Author Archives: Sandy Stott

Beginning Upstream

Perhaps you too wait for a day or three before taking up an anticipated book. Just so for me with Upstream, Mary Oliver’s recently released volume of selected essays. I didn’t hurry for two reasons: first, I’d read a number, most, of the essays before when they appeared in earlier volumes; I’d even read one in first light before it appeared in the journal I edited then. Second, and more pertinently, I wanted those few days before opening the door of the book’s cover and stepping first into one, then another, of its rooms. I knew that, even as many would not be wholly new, taking up residence would feel new – we, the essays and I, would differ, sometimes greatly, from what we were at our last meetings.

Fairhaven Bay - upstream for Henry Thoreau.

Fairhaven Bay – upstream for Henry Thoreau.

Morning coffee’s the time for my day’s first reading before turning to work, and so, facing east, I began Upstream, and soon, I heard familiar resonance – here, even as Emerson is Oliver’s favorite Concordian, was the not-so-distant presence of Henry Thoreau, cloaked in his famous coat metaphor. Walden readers are likely to recall its appearance at the end of the book’s second paragraph, where Thoreau has been speculating about his potential readership:

Perhaps these pages are more particularly addressed to poor students. As for the rest of my readers, they will accept such portions as apply to them. I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits.

And here is Oliver in a paragraph late in the clear waters of her book’s title essay, which is, among other things, about becoming, or, to use one of Thoreau’s favorite verbs, “realizing” oneself:

Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect.

Both writers would have us try on lives, but wear, finally, only the one that doesn’t “stretch the seams” or burden us with heavy responsibilities chosen by others. It takes “time to reject them,” for Henry Thoreau the two-plus years at Walden Pond, where, even as he cast off other coats, he was busy already with the one that he would offer in 1854.

As I read this paragraph, associations burst like popcorn in a popper, when suddenly the oil reaches temperature, and where there were only little seeds there are now white flowers of corn spilling up and out, so many, an overflow – the kneeling to earth, the attention on eternity, the nail, the house, the water, the flowers…

Oliver’s essay ends soon after with a single sentence paragraph: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

Simone Weil wrote, “absolute attention is prayer.”

And Thoreau, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”

Downstream - not Oliver's coast, but mine.

Downstream – not Oliver’s coast, but mine.

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Ripple – Pencil Addendum

Perhaps you too love it when a story ripples on, when the splash of its initial landing brings on a little backwash from or crossings with other stories and their wavelets. Just so with our recently posted piece from Richard Higgins about NYC’s attempted heist of Concord’s and the Thoreau family’s pencil past. Here, in short, is a photo Higgins discovered and its caption, which offers ID. At the end we have a tag-verse. Perhaps there are still more pencil-places to be heard from.


An old mill in Rex Village, N.C., turned into the fictional Stanleyville, “Pencil Capital of the World,” in the Disney film, “The Odd Life of Timothy Green.” (Readers: please do not forward to The New York Times.)





       “Playing footsie with pencil

         history  is something with which

        the people of Concord  will not


Richard Higgins – after Winston Churchill

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New York Erases Concord’s Preeminent Pencil Past

by Richard Higgins

Few will forget that last year at this time New York told us that Henry Thoreau was really a cheerless curmudgeon and hypocritical scold with the heart of Ted Kaczynski and the writing ability of Bronson Alcott. Many were astonished that the Thoreau Society had somehow missed this for this 75 years.

Now from New York comes another October surprise, this one from the Times, not the New Yorker. Also overlooked by Thoreau and Concord partisans, it recently announced, is the fact that the pencil capital of 19th- century America was–drum roll, please –New York City! Who (beside Kathryn Schulz) woulda thunk it?

I will not play fast and loose with the facts (unlike some writers), so I will corroborate. On Tuesday, October 11, 2016, a metro column in The New York Times began:

New York Today: Our Past in Pencils

“With school back in full swing (except for all the days off recently), let’s sharpen our knowledge of New York history.

Today’s lesson: How our city was once the capital of pencil manufacturing in the United States.

It further stated that New York in 1861 had, and I quote, “one of the country’s first lead-pencil factories.”

Now, are we who are in the know going to savage the author of this ridiculous claim with vicious personal attacks? Of course not. Concord people are decent and forgiving. Ms. Levine is probably a sincere and lovely person in addition to being a criminally inept reporter.

As everyone else knows, Concord had sophisticated and productive pencil factories while raw sewage still flowed on New York streets and no one dared venture into the raving wilderness above Wall Street.

Here, Ms. Levine, not to put too fine a point on it, are the facts:

The first wood pencils in the New World were made in Concord in 1812 when William Munroe invented a machine to cut and groove wood slats and filled them with a graphite paste. Fifty-nine (59) years later, in 1861, Eberhard Faber built what the Times calls the first “large-scale” pencil-making factory, in New York. Munroe’s shop was primitive by comparison. However he produced 175,000 pencils in 1814, only two years after starting, and five million pencils in 1835 alone. Sounds large-scale to me.

Munroe Pencils photo: Wikipedia

Munroe Pencils
photo: Wikipedia

Munroe was soon joined by a cluster of prominent pencil makers in Concord and surrounding towns, including Ebenezer Wood (Acton), Joseph Dixon (Salem), Benjamin Ball (Harvard) and, most famously, in 1821, the father of the humorless misanthrope, and then the insufferable sourpuss himself. It was partly because of Henry Thoreau’s involvement that Concord led the pencil industry in the United States into the 1840s. At that time, Thoreau pencils were among the most sought after in the country.

Finest Pencils photo: Wikipedia

Finest Pencils
photo: Wikipedia

Concord pencils apparently were even admired in New York. In a family history, Munroe’s son wrote that some of his father’s less principled competitors illegally slapped Munroe labels on their stock. “One merchant in New York”—that putative pinnacle of all things pencil—“sold German-made pencils with ‘W. Munroe’ on them as illegal knock-offs.” No names mentioned, but just noting that Eberhard was from Bavaria.

The question then is: What makes one pencil-producing city the pencil capital of a nation? The quantity of cheap pencils turned out? Probably not. Would not innovation and quality be better criteria?

If so, honors must go to 01742. Here’s why:

Concord pencil makers early on mixed graphite with wax, spermaceti and other substances. All worked but had drawbacks. The French were the only ones who knew the right recipe. Nicolas-Jacques Conté invented the modern pencil lead in 1795 by mixing graphite with clay—but he kept the formula a strict secret. Henry Thoreau decided to find the perfect graphite mix on his own. After researching it at the Harvard Library in 1840, he hit upon the idea of using clay—rediscovering what the Frenchman had figured out 45 years earlier. The result was a pencil lead that was harder and darker than any his family had made.

Thoreau also designed a machine to grind graphite better and another one to drill a hole lengthwise through the wood slats so the lead could be slid inside. The only reason the Thoreau family got out of the business was that the right recipe soon became common knowledge, resulting in stiff competition. The Thoreau’s wisely abandoned the pencil business in 1853 for a more profitable one: selling powdered graphite (“plumbago”) for use in electrotyping.

Having now settled this matter, to be fair I should point out that when I gently informed Ms. Levine by email of her error, she was the soul of grace. She apologized and promised a correction. I thanked her and said having at least one of these October misrepresentations corrected would set many local minds at ease. Her reply was not encouraging. She was off to her next story. New York workers, she said, have found the exact spot where the original Concord grape grew in Central Park.

Writer and editor Richard Higgins lives in Concord. University of California Press will publish his Thoreau and the Language of Trees in March 2017. He may be reached at


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