Let Him Step to the Music He Hears

Music at Thoreau’s Cove

“What is there in music that it should so stir our deeps? We are all ordinarily in a state of desperation; such is our life; ofttimes it drives us to suicide. … But let us hear a strain of music, we are at once advertised of a life which no man had told us of, which no preacher preaches. … The field of my life becomes a boundless plain, glorious to tread, with no death nor disappointment at the end of it. All meanness and trivialness disappear. I become adequate to any deed.” ~ Henry Thoreau in his Journal, January 15, 1857

By Corinne H. Smith

Earlier this year, I was interviewed for my hometown newspaper by reporter Tom Knapp. My book Henry David Thoreau for Kids had just been published, and Tom wrote a nice story about it and about me. Tom and I went to the same high school and have been acquaintances for the last ten years; yet this was the first time the subject of Henry Thoreau had come up in conversation. I was surprised but quite pleased to hear that Tom had connections to Thoreau and to Walden Pond himself. The interviewer became the interviewee, as I asked him questions in return. Here is his story.

Tom Knapp is a lifelong resident of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He works as a news reporter for the daily newspaper here. He also plays the fiddle and bodhran in a local Irish band. He first came to Thoreau and Emerson through his older brother Bill, who is a big fan and who read all of Thoreau’s journals. Bill passed some of that admiration on to his younger brother. Tom says, “I was greatly impressed by their forward-thinking views on our places in society, and our ability to step outside the norm as defined by other people’s expectations. I also very much appreciated their views on nature, and our responsibility to preserve the natural world. I like to think my exposure to Emerson and Thoreau at an early age inspired much of my personal philosophy. I remember as a kid typing out some of their quotes to hang on my wall. Indeed, right now I am trying to take Thoreau’s admonition to ‘Simplify, simplify’ to heart, as I try to rid myself of clutter!”

Although Tom has always been based in southeastern Pennsylvania, he occasionally travels across the Northeast and into New England, making what he calls “unplanned trips north,” letting spontaneity lead him and dictate where he should stop. “It was a whim that led me to turn off that first time when I saw a sign for Lexington and Concord,” he says. “Although I enjoyed exploring the towns, I was quickly drawn out to Walden Pond to see what was there. In those days I always traveled with my fiddle, and I never liked to leave it in my car. So when I headed out to walk down to the pond, I strapped it over my shoulder. I didn’t plan to play it; I was just carrying it as I walked. But after hiking around the pond to the site of Thoreau’s cabin, I was inspired by the mood of the woods. I only planned to play for a few minutes, but pretty soon I had a small audience of fellow hikers, so I kept playing.”

Tom had no idea that the natural acoustics of the water and the rims of the glacial kettle-hole would lead his Celtic tunes around to the sandy public beach. When he eventually walked back with his fiddle case slung over his shoulder, he was greeted by applause from the sunbathers and swimmers. They had heard his entire performance.

The fiddler...at distance; still, the music carries.

The fiddler…at distance; still, the music carries.


The experience must have invigorated the fiddler, because he has returned to Walden Pond several times since. “Usually I sit on a log somewhere close to Thoreau’s cove and play for a while,” he says. Once he was in the right place at the right time to become part of a treasure hunt involving a young couple. A man had planned to leave a series of clues for his girlfriend to follow. She would eventually be led to the Thoreau house site, where she would find an engagement ring waiting for her. The clue-planters asked Tom to stick around to provide impromptu music for what was sure to be a happy moment. Surprise!

Tom still owns a copy of Walden. One of his favorite quotes from the book is a popular one: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.” He also likes the advice Thoreau once gave to friend H.G.O. Blake in a letter dated March 27, 1848: “Aim above morality. Be not simply good — be good for something.”

Tom agrees that Thoreau’s writings hold relevance for us today. He says, “Our lives are filled with gadgets and a network of communication systems that keep us connected to each other at all times of day or night. I think Thoreau reminds us that sometimes we need to be alone, to find the still places, and to enjoy the quiet, the solitude.”

And when we do, we may even hear the faint strains of a single Celtic fiddle, wafting across the Walden waters, offering to us that “which no preacher preaches.”

You can hear a sample of Tom’s fiddling at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=alN6slcAYuc

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@ Thoreau Farm – An Hour on a Yellow Bench (visited by ballooning spiders)

How often do I (or you) sit, simply, in the sun for an hour and not stir or strike out suddenly on foot or in thought for elsewhere? Um…(sorting experience takes a while)…never, or almost.

But, with a few hours unclaimed, I’ve come out to this place, where for his early months, Henry Thoreau gathered himself after the exhaustion of birth, and I’ve found no one; only the glossy new solar panels attend at this moment, and, on this short-lived but fully-sunned Saturday, they are busy.

But, by the kitchen garden, there is a yellow bench. And it is not busy; we are both free. Always obedient to natural instruction, I go to the yellow bench by the house-garden, and, under the whine of rising planes, begin to bask.

Not Thoreau Farm's yellow bench, which is often unoccupied, but a pleasing one still.

Not Thoreau Farm’s yellow bench, which is often unoccupied, but a pleasing one still.

As I sit here, the sun catches in the left-side folds of my  clothing, warming me like old summer; the shady right side cools to the November present.

The slightest breeze drops a few front yard maple leaves; the drying lilacs rattle faintly. And, from the lamppost, gossamer threads that might have become webs glisten silver. My sun-side’s now close to hot; my temperate right side wonders about turning us around. But the bench faces one way, and we will have to adjust.

A Hanscom jet streaks skyward, making the sound of rent air; it’s followed by a tentative prop-plane, wobbling up with the one-lung pops of its little engine. I wonder idly if the nearby garden fence, a rustic two-foot tall construction can keep out a motivated rabbit, or even a fit groundhog. But it must, or perhaps the rodents are drawn by the adjacent farm, maybe they too work at Gaining Ground.

Now a hawk keens, and I begin to search the thermals that must be rising from this open day. Another jet, this one keening too, and in the after-silence, the hawk again. But the hawk’s not up high in the jet-sky, she’s hunting the field’s fringe, watching for gleaners from an empty oak; maybe the keening is message to mate – Over here, they’re all over here.

How small this tiny spider must be to have landed on my knee, trailing still the gossamer strand that is his parachute, not, as supposed before, first strand of web. He is, I decide, a Zephyr-spider, designed to ride the mildest breeze. And these shining strands are everywhere on this day, thousands of little riders; the seemingly empty air is full of spider-migration.

It’s been 60 minutes, and we’ve all collected some charge. My left side is summer warm, my right autumn cool, even as the sun slides southwest, rounding me a few degrees, searching out the other side. As I stir my two-season self toward the rest of the day, more spiders float by. I’m sure that, as I turn toward my car and the panels, a few are hitching a ride on me.

Thoreau Farm's solar panels on a best November Saturday.

Thoreau Farm’s solar panels on a best November Saturday.

The stoic panels keep watching the sun; the yellow bench is open, yours whenever you get here.

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Shapes in the Forest

One of the pleasures of ambling to no point lies in what you see on the side, and, on this day, along this known trail in Concord, where the footing’s easy, I am watching what’s a few feet either side of me. The leaves are thick on the ground, and they’ve put my mind to what falls; once there, I begin making note of all the larger fallen tree parts – the limbs, the feather-fingered twigs, the reminder trunks. They are, of course, everywhere. Life, they all say, is migration to earth. At least it is after the arcing rise of considering the sky.

Each step lands easily, and for this time, gravity and I are at equilibrium – I am kept snugly to this path and allowed the river-pace of walking. The trees, patient by my standards, press up, hold up the sky; or, after all their lifetime’s work, lie angled, waiting to decay, then go up again. My looped walk will tend horizontal toward home; their looped lives go up and down a vertical plane.

I shy from geometrics, even as the patron spirit of this and many other walks, Henry Thoreau, was a measure-man of the keenest appreciation and degree. What he made of the intersecting planes of humans and nature fills page after page, and takes on explicit consideration in some of his meditations on seeing (perhaps being?) for moments here and there two ways at once.

Any number of planar passages from Walden come to mind. Often they take place on the “intermediate” water, where looking down on a quiet day like this gets reflection of what’s above:

A field of water betrays the spirit that is in the air. It is continually receiving new life and motion from above. It is intermediate in its nature between land and sky. On land only the grass and trees wave, but the water itself is rippled by the wind. I see where the breeze dashes across it by the steaks or flakes of light. It is remarkable that we can look down on its surface. We shall, perhaps, look down on the surface of air at length, and mark where a still subtler spirit sweeps over it. Thoreau, Walden

My eye catches on the remainder of a root-ball, and I pull over. Some of the curves are as smooth as a Brancusi. Getting down to essence. And, satisfyingly, there is even mystery in the little cave at center. It doesn’t take – perhaps you do this too – long for me to begin seeing life forms, and talking quietly follows along. I’m not talking specifically with a tree’s remainder, more mumbling in the forest. It’s my form of witness, of appreciation in a mute world, or one whose language is so slow that I live a whole life between its words.


I’m not on the water, but I have reached some intermediate plane where time’s not ticking in its increments.

And so a while goes by – who knows how long or what was said – and then the itchiness of habit draw me back to my plane, and I set out again, measured steps, bound for next, bound too for home.

Slowly slowly the old root-ball readies itself for another reach at the sky.

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