An Appreciation: Reading “Thoreau and the Language of Trees”

Editor’s note: Thoreau and the Language of Trees is a new book by Concord author Richard Higgins.

By Sandy Stott

As I begin this book, a patient presence of white and pitch pines stands ten or so feet from my open window. One, a pitch pine, has died, though its trunk rises still to 30 feet, and it has become a lure for a pileated woodpecker whose exploratory peckings offer a braille I run my hands over, even as their poetry eludes me. The other 42 trees of this small, yard-girt woodland vie for light, for sky, and they stir whenever the wind blows. Tonight though, they wait, stilled in the late light of this summer’s solstice. Perhaps the owl who called from them a few nights ago will visit all of us later. They are of my yard; all will outlive me; even the pileated-stippled pitch pine trunk may endure decades. Making the acquaintance of these trees takes me beyond myself.

****

When I taught parts of Thoreau’s work to the sometimes hurried young, I had a favorite moment in the semester: some weeks of reading into the term, and some minutes into a class, I closed Walden and asked simply, “are you ready?” Most said, yes; a few demurred: “um…for what?” they asked. “Let’s go,” I said, and they followed me out from the rectangular classroom, down the stairs and to the door. Once outside, I offered them a choice — find any natural object, get comfortable, and concentrate on it (and only it) for ten minutes. I’ll let you know when time’s up.

ITree

Most often people picked trees. I would watch them watch their trees. Some lay on their backs and looked at the canopied sky; other stood at mimicked angle a few feet from the tree; a good number climbed into a tree of choice and sat or stretched out upon a limb. A few got inches away from the trunk or a twig. For an age group often slandered for their rabbity attention, they had remarkably little trouble “getting lost” in their trees. When I read their findings later, I realized that some of them had remained with the tree for paragraphs well after I’d summoned them back into the usual school world of call and response.

I knew, of course, of Thoreau’s fondness for and scrupulous attention to trees. What I didn’t know was that as I was working with the rudiments of this tree-teaching, Richard Higgins was afoot in nearby Concord and in the pages of Thoreau’s journal making a much deeper study. Would that I had been able to bring Higgins and his tree-findings to help my classes toward their trees.

That is, I realize, a rather lengthy preamble to what I mean to be a praise-song for Higgins’s new book, Thoreau and the Language of Trees, but I have taken a personal route to praise because this attractive, compact volume has touched me. Three presences are prominent in its pages — Thoreau, Higgins and a cast of character-trees too numerous to name. Higgins shapes his short essays at the outset of each chapter with an appealing clarity, using them to introduce small groves of short readings from Thoreau. The trees rise from their words. And they rise also in a generous offering of illustrations — photographs (many by Higgins) and, familiar to readers of Thoreau’s journals, a scattering of his quick sketches.

Here is an excerpt that perhaps offers enough window into Higgins’s book for you to see your way there:

Trees brought out another side to Thoreau, one we rarely hear about. They stirred a boyish joy in him. He found “an inexpressible happiness” in the woods. “Their mirth is but just repressed.” Lichen lifted his spirits, and trees seen from a mountain delighted him: “Nothing is so beautiful as the tree tops. A pine or two with a dash of vapor in the sky—and our elysium is made.” (p. 36)

tree 2

When work has confined me, boxed me into its rectangles, I’ve always pointed to the reward of a next woods-walk as part of what sustained that work. But what Thoreau and his modern companion Higgins have done is to enrich my relations with trees, to sharpen my eye, broaden my heart and encourage my narrative impulse to include my patient neighbors. Who may or may not — who knows? — be patient with me.

I return to the page. Here, deep in the book, I’ve found that Robert Richardson’s first sentence in the Forward rings true: “There is real magic in this book.”

I look out at my 42 friends a few feet away. So many stories. Now, it is time to go out.

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Living Deliberately, Nature, The Roost

The Thoreau Houses

Editor’s Note:
This article originally appeared in The Concord Journal May 14, 1942. The writer, Ruth Robinson Wheeler, updated it for The Thoreau Society Bulletin #31 April 1950. “The Thoreau Houses” was updated in 2017 by her son, Joseph Coolidge Wheeler, a Thoreau Farm Trust Board Member

by Ruth Robinson Wheeler

It takes a little hunting to locate all the houses in Concord, which have Thoreau associations.

John Thoreau, Henry’s grandfather, had been a successful merchant in Boston. His second wife was one of the six brothers and sisters of the Kettell family of Charlestown, who hired the Wright Tavern to run as a bakery. Deacon John White married Esther Kettell in 1778 and lived in the house, which is now the southwest end of the Colonial Inn, so when John Thoreau married Rebecca Kettell in 1797, he knew of a similar house, which now forms the opposite northeast end of the same inn. This was owned by Ammi White, a cabinetmaker, and had been built about 1716 by Mrs. White’s great-grandfather, Col. James Minot. The Whites sold it in 1799 to John Thoreau, who sold out his business at the head of Long Wharf in Boston for $25,000 — a tidy fortune in those days, enough for a man of 45 with five children to retire on. Though Grandpa John died in 1801, this remained the home of his family — his daughters, and his son John, Henry’s father. John was then 14 and soon went to work in Deacon White’s store. Later in 1835-1837 when Henry was in his last two years at Harvard, his immediate family lived here with aunts.

Henry’s grandfather Dunbar (maternal side ) died in 1767 in Keene, N.H., and 11 years later, Henry’s grandmother Mary married Deacon Jonas Minot of Concord and came to live with her children, Cynthia and Charles, at the Minot Farm.

Henry's birthplace, Thoreau Farm, located at 341 Virginia Road.

Henry’s birthplace, Thoreau Farm, located at 341 Virginia Road.

This was a comfortable old farmhouse then located at 215 Virginia Rd. The house is still standing but it was moved in 1878 several hundred yards to the east where it still stands at 341 Virginia Rd. It is owned and operated by The Thoreau Farm Trust.

When Jonas Minot died in 1813, the widow Mary Jones Dunbar Minot inherited the “widow’s third,” which included the east half of the house. Her daughter Cynthia had married John Thoreau in 1812. John had tried keeping a store, which stood at the present site of the Town House and probably lived above the store.

Building where Henry's parents kept a store and most likely lived. Now located at 15 Monument St.

Building where Henry’s parents kept a store and most likely lived. Now located at 15 Monument St.

This building was sold at auction to John S. Keyes in 1850. He moved it to its present location at 15 Monument Street.

Widow Minot asked her son-in-law to run the farm for her, while she moved down to Lexington Road to the “old red house”.

Captain Timothy Wheeler House at 201 Lexington Road.

Captain Thomas Wheeler House at 201 Lexington Road.

This house, now painted white and much enlarged is at 201 Lexington Road. It is called The Captain Thomas Wheeler House. She lived in the east half until she died in 1830. This house is opposite the Concord Museum.

Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817 in the old Minot house when it was still at 215 Virginia Road. In his Journal under the date of December 27, 1855, he wrote, “I was baptized in the old Minot House by Dr. Ripley when I was three months old and did not cry.”

The next spring, John Thoreau gave up the farm and lived with his family for seven months in the west half of the house where Cynthia’s mother lived on Lexington Road. Then came the move to Chelmsford, where the Thoreaus lived next to the meetinghouse; and the move to Boston in 1821. Back in Concord from 1823 to 1826, the family lived in the “brick house” probably the one, which stood on the corner of Main and Walden streets but was torn down. At this time, I believe, John Thoreau worked at pencil making with Charles Dunbar in a little shop, which stood near the present Scout House.

128 Walden St.

128 Walden St.

This shop now forms the kitchen ell of the Tuttle house at 128 Walden St.

From spring 1826 to May 1827 the Thoreaus lived on Main Street in the house next to Samuel Hoar, Esq., now numbered 166.

186 Main St., now part of Concord Academy

185 Main St., now part of Concord Academy

They then moved across the street to 185, which was then a simple square house.

Here they lived for eight years and from here in 1833 Henry entered Harvard, rooming in Hollis. In 1835 his family moved in with the aunts on Monument Street.

In 1837 the family moved to the old Parkman house. This house was moved in 1872 when the public library was built. In this house, Henry Thoreau began his school, wrote his first lecture, his first journal and his first essay.

Emerson's house at 28 Cambridge Turnpike

Emerson’s house at 28 Cambridge Turnpike

From here he took his trip up the Merrimac in 1839 and from here he went to Emerson’s house, at 28 Cambridge Turnpike in 1841 to live for two years.

When he came back from Staten Island in 1843, the family moved to a combined house and shop on Belknap Street where the family lived until 1850. Thoreau meanwhile was at Walden from July 1845 to the fall of 1847 and at Emerson’s through 1848. Belknap Street was then called Texas Street because Texas was very much in the news at the time when the railroad and the new station were built in this district. The Texas house no longer exists.

In August 1850 the family bought “the yellow house,” now standing at Screen Shot 2017-06-18 at 10.29.30 AM255 Main Street. The present ell on the right was built later by the Alcott’s. There was an ell at the rear, which the Thoreau’s used for the secret part of their pencil making process. Here Henry David Thoreau died on May 6, 1862, and here his sister, Sophia, carried on the graphite business, for several years. She died in 1876.

The Concord Library has photographs of the old Minot farm house, brick house and Parkman house and they may be seen in THOREAU by Henry Seidel Canby. You can find the brick house in the background of Main Street in 1862 (page 10) and the Parkman house (which no longer exists), on the Main Street side beyond the library (page 102).

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200 Years and Counting: Thoreau’s Work Still Relevant

By Harriet Martin

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. ― Henry David Thoreau

It takes only one click of a button to be assaulted by conflicting and contradictory opinions from both sides of the aisle. The country we live in today is at a turning point in its history. With so many opinions vying for our attention, it provides great insight to look back at the words of a pioneer of civil disobedience for desperately needed guidance today.

A prominent writer and abolitionist, Henry David Thoreau was famous for his essays on various topics in his era. One of his most profound collection of essays was “Civil Disobedience,” which postulated how much loyalty an unjust, corrupt, or in any way ineffective government deserves from the citizen who cares about the future of the country he or she lives in. Henry was thrown in jail because he refused to pay a poll tax he found unjust.

In this day and age, more freedoms are allowed to people who wish to protest for the issues in which they believe. After a controversial election, many people were concerned about hot-button issues like women’s rights, science, the environment, and taxes. Following Thoreau’s model of non-violent civil disobedience, people took to the streets.

Women march in front of the Capital Building Credit: New York Magazine

Women March in front of the Capital Building
Credit: New York Magazine

On January 2, all around the world, women and their allies left their jobs, homes, and families and organized in massive marches. The Women’s March in DC drew from 470,000 to 680,000 participants, The Atlantic reported. Each participant was armed only with a sign and her voice in the true spirit of peaceful protest. People chanted and marched down streets declaring in one unified voice, “We are Strong.” Other major cities that hosted a Women’s March were New York, Chicago, and in our back yard, Boston. In total more than 550 towns and cities registered protests and marches just in the United States. As well as us common folk, many celebrities turned out to show their support for women’s rights. Gloria Steinem was an honorary co-chair of the Washington March and Scarlett Johansson was an official speaker. Other celebrities marched with the people on the streets.

Another march that took place recently was the March for Science on April 22, 2017. This march focused on our planet and the steps that need to be taken to advance science and protect the environment. After a tumultuous election, the scientific community marched to demonstrate the importance of science to citizens of the earth. Protesters gathered to encourage policymakers to make policy based on scientific evidence; provide funding for research and discourage political attacks on scientific integrity. Many scientific organizations were represented, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the biggest scientific societies in the country. One outspoken co-chair of the march included Bill Nye. The march took place across the country and the world. Major gatherings took place in Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. The march in Boston had 70,000 people! Not only modern times have used the idea of peacefully protesting regimes.

From Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr., some of the most ardent advocates of civil rights have used the idea of peaceful protest. Gandhi read Thoreau’s essay on “Civil Disobedience” and it inspired him to persevere in his quest for civil rights. Martin Luther King also read Thoreau’s essays, which highlighted how widespread Thoreau’s ideas became and the impact they had.

Who knows, without Thoreau we might not have achieved much of the social progress we rely on today.

Harriet Martin is a student at Concord-Carlisle High School and a youth blogger for The Roost.

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Filed under Civil Disobedience, General, Henry David Thoreau, The Roost, Thoreau Bicentennial, Thoreau Quote