Thoreau’s Walden house, Pennsylvania style

By Corinne H. Smith

“I have thus a tight shingled and plastered house, ten feet wide by fifteen long, and eight-feet posts, with a garret and a closet, a large window on each side, two trap doors, one door at the end, and a brick fireplace opposite. … I thus found that the student who wishes for a shelter can obtain one for a lifetime at an expense not greater than the rent which he now pays annually.” ~ Henry Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

This week, I walked down a paved path and caught a glimpse of the Thoreau house perched quaintly beneath a stand of tall trees. This structure had been built to Henry’s specifications, 10 ft. by 15 ft. It even had its own pond, just two dozen steps away from the front door. But this was not Walden, and this was not Concord. This house sits on the property of Tyler Arboretum in Media, Pennsylvania, less than 20 miles southwest of downtown Philadelphia.

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Thoreau’s influence found in the Pennsylvania woods.

Four years ago here, I wrote about my visit to the Penn State Altoona campus in western Pennsylvania. Students there had built a Walden house replica in an adjacent woodland referred to as “Seminar Forest.” At the time, I thought this was the only such replica in the state. Now I’ve learned about and seen firsthand the one at Tyler, which is just a short drive away from my own home.

Tyler Arboretum consists of 650 acres of gardens, woodlands, wetlands, stream valleys, and meadows. The site began as a Quaker farmstead in the 1680s, when Thomas Minshall bought this land directly from William Penn. Generations of Minshalls, Painters, and Tylers lived here and planted representative trees, bushes, and flowers. In 1944, descendent Laura Tyler bequeathed the property to a board of trustees. It has operated as a non-profit public garden ever since.

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Front of the Walden replica

In 2008, the arboretum launched a project called “Totally Terrific Treehouses.” Seventeen new, fun, and kid-friendly buildings were installed around the property. Some of them are still standing and are still in use. The Thoreau house is one of them.

At the time, arboretum executive director Rick Colbert explained to a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer that the exhibition was “about connecting people to trees and our natural world. And what better way to do that than to have visitors experience a cabin like the one where Thoreau chronicled his life in the woods?”

The Walden replica was created by Pine Street Carpenters of West Chester.

Company president Brendan Dolan said, “While not a traditional tree house, it captures the essence of what many of us long for in a tree house — a counterculture sanctuary that provides an intense experience in nature.”

His brother, Mike Dolan, who is also Pine Street’s marketing director, had been turned on to the Transcendentalists in high school and had majored in English at Villanova. He described the building as “a metaphorical tree house, a symbol of Thoreau’s effort to help us appreciate not only the beauty of trees but the splendor of nature in general.”

The workers followed Roland Robbins’ plans, based on his excavations at Walden Pond. They used cedar shingles for the exterior, horsehair plaster for the inside walls, and one thousand bricks for the fireplace and chimney. Two bark-covered logs for the rafters came from Maine. The two windows are reclaimed period antiques, with 16 panes over 16 panes. Unlike other replicas, this one includes a sleeping loft above the fireplace. It took six craftsmen about five weeks to build this Thoreau house. The final cost was about $30,000, with a dozen companies donating time, materials or money. Watch the video of the construction here .

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The loft looks comfortable enough to sleep in.

Inside, the walls are decorated simply enough, with a picture of Thoreau, a brief biography, a description of his original Walden house, and seven framed quotes. Two benches and a bookcase are the only furniture present. Many children’s books are scattered around for visitors of all ages to read and enjoy. I recognized D. B. Johnson’s Henry Hikes to Fitchburg and Henry Builds a Cabin, as well as Henry David’s House by Steven Schnur and Walking with Henry by Thomas Locker. Other picture book favorites like Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar are also here. What a great use of this space!

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Inside the cabin

Kelly Nicholson, who works in the education office at Tyler Arboretum, showed me around the property. We walked and talked for more than an hour, admiring many of the unique trees here, including the tallest sequoia east of the Mississippi River. She pointed out the garden area near the Thoreau house and explained that this part would soon be reconstructed and reconfigured. A new edible garden will be planted, using an integrated system of both vegetables and perennials. It will serve as a model for what gardeners can do at home. A new classroom and community space will be created here, too. Kelly showed me the beds of the previous garden that will be replaced over the coming months.

“I think that last year, the groundhog benefited the most from our garden,” she said.

Sounds Thoreau-ly familiar. But she warns that if people come to see the Thoreau house before fall, they may find that at least one of the pathways could be blocked by construction. If you’ll be traveling from some distance, you may want to call first to check on the status of the project.

Pond in front of the Tyler Walden house

Pond in front of the Tyler Walden house

But the Walden house is just one singular feature among the beautiful blossoms, fragrant flowers, and tall, majestic trees that you can walk among at Tyler Arboretum. It’s a restful place that is perfect for walks and thoughtful contemplation. An appropriate setting indeed for one of Henry’s houses.

This whimsical wood caterpillar is sure to delight children and adults alike!

This whimsical wood caterpillar is sure to delight children and adults alike!

Visit here for more information about Tyler Arboretum.

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Reflections of a Mother in the Birth Room of Henry David Thoreau

By Donna Marie Przybojewski

“Recalled this evening, with the aid of Mother, the various houses (and towns) in which I have lived and some events of my life. Born, July 12, 1817, in the Minott House, on the Virginia Road, where Father occupied Grandmother’s thirds, carrying on the farm. The Catherines the other half of the house. Bob Catherines and John threw up the turkeys. Lived there about eight months.” Journal, December 26, 1855

Whenever I use the Writer’s Retreat located in the birth room at Thoreau Farm, there is a protocol I follow. After organizing my books, journals, and writing utensils, I sit at the replica of Henry’s green desk and turn to face the wall where the bed would have been placed in the room.  DESK

I then reflect on what the day of Henry’s birth might have been like. As we prepare to celebrate the bicentennial of his birth, it is good to remember that at one time, Henry was not the naturalist, philosopher, and social activist that the world would come to know. Henry was not a complex dichotomy on the day of his birth, but an infant cradled in the arms of his mother, Cynthia.

As a mother, I am drawn to Cynthia as I imagine that day. When David Henry, as he was known then, was placed in her arms after birth, what joy she must have felt cradling her new son. I surmise that she counted his fingers and toes, not foreseeing that a few years later, he would be missing one toe due to his carelessness with an ax. I am grateful that mothers cannot foresee all the dangers their children will encounter as toddlers and somehow survive.

Cynthia probably kissed his face and saw the beginnings of a prominent nose and clear blue eyes. Did he focus on her and the room as my own children had done?  At that time, she could not have imagined what those eyes would see with such vivid detail, not only the beauty of the natural world, of which she was so fond, but that her son would view with such clarity the wrongs that needed to be corrected in the world. Did she try to smooth a wild mess of downy baby hair growing in every direction? She would inhale David Henry’s baby smell that all mothers relish because it was too soon for him to smell like the woods with its mosses and pines. That would come a number of years later.

I feel a kinship with Cynthia. While embracing her tiny son, she probably had great hopes and plans for his future success evident by the fact that she promoted his education as he grew. She, as most mothers, would have desired happiness and a fulfilling life for her infant.

Also, I wonder if four-year-old Helen and two-year-old John ran into the room to see their newborn brother. Were they like my daughter, Ruth Rachel, who always insisted that she wanted a baby brother and examined my son, David, with the intensity of a physician making sure he was her baby brother when he was born? What were Helen’s and John’s thoughts? Was there a bit of jealousy on the part of Helen being old enough to understand the full meaning of having an addition to the family? Was she anxious to hold her new brother and touch his fingers? John, however, was too young to realize the impact he would have on David Henry’s life and the void he would leave in his brother’s heart due to his early death. He had no idea of the memorable camping trip they would share together that would be immortalized in a book.

Henry himself took pride in his stoic quality on the day of his christening. He proudly admitted he did not cry. There are other stories of Henry not expressing emotion, one being when his pet chickens were taken to the butcher or when he was accused of stealing a knife and he uttered not a word in his own defense except stating he did not take it. So, I imagine Henry did not fuss much, but took in his new world with silent contentment.

Being a good mother, Cynthia had a strong relationship with her brood as reflected in the many memories that Henry relates about his childhood. He inherited his love of nature from his mother, who took her family to the woods to imbibe in nature and cook their supper. It was she, in fact, who brought Henry to Walden for the first time. Did she even realize what an impact that made on his life and the importance the Pond would be throughout his life? She would even share stories of her childhood as Henry recalled in his journal when she spoke of sitting on the porch step of the farm where he was born. She related to him that as a little girl on that very farm, she would listen to the sounds of the night. Thus, she perpetuated the love of nature in her son.

Cynthia bought candy and treats to fill her children’s stockings at Christmas, only to have the illusion broken by a little girl who told young John and David Henry that she saw their mother purchasing the items and that there was no Santa Claus. Mothers everywhere can relate to a feeling of sadness when such innocent fantasies disappear.

Then, as all children eventually do, they grow up.

I cannot help but believe that Cynthia treasured all childhood memories in her heart while beaming with pride at the young man Henry was becoming, and when he became that adult, she had to call him by a new name, Henry David.

When he built his tiny home at Walden, it seems that she did worry about him. I can relate to her feelings of fear of how he would manage to take care of himself when my son moved to his own living space. So, when others find fault with Henry when he took her pies and cookies or say he took advantage of his mother’s goodness when he brought home his laundry for her to wash, I just chuckle. As a mother, with one child who has left the nest, it is a privilege to still take care of his simple needs. Just as my mother shared her love for me with her cooking, so, too, do I express my love for David by making sure his refrigerator is stocked. So, I believe that Cynthia shared that common thread as a mother with me.

Then, there is the issue of Henry moving back home and living there for most of his adult life in the yellow house. As a mother with a grown daughter still living at home, not by need, but by reason that she enjoys being with her family, I imagine Cynthia breathing a sigh of relief when Henry returned from an evening saunter especially during inclement weather, and she heard his footsteps going up to the garret as I do when my daughter returns late in the evening. Worry is part of the nature of being a mother no matter the age of the child. Cynthia, most likely, was no different.

I am certain that Cynthia felt the utmost pride in Henry. How could she not relish in her son’s achievements as a writer and a lecturer? She also must have appreciated his support for her concern for social justice. Following her example, Henry supported the abolitionist movement and demonstrated by word and action that injustice was a moral offense of society. Henry had learned well from his mother’s example. What mother could not take pride in that?

What we need to remember, and one of the most painful things that I reflect upon in the birth room is the fact that Cynthia suffered much. No mother should experience the death of a child, but she buried two of her children prior to Henry. How much more she must have been drawn to Sophia and him. As a mother who almost experienced the death of my son prior to birth, I can empathize the ache and unbearable breaking of the heart that she felt. Fortunately, my child lived, but I still share that bond with her. Then, the agony of seeing Henry during his final stages of tuberculosis when he could no longer take his daily walks. Knowing how he needed the outdoors for his own emotional health must have caused her such agony that she probably would have given her own life for his health. Such is the love of a mother. She probably remained strong before her family, especially Henry, as I did when I thought my son would die, but in the quiet of her room, she cried silently because of the final illness her son was facing.

As Henry took his final breath, Cynthia most likely remembered his birth when he took his first breath in her arms. As he lay dying, she was there to cradle him as he took his last. There was nothing that she could do to help him only be there with her loving presence.

At the moment of his death, could Cynthia in her deepest grief have possibly imagined the influence her son would have on the world and how many individuals would be drawn to him and his words in future generations? Could she even imagine that people one hundred fifty-five years in the future would continue to mourn his death just as she was mourning? Did she realize that because she gave birth to him that he would have a positive impact on the lives of thousands and would be influential in preserving the natural world that she so loved? How would she have felt if she knew that his 200th birthday would be celebrated around the world? Would knowing this have brought her some solace?

Therefore, as I look at the space where Henry was born, I feel a kinship with his mother and share her joy as well as sorrow. In this most special of rooms, I believe that one must reflect on Henry David Thoreau’s birth prior to any other activity. It is good to remember that Henry’s life and words are because of Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, a mother who influenced her son well. So, as we prepare to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s birth, let us feel indebted to Cynthia for giving the world this iconic author, philosopher, and naturalist who was at one time her infant son.

Donna Marie Przybojewski is the author of three children’s books, 
Henry David Thoreau: A Discussion Starter Coloring Book, Henry David Thoreau, Who Can He Be?and Henry David Thoreau Loved the Seasons. Donna teaches junior high school and is a Thoreau Society Ambassador for the Thoreau Bicentennial.

 

 

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The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it

By Kristi Martin

During the winter thaw, I went for a walk in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Henry David Thoreau’s grave is at the summit of a steep hilltop called “Author’s Ridge,” which is frequented by tourists making pilgrimages to the graves of Concord’s nineteenth-century literary residents. On this particular afternoon, I sought solace and inspiration on Sleepy Hollow’s paths. Various life circumstances and personal stresses had piled up over the winter months and I was feeling doubtful, unsure of how to handle the uncertainties of life.

Balmy temperatures rapidly melted the snow drifts accumulated from two recent storms. Small rivulets cut through the receding banks. The melt-water swirled into murky eddies and turbid, stagnant puddles, which I splashed through. In the warmth of  0223171353f copythe sun, I removed my jacket and walked in my short sleeves. Closing my eyes, listening to the bird-song from the tree along the cemetery’s glacial ridges, I stood soaking in the warmth on my bare skin. Then the wind blew a distinctly cold breeze off the snow banks, dispelling the pleasant assurance of spring’s return; this was a false spring, a teasing spring; it was winter still. March is typically a changeable month with tumultuous fluctuations in weather. As the old adage assures, a mild beginning will in all probability turn tenaciously to snowy storms again before true spring flourishes.

As I walked, the saturated ground had given way beneath my feet in places, but at Thoreau’s grave it was dry enough for me to sit on the bare earth. It is not unusual for this spot to be littered with mementoes left by visitors. However, at this time of year there were fewer. Among the rocks, pens, pencils, and pine twigs, I noticed a mollusk shell – a strikingly odd object to find in winter on a wooded New England hilltop. At once it mentally transported me to the nearby shores of Walden Pond, now nearly synonymous with Thoreau, and to the farther shores of Cape Cod, where he walked during three separate excursions.

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For all the wit and wisdom distilled into his writings, Thoreau experienced misgivings and anxieties, too. In an 1841 poem he spoke of himself as a rootless and “dropping” flower bud seeking his life’s purpose.

He wrote, “I am a parcel of vain strivings tied…”[1]

In his journal the previous summer, he advised himself, “be grateful for every hour, and accept what it brings. …No day will have been wholly misspent, if one sincere, thoughtful page has been written. Let the daily tide leave some deposit on these pages, as it leaves sand and shells on the shore.”[2]

The shell on Thoreau’s grave reminded me that each day’s slow, but persistent accumulation amounts to something real, even if it seems but a grain of sand today.

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“How vigilant we are! determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it; all the day long on the alert, at night we unwillingly say our prayers and commit ourselves to uncertainties. So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change. This is the only way, we say; but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one centre. All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant.”[3]

In that moment, as I sat looking at the shell in the cemetery, I heard in my mind: the price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.[4]

For every anxious moment we exchange a moment of peace. We cannot control the swell of life around us – the deadline pressures, the frenzied societal expectations, those claims we put on ourselves to have already achieved something particular, fearful change, or even failures. We can, however, be grateful for the sand and shells, knowing many paths can be taken from here.

Kristi Martin is a doctoral candidate in the American and New England Studies, Boston University and is a historical interpreter at The Old Manse, the Ralph Waldo Emerson House, the Henry David Thoreau’s Birthplace, and Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. 

[1] Chapter One, “Economy.”

[2] This is a paraphrase; the actual Thoreau quotes is: “…the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run,” Walden, “Economy.”

[3] “Sic Vita” was first published in the Transcendentalist journal the Dial in July 1841. It was later republished in A Week of the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849).

[4] Journal, July 6, 1840.

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