Falling in with Henry – Summer Outside of Town

It was unplanned, but over these July days, some 170 years after his move to Walden, I’ve fallen in with Henry and his stretched summer of ’45. Later, it would become part of Walden’s endless (nearly) summer, lasting for more than half the book before fall’s abrupt, punctuating chill arrived. But now, in his raw journal pages and in the mild light that forgets to dwindle each evening, I keep hearing susurration, summer’s saying, “ssssshhhure it’s okay to idle, maybe turn the page…maybe not.”

Well-thumbed Princeton Edition of the Journal

Well-thumbed Princeton Edition of the Journal

On or about July 16th that year, Alek Therien, who would become the woodchopper (and conundrum – is he as simple as one of his posts, or as wise as Homer?) in Walden, visits Thoreau, and, even in these unguarded pages, he’s unsure of what to make of his blunt guest. Therien offers advice on hoeing beans – wait ’til the dew dries – which Thoreau doesn’t credit, and he wants to be read to, which invites a visit from Homer himself.

“And now,” Thoreau writes, “I must read to him while he holds the book – Achilles’ reproof to Patrocles on his sad countenance
‘Why are you in tears, – Patrocles? Like a young child (girl) &c. &c

Or have you only heard some news from Phthia?”

And on this question I pause. Phthia is Achilles’ and Patrocles’ home town, and they are far away at Troy. What might be happening when they are so far from home? Might their fathers be ill, or have died? Might invaders have appeared, just as they the Greeks have at Troy?

It seems significant that Achilles appears here near the inception of Thoreau’s Walden years. He will become a recurring reference in Thoreau’s book, a heroic ideal that casts light on Thoreau’s own purpose at Walden, where, following the archetype, he has set out to locate some secret, some sense of how to live, which he will bring back with him when he returns to town.

Okay, you may say, I know that.

But what has me falling in with Henry Thoreau these days is the implied wondering about the world he has left, the everyday Concord and its dusty roads and clanking cutlery. For me, summer creates the same sense of remove as the shift to Walden. Even when I don’t leave town, I leave its routine, its minute-by-minute machinations.

Instead I live in stretched time’s aforementioned Ss and the way a day’s light goes buttery in the near evening when corn and tomatoes and greens that absorbed that light even this morning form the table’s fare.

And sometimes the question rises: what is happening back in the little town of the everyday? Will I return? Who will be waiting?

For now, however, I am happy to be here, only perhaps an imagined mile or so out of that town, it’s true, but emphatically elsewhere. As was Henry Thoreau when he wrote from beyond Concord of a similar present on the 14th of July in 1845:

Here I know I am in good company – here is the world its centre and metropolis, and all the palms of Asia – and the laurels of Greece – and the first of the Arctic Zones incline thither.

Expansive summer.

July's Pages

July’s Pages

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Bose in the Berries

“[Berrying] is a sort of sacrament, a communion – the not forbidden fruits, which no serpent tempts us to eat.” Thoreau, Wild Fruits

In many instances and groves, I find myself aligned with Henry Thoreau. But, when it comes to canines, we part ways. For Thoreau, dogs were all Boses and Treys, indistinguishable animals who coursed through the woods, running game and baying monotonously. Often, one suspects, they were cast as stand-ins for their human hunter companions – keen on one thing only, missing the heaven through which they ran.

For me, not so much. Instead, I see dogs as spirit animals, who arrive, often unbidden, at both usual and gravid moments.

The other day was my first of our berry season. For a few days prior, I’d seen bumps of blue in the bushes that line the paths of our Commons, and I knew the seemingly sudden ripening of blueberries was on us. Although our backyard high bush berries are still green, their ground-hugging cousins have taken in the ground’s added warmth and become themselves.

Discovery

Discovery

There are few times I find more meditative and self-completing than a stretch of picking berries on a warm afternoon. My eye finds blue behind and beneath the leaves, and as I pick, I get picky – I want what I call “fat-berries,” the sun-sugared ones as big as your pinkie’s fingernail. They are not the something-infused, suspect colossi you find in the supermarket, shipped north in all seasons. These delicate berries are shipped nowhere, except across the grove by birds, or combed into a happy maw by the bear I always imagine just out of sight.

Anyway, accompanied by overlapping songs from the wood thrush, I was settled into my picking, when I heard brush rustling nearby. I looked up and through it came a yellow lab’s head, replete with the canine smile of discovery usual when they uncover a hidden human. Labs are not shy dogs, and she came right to me, nudged my right hand as prompt for affection, and sat down to receive. Which she did. A minute passed, and I patted on.

Not THE lab, but close friend Harlow nonetheless

Not this story’s lab, but close friend Harlow nonetheless

Then, slowly, a figure drew near on the path 100 feet away; the lab’s human companion (HC in dog literature) was scanning the woods. “Ah,” she said spotting us. “There you are. You’ve found another HC.” The lab, extracting every second of affection, stayed until summoned. Then, she bounded off in pursuit of a tossed ball.

Pause over (I resist, as Thoreau might not have, the pun), I looked down again, and the sky-blue winking gathered me back into the berries. A quart or so later, I straightened and figured it was time to walk home. I marked this patch – only partially picked – on my mental map and set out. First berries, wood thrush songs, a dog’s visit – if I could whistle, I would have.

There is one thing in this piece on which Henry Thoreau and I agree: berries, blue and huckle, are the very spirit of summer, which carries in it (in Walden and elsewhere) the spirit of independence and self-realization. And, just as the yellow lab followed her nose to me, I follow mine to these berries; we are both summer animals.

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A Singing Bridge

By Corinne H. Smith

July 11, 2015, 6:30 a.m. North Bridge, Concord, Massachusetts.

I was due at Walden Pond at 7 a.m. to lead the annual silent Memorial Walk during The Thoreau Society Annual Gathering. I had fifteen minutes to spare before I had to pick up a fellow walker at her hotel. So I headed over to my favorite place in the area: the North Bridge.

Thankfully, the hour was too early for tourists. And the timing must have been off for joggers or dog-walkers too, because I had the place blissfully to myself. Or, I should clarify: I was alone, only as far as fellow humans were concerned. Once I tiptoed to the crest of the bridge, I was instead surrounded by birdsong.

Looking down the river

Looking down the Concord River at dawn

The usual little brown chatterers were perched in the tall trees by the riverbanks. A catbird mewed from the thicket. A pair of red-wing blackbirds chased each other through the marsh on the opposite shore. Pigeons cooed from underneath the bridge boards. Every few seconds one of the pigeons would whappity-whap-whap to one of the other wooden posts below.

Looking up the Concord River at dawn

Looking up the Concord River at dawn

As I had hoped, the clear and cloudless sky made for a beautiful scene. My favorite scene. One so full of peace that it confounded me to think that the Revolution started here with weapons, confusion, gunshot, injury, and loss of life.

It was at this hour on the morning of April 19, 1775, that the colonial minutemen gathered in anticipation on the other side of the bridge. The red-coated soldiers would soon arrive in Concord from Boston, after having exchanged shots with the minutemen lining the road in Lexington. The paths of the two groups would cross here in about three hours. What happened would eventually be described by Ralph Waldo Emerson as “the shot heard ‘round the world.” Had the birds been singing on that morning, too?

I looked downriver, to the right. The Concord was beautiful. I looked upriver and toward the Old Manse boathouse, to the left. Suddenly I realized that a heron was fishing along the far shoreline, just beyond a bit of rising mist. I hadn’t noticed it before. I had had too much history on my mind.

Heron fishing

Heron fishing

Still, the birds sang, all around me. After a quick look around to make sure there were no further witnesses, I decided to join them. I chose the chorus from the John Denver song “Summer,” which I thought was one of the most transcendental sets of lyrics he ever wrote:

“And oh, I love the life within me,
I feel a part of everything I see.
And oh, I love the life around me,
A part of everything is here in me.
A part of everything is here in me.
A part of everything is here in me.”

Most singing bridges come with decks of metal grates that make automobile tires “sing” when they travel across them. This morning I changed the definition to include this other kind of singing: vocal, not physical. I sang the chorus several times, getting louder with each one. The heron must not have been a John Denver fan. When I looked back to the far shore, he was gone.

Still, I have a sense for what Henry David Thoreau may have thought if he’d been able to look down from this “rude bridge” and see the reflection of the morning sky in the Concord water:

“Heaven is under our feet, as well as over our heads.”

The Concord is an impressionist river, reflecting both trees and sky.

The Concord is an impressionist river, reflecting both trees and sky.

 

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