CONCORD, MASS. -- For years the quickest way to get from Boston to historic Walden Pond has led right past the town dump, which sprawls just a few hundred yards from the spot where Henry David Thoreau found a natural wonder and wrote a masterpiece 150 years ago.
But recently a dedicated band of preservationists has won a series of victories that could secure enough of the woods surrounding Walden to help restore the pond's ecosystem and make it look much more like the "perfect forest mirror" that Thoreau described.
The biggest victory came last week when the town of Concord voted unanimously to close the dump well before the end of its useful life. The decision will remove an eyesore from one of America's most revered spots.
The landfill consists of about 35 acres of garbage mounds and gullies located just across the road from the pond. It is barely concealed behind a thinning row of dying trees and a flimsy barrier of chicken wire and snow fences papered with blown-away trash.
Aside from being a visual blight, the dump poses a subterranean threat of pollution to Walden, the place where Thoreau lived for two years, two months and two days in the 1840s in order to, as he wrote, confront "only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach."
Alas, one of the essential facts of life in the 20th century is solid waste. Concord chose in the 1950s to dump its share only a few hundred yards from the spot where Thoreau lived in a rude cabin on land borrowed from his friend and fellow transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Last week, residents of Concord assembled in a big auditorium for an old-fashioned New England town meeting and made the decision to shut the dump. They also voted to tax themselves $400,000 to pay for closure costs and to start talks with the state on how to incorporate the landfill site into the adjoining Walden Pond State Reservation.
The decision was welcomed by environmentalists, who see it as a milestone in the larger campaign to acquire and preserve the land around Walden Pond. Leading the drive for the Walden Woods Project is singer Don Henley, drummer and vocalist for the newly reunited rock band, the Eagles.
"The dump is a big, ugly, gaping hole in the ground, and it's right in the middle of Walden Woods," Henley said in a telephone interview during a break from rehearsals in Los Angeles. "It was an eyesore, and it was very near to Walden Pond."
Henley said the presence of the dump undermined all conservation efforts in the area. Developers argued that because the dump existed, there could be no harm in adding an office complex, condominiums or a wider road around Walden. Now, he said, that argument has been eliminated.
In 1922, Walden Pond and the woods immediately surrounding it were given by Emerson's descendants to the state of Massachusetts, which has run it as a memorial to Thoreau and as a recreation spot for swimming, fishing and all-around idling.
The town opened the nearby landfill in 1958, a time when Thoreau's reputation was at a low. But as the trash rose higher, so did Thoreau's stature as his writings reached new audiences inspired in part by movements for civil rights and the environment, issues that Thoreau had championed in his writings.
During the 1980s, several local groups began to pressure the state to take better care of Walden, which was being trampled by thousands of swimmers. The state reserve now limits summer crowds but still gets about 500,000 visitors annually from around the world.
Then in the late 1980s an overheated real estate market threatened to bring development to the edges of the reserve. One plan, proposed by publisher and real estate developer Mortimer Zuckerman, was to build an office park. Another developer wanted to build condominiums, including badly needed lower-income housing. When news of the plans reached Henley, who had read Thoreau in college, he decided to act and formed the Walden Woods Project in the spring of 1990.
Since then the group has purchased both properties for about $3.5 million each and bought a third parcel for $1.5 million, according to Kathi Anderson, the project's director. Altogether the group has spent $8.5 million and is working on retiring a remaining debt of $1 million.
Henley said much of the money has come from benefit concerts and individual and corporate donations. He plans to sell a T-shirt printed with one of his designs, and the Walden Woods project is negotiating to buy three more properties.
Despite the project's efforts, Walden today is far removed from the pristine pond celebrated by Thoreau. The state stocks the pond with hatchery fish and has had to install an unsightly wire fence around much of the pond's edge to keep nature-lovers from offering too much affection.
And while the dump is about to get cleaner, Walden seems only to be getting dirtier. One recent walk around the pond yielded a harvest of trash -- cigarette butts, candy wrappers, soda cans, a can of whiskey sour mix, a roll of 35mm film and an empty condom package.
Still, many people love Walden as much as Thoreau, who wrote, after chopping a hole through the pond's surface in winter, "Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads."
By late 1995, Walden will no longer have the dump as a neighbor. Carrie Flood, who chairs the town Board of Selectmen and who led the campaign to close the dump, said some Concord residents have long favored closing the landfill out of respect for the pond.
But for most townsfolk, she said, it came down to dollars and cents. The dump has been a money-loser in recent years that threatened to expose the town to liability for future pollution.
One of those most pleased by the dump closing is Ed Schofield, who has fought for decades to protect Walden, most recently as president of the Thoreau Country Conservation Alliance, a local group devoted to saving Thoreau's legacy.
Schofield said the closure clears the way for his group's next goal: creation of a National Park at Walden Pond and the surrounding wooded hills. The goal is to assemble all the pieces by 2000. The campaign will begin next July 4, the 150th anniversary of Thoreau's move to Walden.
"Walden belongs to the nation and, really, to the world," he said.