Walden Pond Forever: A Conversation with Barbara Olson

by Val Walker

Barbara Olson photo 1Barbara Olson, MSW, LICSW, is a nature photographer and docent at Henry David Thoreau Farm. She recently retired from her position as Dialysis Social Worker at Massachusetts General Hospital.

I met Barbara in Concord, Massachusetts, on a bright October day at a friendly café on a quaint, bustling main street. Enjoying my bowl of butternut squash chili at the counter on my lunch break, I noticed a woman about my age smiling at me. In seconds, we were chatting about Concord, Walden Pond, and Thoreau’s writings. Barbara was pleased to tell me she was a docent at Henry David Thoreau’s famous farm nearby, even though she lived closer to Boston and worked full time as a social worker at Mass General Hospital. On weekends she was a birdwatcher, photographer, history buff, hiker, explorer—so much more than a social worker.

What struck me about our conversation was her joyous dedication to this historic town, her love of Walden Pond and the writings of Thoreau. Her warm, genuine contentment radiated from her sense of place, sense of belonging, and sense of discovery, and invigorated me just listening to her story. I’d recently moved to the Boston area, and was already doubting why I’d moved here after my disappointment with a new job.

But I found a message in Barbara’s story.

Though a native of Michigan, Barbara had made Massachusetts her home in the ways that nourished her independent spirit and zest for learning and exploring. Clearly, from her story, it heartened me to hear it was not about our jobs, but about loving where we live.

Within a year, we became friends. (Yes, I did stay in Massachusetts.) I invited her for an interview not only because I’d been so touched by her story of how Walden Pond had inspired her, but I was intrigued that she had never burned out during her decades of social work with people in pain and distress. Barbara had overcome compassion fatigue, big city fatigue, and even world fatigue by making Walden Pond her sanctuary—her own, private paradise.

What first attracted you to Walden Pond?

Barbara Olson photo 2Barbara:  I’d heard about the historic significance of Walden Pond (actually a lake and the deepest in Massachusetts), but at first, I really just wanted a place to swim outdoors. That was 30 years ago! Going there most weekends all these years, swimming in the mornings alone, I developed a deep relationship with the pond itself, the wildlife of the pond, and the surrounding woods.

How does a visit to Walden Pond restore you?

Barbara: As a full-time clinical social worker at Mass General Hospital, my quiet times at Walden Pond on weekends have been essential to keeping my life in balance. Even before I step into the pond for my morning swim, I’ll sit on a rock at the pond’s edge, and get oriented to my surroundings. Before I do anything, I need to settle in, to be still, to watch the birds, and listen to their calls. Though I’ve only been a birder for a few years, I find recognizing and appreciating bird songs brings another dimension to the wooded surroundings, and definitely pulls me away from the chatter in my head.

Barbara Olson photo 3After taking my time sitting on the rock, I step slowly into the pond. Not only is the deep water cool and refreshing, but by swimming leisurely around the edges of the pond, watching the fish, turtles, and dragonflies, I can empty my mind, and be present to life right in front of me. The turquoise, blue and green colors of the water, the sunlight dancing through the trees and reflecting on the pond, the vibrant birdsong, the wide open sky above me—all give me a sense of peace. There is nothing quite like being in the moment, your mind open and attentive to the natural world around you. I can feel my thoughts slowing down, my mind calming and clearing.

This weekend routine has been a form of respite that helped me transition from my busy world of “doing” and into the quiet of nature. As a care provider for patients and their families, I know I needed to make time to nourish myself as well.  This year I retired from my long-time position at the hospital. Now I have even more time for enjoying and observing the outdoors. My relationship continues to deepen and grow with Walden Pond and with nature in general.

Have you always liked swimming and being by water?

Barbara: Yes, that’s true. I grew up in Michigan, near Elizabeth Lake, in Waterford Township. During my childhood years, I swam almost every day of the summer. It was so easy to walk or ride my bike to the lake. My happiest memories are about the simple pleasures of a rainstorm. I would throw on my bathing suit, run outside in the rain and hurry to watch the water rushing through the culverts of the road. The neighborhood kids and I would try to float sticks and other objects on the racing waters, and marvel at how they would speed through the culverts and off into little streams.

Another memory is how I loved butterflies! I could spend hours just watching them hopping from dandelion to dandelion in my backyard. At one point I tried to capture them in jars so I could study them, but I soon learned how this was not good for them, and gave that up.

And I remember naively forming bird nests from fresh cut grass after my Dad had mowed the lawn, with the hopes that a bird would come and roost. I love the imagination of a child, which sadly as adults we tend to lose.

I was an only child until age 11, when my parents adopted my sister. In those earlier years, playing by myself, I hardly ever felt alone, as my relationship with nature was so strong. It was pure joy to grow up by a lake. I’m grateful for having these experiences as a core part of myself—the oldest part of me—my way of feeling joy.

Has your passion for Walden Pond led you to new networks and interests in the Concord area?

Barbara: Because I enjoyed the wildlife there so much, I developed my calling as a nature photographer over the years. I’m pleased to say that my Walden Pond calendars and cards are sold at retail outlets and historic landmarks in Concord. It’s not surprising that I also grew to appreciate the works of Henry David Thoreau. Four years ago, I became a docent at the Thoreau Farm, and once a month I serve as a tour guide. I meet wonderful people from all around the world who have been inspired by his writings.

Thoreau Farm, Concord, Massachusetts

Barbara Olson photo 4What a beautiful connection with this place you have, Barbara. Walden Pond started out as just a place to go for a swim, and 30 years later, it’s become a core part of who you are. Do you want to add anything about your special relationship to Walden Pond?

Barbara: Yes, I have a story that sums up how I got the message that Walden Pond was the right place for me. It’s one of those synchronistic, or Kismet experiences when you just “get it.” Here it is:

One day, near Valentine’s Day in February, after a snowstorm, I walked to a ridge and took pictures of a glorious sunset glowing over the wide, frozen pond. Later at home, I was curious to see how the pictures of the winter sunset turned out, and I immediately uploaded the photos to my computer. Only then did I notice the enormous large letters etched in the snow blanketing the pond. The letters spelled “I love you.”

I could hardly believe it. Someone with their boots had meticulously carved out these words for their beloved as a Valentine’s Day message—but I sensed that Walden Pond itself was also saying “I love you” back to me!  It was so heartening to see these words sparkling on the snow in the brilliant sunset. It felt like a special Walden Pond Valentine for me!

Barbara Olson photo 5Wow, Barbara, now that’s a sign if there ever was one! I love it when we know in our bones just how precious a place can be, real Heaven on earth. Thank you so much for telling me what Walden Pond means to you. I think I’m going to read Thoreau’s Walden Pond all over again.

Barbara: Thank you for letting me share my stories with you!

Resources for Further Reading

Walden Pond State Reservation

Thoreau Farm: Birthplace of Henry David Thoreau

For More about Barbara Olson’s Photography

2017 Walden Pond/Concord Calendar by Barbara Olson

Greeting cards of Walden Pond and other nature cards by Barbara Olson

valVal Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting:  What to Say and Do for People in Distress(Penguin, 2010), and a Nautilus Book Award Gold Medalist in 2011. The Art of Comforting was listed as recommended reading by the Boston Public Health Commission’s Guide for Survivors of the Marathon Bombing. Val’s articles have appeared in Whole Living Magazine, AARP Bulletin, Coping with Cancer Magazine, and other national publications. Formerly a rehabilitation counselor, she now works as an activities specialist leading groups for seniors with Alzheimer’s, and other groups with disabilities. To learn more about Val you can visit her website, The Art of Comforting.

I Need You To Know That You Never Stop Grieving

My sister Kylee passed away on October 11, 2013, after a two year battle with a rare form of cancer called Sarcoma. I am reminded of my loss every day through simple things such as a photo or going to a place Kylee liked or when my son, Aiden, randomly asks about her, which he often does.

Kylee and Allan
Kylee Webster with her brother, Allan, in September 2013, a month before she earned her Angel Wings.

I have learned to accept that I am grieving but I won’t let it put me in a hole that I cannot get out of. I’ve learned to embrace the sadness when I can and to get a good cry out when I need it but I also make sure to build off of the loss I have experienced and the things Kylee went through during her journey to help others in whatever way I can.

One of my best friends lost his older and only brother to a heart attack in his early 40’s. It came out of nowhere. He passed just prior to my sister Kylee being diagnosed. When he passed, I told my friend, “I understand what you’re going through.” But then I lost my sister and realized I really had no idea. I think this is the tough part for people when they talk to someone who has gone through a loss.

If you haven’t been through it, there is no true way to understand. You can be there for the person but the reality is that you almost become a member of a special club. It’s a sad club that you don’t sign up for but instead just suddenly find yourself in. Nothing makes you feel better as much as talking to someone who has also gone through it. You have this automatic bond that just feels right. They understand you and you understand them.

kylee and allan
Kylee and Allan in 1984

What has become so important to me in grieving is that I try to help people understand that nothing truly matters except your health and your day to day happiness. Losing my sister has taught me that. I try to explain to my close friends that I have been given the gift of this bizarre “wisdom” about really understanding what is important. Kylee, through her passing, has taught me this.

And people admit all the time they don’t know what to do or say to someone who has lost a loved one, especially due to a disease or sudden, tragic event. Losing your only sibling at such a young, vibrant age was and is a tragedy. It’s really the simple things a person can say that matter. Simply, “I’m so sorry, I cannot imagine what you are going through nor do I understand but I am here for you if you need anything.” Reach out to them randomly and let them know you are thinking about them. So simple but it all helps so much.

Me personally, I like to talk about Kylee. Some people don’t like to talk because it is just too much to handle emotionally. It helps me when friends want to talk about Kylee and share funny stories because that helps her live on through me. I always like when people say, “Remember that time…” and we laugh while remembering. A good belly laugh really is the best medicine.

The biggest fear for a person grieving is that people will “forget.” I never want anyone to forget who and what Kylee was and still is. An example of happiness and strength. So never be afraid to “check in” with the grieving person. Everyone knows that holidays and birthdays are tough, but sometimes just the random day is hardest. Those are the days that I love when I get a call just to chat about whatever and know that people are thinking about me and Kylee.

The worst thing people can say is “she is in a better place.” Seeing Kylee struggle we knew her physical body could do no more but she still would have preferred to be “Here” no matter how difficult her days were. She took oral chemo up until the last day even when the doctors told her it was doing more harm than good. She wanted to be here and we wanted that too. People mean well but words like that sting. The same with “I can’t believe she is gone.” To all of us, her physical form may not be present but we know she is still here.

kylee and aiden
Kylee and her nephew, Aiden, just before diagnosis in 2011.

It is also hard for grieving people to hear others complain. I know it’s human nature and I certainly catch myself doing it, but it’s hard to hear someone say, “I just don’t want to go to work,” or “Ugh, I don’t feel like doing this or that.” It reminds me that Kylee would have done anything to stay here and she endured so many terrible things and still never complained. She always smiled and was in her “happy place” every day. I still draw so much from the strength and happiness she gave to others even when sick. I’ve learned to tune out the complaining and feel this is another gift Kylee has given me.

To honor Kylee, I try to teach people to just enjoy every day, in whatever small way you can. Life is precious, try not to let small things bog you down. I like nice things like everyone else, but I try to put the attention on helping people in Kylee’s name and relishing in little things like playing with my son. You can always make money but you cannot always make memories. Creating her foundation, Kylee’s Dancing Angels, helps me and my Mom and Dad keep Kylee here with us by assisting other with Sarcoma and I know it makes her proud. I truly believe she is here with me daily and at times she even shows me.

Last year, I was invited by Johns Hopkins Hospital to speak at their Night of Remembrance to other families who had lost someone to cancer. It was one of the toughest things I have ever done but when I finished talking about Kylee I felt so good inside. And people came up to me and said Kylee sounded like such a wonderful person, or she reminds them of their loved one, etc. It was wonderful.
I will always grieve my loss but I will continue to honor Kylee through my actions and remembering and celebrating her strong and happy spirit.

For more information on Kylee’s life and her Foundation: Kylee’s Dancing Angels websiteKylee’s Dancing Angels Facebook page, Kylee Webster’s Stories Between page

Allan Webster is an Assistant’s State Attorney for Baltimore County, MD. He writes, “Kylee Brooke Webster is my only sibling. She passed away at age 34 and was 7 years younger than me. To say Kylee and I were close is the understatement of the year. We were not only brother and sister but best friends. Our family created Kylee’s Dancing Angels in her honor to help other Sarcoma fighters get to their “happy place” just as Kylee strived to do every day during her journey with Sarcoma. I am so blessed to have a sister that was loved by so many. She was one of a kind.”