Photo: Sonny Morningstar via flickr

Walden Pond, a hit with tourists and Transcendentalists.

It’s an odd fraternity, the group of people who continue to swim at Walden Pond well past Labor Day. Dusk comes earlier and earlier and the water begins to cool, but these autumn swims are one of the great pleasures of my life — and, of course, each swim feels increasingly precious as we move inevitably toward the cold and dark of winter.

The little I knew about Walden Pond I learned from my 10th-grade American Literature survey course (hey, Mrs. Garr!), and it never once crossed my mind that a person could actually swim in this icon of Transcendental thought. Imagine my surprise when, shortly after I moved to Boston, a bunch of friends said, “Let’s go to Walden Pond,” and we all piled into a van and trucked out there.

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I was shocked when I saw how big the “pond” was: to me, it was a lake. My friends showed me a cove on the far side that, in a previous era, was reputed to have been the unofficial nude beach. I have swum there happily — and, for the most part, modestly clothed — for years.

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Last week I was able to make it out there on a particularly gorgeous day. The sky was an intense shade of blue, and fluffy Simpsons-like clouds drifted by. The water was crystal clear, the surface smooth as glass. The water was so still that it offered a perfect reflection of the sky, and it felt incredibly luxurious to see my own legs and feet stretched out in front of me, as if I were lying in a fluffy quilt made out of the sky itself. It looked like a painting by Magritte, especially the bright surprise of my (formaldehyde-free) Chi Red nail polish that made it look like flames were shooting out of my toes.

Once I made it out to the middle of the pond — the perfect place to turn around and take in the beauty of the turning leaves on the trees around the shoreline — I looked around at my fellow swimmers. There were some tough old broads and weathered geezers. I myself am not quite at that stage yet, but I like to consider myself a tough-old-broad-in-training. I hope that I will be fit enough to continue to come out to the pond and enjoy these last delicious swims of the season when I am their age. There were also some young couples swimming in tandem and discussing the events of the day as they wended their way across the pond. Children played in the sandy beach area near the entrance while their moms discussed what they planned to rustle up for dinner when they got home. Some particularly well-prepared types were enjoying picnic suppers by the fading light.

As usual, the peace was briefly broken when the triathletes arrived. They dismounted from their racing bikes, donned their Neoprene wetsuits, strapped on their fins and goggles, checked their heart rates, and synchronized their stopwatches. They ran into the water at full speed.

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We old-timers (current and future) exchanged wry smiles as we languidly breast-stroked past one another, for we know that the triathletes are missing the slower, deeper thrill: the sight of autumn changing the landscape right before our eyes, and the sensation of the cold water directly against our skin. It’s simultaneously the most peaceful and most invigorating feeling that I know.

In the car on the way home, I feel clean, calm, and cold, and sad that summer has reached its end. The idea of home seems like a welcoming one, though, and I’m looking forward to a cozy wintertime existence. I’ll consign myself to a winter’s worth of swimming in chlorine, but I’ll also be lying in my real bed, in my real quilt, and dreaming about the return of summer and the day that I was able to make my bed in the sky.

Last-Swim-at-Walden Transcendental Sweet Potato Soup

The only problem with swimming in Walden in the autumn is that when I get out I am really, really hungry — my hunger is as profound as the chill in my bones. When I’ve got it together organizationally and have had some time to get ready to go to the pond (part of my Pond Preparedness Protocol — always having my suit and towel at the ready), I heat some soup and take it in a Thermos. However, if I’m late getting home from work and in a race to beat the dying light, I sometimes head out there without any soup in tow.

Hot soup, m’lady?

Photo: psd

My ultimate last-swim-at-Walden fantasy is to be greeted on the shore by someone holding a heated robe for me to wrap myself in, then offering me a bowl of warm, nutritious soup. It finally occurred to me yesterday that, in lieu of a devoted loved one presenting me with soup, I could pour some in a regular jar, wrap the jar in my towel, and then stick both into one of those hot/cold bags, which would keep them both warm while I take a leisurely swim. I can’t wait to try it out. (And why didn’t this occur to me before today?)

Here is a nice “medium-weight” soup. Harisa is a pungent paste made from red peppers and garlic, and a little goes a long way. (I got some at my local Whole Foods.) This soup is really easy to make.

This recipe makes a bit over a quart — enough to serve several room-temperature people or three or four chilly swimmers if they’ve just emerged from Walden Pond on an October day.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 medium onion
1 quart of stock or water (I used organic free-range chicken stock, but you can use vegetable stock just as well)
1 cup chopped sweet potatoes
1 cup chopped tomatoes (fresh or canned)
1/4 teaspoon harisa
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon (add a bit more if you like)
1 can chickpeas (approximately 15 oz), rinsed and drained
juice of 1/2 lemon (approximately 2 tablespoons)
salt to taste

optional: 1/4 cup golden raisins or cilantro

  • Sauté the onion in the vegetable oil until translucent.
  • Add the stock and sweet potatoes. Cook until the sweet potatoes are soft.
  • Run this concoction through a blender until smooth. Return it to the pot. (Or use an immersion blender.)
  • Add the tomatoes, harisa, cinnamon, chickpeas, and lemon juice, and cook through until warm.
  • Taste and add salt if necessary. (The stock I used was salty enough that no further salt was needed.) Add more cinnamon if you want to.
  • If you feel like it, add some golden raisins or cilantro. I recommend adding one or the other but not both.