The New Henry in Town

By Corinne H. Smith

When Richard Smith moved to West Virginia at the end of 2017, he left behind nearly a two-decade legacy of portraying Henry David Thoreau in Concord, especially at Walden Pond, where he greeted visitors as Henry in the Thoreau house replica on a regular basis.

Last summer while Smith was contemplating his move, another Thoreauvian, Brent Ranalli, was exploring the idea of taking his efforts at historical interpretation to the next level. Ranalli did not know there would soon be an opening for some one to portray Henry David Thoreau in June 2018.

Brent Ranalli as Henry David Thoreau at Thoreau Farm.

Ranalli’s path first intersected with the Thoreau crowd when he participated in a panel presentation at The Thoreau Society Annual Gathering in 2009. The subject of the session was the publication of Environment: An Interdisciplinary Anthology, a textbook which Brent helped to edit. He quickly felt a camaraderie with the people involved and attending the conference. He has been a regular presenter at each Gathering ever since.

Ranalli is interested in Thoreau’s fascination with Native Americans. He admires how Thoreau was able to take on a walking style that many of his friends equated with that of an American Indian. Ranalli has written and spoken about Thoreau’s gait, as reported by the people who were close to Henry. His research made him wonder: Why not study Thoreau’s gait by donning Henry’s style of clothing and portraying Thoreau himself? Ranalli began to gather parts of the wardrobe and the props he would need for this venture.

Meanwhile, Visitor Services Supervisor for Walden Pond State Reservation, Jennifer Ingram  was responsible for finding a new historic interpreter who could portray Henry and fill the void Smith had left. Over the winter, Ingram sent queries to members of the local historical collaborative in Concord. While she pursued some leads, none of the applicants seemed to fit the position.

Ranalli eventually heard about this new opening through The Thoreau Society, where he is a member, and contacted Ingram. She was immediately impressed. He certainly had the background and the interest; was in the right age range; and had the right build to portray Thoreau.

Ingram had a final test for Ranalli, however. The two met at the Pond office one day, and went to sit in the replica for an hour. Ingram felt that this experience would be critical for the prospective Thoreau. It would offer the reality of the interpretation. If the potential Henry didn’t feel comfortable being in this space, or if he felt he had to leave after a few minutes, then that would be that.

Instead, Ranalli stayed.

“It felt comfortable,” he said. “One could make a home there. With the replica furniture and the working wood stove, the house definitely feels authentic. It makes it easy to enter the world of the 1840s.”

He had not only passed Ingram’s test, but one of his own. And, he interacted well with the public who stopped by the house that day to meet Henry.

This month, Ranalli did his first Henry gig at an Acton elementary school. (He was careful not to talk to any classes that included his own sons as students.) He reports that the appearance went well. He was stymied only once. This was when someone asked what kind of car Thoreau would drive, if he were alive today.  (I suggested that Thoreau would be likely to take public transportation.) Yet, Ranalli feels as though he has already gained a deeper understanding of the author-naturalist by stepping into his shoes.

Brent Ranalli will portray Henry Thoreau at Walden Pond State Reservation on Sunday, May 27, 2018, beginning at 1 p.m. Be sure to stop by and chat with him as he “is” Henry at the house replica. Just don’t ask him about cars!

Corinne Smith is the author of Henry David Thoreau for Kids among other books; a frequent contributor to The Roost;  and is a tour guide at Thoreau Farm.

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Civil Disobedience French-style: May ’68

By Lucille Stott

“Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”
― Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”

Paris 1968 credit: Lucille Stott

I stood on the balcony of the Roberts’ apartment overlooking the Boulevard de Strasbourg, watching students and riot police face off against each other. On this mild, sunny afternoon in mid-May, the scene felt surreal, like a bewildering moment in a Buñuel film. I don’t remember who charged first, but suddenly the two groups were on each other. Students hurled rocks, wielded tree branches, and yelled obscenities. Riot police fogged the air with tear gas and swung their nightsticks as they charged forward in a bloc.

I had my Kodak Instamatic camera in hand and started snapping photos. Two of the riot police knocked down a protester, and while one held him down, the other pummeled him again and again with his nightstick.

When I raised my camera again, I heard a cry from behind. My French mother, Madame Robert, was yelling for me to get back inside. I had never seen her so upset, and she had never once spoken to me in anger in the more than six months my roommate and I had been boarding with her family during our junior year in Paris. After getting me out of sight and back into her living room, Madame Robert started to cry. What if the riot police had spotted me? She was sure they would have stormed upstairs, smashed my camera, arrested me, and punished the Robert family.

Usually calm and reserved, Madame Robert had grown increasingly anxious as the street violence in Paris had escalated and the blare of sirens had become the soundtrack to our nights. After hauling me in from the balcony, she told me she had been suffering terrifying flashbacks to her childhood during the Nazi Occupation, when sirens had raged all night throughout the city, and she’d cowered in her parents’ bed. Her son was out there with the protesters, she reminded me, and even at home during the daylight hours, she didn’t feel safe.

For the first time since the student-led riots had begun in early May, I felt connected emotionally to what was happening around me. At 21, I was in Paris with the Hamilton College Junior Year Abroad program mainly to have fun and grab a bit of learning on the side. Most of our university classes had been suspended by then, and my American friends and I felt justified in not cracking our books. As we told each other repeatedly, history was being made in front of our eyes. The slogans scrawled on walls bore us out: “Power is in the streets!” “It’s forbidden to forbid!”

Youth uprisings like this one had been occurring in other countries — Mexico, Poland, West Germany, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Brazil, even the Soviet Union — since early in 1968, and were to continue throughout the spring. The rebellion at Columbia University in the U.S., which had erupted in early April, had definitely grabbed our attention from afar. Yet of all the youth protests that occurred around the world during the first half of 1968, the Paris riots in May have become the most romanticized probably because, well, they happened in Paris. Immortalized in books and on film, the student uprising in the City of Light became lasting symbols of student disillusion and alienation.

For weeks, our tendency to treat the street riots as performance art had kept me immune from the dark side of these events. But witnessing the reality of the violence and seeing Madame Robert so shaken changed all that for me. I felt her fear and hated that what was happening in the street below was causing her to relive long-ago trauma. And I still have the Kodachrome reminders of what it looked and felt like to watch brutality up close and be powerless to do anything to stop it.

A big factor in the way I experienced those weeks was the fact that I wasn’t sharing my life on social media. I had no cell phone, no email, no Twitter, no Instagram, no Internet. There was no such thing as a 24-hour news cycle. It took five days for an airmailed letter to cross the Atlantic. International calls were hard to manage and very expensive. Out on the street, I was on my own. I couldn’t text a friend, my French family, or the director of our program with a question or concern. Today, the joke is, “If it’s not on Facebook, is it really happening?” It was really happening.

This month, France is marking the 50th anniversary of May ’68. When I think back on the passion that galvanized a small, but visible segment of my generation in France and at home, so many years ago, I do so with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m sad to have lost the wide-eyed, youthful exuberance that made optimism so natural and imagined positive change to be within reach. On the other hand, I took away from that month in Paris a lifelong aversion to extremism, no matter what side it professes to support. Back then, we over-estimated how much our generation could change the world, and the causes we fought for were undermined at times by the things I found so troubling in Paris: fanaticism, exploitation, self-interest, macho posturing. But the world did change after May ‘68—sometimes because of us, sometimes in spite of us. As someone who came of age in 1968 and is now merely “of age,” my years place me squarely with the old but my hope still rests with the young. What would be truly radical would be for us to bridge our generational divide and share what we have — melding knowledge with vision; experience with energy —and change the world together. Now that would be a revolution.

Lucille Stott is a charter board member emerita and former president of Thoreau Farm Trust. Check out the three entries on Lucille’s new blog, “Touchstone,” for a more in-depth look at the events of Paris ’68.

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Mars and the Spider

By Tom O’Malley

Tom O’Malley in the birth room at Thoreau Farm.

In this time of war, I am not surprised to see the planet Mars burning brightly in the night sky. Ah, Mars, the red planet. No other heavenly body calls up such fantastic images in the human imagination. My Mars is the Mars of Ray Bradbury, a frail, sand-tossed world where elegant alien creatures await the demise of their species aboard fabulous ships that ply the wine-dark waters of their evaporating canals. Mars. I have seen your polar caps through the lens of a small backyard telescope, and have conjured pictures of ice and water flowing down to byzantine towns along the equator.

I remember back in 1969 when Neil Armstrong was kangarooing on the lunar surface, enthusiastic NASA men were predicting human landings on Mars by 1980. I planned to go myself, until I found out that advanced Math was required in the astronaut world. So here we are in the 21at century, and there are no footprints on the red planet yet!

Last year, Mars was one of the brightest objects in the night sky. I did not want to pass up the opportunity to get a good look at our celestial neighbor, so my daughter Nora and I headed out to our cabin in the country to get an undistorted view of this mysterious planet. We arrived a bit before dark. Everything was quiet as the sun descended into the treetops. Our resident barred owl hooted welcomes to the evening.

Back up in the woods, the chickadees and jays settled into their night time perches. Off in the distance, a lone coyote barked. Nora and I sat on the porch step waiting. She looked back to the house.

“Look,” she cried.

I turned, half expecting to see the god of war sitting on our roof. Instead, a daddy long legs spider meditated on the gutter.

“Let’s check it out,” I urged.

We approached cautiously.

“Is it sleeping?” asked Nora.

The spider remained still.

“I doubt it. I think it is just practicing patience.”

Nora thought about that for a moment.

“Then I think you should kill it now,” she urged. “Crush it before it gets into the cabin.”

I was shocked at first. Perhaps the approach of Mars had somehow transformed my daughter from a cheerful teenager to a blood thirsty spider killer. Then the spider moved gracefully along the gutter line. Her tai – chi movements, so slow and deliberate, charmed my Nora. Her bloodlust disappeared.

“No. Let’s not kill the spider dad. It’s a dancer!”

My heart buoyed. Peace was restored in our valley.

As we studied the spider, so domestic over our doorway, Mars crawled above the horizon, a drop of blood beaming in the darkness. It was the brightest object in the sky.

Perhaps war and peace are not really opposites. After all, the mythical war god and Venus were secret lovers. Imagine the weary warrior pulling off his armor at last. Finally, he opens his battle scarred arms to the goddess’s soft embrace. Mars had never allowed himself to be so vulnerable, so unguarded. And from this union, the grizzled warrior, perhaps, found peace at last.

That night, Mars beamed bright beyond hope. Nora and I sat silently and watched its journey through the Zodiac. Our spider danced undisturbed along the wall. And at least for these few hours, Mars put down his tools of war and embraced the steady heart of love.

Tom O’Malley is an adjunct professor of English at Canisius College. 

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