A blog at Thoreau Farm
written & edited by Sandy Stott
“I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.” –Walden, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”
The modern cheap and fertile press, with all its translations, has done little to bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity. They seem as solitary, and the letter in which they are printed as rare and curious, as ever. Thoreau, Reading, Walden.
For weeks, I’ve heard the pounding. Sometimes it’s the sudden pick-up of my heart, when a new vulgarity arrives from our president-(sort of)elect; other times, it’s the full-throated narcissism of another me-ist intent on unmooring us from any collective will to do good. Such drums have kept me awake at night, distracted me from the day’s work. Even when I walk to the woods, as I do daily, their thrumming sometimes insists.
When in search of larger wisdom, Henry Thoreau, it seems to me, turned often to the ancient Greeks, famously keeping, for example, a copy of The Iliad by his bed while at the pond. When it comes to apprehending the pulse of human behavior, they’ve not yet been surpassed. And in this loud run-up to Friday’s inauguration (I note the word “augur” embedded), I’ve found myself returned to the strangeness of a play I’ve read many times, Euripides’, The Bakkhai.
“No more drums,” cries Pentheus, the newly-crowned, 17-year-old king of Thebes, in this ancient play about madness. Here, the king (inexperienced and untested) gets a visit from Dionysos, himself a new god and intent on gaining followers, but one who already knows the power of impulse in human affairs. Dionysos assumes the disguise of a 17-year-old priest, and so joins Pentheus in a late-adolescent contest for control. It is an unequal match-up, young authoritarian versus god of impulse, and everyone but Pentheus can see that the priest is something else, something otherworldly. This, the people of Thebes can see, will not end well. For their king, and so, for them.
And it doesn’t, as Dionysos chooses the particularly cruel avenue of Pentheus’ desires – scarcely understood by the king – as a way to lure him into a trap, where he is torn limb from limb by a pack of women, led by his mother. Pentheus is such a hothead, so intent on being (becoming) “the man” that one has to work at finding sympathy for him. Still, to be shredded by mother…well, at least a tear or two there, if not a primary fear. And Dionysos is implacable force, intent on being worshipped; little else matters, including his own followers, who have left their homes for the promise of joy and a better life, and now find themselves stranded in a foreign land.
It has taken me some time to sort all these drums and drummings, but now I see that Euripides has fashioned a play – his last, some think – that cautions against ungoverned impulse (within and without), and it has returned to my mind because we seem to be entering an era where such impulse is the loudest of tweets, a form that is all impulse. The president-elect (sort of) seems a joining of both 17-year-olds in The Bakkhai, a colossal neediness for control and regard.
The play does not end well for Thebes either. Shorn of its governing force by Pentheus’s death, it is open to the rest of the world’s ill will and predation. And Dionysos, intent on himself, is ready to move on – where can I go next to spread the joy of me, and get worship in return?
Henry Thoreau used to listen to celebrations of independence and self in Concord village at a distance; from Walden, the volleys of expressive cannons sounded like “pop” guns, or toys. Thoreau also revered the Greeks, though I’ve not found indication that he read The Bakkhai, even as I suspect he must have. But I wonder if any metaphorical pond lies at enough distance from today’s distant tweets and the roar of self-worship? Or, if, unlike the Thebans, it’s time to plunge in and roar back at this odd amalgam, this president of impulse?
Reader’s Note: This play repays reading many times over, and Robert Bagg’s translation is very fine. When I checked a while ago, it was out of print, but I have found it in used bookstores. Also, new translations continue to appear; it is truly a timeless, or well timed play.
It is, despite its common nature, an enduring mystery. How does the air thicken with snow that, finally, seems never to land?
I’m in the mountains, a long way from Henry Thoreau’s winter flatlands, and the temperature is an expressive 0, and the wind squeezes through this notch to offer some answer. These snowflakes, wrung by the hills enduring upthrust from a passing cold front, are whisper light and the coursing air chases them down and then up, spins them by me. Where it fronts a ridge, the wind goes up; so too the snow. This then isn’t snowfall, it’s snowhirl. And when I go in a few minutes to walk up for a few hours, it won’t be underfoot at all.
Still it flies; it furs over vision; it is everywhere alive. I feel like adamant stone, kin to these ridges beneath its passage.
And now for a walk along them, following the snow up.
By Corinne H. Smith
It’s one of the tragic stories in Henry Thoreau’s life: the loss of his brother John to lockjaw on January 11, 1842. John had been sharpening a razor when he cut his finger. Tetanus quickly set in. And he died a painful death of lockjaw in his brother’s arms days later. Henry was devastated to lose his brother and best friend.
How can we not think of John Thoreau anytime the possibility of tetanus comes up? Here’s something that happened to me a few years ago. It hardly matches the horror of John Thoreau’s death. But it was no less real to me.
I like lighting candles, especially for creative inspiration. The only trouble is that the little glass globes I use end up with unmelted wax at the bottom. That’s when I get out my trusty flat-head screwdriver to dig the wax out. Soon the wax pops out and the container is ready for another candle.
A few years ago, I was digging out the last wax from one of these globes when I heard a crack and felt pain at the same time. The globe had broken and the screwdriver had dug right into the palm of my hand. Yikes!
This screwdriver is my all-purpose tool. I use it for everything. My father gave it to me when I was young, so that I could “help” him with light maintenance around the house. So yes, it’s old and, yes, it’s rusty. My immediate thought was that I hadn’t gotten a tetanus shot in a long time. My second thought was of the image of John Thoreau dying in Henry’s arms.
I picked as many pieces of glass out of my hand as I could. I cleaned up the blood — although with this puncture wound, there wasn’t too much of it. And I made a phone call to my general physician.
When I got into the doctor’s office, he asked the usual, “What brings you in today?” I told him about the candle and the screwdriver. I said I needed a tetanus shot. I lifted the bandage, and he looked at the wound. Then he walked over to the supply cabinet to get the shot ready.
“I have to tell you, whenever patients come in here, it’s not usually to get a tetanus shot,” he said.
That’s when I started blabbering. I told him the story of John and Henry Thoreau: the cut finger, the tetanus, the death by lockjaw. The doctor listened quietly to my rambling; then he dug the needle into my arm. I turned my head away so that I wouldn’t see it. The whole process took only a minute or two. Soon he was back at his counter, cleaning up.
“So, I’m not going to die of lockjaw?” I asked.
“You are not going to die of lockjaw,” he said.
“Does anyone die of lockjaw anymore?”
“In the United States? Probably not.” Good to know.
I thanked him and walked back out to the reception desk. I didn’t have health insurance at the time, so I started digging out my checkbook, expecting that the bill would be at least twenty or thirty dollars.
“That’ll be five dollars today,” the receptionist said.
“Really? That’s all?”
She looked down at the chart again. “That’s what he has written down,” she said.
I was amazed. Did the doctor cut me a break because I was seemingly traumatized by something that happened more than a century and a half ago? I half-think that he did. And I have a feeling that if I had had health insurance, the bill would have been a lot higher. I was grateful.
Eventually I had to have minor surgery to remove a leftover piece of glass from my hand, and I can still feel a tiny piece of wax that’s in there. Naturally, I think of John Thoreau every time I do. I feel sorry that John and Henry had to go through their tragedy. I welcome the medical advancements we’ve achieved since 1842.
But I’m a bit more careful these days, whenever I take my trusty (and still rusty) screwdriver to the remainders of my candles. In an odd sort of way, I have John Thoreau to thank for making me more cautious.
Ask me for a certain number of dollars if you will, but do not ask me for my afternoons. Thoreau, Journal, 16 September 1859
Often, on this site, I’m tracking something – an animal, a bird flight, a line of words. These few weeks, I’ve been tracking light. It begins atop the white pines that are our tallest neighbors; they catch first sun like upside down paint brushes dipped in light. And then, as I drink the darkness of my coffee, the light slides down the tree until it catches next on a nearby chimney and – on this morning – its thin column of smoke.
Already, by the time it reaches me, the day’s burned nearly 60 of its minutes; already the sun has travelled a good deal along its shallow southern arc. In me, the little pagan stirs; scarcity awakens him. And cold. Absent our Spanish friend, el nino, here, not far beyond the gates of solstice, we seem to be embarked on a real Maine winter.
I go out, looking for a tree to worship. They are many; today I settle on an old one that’s dwindled to trunk. Ringing it is a new scatter of bark, sloughed in circle by the heavy head of a pileated woodpecker. Whole rings of exploratory pecking round the tree, and, in a few spots, the bird has gone deep, gathering in, I suppose, his daily dinner of ants. The host tree stands stoic; the remaining ants are bedded deep inside, the pileated dozes in a live pine’s thick cover. The light has shifted while I look to and read this story.
Fanned across the snowy yard are the shadows of our thin pines. Even in morning, they seem afternoon-long. And soon, the sun will ride down behind a neighboring house, reappearing briefly in the southwest for benediction before the 4:17 dark arrives.
Light will leave the brush-top trees last. A final flare of amber-orange to paint the dusk. Right on time.
By Corinne H. Smith
“I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion.” ~ Henry D. Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government”
Welcome to our Bicentennial year! July 12, 2017 marks the 200th birthday of our favorite American author, thinker, and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau. Although he did not gain fame during his lifetime, he has certainly achieved it since. His reputation has spread significantly in the last century and a half, and especially over the last 50 years.
Many people and groups from around the world are planning to hold commemorative events this year. Thoreau’s life and work will be celebrated not just in Concord and not just in Massachusetts, but in a number of places, and not only in July. Your favorite organizations – Thoreau Farm, The Thoreau Society, The Walden Woods Project, and Concord Museum – represent only some of the folks involved. You can catch up with us on our individual web sites or on social media outlets. Or you can go to the special Thoreau Bicentennial web site at http://thoreaubicentennial.org, where you can search for events and even list your own. So if you haven’t done so yet, feel free to start thinking and planning about what you can do in your own special spaces to honor Thoreau.
Celebrating Henry Thoreau’s lasting relevance has been the interpretive focus of Thoreau Farm since we officially opened our doors to the public in 2011. We encourage visitors to consider Thoreau’s ideas and choices for living deliberately, so that they can reflect on their own lifestyle decisions.
One hundred years ago, Henry Thoreau was not well known or widely popular, no matter what part of the planet you lived on. Nevertheless, British reformer and author Henry S. Salt organized a special meeting of his group, the Humanitarian League, to commemorate and honor Thoreau’s 100th birthday. The event was held at Caxton Hall in Westminster, London, on Thursday, July 12, 1917. It marks one of the first known gatherings of a large group of people who came together simply to talk about Henry Thoreau and his influence. Speakers included Henry Salt himself, who had already published several versions of his Thoreau biography in the 1890s; English socialist and reformer Edward Carpenter; and Sir John L. Otter, the Mayor of Brighton. Australian-born English nature writer William Henry Hudson had been invited to speak, but health issues prevented him from attending. He sent a letter in his place, and Salt read his words to the audience. Hudson railed against the trend to scrutinize and to compare Thoreau to other writers, before him or since. And remarkably enough, Hudson also had the foresight to think about us here in 2017. He wrote:
“I will stick to my belief that when his bicentenary come round, and is celebrated by our descendants in some Caxton Hall of the future; when our little R. L. Stevensons are forgotten, with all those who anatomized Thoreau in order to trace his affinities and give him true classification – now as a Gilbert White [English “parson-naturalist,” 1720-1793], now as a lesser Ralph Waldo Emerson, now as a Richard Jefferies [English nature writer, 1848-1887], now as a somebody else – he will be regarded as simply himself, as Thoreau, one without master or mate, who was ready to follow his own genius whithersoever it might lead him … and who was in the foremost ranks of the prophets.”
Simply himself, as Thoreau, one without master or mate. These words will echo throughout the year at Thoreau Farm and in any “Caxton Hall,” beside any pond, or in any woods, where like-minded folks can gather, or where individuals can relish the solitude and connections that communion with a natural place offers.
Over the last five years, Sandy Stott, a few others and I have shared some of our own Thoreauvian adventures with you here. Now it’s time for us to hear YOUR stories. When did you first come to learn of Henry Thoreau? How have his writings and ideas influenced you? How have you chosen to live deliberately, as a result? What are your favorite quotes? Send your responses to email@example.com. These sharings will be collected and kept on file at Thoreau Farm. Some individual profiles may be chosen to be featured here in our blog. In this way we can ALL celebrate Henry Thoreau’s life and work together, no matter how far apart we are. And don’t worry: you’ll still continue to hear from us, too. Many thanks, in advance. And Many Happy Bicentennial Celebrations, too. Happy 200th Birthday-to-Come, Henry!
“With this more substantial shelter about me, I had made some progress toward settling in the world. This frame, so slightly clad, was a sort of crystallization around me, and reacted on the builder.” Thoreau, Walden
“How many times Henry?”
I sometimes ask this question when looking over a house, which always tells a story about those who live there. And once I’ve explained the mildly odd get-up of the question, calculating the answer is usually pretty easy. Henry Thoreau’s famous house offers convenient division with its zero to the right of the 5 to the right of the 1. One hundred and fifty square feet, into which he packed two years of living that brim still from the book that is their record.
Seasons as footage – we begin, if lucky, in a like space. My boyhood room ran a few feet grander than Henry’s Walden house, but only a few. College was, of course, crammed into tighter confines. Lucky to be there, for sure, but what an odd narrative puzzle, sharing two small rooms, which summed to one Henry, with two other late teens intent on the declaration of self. No wonder so many burst so excitedly from school in search of apartment #1…which probably still contained roommates, but also a room of one’s own.
And on…shedding roommates, gaining, perhaps, a mate, living in more Henrys…3, 7, 11… Lining up a lifetime of Henry’s calls up story: 1+, 1/2, 1, 5, 9, 1, 3, 5, 6, 9, 10, 10… At some point, each of us hits peak-Henry, and then – given more luck, of course – steps into smaller multiples. “Downsizing,” we call it; “fewer Henrys” a few of us may say. And on into each “experiment.”
My father-in-law just visited, pressing on into the amazement of his 97th year, lives now in a Henry and a half. He says it is ample. His rooms are arranged around a large chair from which he can survey those years, and in which he can read the live screen of his Kindle. “This is all I need,” he says. And in his phrasing I hear the reverberation of the Henry-word that shaped the square footage of his life – necessity.
What are your necessaries? A good question at anytime, but one especially strong at year’s end and advent. One contemplated, perhaps, in a favorite chair set in whatever number of Henry’s you inhabit.
Here’s to a clear, well-contained new year; may good light appear at your window.
By Corinne H. Smith
“If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth – certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.” Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government”
The call came out a week in advance and from two separate organizations. Peaceful demonstrations would be held at every state capitol building on the morning of Monday, December 19, 2016. The gatherings would coincide with the time that each state’s Electoral College members would be sequestered inside, casting their crucial deciding votes on the presidential election. Finally, here was concrete action to take! Signing petitions and donating dollars to organizations can only take a person so far, in any movement. I live only 33 miles from my state capital, and I knew that I had to go. I made plans to take the train to Harrisburg early on Monday morning.
“Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.” ~ Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government”
I had never been to the state capitol complex. I decided to walk all the way around the place to take it all in. An historical marker along the way noted that the Underground Railroad had operated in this part of town in the mid-1800s. Abolitionist and journalist William Lloyd Garrison had once spoken at a nearby church. These were good footsteps to follow, I thought, since they came from a previous time when the country was divided. Eventually I found the other protesters when I got to the western side of the block.
It was before 9 a.m., and the demonstration was just getting started. Twelve dedicated people had camped here overnight. They woke up, chanted, and sang every hour on the hour. The organizers brought some printed signs. Everyone else brought homemade ones. I decided to go Thoreauvian and hold up “Your Conscience Follows a Higher Law.” We were soon given the basic ground rules. Our permit allowed us to occupy the sidewalk and the steps. We could not obstruct traffic on the street. We could use the bathrooms inside the capitol building but would have to go through metal detectors to do this. A major press conference would be held inside at 11:30 a.m. The Electors voted at noon. Until then, everything else was spontaneous and came minute by minute. Good to know.
Many more people arrived over the next several hours. Although most were local residents, some came from as far away as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Every generation was represented here, too. Our numbers grew to more than 300. We chanted phrases about the key issues. We sang a special version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” that listed a dozen main reasons why the president-elect was unqualified for the job. We participated in such calls and responses as:
“Tell me what democracy looks like.”
“THIS is what democracy looks like!”
And we sang the songs we all knew: “America the Beautiful,” “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “This Land is Your Land.” Some folks in my generation tried to get “If I Had a Hammer” going. But the young people in the crowd didn’t know the song and couldn’t pick it up. Over and over again, for several hours, we voiced our opinions. This was an empowering experience: being with like-minded people – strangers, really – and bonding toward a common cause. It felt like the right thing for us to do. In fact, it felt like the most right thing for us to do at all.
I had bundled up for the winter day with two layers downstairs, six layers upstairs, two pairs of socks, two pairs of gloves, and my old hiking boots. Only the socks fell short. My toes began to get numb in short time. I knew I couldn’t afford to let them continue to freeze. My solution was to march in place on the concrete steps, in time with the chants and the songs. This tactic worked up to a point. It was the best I could do until I could get to a warm place and take off the boots.
After 10:30 a.m., people began to file into the building, in anticipation of the press conference. Some even planned to sit in the gallery where the Electors would vote. At the same time, another group protesting another cause arrived across the street. We respected each other’s missions – we weren’t competing with one another – and we watched and listened as they beat their drums and chanted their own mottoes. Suddenly their whole group moved into the roadway. When they parted, they left behind six pairs of protestors tied back to back, sitting in the crosswalks. The street-sitters wanted an immediate shut-down of a now-unlicensed immigration detention center in Berks County, Pennsylvania. They were impeding traffic. The few police officers who had been standing watch called in reinforcements. And we watched as at least six people were walked, dragged, or carried to the cruisers.
Wow. Here was action we had not expected. It was impressive. These were people who were truly devoted to their cause. A woman of a certain age watching next to me said, “You know, there was a time in my life when I would have taken part in that kind of civil disobedience.” She paused and sighed. “Not today, though.” She handed me her sign and headed up the steps to go in to the press conference. Signs on sticks were not allowed to be taken into the building. Only a few of us were left behind to continue the presence outside.
I hadn’t known about the press conference when I booked my round trip ticket. I was going to have to miss the proceedings in order to catch the train to get back home. So I didn’t get to see and hear the full slate of diverse speakers that the organizers had scheduled. I found out about them later. It was enough for me to know that a lot of good points had been made inside the capitol this morning.
“When I came out of prison – for some one interfered, and paid that tax – I did not perceive that great changes had taken place on the common … and yet a change had to my eyes come over the scene – the town, and State, and country – greater than any that mere time could effect.” ~ Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government”
I felt the same way on this day. As I walked back to the train station, I looked up at the oak trees outlining the capitol lawn. Nearly every one of them held a leafy squirrel nest. I watched as one of the residents ran along a branch and then stopped to sit and nibble on an acorn. The animal was perfectly oblivious to what had happened down the street – to what may indeed happen here on a regular basis – and to what was happening inside the House of Representatives gallery at this very moment. Life went on, no matter what. And yet I felt, like Thoreau, that my way of looking at the way the world works had altered and deepened somehow.
I caught more evidence of Life Going On from the train window and from my own car, as I headed home. People were working, eating lunch, running errands. I stopped at a convenience store to get gas. Unless someone looked closely at the fabric “Reject” flag that I still had pinned to my jacket, no one could tell what I had been up to this morning. It could be my own little secret, for now.
Henry Thoreau didn’t end the war with Mexico just by spending a night in jail. He wasn’t able to single-handedly stop the mandated return of runaway slaves to their southern masters by refusing to pay the annual Massachusetts poll tax. Yet he felt validated that he had at least done something, in his own individual way, on that July day in downtown Concord. (And by the way, Henry: poll taxes are now illegal in America. So it turns out that you were right, after all.)
Similarly, some may consider that the December 19th gatherings turned out to be ineffectual. The final Electoral College vote sadly fulfilled its prophesied expectations, even as more than 7,000 people protested in the 50 state capitals. But to those of us who participated, our involvement meant a great deal. We found validation in each other’s faces and voices. We had known that there were millions of like-minded people “out there,” somewhere, and not necessarily found in our usual circles of life and work. And here were some of them in person! We came together for a few hours to bond and to act upon our beliefs. And we know it won’t be for the last time.
Standing on concrete steps for three hours in 30-degree temperatures, holding a sign, chanting chants, and singing songs … No, my small preference for participation wasn’t the same as spending the night in a 19th-century granite-block county jail. Nor did it come close to the actions taken by the street-sitters who got arrested on this day. But I believe with even more certainty now that taking a stand in person – any stand at all — is just as important now in 2016 as it was in 1845. Thanks again for the inspiration, Henry.
As a boy I never mastered the yoyo. I could make it snap up, slap neatly into my palm, and I could make it “sleep,” which on lucky occasion let me “walk the dog.” But that was it, and so the siren call of more expensive, more obedient yoyos never reached my ears, stopped as they were with impatience.
5:44 a.m., December 21st. I am up for this moment. No sleeping now. Even as I spin at the very bottom of the year. Solstice, and the closest I can get to my inner pagan is recall of childhood and its taffy of time, all stretched and sticky….why is everything and everyone so slow so slow so?
“You will see,” said my patient grandmother, whose arthritic toes overlapped each other, giving her a wobbly gait; “you will see.” Already, I was on to whatever my little marimba mind noticed. Climbing smartly up my string and slapping into the palm of my next impulse.
These years later, back down at the base of light’s slow ebb, I pause, and in the snow-sheen of 1/8th-light at this hour, I can just read the opening paragraphs of “The Pond in Winter.” It is, I know from readings and readings, the right line of words into this day; I spin down its opening sentences…skip the quotation (blasphemy, I know)…and arrive at a favorite sentence:
After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, as what — how — when — where? But there was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in at my broad windows with serene and satisfied face, and no question on her lips. I awoke to an answered question to Nature and daylight. The snow lying deep on the earth dotted with young pines, and the very slope of the hill on which my house is placed, seemed to say, Forward!…
Then to my morning work. First I take an axe and pail and go in search of water, if that be not a dream. Thoreau, Walden
Here on the shortest day, to begin “my morning work,” to be awake even in the time of sleep, when much and many are bedded down. That, of course, is the book’s work too. Well, “first I take an axe…” and, as an essay I read long ago pointed out, this beginning is an unusual sentence for Thoreau – it is, like the blows of an axe, single syllables, with the exception of its two syllable goal, “water.” Deliberate, singular work, that is how we start. With it we uncover water, Walden water!, elixir. One after another – steps, words, breaths – “Forward!”
I do see – answer to my earlier grandmother – even on this shortest day, when “dawning Nature” is taking her time with the light. Down here at the year’s end I am spinning, but I am not sleeping.
At length the winter set in in good earnest, just as I had finished plastering, and the wind began to howl around the house as if it had not had permission to do so till then. Thoreau, Walden, “House-Warming”
On my way out from the valley of no reception, on the season’s coldest morning thus far, I stop by the lake to pick up messages before a day of driving and appointments. My small screen shows no cancellations and no further national tectonics, so I close it and look out over the big screen and the lake, which writhes like a restless dragon.
I step from the car, and a soundtrack of muddled roar emphasizes its everywhere. The wind drives waves of slush ashore where they rattle like cobblestones as they draw their ice back toward the water.
The air coursing over it from the northwest is well below zero, but the water, roiled with waves, is still open, and a constant exhalation of steam flies in many shapes above it. This steam is a water-story too fast, too extreme for telling; writing it would be sentences full of transitions, with few stable nouns in between. Even as it will end in a single mass of ice.
To the east, the sun has topped the ridge, and its brilliance, the way it whitens the steam as it twists and spins, makes it colder still. I feel myself leak away with the wind and roar. Winter is howling in; it has “permission to do so.”
By Corinne H. Smith
“For my part, I could easily do without the post-office. I think that there are very few important communications made through it. To speak critically, I never received more than one or two letters in my life — I wrote this some years ago — that were worth the postage.” ~ Henry Thoreau, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” Walden
Just before Thanksgiving, the United States Postal Service unveiled the slate of new Forever stamps that will be released in 2017. Thoreau fans were delighted to discover that the post office had remembered to honor Henry’s upcoming 200th birthday. Sometime next year, we’ll be able to put his face on our envelopes once again.
This view of Henry was created by accomplished illustrator and artist Sam Weber. Weber was born in Alaska and grew up in rural Ontario. He holds an MFA from the School of Visual Arts and now works in New York City. Among his many past projects are cover illustrations for the books Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King and Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, as well as several covers of National Geographic issues. How did he come to land the chance to create a new look for Henry Thoreau?
“That’s a good question, although to be honest, I’m not entirely sure how this opportunity came my way,” he admits. Weber suspects he was already on the USPS radar because of his previous work for the office: the painting for a special 93-cent stamp of American author Flannery O’Connor, released in June 2015. He got the Thoreau assignment sometime afterward.
When Weber looked for a photographic reference of Henry Thoreau, he decided to use the popular 1856 Maxham daguerreotype as a guide. He finished the painting this past spring.
Those of us of a certain age remember the last time Henry Thoreau was so honored. It was back in 1967, when he turned 150. The artwork was created by American multi-genre artist Leonard Baskin, who drew it in one of his familiar styles. A lot of Thoreauvians didn’t think the image did Henry any favors. Sam Weber disagrees. “I love the Leonard Baskin stamp,” he says. “It has so much personality and character. Baskin’s visual sensibilities are quite different from mine, but I am a big admirer of his work.”
Weber had not been too familiar with Thoreau and his writings before he began work on this project. But he learned more about both as he went along. “I’ve come to truly admire his thoughts on the environment and on civil disobedience,” he says. Like this piece, many of the others in Weber’s portfolio are portraits. “Portraits have always interested me. I love that feeling of locking eyes with someone from the past through an image, painted or otherwise. In this way especially, I think this project resonated with my artistic voice.”
He continues, realizing how much Henry Thoreau means to a great number of people: “Historical portraits are always difficult, as my artistic abilities inevitably fall short in capturing the special quality individuals like this have on our hearts. I’m grateful for this unique opportunity, and I hope that I’ve done the man some justice.”
So far, we’ve heard only positive reactions to the new stamp. We can’t wait until we can see it and use it ourselves. USPS officials tell us that they have yet to solidify the date and location of the first-day-of-issue stamp dedication ceremony. Stay tuned for more details on this front, as we receive them. In the meantime: many thanks go out to them and to Sam Weber. This one will make letters truly worth the postage.
“There are two worlds — the post-office & Nature. I know them both.”
~ Henry Thoreau, Journal, January 3, 1853
At my request, Google feeds a few alerts into my daily e-mail; one sniffs about for Henry Thoreau; another tracks news appearances by mountain lions, including California’s famous, and now notorious, P-45, who, a week or so ago, did in nearly a dozen alpacas on a farm. Lions living in proximity to us will still be lions.
But my point in keeping this alert doesn’t lie in tracking celebrity lions; instead it hopes to have a finger on the slow pulse of lion dispersal, or recovery – you choose your word – in the lower 48 states. Once one of two of our country’s top predators, and so, controller, many would argue, shaper of a number of populations, lions were shot, trapped and poisoned from existence in most states by the early 20th century; the killers were the other top predator, one who doesn’t brook competition easily, if at all – us.
By the time Henry Thoreau was rambling a good deal in Concord, lions were long gone, as were many animals that we now take as usual or nearby – deer, bear, coyotes, even moose. But just as he tracked those with whom he shared woods, Thoreau also gathered stories of and imagined the missing, whose paths he only crossed on his ventures north, if at all.
But even in that north, lions were a cat too far. The few that might have been in deep woods, skirting, perhaps, the border were beyond Thoreau’s reach.
Even the word is elusive. It may sit (or lie on) there in a sentence, sounding like some other word, lying to the ear, which would hear the snap of a paw-pressed twig, if it weren’t so soft-footed. That’s part of its presence: you never know it’s there, until it materializes before your eyes.
Or, if it has been lying in wait when you walk by, fully aligned in your own sentence, you may never see it at all. Then, it is lion’s choice – you, or some other ambler, maybe the deer you also didn’t see?
Here, little narrative tends toward confessional – when I go the woods each day, I imagine lions, even as I live in a state where they are, officially, not. But last year, a lion was found a mere 3 miles north of our border, and, as is true for many places ripe for lion’s return, sightings make their way in the papers and cloud wildlife officials’ pronouncements regularly: “There are no mountain lions in Maine.”
“But its tail was soooo long.”
We’ve had our first smattering of snow, an inch, followed by cold, and now as I run, I am layering prints on prints; it always surprises me how many beings have gone my way. To the side, the canid tribe has been doing the same. Dogs are known by their claws marks and the way their prints tend to be longer than they are fat. Lions leave opposite tracks – seemingly fatter than they are long, and without claw-marks. My ongoing survey as I run says, no lions…again.
Still, I cultivate the periphery…that’s where they’d be; I try to see sideways, even as I attend to the roots and rippled ground I run. And, because my mind conjures animals in a way it can’t summon theorems (for example), I sometimes shiver with awareness. I haven’t seen this lion, but I am live with its possibility.
As is often true with reading, I hear a voice I’m clearly meant to listen to well after that voice has sounded; I am, as they say, late to the party. That surely was true for me with Henry Thoreau, whose then tangled sentences and habit of calling into question almost everything rolled my eyes as a teenager…just before they shut down in favor of the cinema that plays on the inside of our eyelids. That he would become a signal voice to me would have surprised my teachers, who often had to call me from the other-lands of reverie and classroom-sleep. I remembered that when I taught and had to use the gentle goad of my voice to recall my cine-dreamers.
These years later, I am a picky reader, in part because I am a slow one. If I am to spend time in the architecture of someone’s writing, I need to admire even the hallways, and I have particular need of the sudden light from a well-placed window. I pick up books, stroll some sentences and put them down; I even enjoy the mild irony that I too write little rooms that I hope readers will visit.
A while ago, as practice that I hoped would disentangle me from the internet as the yard wakened during my coffee, I began reading a poem or poems as I also tracked the bird-scurry by the feeder. Poets and birds often move similarly, and their words seemed to set up my own later in the morning.
Just so, right now. As the sun scrolls down the first-snowy pines, I read Kate Barnes’ “Other Nations,” a poem written first for another favored poet, Maxine Kumin. And, as has happened now for a number of days in a row, I disappear into its pages and lines. Barnes is a narrative poet – no sky of abstraction at which you gaze trying to name the shapes of clouds – who, late in this poem, takes you along for a buggy ride. Yes, it is, at times, horse-drawn poetry. But it moves at the pace of real perception – mine, anyways – and, when each ride is done, I am often elsewhere. Alive to the light, alive to the day, I’ve slipped the tether of the clicked world. I am alive to words and a voice that carries across time.
“Other Nations” is also about talking to animals, and, as my dogs over time would tell you, my canid diction may be limited, but I use it whenever a dog is near. And, like the good dog I sometimes am, I hear like voices across time.
Reader’s-note: I ration myself to a poem per morning; I will be well into winter before I look up from last page.
Bio-note: Kate Barnes was Maine’s first poet laureate, serving from 1996 to 1999. The volume I’m reading is called Kneeling Orion, published by David R. Godine, and, graced also by Mary Czarina’s woodcuts, it is a handsome book.
November 30th and a few streaks of sun break through the clouds, brighten the mountain and then vanish. Even as two darknesses are on the way – that of storm and that of December – the brief scene looks a little like a divine barcode, and, right now, in search of some trail-time after a day of talk, I’m buying.
For years I’ve made much of November for the quality of its slanting light and its long looks across terrain once obscured by summer’s foliage. It is, even as its days dwindle early, a season of discovery. December, however, has always felt like descent, and, were it not for the solstice turn near month’s bottom and the hoped-for flash of new snow, I’d opt for elsewhere.
But here, in the White Mountains that Henry Thoreau visited only in summer, I know also there’s beauty to be found on this crossover day, as he knew was true in all seasons and locales. Walking up for these few hours is simply another way of looking for it; it is kin to traveling “a good deal in Concord” and bringing back, perhaps, some word-leaves, or even a late blooming word-flower.
The trails I take work across slope, over the leaves of summer past, and it doesn’t take long to reach the clouds and their gauzy light. A scrim of snow deepens as I go up, though it, and I, never get to full winter. At the walk’s highpoint, a thousand feet above the valley, I pause at the juncture of trails, where one slants back down and, warm from climbing, savor a different season’s solitude. I’ll start down when I get a thermal prod, and I hope the forecast rain and sleet hold off until I get back to my car.
But really I hope only for what I have: this forested moment on crossover day, reminder that beauty and mystery are year-round.
Here, to follow, is short photographic saunter from the walk:
There is a certain Irish woodchopper who, when I come across him at his work in the woods in the winter, never fails to ask me what time it is, as if he were in haste to take his dinner-pail and go home. This is not as it should be. Every man, and the woodchopper among the rest, should love his work as much as the poet does his. Thoreau, Journal, 12/12/59
Around 11:00 a.m. I heard the aural prod of the back-up-beeper, which, on this NH backroad, can only be warning away the tens of people who lived up this valley a hundred years ago. Compliant, as ghosts usually are, they scattered, and steadily, our neighbor from 4 houses down backed down our drive. His pocket-dumptruck was piled high with white-faced wood, jumbled behind a back-stack of order, where the metal door would usually be shut.
Dave jumped down from his truck, and we looked over the swell of land that I hoped he could back across and up so the woodpile would be close to the cellar bulkhead. “O, sure,” he said, eyeing the ground that slants like a wave that’s felt the sea-bottom and is intent on the shore, “I can get across that.” And so he backed over the ground-wave, got the truck-bed level, “so it won’t turn over when I raise it,” and dumped a cord of maple, beech and birch, with a sprinkling of oak. In doing so, he was ordering also a chunk of the remaining day.
In my 20s, I’d had a house heated partially by wood, and as I cruised town, I’d kept a lookout for developers who were opening up housing lots. Sometimes, in exchange for some tree-felling, I could get to keep the wood and haul it home, and so I’d gotten pretty adept at the cutting, hauling and splitting that made up the 6-or-so cords I burned each winter. Since then, wood-fires have become more atmospheric and ornamental, except when I visit end-of-the-road NH, which is where I was when Dave’s beeper summoned me.
Dave, like any veteran wood-seller, worked his way close to hoped-for dump-off spot, raised the truck-bed, and, as the chunks slid down, eased forward to get them all to ground. We exchanged a pleasantry or two and he took my check and drove off. I turned and surveyed all the wood, much of it whiter than my teeth; then I pried open the bulkhead, tossed a dozen chunks down and went after them to outline the stacks I’d envisioned. Soon, I hoped, Rolando and Eli, my brother’s two children, would arrive to help realize those stacks.
All of this buried my nose in a favorite scent. The sour smell of fresh-split wood works on my taste-buds, and it seems to intensify in the upper part of my nose. It also seems strongest at a little distance. If I lean in and touch-sniff the wood’s surface, the scent weakens a little, but a few feet away from the heap outside, or, at that distance from the stacks inside gives me maximum whiff. And it is an astringent, clean whiff, with a hint of what goes on inside a tree throughout its life, the up and down flows and the responses to the wheeling seasons.
Rolando and Eli arrived and we tossed chunks down into the basement, and, when a pile had formed, we went down too and began to set them in rows to dry. Using lally-columns as containment, we raised our rows, and they became a dense text, a sort of woodblock poem before us. Intuitively, just as you shape a sentence by fitting related words to each other, we slotted in the sharp-angled wood – the maple and the beech and the birch. The work wasn’t as playful as Frost’s “swinger of birches,” but as we bent and stacked, it was enough. Did we “love [this] work as much as the poet does his?” Perhaps not that much, but as work’s rhythm set up and we watched our stacks rise, we smiled.
At work’s end, we decided that we were stacker-poets, and we had these two poems at right angles to one another to show for our time. Poems with a scent too.
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 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
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.
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.
The stoic panels keep watching the sun; the yellow bench is open, yours whenever you get here.
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.
In this season of disturbed day and night, I’ve found necessary reading, stories whose thin lines keep reaching toward the world I want to live in, the one I do, even as the news and those who make it try to wipe that world away. The stories are the poems of Kate Barnes, and I have come to them through recommendation from the Gulf of Maine, our local bookstore, itself a kind of kin to the fish that keep swimming upstream to spawn. “Try this,” the owner, a poet himself, said one day, and handed over Crossing the Field. I looked at its handsome woodcut cover, weighed its thinness, and thought, I might even finish this.
For some weeks it sat where most new books do – on my desk in a stratigraphy of enthusiasms. One recent morning, as I sought my coffee-reading to prepare my mind for the day’s words, I saw its blue cover peeking out of the pile, and I unearthed it, carried it to table. I noted, as I always do, its birthdate – 1992 – and turned to page one:
Coming back to my own countryside, I find
the farm again. It is night. Under this wallpaper
of willow leaves and birds, I know there is
an old one with loops of small roses…
No pyrotechnics; rather, a quiet insistence on what return allows, how knowing is layered, and that we live there too, below its surface. Barnes, the daughter of poet Elizabeth Coatsworth and writer Henry Beston, isn’t after easy narratives in her poems; she is 60 when they are published and worn by life’s abrasions, not the least of which is her father, who, fittingly, it seems, renamed himself Beston, by the stone, when made fun of for being “a mick.” But reading her poems is akin to coming on a clearest stream in woods you thought you knew, and then, looking up and seeing with washed vision.
All of this is prelude to a proposal: recent poems I’ve read have been lit – in this corner or that – by fireflies. Yes, they are out of season, but winking light, easily construed as hope, is not. So here, in a spirit of rising light that Kate Barnes and Henry Thoreau might approve, is my proposal:
On January 20th, 2017, when we pass into a new government that I see aligned with darkness, let’s turn off all the lights but one in all of our houses and workspaces. A Day without Light (but one) would recognize and protest a president who seems without spirit and compassion, and it would leave burning resolve and hope to see and then work through this period to a different day. It would be quiet, real, and yes, if enough of us did it, effective.
I don’t know Barnes as well as I know Thoreau, but I think each, both, would nod, yes, and go about that day as a single light.
Added note: I don’t do this, but I’d like to see if this seed-idea can grow, so please share widely if you too would like to see that. Each one of us can be that single light too.
“There is more day to dawn.” Thoreau, Walden
All summer and far into the fall I unconsciously went by the newspapers and the news, and now I find it was because the morning and the evening were full of news to me. My walks were full on incidents. I attended not to the affairs of Europe, but to my own affairs in Concord fields. Thoreau, Journal
It took more than the Concord fields to lever me away from the news, but recent national “incidents” were enough.
After the election, we went away to the mountains. The old, blue route there was still lined, in places, by signs, mostly the victors’, but even they were bent and wind-battered. As we drove, a cold front blew in, tearing even the resistant oak leaves from their branches, and it caught drifts of brown leaves, chasing them in waves over the tar; at times it looked as if we were crossing a river.
We bought days of food and drove up the right wing of the valley, crossing finally on to the last mile of dirt road, and, once we’d unloaded and set the heat to warm, we put on orange hats to distinguish us from deer and walked farther up valley. The wind racketed in the bare trees; a few small-grained snow flurries coursed through, speckling our dark coats, melting like little points of winter on our hands. We wouldn’t climb the mountain, but our walk brought us closer to it.
That night November dark shut down quickly, the sun gone behind the ridge just after 3:00, some remnant clouds blotting up its after-light. Before the moon – nearly full – rose later, the dark was absolute, the only news was the cold front’s still-rising winds. Part of this mountain valley’s appeal lies in its modern remoteness. Yes, a road winds to it, but no signal follows – phones don’t work, e-mail can’t chirp and all the instas go mute. Perhaps because there are more cellar holes than cellars on this road-going-to-trail-going-nowhere, forcing coverage in here is low priority. It felt good to out-distance connection and comment.
Late that night, the moon rose, arcing up over the mountain, bright enough to paint shadows across the open ground; you could see the dark, flying leaves lifted by the wind. Not remembering its proper seasonal name – surely it is beyond harvest – we called it the Selection Moon and watched its light and dark fingers point and wave, picking out possibility, suggesting the way the fronts keep coming over the ridge, scooping up what’s left, sorting it briefly and laying it down again.
Still, even under the racketing wind and the juddering moon, a little peace took hold. This valley is a sort of Walden.
We have, of course, returned – we have work; we have a place too in the current turmoil. That’s as it should and must be. But the mountains are and have a place too, a place where the shapes of ridges admit only the oldest news.
I am thinking today of people who live in terrible times, when whatever good we summon or create in our daily lives gets threatened by the bile we and others also harbor. And so it’s no stretch to think of Henry Thoreau living in the 1850s a decade crawling with evil and aimed surely at civil war. And I think of his huge, complex mind and attendant spirit and wonder how he rose each day to work to write to walk without being washed away by sadness. He could see so much. What sustained him?
I ask myself this question on a day similarly riven, when I feel split from country and future, when my imagination’s gone quiet before despair, when my quiet belief in innate decency fails. I didn’t go to work today; it seemed so beside the point. But after a day of sitting here, I’ll have to get up and go…where?
Well, yes, there to the work I’ve committed to and I’ll keep at it as compact with self and known others. Its daily motion will be salve of a sort.
These few days in and on, I know I will also return to personal struggle with despair. How to go at it? Thoreau sought both to address his time’s evils and live a life with joy at its center. He did not turn or hide away – he looked directly at slavery in its many forms, from primary evil to enslavement of self. In many ways, he even tugged apart some of the nature he revered – to know it, understand it, perhaps, sometimes, to change it (at least the human part). And still, as he walked out into the world each day, he brought and found reverence.
Early in his writing, in the essay, The Natural History of Massachusetts, Thoreau set down what sustained him throughout:
Surely joy is the condition of life. Think of the young fry that leap in the ponds, the myriads of insects ushered into being on a summer evening, the incessant note of the hyla with which the woods ring in the spring, the nonchalance of the butterfly carrying accident and change painted in a thousand hues upon its wings, or the brook minnow stoutly stemming the current, the lustre of whose scales worn bright by attrition is reflected upon the bank.
It is no small feat to be a keen analytic intelligence, stern moralist and giddy walker. So much encompassed in one being.
I am no Thoreau. But I must try to walk like him.
In Concord for a short visit, I find myself with a single free hour, and, as ever, my feet answer the always-question: what should I do? “Walk, of course,” they say. “You are, of course, home in Henry-land.”
And so I set out for one of Henry Thoreau’s rivers, two in fact, which really makes it three – I’ll trace the Assabet for a bit from the hemlock bend upstream, turn back then and edge over for a look at the Sudbury, where the railroad used to cross, and then, I’ll join these two where they conflow and become the Concord. And this walk itself will be confluence, a flowing together of so many past walks and runs with this present.
I’ve no revelation as I walk, kicking the leaves that lie thick on the old railroad grade, watching the light shift under the passing clouds. Instead my mind seems to quiet, seems to slide along, for a change, at the pace of these rivers, whose most hurried expression is a small swirl or three where the Assabet leaves the hemlock bend. Each thought arrives and passes like the rafts of oak leaves heading for the Concord.
The Concord gathers itself of the Sudbury and Assabet at “Egg Rock”; there, the water must bring news, or at least leaves, of the mild uplands behind. The broad Sudbury is actually the lesser to the two, its water as slow as a nap. And after a dry summer with its open banks, the two rivers make one that sticks to its channel, that is so slow here that the sea is only far rumor.
The trails are a river of downed leaves, and I leave my feet low to the ground to kick through them, listening to the rustle that takes me back to childhood and walking through rather than around the pillowed leaves along the street. Up in the under- and mid-stories of the trees, the light ricochets from the still-yellow and russet fire of the leaves – it is November’s show of slanted light. Short days; purest light. Finest hour.
Forethought: Perhaps you have had the good fortune to be part of a workshop that morphs from being a meeting of strangers to a gathering of kindreds in short order. I’m not, as is probably true for many who meander along Thoreau-like trails, much of a joiner. The singular is simple and simple is often single; in Walden the “I” is prized. But there are times…when gathering feels and looks like striking flints together near tinder; sometimes the room lights up. These thoughts then for the group of 15 writers who took up residence at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Cardigan Lodge for the weekend past (and even, fleetingly, for the 30+ middle schoolers who ricocheted around the place as their elders weighed words).
On Monday, after our writers’ workshop weekend, I returned to the Cardigan region, in part so I could meet a morning appointment the next day in nearby Concord, NH. But I also felt drawn by the pleasure of the receding weekend, in the way that you may hope to revisit a place where good things happened for you. In early afternoon, I arrived in the little valley that’s one ridge over from the lodge where we met, and the morning’s clouds were thinning, winging off before a fresh northwest wind.
Even during my approach to the valley, it was clear that the weekend’s early snows had melted; only an unbalanced eyebrow of white bristled here and there in the light on Cardigan’s dome. Unpacking took two minutes, and then one of the weekend’s centerpoints reappeared: “Time for a walk,” a composite voice said. “Yes, a walk,” I answered. “Yes.”
In the short interim, hunting season’s begun, and so, after dressing in loud, or as it’s advertised, “blaze” orange vest and thickspun hat, I set out on a 5-mile loop that high water had made unavailable to us just two days ago. The loop ambles up our little valley until it bumps up against a trail called the Back 80 Loop; from there it’s just under a mile to the cellar hole at 1642 feet. That’s the same cellar hole that Allen, one of the weekend’s crew, visited during Saturday’s walk, and it’s also the highpoint of a walk my wife and I have taken for decades.
I wonder, as I walk, if Thoreau and his Concord friends ever gathered to read from unfinished work to each other? Not as in at the lyceum, or in other lecture formats, but from, let’s say, the 3rd draft of Walden, or, after walking, a round of hastily-scribed impressions. I scan my past readings and memory and find that I don’t know. Perhaps you do, and will send on answer.
Reaching that cellar hole returned me to the past – not the deep one, but the recent one: I was now walking in one of our writer’s footsteps. I turned downhill, and, a mile later, I arrived at the lodge. The afternoon light was such that the windows were opaque – who knew what or who was inside; maybe some of our writers – but the parking lot was empty. Just so, when you walk into the past: there’s possible return hidden behind the windows, but the parking lot says that time – and everyone who lives in it – have moved on.
Still, as I stood looking back up at the mountain – clear on this day – I was happy to return to place and memory at the same time. It was, I decided, a rare gathering of people who like (and are often loopy about) mountains approached one step at a time, a line of walking that’s kin to a line of words. Follow each, and at some point you look up and say, “O, look a that. Look where I am!”
By Corinne H. Smith
At Thoreau Farm on Wednesday, November 2, 2016, Dr. Lawrence Buell will speak on the topic of his latest book, The Dream of the Great American Novel, and Why It Continues to Thrive. He appears as part of the annual Concord Festival of Authors. The talk will begin at 7:30 p.m. All are welcome to attend.
Dr. Buell is the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature Emeritus at Harvard University. He taught at Harvard from 1990-2011, and has earned many awards and honors along the way. He has also written and edited a number of books, including New England Literary Culture: From Revolution through Renaissance; The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture; and a biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In The Dream of the Great American Novel, Buell identifies four templates or scripts by which the literary genre can be considered. Such key books as The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Moby Dick turn out to be touchstone and model writings that have inspired others to follow. Buell’s presentation will no doubt be of interest to those of us who are avid readers or writers, or both.
We know Professor Buell as Larry. He has long been a Thoreau Farm supporter, and he serves on our Board of Trustees. His admiration of Henry David Thoreau dates back to his days of growing up in the area just west of the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Larry first came to Thoreau’s writings in his senior year of high school. He could relate to the Transcendentalist immediately. “He appealed to me with his cantankerousness and rustic tastes,” Larry says. “I grew up in a then-country locale that, like Thoreau’s Concord, underwent suburbanization.” He has carried a fondness for Thoreau ever since. And he has both taught and written about the man for decades.
While Larry has many favorite Thoreau quotes, he fires off two of them quickly: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes,” from Walden; and “It is so hard to forget what it is worse than useless to remember,” from “Life without Principle.”
Like us, Larry believes that Thoreau’s life and work are relevant to our own lives today. He says, “In our increasingly urbanizing, regimented, crowded, and commodity-saturated world, Thoreau’s pastoral pushback, critique of business-as-usual work ethic, insistence on breathing space, and think-small voluntary simplicity will never go out of fashion. These ideas also allowed Thoreau to be a political conscience without the fear of reprisal that might inhibit those of us with more complicated entanglements.”
Please join us as we host Dr. Lawrence “Larry” Buell at Thoreau Farm this Wednesday evening, November 2, 2016.
Out out…even as most are turning in. Down to the sea, flat, windless, blue, with only a jiggle of waves’ reminder, and its seems a day to aim for little islands, to press against the incoming tide for a while, before riding its last push in.
By Black Rock, along the east shore of Shelter, then aim for the humped back of the next little island; its firs look like raised fur on an archback cat. And as high tide nears, it offers a little white sand beach for landing. Thank you, I think I will.
I go ashore on Irony Island, its half-acre fine home for a former English teacher, even as he suspects that this isle is straightforward, simplicity itself, its name derived from the orange-streaked iron of its stone, and not from any duplicity, or turning upside down of words.
If there is any irony here, it lies in the white-splashed rocks at its top. There the orange stone gives way to small drifts of broken shells and white abstracts of guano. The gulls use Irony as anvil for clams they can’t open. And, once they’ve swooped down on their fill of the exposed, soft bodies, the gulls splash the remainders of their satisfaction and pleasure all over the rocks. A whitewash of Irony.
I’ve more islands to visit before turning with the tide, but for now, I’ll be here, on Irony; the gulls will be back when the tide drops and the clam flats open.
It is, when you’re there, a singular place.
By fall I mean literally the falling of the leaves, though some mean by it the changing or the acquisition of a brighter color. This I call the autumnal tint, the ripening to the fall. Thoreau, Journal, 11/3/58
Even as fall’s intense colors soar against the bluest of skies – the other day the maples were so vivid they made me squint – another story calls the eye: on many woods-walks, October’s afternoon sun slants under the still-ascendant oak canopy and makes light of all these little lives, mine included. It is, even as cold bears down, the season of the fern, when they range from dark green to pure gold to curled brown, their various seasons all arrayed simultaneously.
And it is also the season where light divorces heat. In summer, I come often to these woods for respite; in their shades of varying depth, it is cooler, even as the high sun presses heavily on the treetops. High summer always contains a little craving for darkness, for relief from all that light and heat, (which, of course, we crave equally in thin-lit January). But now the woods are like a temperate room where the curtains have been pulled back and light announces life.
A 24-hour leaf-drop: windless through the night, and when I walk down into the woods, the leaves are still falling, each detaching soundlessly and then riding its own shape down – spirals, back-and-forths, oblique meanderings left and right. And on the small evergreens, they accumulate, on some to the point where the tree is garbed in a new sweater, or daubed with decoration. The wind will come to comb them, but for now, the firs are decked out; they look ready to party.
And then, a drought-breaking, 24-hour rain, with northwest wind to follow; much is beaten to the ground, and the sight- and light-lines have opened. It is deep fall.
And in this season, the understory is the story.
Perhaps you too wait for a day or three before taking up an anticipated book. Just so for me with Upstream, Mary Oliver’s recently released volume of selected essays. I didn’t hurry for two reasons: first, I’d read a number, most, of the essays before when they appeared in earlier volumes; I’d even read one in first light before it appeared in the journal I edited then. Second, and more pertinently, I wanted those few days before opening the door of the book’s cover and stepping first into one, then another, of its rooms. I knew that, even as many would not be wholly new, taking up residence would feel new – we, the essays and I, would differ, sometimes greatly, from what we were at our last meetings.
Morning coffee’s the time for my day’s first reading before turning to work, and so, facing east, I began Upstream, and soon, I heard familiar resonance – here, even as Emerson is Oliver’s favorite Concordian, was the not-so-distant presence of Henry Thoreau, cloaked in his famous coat metaphor. Walden readers are likely to recall its appearance at the end of the book’s second paragraph, where Thoreau has been speculating about his potential readership:
Perhaps these pages are more particularly addressed to poor students. As for the rest of my readers, they will accept such portions as apply to them. I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits.
And here is Oliver in a paragraph late in the clear waters of her book’s title essay, which is, among other things, about becoming, or, to use one of Thoreau’s favorite verbs, “realizing” oneself:
Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect.
Both writers would have us try on lives, but wear, finally, only the one that doesn’t “stretch the seams” or burden us with heavy responsibilities chosen by others. It takes “time to reject them,” for Henry Thoreau the two-plus years at Walden Pond, where, even as he cast off other coats, he was busy already with the one that he would offer in 1854.
As I read this paragraph, associations burst like popcorn in a popper, when suddenly the oil reaches temperature, and where there were only little seeds there are now white flowers of corn spilling up and out, so many, an overflow – the kneeling to earth, the attention on eternity, the nail, the house, the water, the flowers…
Oliver’s essay ends soon after with a single sentence paragraph: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”
Simone Weil wrote, “absolute attention is prayer.”
And Thoreau, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”
Perhaps you too love it when a story ripples on, when the splash of its initial landing brings on a little backwash from or crossings with other stories and their wavelets. Just so with our recently posted piece from Richard Higgins about NYC’s attempted heist of Concord’s and the Thoreau family’s pencil past. Here, in short, is a photo Higgins discovered and its caption, which offers ID. At the end we have a tag-verse. Perhaps there are still more pencil-places to be heard from.
“Playing footsie with pencil
history is something with which
the people of Concord will not
Richard Higgins – after Winston Churchill
by Richard Higgins
Few will forget that last year at this time New York told us that Henry Thoreau was really a cheerless curmudgeon and hypocritical scold with the heart of Ted Kaczynski and the writing ability of Bronson Alcott. Many were astonished that the Thoreau Society had somehow missed this for this 75 years.
Now from New York comes another October surprise, this one from the Times, not the New Yorker. Also overlooked by Thoreau and Concord partisans, it recently announced, is the fact that the pencil capital of 19th- century America was–drum roll, please –New York City! Who (beside Kathryn Schulz) woulda thunk it?
I will not play fast and loose with the facts (unlike some writers), so I will corroborate. On Tuesday, October 11, 2016, a metro column in The New York Times began:
New York Today: Our Past in Pencils
BY ALEXANDRA S. LEVINE
“With school back in full swing (except for all the days off recently), let’s sharpen our knowledge of New York history.
Today’s lesson: How our city was once the capital of pencil manufacturing in the United States.
It further stated that New York in 1861 had, and I quote, “one of the country’s first lead-pencil factories.”
Now, are we who are in the know going to savage the author of this ridiculous claim with vicious personal attacks? Of course not. Concord people are decent and forgiving. Ms. Levine is probably a sincere and lovely person in addition to being a criminally inept reporter.
As everyone else knows, Concord had sophisticated and productive pencil factories while raw sewage still flowed on New York streets and no one dared venture into the raving wilderness above Wall Street.
Here, Ms. Levine, not to put too fine a point on it, are the facts:
The first wood pencils in the New World were made in Concord in 1812 when William Munroe invented a machine to cut and groove wood slats and filled them with a graphite paste. Fifty-nine (59) years later, in 1861, Eberhard Faber built what the Times calls the first “large-scale” pencil-making factory, in New York. Munroe’s shop was primitive by comparison. However he produced 175,000 pencils in 1814, only two years after starting, and five million pencils in 1835 alone. Sounds large-scale to me.
Munroe was soon joined by a cluster of prominent pencil makers in Concord and surrounding towns, including Ebenezer Wood (Acton), Joseph Dixon (Salem), Benjamin Ball (Harvard) and, most famously, in 1821, the father of the humorless misanthrope, and then the insufferable sourpuss himself. It was partly because of Henry Thoreau’s involvement that Concord led the pencil industry in the United States into the 1840s. At that time, Thoreau pencils were among the most sought after in the country.
Concord pencils apparently were even admired in New York. In a family history, Munroe’s son wrote that some of his father’s less principled competitors illegally slapped Munroe labels on their stock. “One merchant in New York”—that putative pinnacle of all things pencil—“sold German-made pencils with ‘W. Munroe’ on them as illegal knock-offs.” No names mentioned, but just noting that Eberhard was from Bavaria.
The question then is: What makes one pencil-producing city the pencil capital of a nation? The quantity of cheap pencils turned out? Probably not. Would not innovation and quality be better criteria?
If so, honors must go to 01742. Here’s why:
Concord pencil makers early on mixed graphite with wax, spermaceti and other substances. All worked but had drawbacks. The French were the only ones who knew the right recipe. Nicolas-Jacques Conté invented the modern pencil lead in 1795 by mixing graphite with clay—but he kept the formula a strict secret. Henry Thoreau decided to find the perfect graphite mix on his own. After researching it at the Harvard Library in 1840, he hit upon the idea of using clay—rediscovering what the Frenchman had figured out 45 years earlier. The result was a pencil lead that was harder and darker than any his family had made.
Thoreau also designed a machine to grind graphite better and another one to drill a hole lengthwise through the wood slats so the lead could be slid inside. The only reason the Thoreau family got out of the business was that the right recipe soon became common knowledge, resulting in stiff competition. The Thoreau’s wisely abandoned the pencil business in 1853 for a more profitable one: selling powdered graphite (“plumbago”) for use in electrotyping.
Having now settled this matter, to be fair I should point out that when I gently informed Ms. Levine by email of her error, she was the soul of grace. She apologized and promised a correction. I thanked her and said having at least one of these October misrepresentations corrected would set many local minds at ease. Her reply was not encouraging. She was off to her next story. New York workers, she said, have found the exact spot where the original Concord grape grew in Central Park.
Writer and editor Richard Higgins lives in Concord. University of California Press will publish his Thoreau and the Language of Trees in March 2017. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Corinne H. Smith
I left Concord, Massachusetts, Wednesday morning, September 25th, 1850, for Quebec. … I wished only to be set down in Canada, and take one honest walk there as I might in Concord woods of an afternoon. ~ Henry Thoreau, in his opening paragraph of A Yankee in Canada.
Henry Thoreau and Ellery Channing made their Quebec trip at first by train and by steamer, and then took to the roads. Early this month, I joined a group of Quebecois and Americans to follow part of their walking path by car and on foot. The two-day outing was organized by Jacques Delorme and Jean Cloutier of Groupe de Simplicite Voluntaire de Quebec. We started in old Quebec city and ventured out into the countryside to the east, just as Thoreau and Channing did back in 1850. Along the way we saw many of the same sights, and we seemed to be truly following in their footsteps. Here is a short report to connect both trips.
As he rattled along the rails heading north, Thoreau “botanized” from the train. He noticed the woodbine, or Virginia creeper, turning its brilliant autumn red. It hung on trees “like a red scarf,” he wrote. “It was a little exciting, suggesting bloodshed, or at least a military life, like an epaulet or sash, as if it were dyed with the blood of the trees whose wounds it was inadequate to stanch.” Since this is one of my favorite natural observations from Thoreau, I made a point of searching for Virginia creeper during this visit. I wasn’t disappointed. The vine twirled around trees in the forests of the Adirondacks of New York. It rested on and took over fences in Canada. It hung from maples in Quebec, just as it had in Henry’s day. It is still here, still turning its signature maroon and crimson.
Like Thoreau and Channing, we toured old Quebec city. We saw the 1759 battle site of the Plains of Abraham, the citadel, the old city hall, the Wolfe-Montcalm monument, a few museums, and many other buildings and streets that Thoreau and Channing either saw or walked past. We three Americans kept saying to one another, “You know, we’re not that far from home. And yet it feels as though we’ve been transported to another place and time.” We meant this in a good and interesting way, of course. Thoreau must have had similar feelings. He wrote that after only two days of travel, “We were taking a walk in Canada, in the Seigniory of Beauport, a foreign country, which a few days before had seemed almost as far off as England and France. … Well, I thought to myself, here I am in a foreign country; let me have my eyes about me, and take it all in.” The trouble is that Quebec offers too much to take in. You can’t see everything at once, or even at all.
We left the city and walked east along present-day Avenue Royale, the same road that Thoreau took into the countryside. We passed homes that were built of native stone in the mid- to late 1600s. Most had old family-owned stone root cellars built right into the hillside. We were lucky: we had reservations to stay at local inns for the night. But Thoreau had difficulties finding a place to sleep, since he saw no public houses along the roadway. The language barrier was part of his challenge, too. The home where he and Channing finally ended up belonged to Jean Baptiste Binet and his wife, Genevieve. “We here talked, or murdered French all the evening with the master of the house and his family, and probably had a more amusing time than if we had completely understood one another,” Thoreau wrote. At bedtime, the men had to climb up to a high chamber with a wooden rail around it to reach a bed outfitted with linen sheets. Although Quebecois researchers disagree on the exact Binet house that Thoreau stayed in, they say that one of the prime candidates is a building that operates today as a Mexican restaurant called Senor Sombrero. We stopped here to take a peek and to imagine the past.
As we continued on, we passed pick-your-own orchards with long lines of cars waiting for spaces to open in the parking lots. Random apple trees stood right next to the road, just waiting for passers-by to reach out and to grab a few samples for themselves. Apple-lover that he was, Thoreau took note of the trees here, too. “There were plenty of apples,” he said, “very fair and sound, by the roadside, but they were so small as to suggest the origin of the apple in the crab.” Later, when he and Channing walked on to Sainte Anne, someone brought them more apples. “They were exceedingly fair and glossy, and it was evident that there was no worm in them; but they were as hard almost as a stone, as if the season was too short to mellow them. … I declined eating one, much as I admired it.” And so he turned away from Quebec apples. Our own Henry Thoreau (aka historical interpreter Richard Smith) did not decline the opportunity. He and some others took a few bites of fruit. I did not imbibe. Those who did said they were good but that they leaned toward the tart or sour side.
In crisp autumn sunshine, we walked between the hillside and the St. Lawrence River, where the natural geology makes for stunning waterfalls. The most spectacular ones are Montmorency Falls (Chute Montmorency) and Canyon Sainte-Anne. Thoreau and Channing scrambled around and admired both of these falls. Of Montmorency, he wrote: “It is a splendid introduction to the scenery of Quebec. Instead of an artificial fountain in the square, Quebec has this magnificent natural waterfall to adorn one side of its harbor.” Today both sites offer somewhat sturdy bridges so that visitors can walk above and over the falls. They can’t help those of us who have issues with heights, though. I wouldn’t have gotten over the Montmorency bridge without the support of several members of our group, for which I was grateful. I tackled the one at the canyon on my own – twice! both over and back! – but I did so on tiptoe, tentatively and gingerly, and without looking down at the water. I had to do it because I knew what lay ahead: the replica of the Walden house that had been built here years ago. Local people knew that Thoreau made his visit in 1850. The spot where you can first view the full length of the falls is now marked with a house built to Thoreau’s specifications. This was our final destination on this trip. Those of us who succeeded in reaching the house got signed certificates to show for our efforts.
“I fear that I have not got much to say about Canada, not having seen much; what I got by going to Canada was a cold.” ~ The opening sentence of “A Yankee in Canada”
What we got 166 years later were good photographs, great stories and memories, and a passel of new friends. Oh, and something else, too: an invitation to come back next year and to take this honest walk once again. Well, you don’t have to ask us twice. We’re in! Does anyone else want to come along?
[Photos by Mary Lynn Brannon and Corinne H. Smith]
To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will tax the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. Thoreau, Walden
During one of my middling lives, I edited a semiannual journal, and, in the midst of my ten-year stint with the blue pencil, I received a great gift. It arrived as part of a note in reply to one of mine: “Yes,” the note began, “I would be happy to contribute a poem to your journal.” That poem became the first of many, and later they were joined by some short essays, encounters with weather and light. How often does an editor get to publish his favorite writer?
As celebration of the coming of Upstream, Mary Oliver’s newest book of essays and “other writings,” I have in mind a little story. And so I went looking in the bins of the past, where I keep some notebooks and correspondence. Much of what I remember from those days seems random or episodic, but I do have these few bins, and I recalled their containing both a student journal and, perhaps, a letter. So I went looking.
There, easily found, was the journal, a series of reflections from a Thoreau-anchored course called Reading the Land that I taught one fall during the 90s. SA, a meticulous student, had typed her entries, and I began to scan them for the one I wanted. Late in the semester, we had been reading Oliver’s West Wind, and one of the poems had recalled for SA some family summer time in Wyoming; specifically, she had twinned a climb of a mountain with reading an Oliver poem and called them both “experiences” that had left her awed. I was looking for that entry.
I found all the others, set neatly in order, and I read few, reflecting back on the privilege a teacher has in seeing into the minds of others, learning fresh perspective, experiencing other worlds.
But the entry I’d recalled was missing, and that absence triggered a second memory. Where was it? Ah, yes, now I remembered: I’d sent it on to the poet herself, thinking that she would be pleased to have a reader who found “experience” equally on the mountain and in her poem. Who wouldn’t want such a reader? I’d reasoned, and I’d been right.
A week passed, and then a letter arrived. In the Courier font she favored, Oliver said that SA was the sort of reader she hoped for, a reader who found a poem much more than an intellectual exercise, or a few moments with a grouping of words. SA had entered her reading of the poem as she climbed into and through a landscape.
I was glad I’d sent the original.
In a few days, I’ll go to my local bookstore and get my ordered copy of Upstream. And then I’ll settle in to reading it, and I will go slowly upstream and through landscape. It will be, I know, an experience.