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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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What is your something?

By Ken Lizotte
president, Thoreau Farm Board of Trustees

“One is not born into the world to do everything, but to do something.” Henry David Thoreau

This year represents a significant milestone in the life and legacy of Henry David Thoreau.

That’s because on July 12, 2017, Henry will have been born two full centuries ago. And on that day, Thoreauvians throughout the world, and especially in Concord, will pause for a moment to reflect upon the impact of Henry’s ideas— not only for entire civilizations, but for each of us individually as well.

Ken Lizotte, president of Thoreau Farm Trust, working at a replica of Henry’s writing desk in the Writing Retreat at Thoreau Farm.

At Thoreau Farm we will be pausing, too. It is right here, on the second floor of our farmhouse, on a summer day in 1817, where Henry was born. This is where it all started, within the walls of what we refer to as “the birth room” (now redesigned as a writer’s retreat), or, perhaps just as accurately, “the birthplace of ideas.”

What are our actual plans for this year? We will be sponsoring educational programs, guided tours, a book comprised of reflective essays by Henry followers, authors’ talks, historical presentations and much more. Our plans are ambitious and built to coincide with the big day.

And we could use some help! We are a tireless, dedicated merry band of Thoreau Farm trustees who understands we cannot do it alone. Join us! Roll your sleeves up and get directly involved in our Thoreau Farm community and ensure that this momentous occasion receives its due.

We’re looking for Thoreauvians like you to participate in what we’re calling a “Board of Activists” to help us carry out such functions as marketing, publicity, gardening, program planning, office work, events, and tours.

Share your skills and develop new ones!

Your commitment can be as much (or as little) as you wish. You’ll be helping us honor Henry in the most genuine way possible, by helping us spread the word about the precise location where Henry came into this world, where the spirit of Henry David literally began.

Please join us! Email me or our executive director Margaret Carroll-Bergman, margaretcb@thoreaufarm.org , for more information. We look forward to working with you on Henry’s behalf.

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The Yellow Flower “not in Gray”

By Corinne H. Smith

When Henry Thoreau came upon a plant he didn’t know, he described it as best as he could in his journal or field notebook. He counted leaves and petals and other parts, and he noted the habitat where it grew. Sometimes he drew a picture of it. Sometimes he could later identify the specimen by consulting his botany books. One of his favorites was “Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States,” compiled by Asa Gray of Harvard. Amateur scientists from all over the country sent samples of the plants in their region to Professor Gray, so he could include them in his next edition. Still, well into the 1850s, not every American plant was known or classified. At times Henry had to admit in his notes that something he had found on his own was “not in Gray.”

I thought of this phrase back in late March and early April, after I saw a patch of beautiful early Spring wildflowers that I didn’t recognize.

I had to deliver flyers to a home-run business in our area after hours. The place was in the midst of having its front steps rebuilt, so the main path was condoned off. I had to make a detour and step across two lawns to reach the sidewalk leading to the porch. That’s when I saw them: dozens of low yellow flowers covering most of the front lawn. They were wonderful! They were new to me. And I probably would have walked right past them if the steps hadn’t been broken. I tiptoed around the plants, took care of business, then came back to look at the flowers again. With no camera in my pocket, I studied them as closely as I could. I wanted to memorize them and burn their images into my brain. Surely once I got home, I could figure out what these flowers were.

But once I drove away, other tasks intervened, and I was distracted. I hoped to go back and to take a good picture of the flowers. By the time I did this a week later, the petals had closed up and they had turned dull. I took some photos anyway, thinking I could match the distinctive leaves with the guidebooks in my home library.

winteraconitemine

This time I took action. I gathered all of my references together – the Grays of today – and I searched for these yellow flowers on the pages. I thought I had an advantage over Henry Thoreau because his guidebooks didn’t include photographs or even line drawings. Mine did. And some were even organized by the color of the flower. Surely I could just turn to the yellow section, and I would spot my new discoveries there.

But I didn’t. Nothing on any of these pages matched these flowers. They were “not in Gray,” so to speak. How could this be? They were growing profusely in that yard. They couldn’t be unique or endangered or rare.

Maybe the owner could tell me what they were, I thought. I found the e-mail address of the business, and I sent a message asking about the flowers in the front yard. A woman named Claire replied a day or two later. “Those little yellow flowers have been popping up every year for at least as long as we have owned this house. (38 years),” she wrote. But she obviously couldn’t offer any more advice.

I was frustrated. How could something this easy become so difficult? I casually searched online for “yellow flowers ground cover.” None of the results looked good. This was exactly the wrong way to go about this investigation. Gradually the right approach came to me: When in doubt, ask.

A passel of my Facebook friends are naturalists or gardeners. I figured someone online could help. On April 7, I posted my photo and posed the question to the group. “Does anyone know what this ground cover is? It had brilliant yellow flowers (multiple petals, more than 4 or 5) two weeks ago. Now they’re gone. But I still want to know what this plant is. It’s growing on a shaded bank of someone’s yard in southeastern Pennsylvania. And the owner doesn’t know what it is. She says it’s been coming up each spring for more than 30 years, though. It’s not swamp buttercup. I can’t match it to anything in my plant books. Darn.”

Bingo! By the end of the day, I had my answer. After several questions from others and a few miscues, Thoreau Farm master gardener Debbie Bier stepped up and supplied the correct name. My new yellow friends were called Winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis. I had never heard of this species. But the online photos matched what I remembered seeing. Yes!

 

Winter-Aconite: Courtesy www.plant-and-flower-guide.com

Winter-Aconite: Courtesy www.plant-and-flower-guide.com

I went back to my reference books and looked up the flowers again, thinking I had missed them the first time. I hadn’t. None of the books listed Winter aconite by common or by scientific name. It’s a European native, which may explain its absence in American books. I was lucky enough to learn of Winter aconite only by sight, by being inquisitive, and by knowing someone who knew its identity.

It’s too bad Henry Thoreau didn’t have access to digital photography and Facebook to help him identify his own stash of unknowns. Using our connections today, he could probably solve the mysteries of every one of his plants that during his time were “not in Gray.”

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