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Thoreauvian World Domination Faith in the Seed of an Idea

By Tammy Rose

Thoreau knew about the cycle of the seasons, the dispersion of seeds, about migration of birds and about immigration of peoples. When he lived at the pond, there were Irish railroad workers living in shacks (much like his) and he noticed the succession of humans, just as he noted the succession of trees.

“Such Irish as these are naturalizing themselves at a rapid rate-and threaten at last to displace the Yankees-as the latter have the Indians” The Journals, 1851

He wrote of Brister Freeman, a former enslaved Concordian resident who had purchased an acre of land in Walden Woods in the late 1770’s and whose name still holds title to Brister’s Hill and Brister’s Spring. If you are in the area, it is just the other side of Rt 2, inside the Hapgood-Wright Town Forest of Concord. He was most certainly not an “immigrant,” but one who had come to this country under the force of others. The Robbins House in Concord offers more information about him and other African American Concordians, including Ellen Garrison, Henry’s contemporary. We know of her through her letters, but there are many other stories, lives, cultures who are lost to time.

At Harvard, he took Italian, French, German, Spanish and was adept at Latin and Ancient Greek. I know plenty of young linguists, including myself, who were also inspired to take these languages as part of their Thoreauvian educations. He also had great respect for Native Americans and was adept at finding arrowheads on the ground, symbols of a lost culture.

Thoreau had all of these humans in his consciousness as he described the varied world around him. And the world has received his words, to the extent that they have taken in his ideas as their own. His ideas influenced the writings of Tolstoy and Chekov. Gandhi was introduced to the works of Thoreau by Henry S. Salt, who had written the 1890 Thoreau biography as well as other books on Ethical Vegetarianism. And Nelson Mandela, the ultimate symbol of Civil Disobedience, spent 27 years behind bars under Apartheid before he became President of South Africa. This is how the seeds of ideas get dispersed. Henry would have been proud.

Nelson Mandela's cell where he spent part of his 18 years in prison on Robben Island. He spent a total of 27 years behind bars. (Photo courtesy of Renata Nowalk-Garmer}

Nelson Mandela’s cell where he spent part of his 18 years in prison on Robben Island. He spent a total of 27 years behind bars. (Photo courtesy of Renata Nowalk-Garmer}

Is there any other American writer whose most valuable ideas have been exported like this? Alexander Hamilton? Mark Twain? Even Walt Whitman, who “contains multitudes,” has a voice for the modern era, but one which is difficult to translate. Walden the pond also benefits by being at the crossroads of education and innovation. Even the most analytic MIT student needs to escape to the woods every so often. Families who are in the country because of the H-B 1 Visa can be overheard on the shores of Walden on any given summer day. Close your eyes, and except for the sand, you could easily imagine you are at the U.N.

Speaking of politics, sometimes Thoreau could predict the future in examples from the past.

“The orator yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion, and speaks to the mob before him, to those who can hear him; but the writer, whose more equable life is his occasion, and who would be distracted by the event and the crowd which inspire the orator, speaks to the intellect and health of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him.” –Walden

 Sound like anyone we know? Any popular ruler speaking to a mob before him? But thoughtful ideas spread like seeds, cross political borders without regard to fear or prejudice. They transcend, space, time, walls and even language. The only modern equivalent we have is technology; where the medium is the message. Whether it be stone, paper, breath or video. And Henry continues his previous section:

 “A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips;— not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself. The symbol of an ancient man’s thought becomes a modern man’s speech.”- Walden

 Eugene F. Timpe published a book of essays in 1971 called Thoreau Abroad  covering 12 different cultures/countries (England, France, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Bohemia, Russia, Israel, India, Japan, Australia). What would that number be if a similar volume were to be published now, in 2017?

There is a new project to be done, indeed, which I imagine would be easy enough to do. It is possible for us to translate Walden “into every language,” as stated above. And “carve it out of the breath of life itself.” It is entirely possible to request this of the visitors of Walden, alone.

Using very basic technology, contributors could be asked to translate and videotape themselves speaking a single line from the book Walden into a videocamera. A website could be created to receive submissions from around the world to capture and document the more obscure (and dying) languages.

What would be the biggest barrier to the completion of such a massive project?

There are certainly enough people across the world who would volunteer their time and language skills. The technology has never been cheaper. Many excellent translations of Walden have appeared in languages that Thoreau could have only dreamed of learning, including most recently, Farsi.

What then would be the biggest problem for this or any other project to celebrate the diversity of peoples?

Walls. A killing off of support, both monetarily and politically. Massive cuts to the National Park Service, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Increase in funding for Defense and Security, both terms being NewSpeak for their inherent opposites, War & Fear. A strict political separation of people which prevents cross-pollination of ideas, languages and people.

Keep the faith. Plant a seed.



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Could rhubarb have made Henry’s tongue so tart?

The Roost editor Sandy Stott is on vacation. The following post was written by Deborah Bier, member of the Board of Trustees, Thoreau Farm Trust. Ms. Bier also volunteers her gardening talents to keeping Thoreau Farm’s Kitchen Garden looking and smelling beautiful.

Rhubarb grows wild at Thoreau Farm, the birth place of Henry David Thoreau. No one knows how long  rhubarb plants have been at the farm. Although one of our board members, Joe Wheeler, a man of a “certain age,” grew up on Thoreau Farm and remembers eating rhubarb his father grew on the farm.

Rhubarb might have been gown on Thoreau Farm, where Thoreau’s maternal grandmother owned a third, during Thoreau’s lifetime.  (While he was born on the farm, Thoreau’s family moved when he was eight months old.) We do know that Thoreau wrote about rhubarb.

From Henry David Thoreau’s Journal, December 22, 1837

About a year ago, having set aside a bowl which had contained some rhubarb grated in water, without wiping it, I was astonished to find a few days afterward, that the rhubarb had crystallized, covering the bottom of the bowl with perfect cubes, of the color and consistency of glue, and a tenth of an inch in diameter.

Rhubarb shrub, the house drink for Thoreau Farm.

Rhubarb shrub, the house drink for Thoreau Farm.

Rhubarb grows in the underbrush and in the woods found on the east side of the house. We’ve transplanted some of the wild rhubarb into one of  our Kitchen Garden beds. It thrives in the sunlight and from the attention of our visitors, and every year yields a bumper crop.  We enjoy growing – and occasionally sharing – this rhubarb with others to continue the plant’s tradition at this location.

For more information about rhubarb, including how to plant and use it, visit

We at Thoreau Farm appreciate rhubarb so much, that we’ve established a “house drink” served at special occasions based upon its profuse presence here: Rhubarb Shrub.

The US Slow Food “Ark of Taste” includes shrub among 200 foods listed as endangered due to industrial standardization, the regulations of large-scale distribution and environmental damage. Here’s what they write about shrub:

Shrub is a colonial-day drink whose name is derived from the Arabic word sharab, to drink. It is a concentrated syrup made from fruit, vinegar, and sugar that is traditionally mixed with water to create a refreshing drink that is simultaneously tart and sweet. In the 19th century, the drink was often spiked with brandy or rum. Ubiquitous in colonial times, the use of shrubs as a flavoring for tonic and sodas subsided with increasing industrial production of foods.

Here’s our recipe:

Yield: 20 punch cups

4 c. water

2 lbs. rhubarb, cut up (about 7 c.), sliced

1 c. sugar

3/4 tsp cinnamon

3/4 tsp powdered ginger

1/4 c apple cider vinegar

1 (32 oz.) seltzer water, chilled

Put the sliced rhubarb into a pan with 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat; add the sugar, vinegar and spices, stirring well. Strain thru a sieve, saving juice and pulp separately*. Add remaining water. There will be about 4 1/2 cups rhubarb juice. Chill. When ready to serve, pour juice into punch bowl with ice and the seltzer.

(*Pulp may be served later as a dessert with a dab of whipped cream on top.)

We hope you enjoy this summer drink as much as we do. Let us know if you’ve tried our recipe and send us an email,

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Walden Pond for the First Time

Roost editor Sandy Stott is on vacation. The following post is by Ashton Nichols, Professor of English Language and Literature, Dickinson College.

So there I was, over half a century old, a professor of literature and environmental studies who has been teaching Henry David Thoreau for over thirty years, but I had never been to Concord or to Walden Pond. So, at the end of a recent trip to give an academic lecture and visit friends in Boston I decided to head west, to get out the map and not stop until I reached the pond itself. For those who may not know, Concord is roughly 20 miles northwest of Boston, and Walden Pond is just a short hop from Emerson’s house in Concord (Emerson was the man who owned the Walden property and offered it to his friend Thoreau as a spot to build a naturalist’s hut—without any specific thanks or acknowledgement from the great naturalist anywhere in his legendary book). I reached Walden Pond without any trouble, parked my car, and walked slowly to the lapping edge of the shore.

The pond was crystal clear at the shoreline when I arrived: every stone and waving water plant, all the tiny aquatic grubs visible amid the rocks, the occasional minnow swimming slowly by, and insects galore: midges and mosquitoes, dragonflies and Dobson flies, water striders, and tiny mites invisible to the human eye. Dobsonflies are those great centipede-like larvae that turn into thick-bodied hellgrammites, mighty underwater caterpillars that are among the best fresh-water fish bait in New England and all the way down the East Coast shoreline of the Middle Atlantic States:



I was sorely tempted to jump in for a swim, but instead I decided to watch the shore for a while, all the way along the southwestern edge to the stone posts that mark the sight of the great man’s original cabin. This is where he built his hut; this is where he lived for two years. Most importantly, perhaps, this experience inspired him to write Walden; or, Life in the Woods, the book that made him a legend and made this geographic location into a spot of secular American pilgrimage. Walden Pond is now like Plymouth Rock, or Jamestown Harbor, or Washington’s Mount Vernon, or Lincoln’s mighty marble memorial near the Potomac River in Washington, D.C.

Here was the exact spot where Thoreau sat for entire mornings, watching the day go by, watching the world unfold before him. Here is what he said: “Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and sumacs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been . . . Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune.“

There is surely something very special about this small 64.5 acre lake on a plot of land that has now been saved, thanks largely to the efforts of Don Henley and other caring musical stars, actors, and notables: Arlo Guthrie, Jimmy Buffett, and Bonnie Raitt among others; but this effort includes not only musicians. Other names involved in the effort to save this humble national landmark have included, over the years, Meryl Streep, Ted Kennedy, and Michal Douglas, and more. But, just as importantly, we can all now come. We can come by plane, train, bus, or automobile from wherever we live, and once we get here, we can all look long, and hard, and especially closely, the way Thoreau himself looked, with care and attention, with steady focus on the objects in front of us. They deserve our scrutiny; they deserve our concern. I have students who have swum in the pond, and others who have hiked almost every inch of the shoreline of this “sacred” spot. One brought me a small rock from the water’s edge that sits on my desk to this day. This is Henry David Thoreau’s pond, the one that has become a legendary spot of American literary geography, right up with Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow, near Tarrytown, New York, or Faulkner’s imaginary Yoknapatawpha near Oxford, Mississippi, or Hemingway’s Key West.


Ashton with Thoreau at Walden Pond

Here is how Thoreau put the central issue of his two-year stay at Walden Pond, in an essay that remains unpublished to the present day: ”What are the natural features which make a township handsome—and worth going far to dwell in? A river with its waterfalls—meadows, lakes, hills, cliffs or individual rocks, a forest and single ancient trees—such things are beautiful. They have a high use which dollars and cents never represent.” This is precisely what Thoreau thinks he had found at Walden, a wild spot that is not in any way linked to the world of money, or to the realm of dollars and cents. Here is the ultimate point for the father of American nature writing. “Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul,” he says toward the close of his masterwork. Nothing in Thoreau’s value system is about capitalism, about any system of exchange that requires money; instead, his world is about the organic exchange of foodstuffs and nutrients, the natural rhythms of day and night, warm and cold, the pumping of blood and the breathing of oxygen. In the end, the world of Walden Pond is the same world I see on this ordinary afternoon of my first visit to this special spot: light cutting across thick trunks and green leaves and branches, a cool breeze blowing from the water’s surface into the Massachusetts forest.

Ashton Nichols holds the Walter E. Beach ’56 Distinguished Chair in Sustainability Studies and is a Professor of English Language and Literature at Dickinson College. His most recent book is Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism: Toward Urbanatural Roosting, described by one reviewer this way: “There is no question that Nichols has written a wondrous book, innovative in its merging of genres, richly veined with intellectual history, literary criticism, and a passionate vision for the future of environmentalism.” – NBOL-19.




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