1971 at a small college to the west:
I shift, redistributing my weight on the folding wooden chair. The sun catches in the black folds of my gown, and there the heat grows intense; it seems to swim up in waves before my eyes, which stare vaguely at the figure on the stage. A rivulet of sweat trickles down the center of my back. Were a race of ingested chemicals loose in my bloodstream, the waving arms and the white angel’s robe before me would say “hallucination.” But the hand of the sun and the bass throb of headache and the heavy morning light of May say simply, “He is just a man, a speaker; sit.”
A phalanx of black-gowned, degree-hooded professors sits patiently on a stage stretched across the courtyard’s only shade and listens while the white-clothed poet dismisses their world with a flip of his raised hands. “What do you know?” says the Robert Bly to me and my rank of classmates. “Not much,” he concludes for us. “Yet.” I shift again, glance down the row to my friend Tim, try then to cast back to the comfort of last night’s darkness and its final raucous cries, a night of raised glasses and imagined worlds that are already washed up on the day’s sun-warmed rocks. …
A Commencement Address
By Henry David Thoreau
Assembled and slightly augmented by Corinne H. Smith
Corinne H. Smith is a tour guide and program coordinator at the
Thoreau Farm Birthplace, and is the author of ‘Westward I Go Free:
Tracing Thoreau’s Last Journey.
Thank you for inviting me to speak on this occasion. As some of you may know, I am not without opinion about the experiment you are about to launch. Here are a few thoughts for company along the way.
It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. (Walden, “Conclusion”)
Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations. (Walden, ”The Village”)
Perhaps you have heard of a particular endeavor, which I once embarked upon.
I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again. (Walden, “Economy”)
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front …
By Corinne H. Smith
In recent years, Dr. Richard B. Primack and his Boston University associates have used Henry Thoreau’s meticulous botanical notes to track global warming. Henry recorded the days when various flowers bloomed annually in Concord in the 1850s. The BU folks compared his dates to current data and proved that plants were now flowering earlier. Finally, Mr. Thoreau gained the scientific reputation that he deserved all along.
But I have learned that you don’t have to be an academic researcher in order to figure out the difference that a century and a half makes. All you have to do is watch the crab apple trees.
When Thoreau traveled to Minnesota in 1861, he and traveling companion Horace Mann Jr. “botanized” from the train windows. They crossed southern Michigan via the Michigan Central Railroad on May 21, and began to glimpse trees with pink and white blossoms in the distance. What were they? The Massachusetts men weren’t sure. They were given no chances to jump out at any station stops and examine the branches closely.
After spending an extra day in Chicago, the duo crossed northern Illinois on May 23. Again, they saw the mysterious trees in bloom as they rattled through farmland and prairie land. And once again, they never stopped close enough to one to scrutinize it or to grab a sample.
Our northern Spring explodes …