the commonwealth. More than ten thousand dollars has been expended by the Thoreau Society in the legal fight for this victory, and it is heartening to know that the dollars, dimes, and pennies came from people the world over for whom Thoreau is still alive.
THE LUNGS OF LONDON
This struggle to preserve the pastoral beauty of Walden, one of the most beautiful green areas in the neighborhood of Boston, sharply underscores the fundamental difference between the English and ourselves. The word “park” signifies a tract of land intended for confining beasts of the chase within a wall or fence, and the London public parks came into being as monarch after monarch, particularly the Stuarts, gave over his hunting preserves for the public use. Greenwich Park, where Queen Elizabeth loved to hunt the deer, and St. James’s arc two of the oldest. Hyde Park, once a forest reserved for Henry VIII’s hunting, was opened to the public by James I, and Kensington Gardens, Regent’s Park, and Green Park followed.
The happy thing to remember is that these “lungs of London,” these clean, lovely breathing spaces, are still being created. The largest postwar addition has been Holland Park, of fiftyfour acres. The most amusing of the new additions is the fun park, or the Festival Gardens, at Battersea, and it should be noticed that when polo was no longer feasible at Hurlingham, the park of twenty acres was converted into a splendid new sports arena with a 220-yard sprint and accommodations for 2500 spectators. So the process goes on, aimed at the idea, proclaimed in 1943 by the London County Council, of “seven acres of open space for every one thousand inhabitants.”
The London parks bring out the character of the city. There are the pedestrians, those who amble and those who stride with swinging arms as if just out of a regiment. There are the equestrians still in view on Rotten Row. And one portly gentleman whom I saw humping along on a Sunday put me in mind of Samuel Pcpys and of how, on May Day of 1663, Pcpys planned to catch the eye of the King and the powerful Lady Castlemaine. He dressed himself up in new clothes with “painted gloves, very pretty and all the mode,” and then, riding into the city on his own “dull jade,” he changed to a livelier beast at Chequer Inn. This proved his undoing, for the spirited animal brought him swiftly into the royal view — and then bolted.
The parks are a happy meeting place for the dog world: I have seen seven frisky Sealyhams being exercised by their sportsman in Green Park, and only a hundred yards away I noticed the approach of an ancient perambulator; in it were three cucldlesome dachshunds who were being trundled to their favorite piece of turf by an impressive spinster. The small streams and brooks which once flowed into the Thames have been piped underground and diverted to form great ponds such as the Serpentine, where whole families row themselves about in sculls and where the bird lovers congregate to feed and observe the waterfowl and the migrants who are protected here in such profusion. The parks, once opened, have never been restricted. Queen Caroline, the wife of George II, proposed to improve and then restrict the whole of Kensington Gardens for the use of the royal family only, and she asked the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, what it would cost to do so. “Only a Crown, Madam,” he replied, and the estimate restrained her.
Travelers with my curiosity should secure a copy of The Royal Parks of London by Richard Church (H.M. Stationery Office), an appetizing little guidebook which delights one with its history. And it is well to remember that attached to many of these parks are famous houses, such as Apsley House on Hyde Park Corner, which was Wellington’s home and is now a most enticing museum. Here one sees the trophies, the gold plate, and the 165 canvases which the great duke recaptured from Joseph Bonaparte, bogus King of Spain. Here in the Waterloo Gallery, a room ninety feet long, were held the reunion banquets, attended, of course, by the King and by Wellington’s famous veterans. A sight to remember.
These large royal parks in central London are what might be called the inner green islands. Beyond them, at a distance of four to six miles from Piccadilly, is a green belt of more open, less manicured turfs and woods, such as Wimbledon Common, where one can picnic or ride for miles or walk in privacy; or Hampstead Heath, with its woods and wild flowers, from whose heights one sees the whole sweep of the city and the great eggshell of St. Paul’s, a heath forever associated with John Keats. This spring I stood where he must have stood many times gazing at the city. Then I spent a quiet, reflective hour in the little house — a double house, really — where he and his friend Brown lived on one side of the partition and Fanny Brawne and her mother on the other. The heath and the house are inseparable, and Keats’s letters and books, which are so clearly displayed in this poignant little dwelling, make us feel his presence as much as the yellow brocade sofa on which he lay by the window in his last illness and the three-hundred-year-old mulberry tree under which he wrote in fair weather.
Still further out is the third tier, and now you are in Epping Forest with its six thousand virgin acres, where the deer and trout are still wild; Hainault Forest with its eleven hundred acres; Wanstead Flats; Hampton Court; or the recently restored Lesnes Abbey and woods with its two hundred acres of woodland and its meadows ol wild daffodils. In all, there are more than 140 parks and open spaces now under the control of the London County Council, a vaster, more diverse, and more beautiful acreage than in any other city of the world. It may have been providential to have such Crown lands available, but it took wise planning back in the 1870s to piece together and preserve the small commons, the little gardens, and the parks, which taken together make up this great green mosaic.
FAMILIES TAKING ROOT
In SOUTH OF THE ANGELS (Harcourt, Brace, $5.75), JESSAMYK WEST is telling the story of a newly founded community in California. The tract, with its bare barley-brown slopes and arroyos, was opened for settlers in 1916 by the silvertongued promoter Sylvester Perkins, and swift they came from many states and in varying conditions. They came lured on by the promise of growing things, of water with which to irrigate, and of staking out a fresh domain for their hopes. And it is Miss West’s purpose to make us familiar with these many households, to show us the interlacing of their lives and how the little community in which they were the pioneers achieved its identity. Many of them must live under canvas until their new frame houses are built; all of them suffer from the lack of water, which does not gush forth as freely as Mr. Perkins promised; a few hear the overtones of war in Europe, which is beginning to claim its American volunteers.
This is a novel of Chaucerian dimensions and certainly the most ambitious which Miss West has attempted. Her method is to move from household to household: from the spinsters Opal and Eunice, each in her way so hungry for love, to Asa Brice, the bachelor with his ingenious plans for developing the arroyo; from the Reverend Raunce, the revivalist who has found God, to Tom Mount, carpenter and philanderer who has found sex, from Shel Lewis and his lovable wife and children to Base and Elizabeth Cudlip, the embittered Southerners. These are a precious few of the many whom she has brought to life and who respond in their varying ways to the two magnetic poles of love and hate.
Miss West is the master of the swift descriptive phrase and of the intimate revelatory action. Her story has many gleaming moments; I think she is at her best in writing of young love and ol adolescence; I think she gauges her women more acutely than her men; and I am not myself too much put off by the constant change of perspective which her method necessitates. Yet sometimes it is a wrench to pull oneself out of a scene which is just beginning to reach its depth and to reopen one’s mind to a different and less compelling situation. This is not a book to be read at a canter; it must be taken up and put down and started afresh; and it would have been kinder for the reader had a cast of characters been supplied.
In THE EDGE OF DAY (Morrow, $4.00), LAURIE LEE is writing with dewy freshness of his boyhood and of how his family settled into a thatched village of the Gotswolds forty years ago. They were poor, and the most they could afford was part of a three-family cottage; subsistence came hard, yet here was the innocent love of life which the author has recaptured in the smell and taste of the smoky kitchen, in the buoyancy of his older sisters, and in the warmth and stout self-reliance of his mother, who had once served as a barmaid in the Plough Inn and had there learned how to apply the frog’s march to the biggest bully. Such pastoral recollections are not everyone’s dish, but for me they form a period piece, gay, sensuous, and so authentically remote that one can hardly believe that the poet-author is only in his forties.
There are occasional outbursts of violence, but the scenes I prefer might have been written by Hardy: the singing of the carols in the deepening snow; the rivalry of the two grannies who lived next door; Laurie’s recovery from pneumonia, when every taste and dainty mattered; and lastly, Mother’s reception of a suitor who would not be turned away.