He lived on an acre just above Walden Pond. He had a small garden, survived off the land, and enjoyed the wild apples that still grew around Concord, Mass., in the 19th century. He stayed near Walden because it was here that he could be most free.
Brister Freeman was a black man, one of the original inhabitants of Walden Woods. As Laura Walls tells us in her new biography of Thoreau, Freeman fought in the Revolution, and afterward “declared his independence through his surname,” but “unable to prove his freedom outside of Concord, he bought an acre on the hill north of Walden Pond, Brister’s Hill.” Today, Walden is preserved as a state park, and is a Registered National Historic Landmark, and so long as visitors can find parking, they come and go as they please — as did Thoreau — but many of his neighbors couldn’t.
On Thoreau’s 200th birthday this July he might want us to remember the men and women, largely unacknowledged by history, who were confined to this paradisiacal corner of the earth. It was, indeed, a sanctuary, but for many of Thoreau’s companions freedom was narrowly circumscribed. Their world was, according to the historian Elise Lemire, the “Black Walden,” a place of not-so-quiet desperation.