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.

Comments Off on 200 Years and Counting: Thoreau’s Work Still Relevant

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

One Morning in Maine – a Citizen Goes to a Town Clean-up, where Henry Appears.

This day, April 29th, needs — as they all do — a bit of context. It is a Saturday, and the earth — its day and its dilemmas — has been much in the news. Back in late winter at a meeting of Brunswick Democrats, someone proposed a trash clean-up as one useful way to counter the spirit of disregard many see as loose in our world. Given a little Saturday sloth, I don’t feel like going out to meet this possibility on this day, but I do.

We — my assigned partner Nick, a retired law professor, and I — join ten Democrats and pick up our two capacious plastic bags at the gazebo on the Common. We take them to the town center where Pleasant Street joins Maine, where we’ll begin picking up scattered trash. Nick is wearing the pullover orange vest that identifies us as something other than pedestrians. We are quasi-official.

I am on the upside of 60; Nick is probably 10 years my elder, and we measure our pace to make this walk companionable. Today offers a first burst of warmth-going-to-heat, a sudden spring flower. But as we begin, it is the constant bending that gets our attention. “We should have picker-uppers,” Nick says. That’s true, I think, but when you do such work on rare occasion, you don’t know more than to show up and get your bag. We settle into a pick-and-talk-and-pick routine. Stooped often, we probably appear to be talking to the ground.

In town, the trash clusters wherever pause happens — stop signs, crossings, waiting areas. People molt constantly, it seems. Our “feathers” are everywhere:

Vodka seems the favored nip. Its little plastic bottles lie crumpled, the effect, perhaps, of someone trying to suck the last drop out.

Who cut the tiny cable once connected to an Apple device’s recharger?

Who is missing one earplug?

Near the town library’s entrance, we comb bits of paper and plastic from the thick sand of a melted plough-drift. The little garden looks like a once-green land going to desert. It will need heavy raking to free its ground-cover. Not long ago, the snow must have been piled five feet deep.

While we are at our work, “thousands march on the White House” to protest climate change. Our conversation turns to redemptive behavior. Nick tells me a story from his classroom. They are studying ethics, truth and law, and he has posed this question from the Nazi era: You are part of a household sheltering people and the authorities burst in. “Are there any Jews here?” they demand. He then gives a favorite answer from his years in the classroom: “If,” a student answers after some pause, “you mean by that, are there any people here who deserve to die, then no, there are no Jews here.”

“I stopped the class,” Nick says. “Did you hear that answer?” I asked.

Then there is the other side. “How would a group of Thoreaus do at forming a society?” he wanted to know on an exam. “What’s a thoreau?” one student asked.

We talk back and forth about what “a thoreau” is, and I offer one of my exam questions: Using Thoreau’s definition of a good school in Walden, examine and assess your own schooling. Thoreau knew that all true learning, finally, is personal.

We approach the franken-building of the local UU Church, which — it turns out when you walk in — composes a calm, light-filled interior. How the odd, angle-and-strut-rich exterior becomes a coherent, reflective space inside is one of those little wonders of architectural vision. “That’s my church,” Nick says. Now I know where I’ve seen him before.

Our way back to the Common takes us down Everett Sreet. Despite having owned a house in Brunswick for 14 years, and despite the street’s central location, this is my first trip down Everett. Well-kept, modest houses and apartments with little yards and tiny flower gardens line the street; it is a little urban gem wedged into town. Everett is also largely litter free; no one, it seems, loiters on Everett, flicking away ones and twos of the over 500 cigarette butts we have collected. A young man attached to a blue-tooth device walks by, nods, and, noting our bags, bends and picks up two scraps of paper.

At the end of Everett, Nick says, “I’m glad to be at the end of our route.” It’s been nearly two bending hours. I’m glad too, even as some of the habit that makes scut-work possible has already taken over.

We walk back to the Common, where the noon line at the burrito truck is a dozen deep. I wonder what they’ll do with their wrappers.

Comments Off on One Morning in Maine – a Citizen Goes to a Town Clean-up, where Henry Appears.

Filed under Environment, Henry David Thoreau, The Roost

Thoreauvian World Domination Faith in the Seed of an Idea

By Tammy Rose

Thoreau knew about the cycle of the seasons, the dispersion of seeds, about migration of birds and about immigration of peoples. When he lived at the pond, there were Irish railroad workers living in shacks (much like his) and he noticed the succession of humans, just as he noted the succession of trees.

“Such Irish as these are naturalizing themselves at a rapid rate-and threaten at last to displace the Yankees-as the latter have the Indians” The Journals, 1851

He wrote of Brister Freeman, a former enslaved Concordian resident who had purchased an acre of land in Walden Woods in the late 1770’s and whose name still holds title to Brister’s Hill and Brister’s Spring. If you are in the area, it is just the other side of Rt 2, inside the Hapgood-Wright Town Forest of Concord. He was most certainly not an “immigrant,” but one who had come to this country under the force of others. The Robbins House in Concord offers more information about him and other African American Concordians, including Ellen Garrison, Henry’s contemporary. We know of her through her letters, but there are many other stories, lives, cultures who are lost to time.

At Harvard, he took Italian, French, German, Spanish and was adept at Latin and Ancient Greek. I know plenty of young linguists, including myself, who were also inspired to take these languages as part of their Thoreauvian educations. He also had great respect for Native Americans and was adept at finding arrowheads on the ground, symbols of a lost culture.

Thoreau had all of these humans in his consciousness as he described the varied world around him. And the world has received his words, to the extent that they have taken in his ideas as their own. His ideas influenced the writings of Tolstoy and Chekov. Gandhi was introduced to the works of Thoreau by Henry S. Salt, who had written the 1890 Thoreau biography as well as other books on Ethical Vegetarianism. And Nelson Mandela, the ultimate symbol of Civil Disobedience, spent 27 years behind bars under Apartheid before he became President of South Africa. This is how the seeds of ideas get dispersed. Henry would have been proud.

Nelson Mandela's cell where he spent part of his 18 years in prison on Robben Island. He spent a total of 27 years behind bars. (Photo courtesy of Renata Nowalk-Garmer}

Nelson Mandela’s cell where he spent part of his 18 years in prison on Robben Island. He spent a total of 27 years behind bars. (Photo courtesy of Renata Nowalk-Garmer}


Is there any other American writer whose most valuable ideas have been exported like this? Alexander Hamilton? Mark Twain? Even Walt Whitman, who “contains multitudes,” has a voice for the modern era, but one which is difficult to translate. Walden the pond also benefits by being at the crossroads of education and innovation. Even the most analytic MIT student needs to escape to the woods every so often. Families who are in the country because of the H-B 1 Visa can be overheard on the shores of Walden on any given summer day. Close your eyes, and except for the sand, you could easily imagine you are at the U.N.

Speaking of politics, sometimes Thoreau could predict the future in examples from the past.

“The orator yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion, and speaks to the mob before him, to those who can hear him; but the writer, whose more equable life is his occasion, and who would be distracted by the event and the crowd which inspire the orator, speaks to the intellect and health of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him.” –Walden

 Sound like anyone we know? Any popular ruler speaking to a mob before him? But thoughtful ideas spread like seeds, cross political borders without regard to fear or prejudice. They transcend, space, time, walls and even language. The only modern equivalent we have is technology; where the medium is the message. Whether it be stone, paper, breath or video. And Henry continues his previous section:

 “A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips;— not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself. The symbol of an ancient man’s thought becomes a modern man’s speech.”- Walden

 Eugene F. Timpe published a book of essays in 1971 called Thoreau Abroad  covering 12 different cultures/countries (England, France, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Bohemia, Russia, Israel, India, Japan, Australia). What would that number be if a similar volume were to be published now, in 2017?

There is a new project to be done, indeed, which I imagine would be easy enough to do. It is possible for us to translate Walden “into every language,” as stated above. And “carve it out of the breath of life itself.” It is entirely possible to request this of the visitors of Walden, alone.

Using very basic technology, contributors could be asked to translate and videotape themselves speaking a single line from the book Walden into a videocamera. A website could be created to receive submissions from around the world to capture and document the more obscure (and dying) languages.

What would be the biggest barrier to the completion of such a massive project?

There are certainly enough people across the world who would volunteer their time and language skills. The technology has never been cheaper. Many excellent translations of Walden have appeared in languages that Thoreau could have only dreamed of learning, including most recently, Farsi.

What then would be the biggest problem for this or any other project to celebrate the diversity of peoples?

Walls. A killing off of support, both monetarily and politically. Massive cuts to the National Park Service, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Increase in funding for Defense and Security, both terms being NewSpeak for their inherent opposites, War & Fear. A strict political separation of people which prevents cross-pollination of ideas, languages and people.

Keep the faith. Plant a seed.

 

 

Comments Off on Thoreauvian World Domination Faith in the Seed of an Idea

Filed under General