So what’s with the connection between Harvard University and Henry David Thoreau? A Thoreau scholar might be aware that HDT graduated from Harvard, providing one link to pontificate with, but for this humble blogger they mostly represent two places we visited yesterday on a day trip down to Cambridge with a brief (but cold) stop at Walden Pond.
Harvard (Harvard Square to be more exact) is an interesting day trip. Between enjoying people watching of Harvard students who look every bit like any other students except for the caliber of overheard conversations and intellectually elevated graffiti in the Harvard Coop men’s room, and the handful of destination shops we visited, we had a fun day even thought the weather was less than cooperative. Yesterday was mildish, but still nippy with quite a bit of snow still on the ground, and sadly cloudy making for lousy digicam moments.
On any visit to Harvard Square/Cambridge there are a few musts, at least in my book: Greenhouse Cafe, paying homage to the window of the infamous law firm that fictitiously (we think!) represents Ray and Bob of Car Talk radio show fame, Bob Slate’s Stationary (the holy grail of office supply stores…sigh…whimper…double sigh, double whimper), Harvard Coop Bookstore (you wouldn’t think a coop general book section would be so big and deep, but after slowly browsing all four floors, it beats B&N/Borders by a mile), and the piece de resistance: Burdick’s Chocolate Cafe.
The Greenhouse Cafe is a funky, over-packed, attitude-filled diner near the middle of the square that offers basic good food and the chance to overhear interesting conversations. What gives it attitude is a lack of a bathroom (which in and of itself is not unusual, but makes for interesting eavesdropping when customers discover there’s no potty and the nearest one is a block away), their desire to pack as many people in a small place as possible (one or two diners can’t sit at a table seating four, and they enforce this firmly), and the ongoing snippy argument between the cashier and her husband (owners?) made nonchalantly in between ringing up sales and giving change. But a delightful meal and a nice view of the hustle outside made the experience worthwhile.
Bob Slate’s store is something one can’t explain fully: you must experience it yourself. If you like office supplies, then you’ll understand how one can spend time roaming up and down aisles filled with goodies one usually doesn’t see. I went in looking for an everyday fountain pen and left with a bag of things I didn’t know I needed until I saw them. There are two Bob Slate stores in Harvard Square and one a few miles away, and although the two in Harvard Square were near each other they were quite different, which meant we had to visit both. If you’re going to Cambridge, Bob Slates is de rigueur for any trip to Harvard Square.
Last but not least, there’s Burdicks, where chocolate is considered a food (not a candy) and the crowd and shortage of tables the dues one pays for the best hot chocolate and coffee around. Their chocolate treats are handmade, preservative free, include only the finest cocoa, etc., which all translates into high prices but even higher pleasure for one’s taste buds. We sat greedily hogging a tiny table and journaled sipping hot chocolate and freshly brewed coffee (which made Starbuck’s taste like dishwater) while nibbling on a few squares from the White Chocolate and Pistachio bars I bought. Burdicks is worth the trip by itself.
Before we indulged ourselves with those pleasures of Harvard Square, we briefly dropped by Walden to take a quick look at the pond in winter. The last time I visited Walden it was a lovely August day with sun shining and leaves beginning to turn. This time around there was a lot of white and way too much cold to visit for very long, but the replica cabin was open this visit. The pond itself was beginning to freeze over and look like every other typical New England pond this time of year: something between a last chance for anything living under the surface to grab a gulp of air and the onslaught of ice fishers that descend on frozen ponds in the winter. I’m not sure if but seriously doubt that ice fishers frequent Walden Pond in the winter, but it gets cold enough to do so if allowed.
The cabin was nicely nestled in the trees and the fresh fallen snow gave it a quiet, contemplative aura. Inside were the usual replica-inspired furnishings including the requisite three chairs: “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” (from Walden). Outside a display stand told the story with a bronze statue nearby of Henry, looking ever so cold as he no doubt was when using the cabin in the winter. The pictures tell the story best, but the odd angle to this visit is what happens when you see sites with another blogger, particularly one armed with a camera. We spent a lot of time waiting for each other to get out of the way to take our particular visions of the cabin.
But the cabin itself was nicely arranged inside, although the sound of traffic nearby as well as the voices of confused tourists in the parking lot betrayed any sense of what it might have been like back in HDT’s day in the real cabin. When I visited the site on that August day years ago, I stood on the leaf-covered platform where the original cabin stood and tried to get a sense of what it might have been like back when the cabin was being used by its famous occupant. Even on that quiet August day when few tourists were about it was difficult to imagine how quiet the pond area might have been in Henry’s day. Ultimately that doesn’t matter, since Thoreau’s message wasn’t about finding quiet paradise but instead was more about living fully amid whatever surroundings circumstance has placed you. On this trip that message still rang true, although the cold and snow spoke more of getting back into the warm car as fast as possible rather than enjoying the woods around Walden Pond.