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Sauntering the Year with Henry David Thoreau

By Donna Marie Przybojewski

“I would make education a pleasant thing both to the teacher and the scholar. This discipline, which we allow to be the end of life, should not be one thing in the schoolroom, and another in the street. We should seek to be fellow students with the pupil, and we should learn of, as well as with him, if we would be most helpful to him.” — Henry David Thoreau, Correspondence to Orestes Augustus Brownson, December 30, 1837

These words set the tone for St. Benedict Catholic School in Garfield Heights,  Ohio this school year, as we “Saunter the Year with Henry David Thoreau” to celebrate the bicentennial of his birth. At our year-end  faculty meeting last May, I presented my multi-grade curriculum proposal about the upcoming bicentennial year. Everyone was overwhelmingly positive and enthused about this collaborative endeavor.

Reflecting upon our Thoreau Bicentennial during summer break, however, it became clear to me that the students were not going to be the only recipients of Thoreau lessons, which would teach them about this iconic American author, philosopher, and naturalist. If our year was going to be successful, then the teachers would have to become pupils. As a Thoreau Bicentennial Ambassador, I was able to help the teachers become comfortable with Thoreau and his ideas, so they could impart that knowledge to their students.

I imagine that Henry would have been proud of our venture — teacher becoming pupil. Teachers were given websites to research Thoreau, which included the Thoreau Society, Walden Woods, Henry’s Hat, and Concord Museum. Our faculty worked as a collaborative team: asking questions, offering suggestions, and assisting partner teachers in preparing lessons.

As this educational enquiry transpired, I had to smile because Henry seemed to be the master teacher in every room since the Maxham daguerreotype of Henry hung upon the wall of each classroom.

It was as if he were saying, “Here I am. Remember my thoughts about education for both teacher and pupil.”
image cartoon(2)

Everywhere teachers and students looked, there was Henry looking over their shoulders and guiding them, including the halls, since he had a place of honor in our trophy cabinet. Henry had become so much an integral part of our school environment that during a particularly difficult day, I would look at the daguerreotype and ask myself, “What would Henry do?” Even students, when encountering a dilemma in class, would ask me what I thought Henry would say about the matter and what he might suggest to do about it.

The learning not only occurred in the classroom, but as Henry advised, it happened outside as well. When parents asked their children what they did in school, the typical answer, “nothing,” was not the response. Rather, parents were given a barrage of information about Henry and his visits to St. Benedict School. The enthusiasm of their children was the incentive parents told me they needed to refresh their own memories of this American author, as well as read his works.

As an educator, this bicentennial year provided me with the greatest growth I have experienced in years in a relatively short time. Surprisingly, even though I had incorporated Thoreau into my own Language Arts curriculum at the junior high level, I, too, became a pupil and learned. First and foremost, I knew that if Henry was going to be relevant, he had to become a real and tangible person to especially the primary school children. He could not just be an author in a book or a face on a wall. So, I became Henry.

Donna as HDT

The author as Henry David Thoreau

At the September kickoff to the Thoreau Bicentennial, students met Henry at an assembly, and he took them for a saunter around the baseball fields of the school. Then, as he had done during his own time, he threw a watermelon party for everyone, and from that moment on, the year has been unbelievably filled with joy. Many accounts of Thoreau describe him as being aloof, caustic, and abrupt. Our year has proved these depictions as not entirely accurate. One could see how children would gravitate to him during his life as the students of St. Benedict Catholic School would flock to him when he walked through the halls or entered a classroom to read to the students.

They grabbed his hands and hugged his knees. Smiles permeated the faces of the children, and I had the distinct privilege of witnessing this firsthand as Henry.

knees-29

A young child hugs Henry’s knees.

As a Thoreau Bicentennial Ambassador, I saw the need to simplify Thoreau enough to make young minds receptive to him, if his legacy is to be preserved for future generations. In addition, I was learning more about myself and creative abilities through this special year. Creating and publishing three children’s books about this author was not something that I had ever anticipated doing.  These books are enabling St. Benedict’s primary teachers to incorporate writing, history, art, and discussion into their curriculum while introducing Thoreau to their young students. Also, I became the pupil as my publisher guided me through my writing and illustrations. In turn, I taught my students the writing process in a very personal way and to always be awake for the unexpected opportunities that may enter into their lives.

BIOME

Students studied the biome of Walden Pond.

Throughout our celebration of Henry’s 200th birthday, teachers were expanding their knowledge of Thoreau across disciplines.

Science teachers studied the biome of Walden with their classes, and then had students put Henry in an alternative biome explaining similarities and differences.

Math teachers had students graph the dimensions of Henry’s cabin at Walden then create their own tiny house on graph paper. Another teacher grew beans in the classroom just as Henry did in his garden and measure their growth. Social Studies teachers incorporated Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and “Plea for John Brown” during Black History month in February. In fact, one class attended a program on the Underground Railroad and actually “met” John Brown. Teachers were discovering that Thoreau, although primarily known as an author, could be introduced in all subject areas not just Language Arts.

It goes without saying that Language Arts teachers really soared in their classes. Students learned to model Henry and describe nature in unique ways as he had done with such clarity.

One student wrote, “When I was on a flight, the most beautiful thing I saw was the sun rising, making the sky orange, and all the clouds underneath me look like rolling pieces of cotton from a pillow.”

Another wrote, “The soft sounds of rain hitting my window, while light flashes and rumbles from the clouds. That sound soothes me even in my darkest days.

One young man described this feeling about the ocean saying, “I love watching the waves as they crash into each other, the various hues of blues are calming to me.”

Another student when explaining Henry’s profound words composed the following: “The world when I were born was clean and fresh. I hadn’t made an impact on it yet. Every day I fill it with myself and what I experience. I paint my life on the canvass before me. It is mine to create.”

Students were also able to journal their thoughts, sometimes disagreeing with Henry.

One response to Henry’s statement that his greatest talent was having few wants indicated the following: “Although I admire Henry for not wanting a lot of things, I could not do that. There are many things that I want, so need a good paying job to purchase them.”

Granted, this was not response that was desired, and the concept of simple living still needs to be understood; however, Henry would have desired such honesty in writing whether he agreed or disagreed with it, not just blind agreement but thinking for oneself. Another example included a debate about whether Henry had three chairs in his cabin or six. Some students were adding the one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society to equal six chairs. It was a good brain exercise as students finally came to the realization of what he actually meant through discussion.

In addition, students illustrated narratives they wrote to describe what they would do with Henry if he visited them today. A few students wrote beautiful accounts of taking him to the library.

One student tenderly stated: “I would take Henry to the library to show him the books he wrote on the shelf. Knowing how much he appreciated libraries, I think he would feel proud that people were still reading his books 200 years after his birth.”

Students across grade levels also received a Flat Henry to take home and record what they did together. Henry became a part of their family as he attended basketball games, went on park walks, to the library, and even to the emergency room as one kindergartner relayed, “I had to get an X-ray on my arm but having Henry with me made me feel better.”

Even art played a factor in learning about Thoreau. Students were involved in sketching items from nature as Thoreau had doodled in his journals, illustrating their narratives, and even creating editorial cartoons about what might be Henry’s comments on modern society. Also, students recycled their own paper to create covers for their journals. The list is limitless to what the students are learning about this American icon through various activities and lessons. What is wonderful is that we are all engaged — teacher as well as student. Teachers are learning from their students and students are learning from their teachers. All are actively sharing as Henry thought we should be.

Children can relate to the simplicity of Henry. He was a dichotomy, being complex, as well as quite simple. His innocence and pure joy for life endears him to children. Henry is continuing to inspire children as well as adults to grow creatively and intellectually.

Therefore, this year has been “a pleasant thing for both scholar and teacher,” as Henry put it. Through the years, we will all continue learning and sauntering with Henry David Thoreau since we have made him our resident author at St. Benedict Catholic School. He has a permanent place in our trophy cabinet and in our classrooms. More importantly, however, he will continue to impact our intellects and spirits. Isn’t this what education is all about? Henry knew this. Now, so do we. Henry’s daguerreotype will persist to look upon us as educators and scholars in the years to come silently encouraging us to grow with each other.

Donna Marie Przybojewski is the author of three children’s books. Mrs. Przybojewski will be speaking at Thoreau Farm on Thursday, April 20, from 3-4:30pm on how to introduce Henry David Thoreau to children and launching her latest book, Henry David Thoreau Loved the Seasons. Email margaretcb@thoreaufarm.org to reserve a seat.

 

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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Living Deliberately, The Roost, Thoreau Bicentennial, Thoreau Quote

Interview with a pilgrim

by Natasha Shabat

For the past 16 months, I’ve been video-interviewing visitors to Walden Pond. Approaching random strangers at the pond requires going out of my comfort zone. Normally I photograph nature at the pond and post my photos on Facebook — on my own page, on the Thoreau Society group page, on other Concord-related pages — and print them on greeting cards. And, with the encouragement of some Thoreauvian friends, I created a Facebook blog called “Walden Pond People” and turned my camera toward people, talking with them about why they were visiting the pond.

Come summer of 2016 and the Annual Gathering of the Thoreau Society (AG16), I invited attendees to meet me at Walden Pond, Monday morning after the Gathering, to be interviewed at Thoreau’s Cove. I chose this rendezvous point since it’s easy to find, and it’s quieter near the western end of the pond.

Meanwhile, thanks to my Walden Pond photos on the Thoreau Society Facebook group, I had befriended Punit, a man from India, who had been in the U.S. for less than two years and was starting to explore the country.

“Walden Pond is one of my dream places to visit,” Punit told me last April.

In July, Punit traveled to New England to attend AG16. He had never been to Boston, Concord, or Walden Pond and attended AG presentations over the weekend, including mine on “Walden Pond People.” He waited to make his pilgrimage to the pond for when we met at Thoreau’s Cove for his “Walden Pond People” interview.

“I wanted to read more about philosophy. I picked up Gandhi, because of the impact he made on the destiny of India, the future of India, so I wanted to know more about him. When I read his autobiography there was something on ‘Civil Disobedience,’ which I later came to know was inspired by Thoreau’s essay. Another reason why I was attracted to Thoreau’s writings is because one of my friends recommended Walden to me. There were a lot of things which were telling me ‘Hey, go read Thoreau!’ So, first I got my book. I just bought it and put it on the shelf. I didn’t do anything with it!”

When Punit described his path toward Thoreau, he reminded me of my own experience. I, too, had bought a copy of Walden, put it on the shelf, and proceeded to not read it. I simply continued going to Walden Pond to swim, kayak and read and write, as I’d already been doing for a couple of decades.

Punit photo 1

“Yeah, it was a fun way to read a book. I’ve never done anything like that with any other book.”

Punit continued, “But my friends influenced me. They started reading Walden before I did. Then there were three of us reading this book at the same time. There are certain things in the book which are difficult to understand. So what we would do is, we would discuss these with each other through email, or by phone, or during the in-person meetings. Yeah, it was a fun way to read a book. I’ve never done anything like that with any other book. It was a really interesting way to study these ideas. ‘What does this guy even want to say in these lines?’”

As Punit, I was influenced by others finally to take my book off the shelf. In my case it was a bunch of Thoreauvians presenting at AG11, which I had spontaneously attended. There at the Masonic Temple in Concord I was surrounded by people who knew Walden and had plenty to say about it. I was intrigued enough finally to read Walden for my first time. I read it in small bites, chewing on Thoreau’s words, while sitting in my kayak on Walden Pond. I did this over the next six weeks, until I turned the last page on September 1, 2011.

“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.” — Walden, “Reading”

Punit: “I think of Walden, and Thoreau’s writing in general, I think of them as something which is connecting the dots. Think of civilizations which existed in a different time. On a scale of time. Think of Chinese civilization, Indian, or Hindu civilizations, or American, or European civilization. So Thoreau’s trying to connect the dots. As if he were saying ‘Hey! There really isn’t much difference between these different civilizations. The core philosophy remains the same.’”

Punit photo 2

“Think of civilizations on a scale of time.”

After I finished reading Walden that summer of 2011, I, too, observed some dot-connecting, but of another sort: I was overcome by the parallels between Thoreau’s masterpiece and the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes. (More on this another time.)

Punit: “That core philosophy is one of the reasons that Thoreau got inspired by Eastern philosophy, even though he lived so much later afterward. That’s just amazing for me! And since I’m from India, Hindu philosophy especially attracted me to Walden. I think it’s really important to figure out what you want to do in life. This is one of those books which actually helped me to figure that out.

Punit photo 3

“I really like the site of his cabin.”

“Walden Pond is exactly what I was thinking of, how I imagined it to be: a simple place, just trees, pond, that’s it. It’s very peaceful, very nice, very green. Just the kind of place you want to be in when you want to think about the higher purpose of life, bigger things in life. Well, the cabin actually looks smaller than what I thought, so I’m wondering how Thoreau lived in such a small cabin. I would find it difficult. . . .  he was here for a grander purpose, so it probably suited his purposes here.

“I really like the site of his cabin. I think he probably must have walked around the pond a lot of times. Probably there is some specific reason why he chose this as his site. I brought my camera – that’s really important, because I wanted to capture at least a part of what Thoreau felt. And I would love to visit this place again.”

I was impressed with Punit. Imagine living in India, learning about Thoreau as a result of studying Gandhi — and then, eventually, actually coming here to Concord, hoping to see what Thoreau saw and feel what Thoreau felt. Punit had graciously awarded me the privilege of accompanying him on his first-ever pilgrimage to the place where Thoreau wrote Walden. I felt honored.

You can find my video interview with Punit here.

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, The Roost, Thoreau Bicentennial, Walden

Each Town Should Have a Park: Wandering Public Lands Far and Near

By Scott Berkley

 “Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation. … If any owners of these tracts are about the leave the world without natural heirs who need or deserve to be specially remembered, they will do wisely to abandon their possession to all, and not will them to some individual who perhaps has enough already.”  — Henry David Thoreau, Journal. October 15, 1859

On the late-summer day last year when the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument was announced, former Roost editor Sandy Stott was out paddling a kayak in the Gulf of Maine. When he returned to the news that the state of Maine had added a parcel of the immense North Woods to its stock of public lands, the connection to Henry Thoreau, who loved both the northern reaches of New England and the idea of land deeded to the public good rather than held by private interests, was immediately evident. To Thoreau, the purpose of setting aside public lands was to make them “a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation,” as he put it in his journal.

When I met up with Sandy in Maine later in the fall, we went land-ward to the Brunswick Commons, a parcel set squarely between the housing developments which ring that prosperous coastal town and the manicured playing fields of Bowdoin College. The Brunswick town Commons – which have made an appearance on The Roost in the past – are encircled by all the signs of a community becoming more and more of a paved metropolis. And yet the sandy trails meandering across marshlands dense with low sedge and scraggly pitch pines seemed, as I ran through the slanting autumn light, to exist as the beating heart of the town as a whole – a region that spoke back to the encroaching development. Let every town have its forest, says Thoreau; and let it be, by extension, not separate from the town, but at the basis of this larger ecological and spatial community.

This past month, I found myself thinking often of Thoreau’s public-lands dictum and what it tells us about land use in the twenty-first century. In the past four weeks travel took me to two of our nation’s most famed national parks: Yellowstone and Great Smokies. On the move in these hallowed places of wild land, I thought about the historical importance of these National Parks, this one-hundred-and-one year-old idea. Even more, I thought about how the millions of acres in the national park system speak to the tiny parcels of public lands in towns like Brunswick, and how the town-parks speak back to these iconic locales that take up so much space in our collective American consciousness.

On my way to Yellowstone, I found one such town-park in the city of Bozeman, at the south end of the Bridger Mountains of Montana. Over the past few years a local nonprofit, the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, has spearheaded an ambitious trail-building initiative known as “Main Street to the Mountains,” connecting urban bike paths and trails in places like Linley Park and Peet’s Hill to mountain trails leading to the Bridger Ridge. As of next year, when a new connector trail is finished, a trail runner or hiker will be able to go from downtown to Mt. Baldy at the south end of the Bridgers without having to find a way to drive to the trailhead.

A new bridge on the Drinking Horse Mountain trail, near Bozeman, MT.  Photo from gallatinartcrossing.com

A new bridge on the Drinking Horse Mountain trail, near Bozeman, MT.
Photo from gallatinartcrossing.com

Two weeks later, in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, I recalled the significance of Bozeman’s urban trails when I visited Le Conte Lodge, perched near the summit of the park’s second-highest mountain. The continued existence of the Lodge, where up to sixty overnight guests can stay during the March-through-October full-service season, testified to the eleven million visitors who come to the Smokies each year. Le Conte itself is a kind of town, even in the cold and foggy month of March; dozens of dayhikers came to visit the Lodge, even though it was closed for the winter, every day. Bozeman’s trail network creates a park experience even in the midst of urban development, while Le Conte Lodge recalls how humans can interact with expansive wild places on their own terms: by finding a way to make a home in the mountains.

The author out running in the Smokies. Photo courtesy of Ryan Koski-Vacirca.

Back in my hometown of Concord after the second leg of this two-park tour, it was again the familiar, lower-case parks that beckoned: Walden Woods; Fairyland, with its stone engravings of quotes from Thoreau and Emerson; Estabrook Woods, where those two once walked. One quote not engraved was Thoreau’s advice to wealthy landowners, to “abandon” their holdings “to all, and not will them to some individual who perhaps has enough already.” Fascinating word, abandon – as though the common, once given over to the shareholders of a town or country, were a place to be left alone rather than used and appreciated for generations. One hopes that, in this time of increasing socioeconomic inequality and political volatility, the town common is true to its name, binding us together in the shared joy of use.

Scott Berkley, a recent graduate of Middlebury College, has worked for the past five years in the huts of the White Mountains and is at home at all speeds on woodland trails.

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Nature, The Roost, Thoreau Bicentennial