"Not being able to govern events, I govern myself." ~ Michel de Montaigne
I Broke the Law at Walden Pond--Twice
'If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behavior.' -Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
A lawbreaker once lived here by this little lake. He broke the law, encouraged others to break the law, and inspired millions more who visit Walden Pond every year to resist unwise laws. To bend them, break them, ignore them or question them.
I broke the law at Walden Pond. Twice.
And I noticed scads of other folks doing the very same--breaking the law while enjoying themselves--and no harm came to anyone.
Breaking laws is often the best and wisest thing a person can do. Should a person purposely break a law, however, he or she should consider the consequences, whether the act of lawbreaking is wise or foolish, malevolent or benevolent.
For example, Kevin Benderman broke the law. He was that soldier who wrote a fine essay called, Why I Refused a Second Deployment to Iraq.
'If you stop to think about it, you become aware that war is just human sacrifice. There is no honor in killing as many as you can as quickly as you can,' said Sergeant Kevin Benderman, after he refused to go back to Iraq. Benderman broke the law, such as it was, and went to jail.
The only problem with breaking immoral or illegal laws, as Kevin Benderman did and thousands of others do, is that scads of other citizens will condone or encourage the imprisonment of the lawbreaker. Because the law-abiders are either too servile or too cowardly to resist immoral laws themselves, they prefer to imprison those who do. Preferably isolate them as well as imprison them, where they cannot prick the consciences of the meek.
The curious thing is that we all break myriad rules and regulations everyday, "laws," but only those who break felonious laws ever get sent to jail.
I broke the law at Walden Pond simply by sailing across it, but not before spending many minutes pondering my action.
At the shore, a signboard instructs all visitors that small fishing boats are acceptable but small sailboats are not. The rationale, I deduced, is that some boats might be assumed to be more controllable than others. Thus rules and regulations are often formulated to protect other visitors and to protect the park.
Another rule I noticed at Walden Pond: No swimming across the pond itself. Park rangers obviously worried about swimmers being hit by watercraft they had also banned. When I visited, one warm September afternoon, I noticed several swimmers ignoring the posted regulations. Heedless to other lawbreakers like myself, these swimmers propelled themselves across the pond, nodding to me on my colorful sailboard as I kept my distance.
When the wind died, I returned and tossed my sail back into my van. Minutes later a park ranger ambled down to the shore. Excuse me, I said, may I paddle my board around this cove? No, my ranger replied, the rules forbid it.
Thus, to ask permission is to seek denial. But to break a rule (or a law), aware that you may not hurt anyone by your action is forbidden.
Kevin Benderman, preferring not to hurt anyone anymore, informed his superiors that he did not believe in the legality of the war in Iraq, just as Thoreau did not believe in the legality of a poll tax. Not surprisingly, they both went to jail.
Both Kevin Benderman and Thoreau recognized that to obey a law, one would be required to intentionally break other higher laws, commit many felonies, hurt many people, not least of all hurt themselves. Ironically, lawbreakers to unjust laws that have a malevolent result, suffer a far greater penalty than those of us who ignore or disregard minor rules and regulations.
Some years prior to my summertime visit to Walden Pond, I stopped at the pond in October, one late afternoon, during a long bicycle journey around America. After hiking to the site of Thoreau's cabin, I returned to the leaf strewn parking area where they had built a replica cabin (photo). For some na've reason, I actually thought I might camp inside.
But the door was locked and I draw the line at breaking and entering.
The afternoon ebbed into the evening; only the tops of the burnished trees caught the fragmented rays of the setting sun. Being nearly broke, I wondered where to camp.
So I camped in the trees surrounding Walden Pond that night. Aware that I might be breaking some regulation, I snuck into the forest, the leaves rustling under my tires. I felt like one of Robin Hood's band of merry men, gleefully trespassing in Sherwood Forest. I broke the law, crushed a few autumn leaves in the process, brought no harm to anyone, and left the next morning.
We break laws every day and neither the world nor our souls are worse for wear. Indeed, to be a law-abiding citizen often requires a citizen to either commit crimes ourselves or become silent accomplices to crimes committed by those we've foolishly empowered. The biggest lawbreakers are usually powerful state officials, those who formulate malignant laws that require others to perform felonious tasks and then penalize anyone who resists.
As Thoreau noted, in such cases: 'I say, break the law.'