“We can never have enough of nature.” — Thoreau, “Spring,” Walden

When the hoopla began to swirl around the arrival of the solar eclipse, my inner nonconformist rose to the occasion. If everybody was going to watch this show, then I decidedly would not. I would not get special glasses. I would not make a cereal box viewer. I would not travel miles upon miles to get closer to the line of totality. No, no, no. I was determined instead to have as average a day as possible.

And yet, I wanted to be outside for the duration of the eclipse. I wanted to be in a natural space. I knew the rules about looking at the sun with unprotected eyes. I wouldn’t look up. Instead, I would look down and around at the effects of the changing light on the earth. I would listen to the world to discover if it was temporarily different. I would focus on the setting and on the supporting actors, and not on the event headliners. I would find my own way to have a unique experience.

So I chose to spend two hours doing some long-overdue maintenance in my own yard. I pulled a few weeds and I trimmed a few bushes and trees, even as the sun and the moon fell into alignment behind my back. I cocked my ears and thought I heard a special quietness. Very few birds sang, and only the occasional crow called. Then again, I didn’t know what their normal routines were for a typical sunny afternoon in August. Maybe the landscape was always this quiet. I clipped a few more errant branches as the minutes passed.

When the yard got shady and the air felt cooler, I marveled at the change. But it was too early in the process, and it was only because a cloud had passed overhead. The sunlight came back even stronger, afterward. I dragged my weeds and cut branches to a back corner of the yard.

Gradually I heard the voices of folks in the neighborhood who were standing outside, taking in the view. They talked amongst themselves and ooohed and aaahed at the proper moment, when we finally got 75% coverage of the sun. There was a little more shade in my yard then, but not much more, and not for long. And I was slightly disappointed when the sunnier spots under my trees didn’t turn into wispy crescents like they were supposed to. Ah, well. I’ve already made many wonderful natural connections in my lifetime. This moment didn’t have to be one of them.

And I did find some small treasures anyway, while I tidied up the place. An abandoned shell of a cicada was attached to a branch in the Japanese maple. The spiky seed balls are beginning to grow underneath the sweet gum leaves. And two lantern plants have suddenly decided to sprout in the needle-duff under the pine tree. “Heaven is under our feet, as well as over our heads,” as Henry would say. It’s true. And these kinds of miracles happen all the time. “Everyday” doesn’t necessarily mean “ordinary.”



lantern plants

I think it’s terrific that a natural phenomenon fascinated more people than any championship athletic event ever could. This show did involve two round objects. But these we cannot throw, hit, or kick. We can catch them, though. In fact, we can catch their unique light performances nearly every single day. They deserve to be watched more often than for a few minutes at a certain time, once every seven years. And they always offer their best magic for free.

So I ask: What are you eclipse-watchers doing today? You can keep the momentum going, you know. You can watch sunrises and sunsets. You can check out the phases of the moon, in daytime and at night. You can turn your eyes to the earth and see all the marvelous stuff that we’ve got down here. You don’t have to travel to dynamic landscapes or wait for dramatic special events to connect with nature. It is all around us, all the time. Pay attention to it deliberately, and it will reveal its wonders to you.

Yes, you should savor your own recent experience. And I also urge you to continue your own personal nature study every day from now on, in your own neighborhood. Marvels await. You may be able to touch them. And what you find here may eclipse even the eclipse.

“We must go out and re-ally ourselves to Nature every day.” — Thoreau, Journal, December 29, 1856

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Filed under General

‘I Declined.’

By Kristi L. Martin

American society is currently embroiled in a political tumult over the suitability of certain public monuments and what to do with those that are questionably objectionable to present sensibilities and values. This raises abstract questions about the values of American society, as well as the symbolic meaning and power invested in objects. These questions interest me as an American public historian.

Yet, thoughtful conversations seem hard to come by in this moment of impassioned civil strife, cultural disconnect, and often violent agitation. Ours is a moment in history that resonates with the writings and life of Henry Thoreau on many levels. Hailed as the forefather of “civil disobedience” and spokesman for living a life of principle, Thoreau was an ardent abolitionist who had little use for the form of politics. Thoreau was also an advocate of listening intently.

Amid the angry, echo chamber of voices on social media, I stopped scrolling on a post that was distinctly different in tone from all the others – serenely composed, without sacrificing the strength of the author’s principles. I read:

“I would have no problem living my life without statues of specific people. Give me more trees, flowers, open skies, waving grasses, freely flying birds, roaming herds of animals and all of God’s creation. If man feels that isn’t enough, make your artwork general. No human being is that important we need to see them immortalized in stone.”

I was struck by the uniqueness of this statement. Here was someone not arguing for memorializing this human over that human. Instead the author appealed to the transcendent humility of human history in the grandeur scheme of the life. Her words reached something in my heart that elevated my thoughts above the turmoil and disquiet. I was instantly reminded of Thoreau.

On September 18, 1859, Thoreau recorded in his journal that he was asked to contribute toward a statue in memory of his neighbor, the educational reformer Horace Mann.

Thoreau wrote, “I declined, and said that I thought man ought not any more to take up room in the world after he was dead. We shall lose one advantage of a man’s dying if we are to have a statue of him forthwith. This is probably meant to be an opposition statue to [Daniel] Webster. At this rate they will crowd the streets with them. A man will have to add a clause to his will. ‘No statue to be made of me.’ It is very offensive to my imagination to see the dying stiffening into statues at this rate. We should wait till their bones begin to crumble – and then avoid too near a likeness to the living.”

Thoreau died in 1862, three years before the end of the Civil War. I will not condescend to imagine what Thoreau might say about our present day debates regarding monuments. Though it begs the question of what Thoreau would think of the statue of himself that now stands near Walden Pond.

The proliferation of public monuments to statements that Thoreau lamented were part of nation building in the 19th century. New Englanders attempted to define their own historical heroes in granite and thereby what cultural values would be upheld in the future.

The passage from Thoreau resonates more deeply with present debates than its general comment on public statuary. Daniel Webster was a noted statesman and famed orator, who disgraced his reputation in the estimation of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau by enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law, requiring New Englanders to comply with slavery. Horace Mann, whose statue Thoreau presumed was to be erected opposite of Webster’s on Boston Common, literally opposed Webster over the Fugitive Slave Law in Congress. But this is more of an aside, than to the purpose.

What I’d like to draw out of this passage in connection to the social media post written by my friend Lisa, is not a debate or an answer to a debate. My purpose is to draw out the quality of reflection, humility, and transcendence present in both passages in response to the impulse conceit, and predictability of reaction.

Rather than prompt further debate, controversy, or angst, reading Lisa’s words took me outside of myself, outside of anger, worry, and fear. Her words inspired me to surrender my own ego, to let go of the loud opinions bombarding my virtual environment, and to reconnect to the nurturing beauty of nature and my higher self. Perhaps you, too, will want to decline relation to stone statues – at least for a moment. Perhaps you, too, will go outside and look up at the sky, smell the air, feel the wind, listen to the birds, taste the fruits of the season, and remember the blessing of being human … and be present, be peace, for a Thoreauvian moment.

Kristi Martin is a doctoral candidate in the American and New England Studies, Boston University and is a historical interpreter at Thoreau Farm.



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

A Humane Being Living a Whole Human Life

Henry David Thoreau: A Life
Book Review By Lucille Stott

“I came here to meet him at last.”

A visitor to Thoreau Farm once left that note on the message board in the birthplace foyer. Those words came to mind as I read Laura Dassow Walls’s terrific new biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life (University of Chicago Press). You will know what I mean when you take this book in hand, as I hope you will, for Walls has at last unveiled the Thoreau we celebrate at his birthplace. Hoping to put to rest the simplistic, one-dimensional caricatures of Thoreau that proliferate to this day (you will recall Kathryn Schulz’s outrageous hatchet job in the Oct. 19, 2015 New Yorker, entitled “Pond Scum.”), Walls offers readers a meticulously researched, elegantly written story of the complex, multi-layered man he was in life.

"Henry David Thoreau: A Life" by Laura Dassow Walls

“Henry David Thoreau: A Life” by Laura Dassow Walls


While acknowledging the fine scholars who came before her, notably Walter Harding, Robert D. Richardson, and David Robinson, Walls says in her Preface, “The Thoreau I sought was not in any book, and so I wrote this one.”

Richardson, whose 1986 biography, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind remains a classic in its own right, offered a blurb for the book jacket that calls Wall’s work “a magnificent—landmark—achievement” and “the best all-around biography of Thoreau ever written.”

The Thoreau that emerges from Walls’s pages is indeed well rounded. As those who have read him in depth know, he was a busily engaged man who was known and loved by a great many of his contemporaries, including Ralph Waldo Emerson’s son Edward, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, and the young Louisa May Alcott. Though Concordians felt free to tease and judge him—he was after all, one of their own—they relied on him to build their sheds and fences, cut the village Christmas tree, offer up keen insights from the dais of the Concord Lyceum, entertain their children on nature walks, and expertly survey and record much of Concord’s landscape. For his part, Thoreau—who traveled more widely than is generally known—never wavered from his devotion to his hometown and took precious time and energy from his own writing to help earn money for his family, tend to the needs of his friends, and work behind the scenes with neighbors to help transport escaped slaves to freedom.

The creative genius and gifted naturalist we find in these pages is certainly familiar. But Walls succeeds in redressing the mischaracterizations that have long kept Thoreau out of reach for those who have seen him as too far removed from their own experience.

“Thoreau struggled all his life to find a voice that could be heard despite the din of cynicism and the babble of convention,” writes Wall. “That he was a loving son, a devoted friend, a lively and charismatic presence who filled the room, laughed and danced, sang and teased and wept, should not have to be said. But astonishingly, it does, for some deformation of sensibility has brought Thoreau down to us in ice, chilled into a misanthrope, prickly with spines, isolated as hermit and nag.”

Walls tells the story of a much less chilly Thoreau and so brings him closer to us. In struggling to overcome harsh criticism, bitter loss, and debilitating illness, Thoreau drew strength from love and joy and from the many human relationships that sustained him. The rough edges are still there, but Walls helps us understand why, providing a welcome corrective to common wisdom.

It took enormous courage and resilience for Thoreau to persist in his original thinking and pursue his own path in the face of relentless pressure to conform to others’—most significantly Emerson’s—ideas of who he should be and what he should do. All his life, Thoreau was made to stand in Emerson’s giant shadow. In the end, it is Emerson‘s intellectual brilliance that can come across as a bit cold, while Thoreau’s passion for life continues to ignite us to action. It was only after Thoreau died that Emerson, awed by the originality of his friend’s journals, realized that the thinker he may have undervalued “has surpassed me.”

Walls writes in her Preface, “Thoreau earned the devotion of friends who saw in him no saint, but something perhaps more rare: a humane being living a whole human life.” That is the Thoreau Walls sought and found, and readers everywhere will likely welcome him warmly.

Lucille Stott is a charter board member emerita and former president of Thoreau Farm Trust.







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