An Old Book Is a Joy Forever

By Corinne H. Smith

My part-time day job is to do cataloging for a seller of used books. Recently I was up to my ears in old children’s books at my desk when boss Kevin walked into the work room. He had been sorting through boxes of “new” arrivals in another part of the building. He had a smile on his face and a book in his hand, and he held it out to me.

“Here’s something I think you may want to see,” he said. I saw a slip of white paper sticking out of the book as I reached over my computer to take it.

As soon as I touched it, I said, “Wow.” The brown covers, both front and back, had intricate textured carvings. Bright gilding appeared on all three open edges of the pages, not just along the top. The spine had five metal rings in it. It was heavy. Now THIS was a book designed for reading and for keeping. “Homes of American Authors,” read the gilded letter titling. The flyleaves were made of marbled paper in hues of yellow, red, and blue. The title page said that it had been published by G. P. Putnam and Company in 1853. Wow again.

homesofaa

Kevin knows of my obsession with All Things Thoreau, so he often deflects relevant books to me. I’d never seen a copy of this one before, though. I figured that the slip must mark a mention of Henry. But from 1853? The book Walden wouldn’t be published until August 1854. Thoreau would so far have been known only for writing a few essays, delivering some lectures, and selling fewer than 300 copies of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. What could this be?

The marker was tucked between pages 246 and 247, in the Emerson chapter. Of course! In the middle of the discourse about the famous resident of the big white house on the Cambridge Turnpike, the author chose to ramble a bit about one of the regular visitors to the place. It’s just one paragraph, and it’s obvious that the writer knows Thoreau. He finds it unusual that Henry hasn’t yet kicked up any arrowheads on the Emerson property:

The site of the house is not memorable. There is no reasonable ground to suppose that so much as an Indian wigwam ever occupied the spot; nor has Henry Thoreau, a very faithful friend of Mr. Emerson’s, and of the woods and waters of his native Concord, ever found an Indian arrowhead upon the premises. Henry Thoreau’s instinct is as sure toward the facts of nature as the witch-hazel toward treasure. If every quiet country town in New England had a son, who, with a lore like [English naturalist Gilbert White’s] Selborne’s, and an eye like [French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de] Buffon’s, had watched and studied its landscape and history, and then published the result, as Thoreau has done, in a book as redolent of genuine and perceptive sympathy with nature, as a clover-field of honey, New England would seem as poetic and beautiful as Greece. Thoreau lives in the berry-pastures upon a bank over Walden pond, and in a little house of his own building. One pleasant summer afternoon a small party of us helped him raise it – a bit of life as Arcadian as any at Brook Farm. Elsewhere in the village he turns up arrowheads abundantly, and Hawthorne mentions that Thoreau initiated him into the mystery of finding them. But neither the Indians, nor Nature, nor Thoreau can invest the quiet residence of our author with the dignity, or even the suspicion of a legend.

Wow again! Not only did this author know Thoreau, but he was a true friend and a fan who could wax poetic when necessary. He took a bit of literary license, since Henry’s time at Walden was from 1845-1847; and by 1853, he was living with his family in the yellow house on Main Street. Still, I wanted to know: Who wrote this piece?

I went back to the title page to find out. It unfortunately read “by various writers.” However, another page contained the names of eleven contributors, one for each chapter. Among them was George William Curtis (1824-1892), a New England-based author who wrote for Putnam’s Magazine. He lived for several years in Concord and also for a short time at Brook Farm. I’ve since learned that he was the one who penned this quick but nifty profile of Henry, embedded within his description of Emerson’s home. And it’s one of the earliest casual mentions of Henry in print media.

The old engraved illustrations in this book are simply stunning. In addition to Emerson’s house, there are pictures of the Old Manse and the homes of the Alcotts and the Hawthornes. A few pages were missing from the Emerson chapter, unfortunately. And the more I handled it, the sorrier I felt for this book. The front cover had entirely broken away from the spine. The back cover was threatening to do the same, as I discovered when I turned the book sideways to look at the engravings. The spine material was loose. All of the outer edges were worn. Some pages were aging and had a bit of foxing around their edges. It wasn’t the best gem in the jewelry box. Still, I was grateful that Kevin had taken the time to see if the name of Henry Thoreau appeared in it.

“Wow,” I said to him, after examining the book for the few minutes that seemed like a lifetime. “This is very cool. Thanks for sharing.” I handed it back to him.

“No, no,” he said, with his arms at his sides.  “I can’t sell a book in that condition.  You can keep it.”

Wow again.

Ol Manse Illustration from the Book

Ol Manse Illustration from the Book

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Filed under Arts, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, The Roost, Thoreau Quote

Hawk and Drone

We all do it. At some point in our readings of Henry Thoreau, we begin to imagine his life beyond its span. And then it isn’t long before we bring him to our neighborhood and our time. “What would Henry make of that?” we wonder. And then we wonder if we said it aloud.

This morning over coffee – yes, unnatural stimulant; water should do as elixir, I know – I wondered what Henry would make of a short clip I watched on boston.com. (I’ve put in the link below.) I’ll leave aside the whole discussion of watching life from remove for a while, and simply wonder about one of the “actors” in the clip.

The 40-second clip opens with an aerial view of an urban setting. The camera, borne aloft by a drone (quadcopter, it’s called) looks down over some hard-used playing fields by a river. The viewer suspects the drone’s ‘human companion’ is somewhere below on the playing fields.

A hawk soars by and appears to take an interest in what’s sharing his airspace. Effortlessly he veers its way; then, there’s the approach: still simply soaring, the hawk arrows in, at one point tilting his wings nearly 90 degrees to maneuver. He grows larger in the lens; the sky become hawk. Just so, if you were a duck. A few yards away, the hawk switches to talons first, flaring his wings. “Contact,” as Henry would say. “Contact.”

The drone begins to tumble down. Its camera catches the hawk lifting away. Then the drone is on the ground, the playground. Fittingly, the drone lands upside down, its world inverted.

Aside from reveling in the hawk’s takedown of what promises to be another noxious invention, what would Henry make of this moment?

One suspects a complicated response (including appreciation for the mechanics and optics of the drone), ending perhaps with a simple injunction: be wary of what distances you from the world.

Flying drones is an extension of the model airplanes that used to drone endlessly over the fields next to my boyhood house. Stuck on the field below, kids dreamed of flight, perhaps of becoming pilots, joining themselves to the long skein of bird-enviers in our race. But, of course, they had to use their imaginations to get a plane’s-eye view of our neighborhood.

Drones with their cameras change that. They take our eyes and mind where we can’t be, but, in doing so, they make us less aware of where we are. All our inventions that remove us from contact with what we see and sense pull us too from life. Our immersion in what isn’t would worry Henry, I think.

Here’s the link; see for yourself and let us know what you think: http://www.boston.com/news/2014/10/10/hawk-drone-video-captures-hawk-attack-quadcopter/fuZU493QFWyov65VoCbQWP/story.html?p1=Topofpage:Carousel_sub_image

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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Nature, News and Events, The Roost

That Hum and Buzz

Insect Sounds

by Ashton Nichols

Think of an insect three inches long that makes a sound so loud it keeps you awake at night. When we traveled to a beautiful spot on the Delaware Bay recently, that is what we encountered. Think of another insect, half that size, which has inspired poets and painters the world over. Many of us have this first creature in the trees near our homes, and this second small animal near our hearths, along the flowered edges of our homes and our gardens. Cicadas and crickets–the singers of the bug world.

The cicada makes the loudest sound of any insect on earth; not one louder insect sound has ever been recorded. A cicada can reach 120dBs, which is equivalent according to the experts to: a riveter, a wood chipper, thunder in a summer storm, a diesel engine room, and a Fourth of July fireworks display. That’s loud! The female cicada makes no sounds whatsoever, and of all of these loud males, the Australian cicada buzzes louder than any other cicada…bububuuuuuzzzzzzzzzz! An astonishing sound.

Cicada photo by Bruce Marlin

Cicada
photo by Bruce Marlin

Here is what John Keats said about the warm sound of the crickets by his hearth: “from the stove there shrills / The Cricket’s song, in warmth increasing ever.” Keats wrote these lines in a beautiful poem entitled “The Poetry of Earth is Never Dead.”  So the poet, who is perhaps the greatest wordsmith of our language since Shakespeare, finds this tiny black bug to be a creature that can make a sound that warms us, even in the cold and dead days of winter.

The level 130dBs of sound is described by the experts as “deafening” and also as the “threshold of pain.” We all know what it is like to hear a sound so loud that our ears literally hurt. We have all turned up the stereo headphones too loud, or we have stood too close to dad when he was firing up the chainsaw right next to us, or we have been in the fifth row of a Led Zeppelin Concert in 1969–right in front of that bank of Fender amps–and, although we said we loved it, it really did hurt our ears. So imagine a little insect that can make a sound only 10dBs below this “threshold of pain” and then imagine dozens of these, or even hundreds of these, in the trees and shrubs around you on a late summer night.

Field Cricket

Field Cricket

Of course, there are other insects that make memorable sounds: grasshoppers, bees and wasps and mosquitoes and midges all buzz, and some buzz loudly. But I say that crickets and cicadas carry the day. They have the voices that do not die and, as Keats said two centuries ago, they are still “increasing ever.” We hope so. Although climate change may expand the range and population density of certain species, it will also upset the balance of many insects and most of their sound-making fellow species. Like the poet, I want to hear my nearby cicadas and crickets for years to come.

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Filed under Arts, Environment, General, Literature, Nature, The Roost