A blog at Thoreau Farm
editor, Margaret Carroll-Bergman
founding editor, 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”
Editor’s note: Thoreau and the Language of Trees is a new book by Concord author Richard Higgins.
By Sandy Stott
As I begin this book, a patient presence of white and pitch pines stands ten or so feet from my open window. One, a pitch pine, has died, though its trunk rises still to 30 feet, and it has become a lure for a pileated woodpecker whose exploratory peckings offer a braille I run my hands over, even as their poetry eludes me. The other 42 trees of this small, yard-girt woodland vie for light, for sky, and they stir whenever the wind blows. Tonight though, they wait, stilled in the late light of this summer’s solstice. Perhaps the owl who called from them a few nights ago will visit all of us later. They are of my yard; all will outlive me; even the pileated-stippled pitch pine trunk may endure decades. Making the acquaintance of these trees takes me beyond myself.
When I taught parts of Thoreau’s work to the sometimes hurried young, I had a favorite moment in the semester: some weeks of reading into the term, and some minutes into a class, I closed Walden and asked simply, “are you ready?” Most said, yes; a few demurred: “um…for what?” they asked. “Let’s go,” I said, and they followed me out from the rectangular classroom, down the stairs and to the door. Once outside, I offered them a choice — find any natural object, get comfortable, and concentrate on it (and only it) for ten minutes. I’ll let you know when time’s up.
Most often people picked trees. I would watch them watch their trees. Some lay on their backs and looked at the canopied sky; other stood at mimicked angle a few feet from the tree; a good number climbed into a tree of choice and sat or stretched out upon a limb. A few got inches away from the trunk or a twig. For an age group often slandered for their rabbity attention, they had remarkably little trouble “getting lost” in their trees. When I read their findings later, I realized that some of them had remained with the tree for paragraphs well after I’d summoned them back into the usual school world of call and response.
I knew, of course, of Thoreau’s fondness for and scrupulous attention to trees. What I didn’t know was that as I was working with the rudiments of this tree-teaching, Richard Higgins was afoot in nearby Concord and in the pages of Thoreau’s journal making a much deeper study. Would that I had been able to bring Higgins and his tree-findings to help my classes toward their trees.
That is, I realize, a rather lengthy preamble to what I mean to be a praise-song for Higgins’s new book, Thoreau and the Language of Trees, but I have taken a personal route to praise because this attractive, compact volume has touched me. Three presences are prominent in its pages — Thoreau, Higgins and a cast of character-trees too numerous to name. Higgins shapes his short essays at the outset of each chapter with an appealing clarity, using them to introduce small groves of short readings from Thoreau. The trees rise from their words. And they rise also in a generous offering of illustrations — photographs (many by Higgins) and, familiar to readers of Thoreau’s journals, a scattering of his quick sketches.
Here is an excerpt that perhaps offers enough window into Higgins’s book for you to see your way there:
Trees brought out another side to Thoreau, one we rarely hear about. They stirred a boyish joy in him. He found “an inexpressible happiness” in the woods. “Their mirth is but just repressed.” Lichen lifted his spirits, and trees seen from a mountain delighted him: “Nothing is so beautiful as the tree tops. A pine or two with a dash of vapor in the sky—and our elysium is made.” (p. 36)
When work has confined me, boxed me into its rectangles, I’ve always pointed to the reward of a next woods-walk as part of what sustained that work. But what Thoreau and his modern companion Higgins have done is to enrich my relations with trees, to sharpen my eye, broaden my heart and encourage my narrative impulse to include my patient neighbors. Who may or may not — who knows? — be patient with me.
I return to the page. Here, deep in the book, I’ve found that Robert Richardson’s first sentence in the Forward rings true: “There is real magic in this book.”
I look out at my 42 friends a few feet away. So many stories. Now, it is time to go out.
This article originally appeared in The Concord Journal May 14, 1942. The writer, Ruth Robinson Wheeler, updated it for The Thoreau Society Bulletin #31 April 1950. “The Thoreau Houses” was updated in 2017 by her son, Joseph Coolidge Wheeler, a Thoreau Farm Trust Board Member
by Ruth Robinson Wheeler
It takes a little hunting to locate all the houses in Concord, which have Thoreau associations.
John Thoreau, Henry’s grandfather, had been a successful merchant in Boston. His second wife was one of the six brothers and sisters of the Kettell family of Charlestown, who hired the Wright Tavern to run as a bakery. Deacon John White married Esther Kettell in 1778 and lived in the house, which is now the southwest end of the Colonial Inn, so when John Thoreau married Rebecca Kettell in 1797, he knew of a similar house, which now forms the opposite northeast end of the same inn. This was owned by Ammi White, a cabinetmaker, and had been built about 1716 by Mrs. White’s great-grandfather, Col. James Minot. The Whites sold it in 1799 to John Thoreau, who sold out his business at the head of Long Wharf in Boston for $25,000 — a tidy fortune in those days, enough for a man of 45 with five children to retire on. Though Grandpa John died in 1801, this remained the home of his family — his daughters, and his son John, Henry’s father. John was then 14 and soon went to work in Deacon White’s store. Later in 1835-1837 when Henry was in his last two years at Harvard, his immediate family lived here with aunts.
Henry’s grandfather Dunbar (maternal side ) died in 1767 in Keene, N.H., and 11 years later, Henry’s grandmother Mary married Deacon Jonas Minot of Concord and came to live with her children, Cynthia and Charles, at the Minot Farm.
This was a comfortable old farmhouse then located at 215 Virginia Rd. The house is still standing but it was moved in 1878 several hundred yards to the east where it still stands at 341 Virginia Rd. It is owned and operated by The Thoreau Farm Trust.
When Jonas Minot died in 1813, the widow Mary Jones Dunbar Minot inherited the “widow’s third,” which included the east half of the house. Her daughter Cynthia had married John Thoreau in 1812. John had tried keeping a store, which stood at the present site of the Town House and probably lived above the store.
This building was sold at auction to John S. Keyes in 1850. He moved it to its present location at 15 Monument Street.
Widow Minot asked her son-in-law to run the farm for her, while she moved down to Lexington Road to the “old red house”.
This house, now painted white and much enlarged is at 201 Lexington Road. It is called The Captain Thomas Wheeler House. She lived in the east half until she died in 1830. This house is opposite the Concord Museum.
Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817 in the old Minot house when it was still at 215 Virginia Road. In his Journal under the date of December 27, 1855, he wrote, “I was baptized in the old Minot House by Dr. Ripley when I was three months old and did not cry.”
The next spring, John Thoreau gave up the farm and lived with his family for seven months in the west half of the house where Cynthia’s mother lived on Lexington Road. Then came the move to Chelmsford, where the Thoreaus lived next to the meetinghouse; and the move to Boston in 1821. Back in Concord from 1823 to 1826, the family lived in the “brick house” probably the one, which stood on the corner of Main and Walden streets but was torn down. At this time, I believe, John Thoreau worked at pencil making with Charles Dunbar in a little shop, which stood near the present Scout House.
This shop now forms the kitchen ell of the Tuttle house at 128 Walden St.
From spring 1826 to May 1827 the Thoreaus lived on Main Street in the house next to Samuel Hoar, Esq., now numbered 166.
They then moved across the street to 185, which was then a simple square house.
Here they lived for eight years and from here in 1833 Henry entered Harvard, rooming in Hollis. In 1835 his family moved in with the aunts on Monument Street.
In 1837 the family moved to the old Parkman house. This house was moved in 1872 when the public library was built. In this house, Henry Thoreau began his school, wrote his first lecture, his first journal and his first essay.
From here he took his trip up the Merrimac in 1839 and from here he went to Emerson’s house, at 28 Cambridge Turnpike in 1841 to live for two years.
When he came back from Staten Island in 1843, the family moved to a combined house and shop on Belknap Street where the family lived until 1850. Thoreau meanwhile was at Walden from July 1845 to the fall of 1847 and at Emerson’s through 1848. Belknap Street was then called Texas Street because Texas was very much in the news at the time when the railroad and the new station were built in this district. The Texas house no longer exists.
In August 1850 the family bought “the yellow house,” now standing at 255 Main Street. The present ell on the right was built later by the Alcott’s. There was an ell at the rear, which the Thoreau’s used for the secret part of their pencil making process. Here Henry David Thoreau died on May 6, 1862, and here his sister, Sophia, carried on the graphite business, for several years. She died in 1876.
The Concord Library has photographs of the old Minot farm house, brick house and Parkman house and they may be seen in THOREAU by Henry Seidel Canby. You can find the brick house in the background of Main Street in 1862 (page 10) and the Parkman house (which no longer exists), on the Main Street side beyond the library (page 102).
By Harriet Martin
Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. ― Henry David Thoreau
It takes only one click of a button to be assaulted by conflicting and contradictory opinions from both sides of the aisle. The country we live in today is at a turning point in its history. With so many opinions vying for our attention, it provides great insight to look back at the words of a pioneer of civil disobedience for desperately needed guidance today.
A prominent writer and abolitionist, Henry David Thoreau was famous for his essays on various topics in his era. One of his most profound collection of essays was “Civil Disobedience,” which postulated how much loyalty an unjust, corrupt, or in any way ineffective government deserves from the citizen who cares about the future of the country he or she lives in. Henry was thrown in jail because he refused to pay a poll tax he found unjust.
In this day and age, more freedoms are allowed to people who wish to protest for the issues in which they believe. After a controversial election, many people were concerned about hot-button issues like women’s rights, science, the environment, and taxes. Following Thoreau’s model of non-violent civil disobedience, people took to the streets.
On January 2, all around the world, women and their allies left their jobs, homes, and families and organized in massive marches. The Women’s March in DC drew from 470,000 to 680,000 participants, The Atlantic reported. Each participant was armed only with a sign and her voice in the true spirit of peaceful protest. People chanted and marched down streets declaring in one unified voice, “We are Strong.” Other major cities that hosted a Women’s March were New York, Chicago, and in our back yard, Boston. In total more than 550 towns and cities registered protests and marches just in the United States. As well as us common folk, many celebrities turned out to show their support for women’s rights. Gloria Steinem was an honorary co-chair of the Washington March and Scarlett Johansson was an official speaker. Other celebrities marched with the people on the streets.
Another march that took place recently was the March for Science on April 22, 2017. This march focused on our planet and the steps that need to be taken to advance science and protect the environment. After a tumultuous election, the scientific community marched to demonstrate the importance of science to citizens of the earth. Protesters gathered to encourage policymakers to make policy based on scientific evidence; provide funding for research and discourage political attacks on scientific integrity. Many scientific organizations were represented, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the biggest scientific societies in the country. One outspoken co-chair of the march included Bill Nye. The march took place across the country and the world. Major gatherings took place in Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. The march in Boston had 70,000 people! Not only modern times have used the idea of peacefully protesting regimes.
From Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr., some of the most ardent advocates of civil rights have used the idea of peaceful protest. Gandhi read Thoreau’s essay on “Civil Disobedience” and it inspired him to persevere in his quest for civil rights. Martin Luther King also read Thoreau’s essays, which highlighted how widespread Thoreau’s ideas became and the impact they had.
Who knows, without Thoreau we might not have achieved much of the social progress we rely on today.
Harriet Martin is a student at Concord-Carlisle High School and a youth blogger for The Roost.
This day, April 29th, needs — as they all do — a bit of context. It is a Saturday, and the earth — its day and its dilemmas — has been much in the news. Back in late winter at a meeting of Brunswick Democrats, someone proposed a trash clean-up as one useful way to counter the spirit of disregard many see as loose in our world. Given a little Saturday sloth, I don’t feel like going out to meet this possibility on this day, but I do.
We — my assigned partner Nick, a retired law professor, and I — join ten Democrats and pick up our two capacious plastic bags at the gazebo on the Common. We take them to the town center where Pleasant Street joins Maine, where we’ll begin picking up scattered trash. Nick is wearing the pullover orange vest that identifies us as something other than pedestrians. We are quasi-official.
I am on the upside of 60; Nick is probably 10 years my elder, and we measure our pace to make this walk companionable. Today offers a first burst of warmth-going-to-heat, a sudden spring flower. But as we begin, it is the constant bending that gets our attention. “We should have picker-uppers,” Nick says. That’s true, I think, but when you do such work on rare occasion, you don’t know more than to show up and get your bag. We settle into a pick-and-talk-and-pick routine. Stooped often, we probably appear to be talking to the ground.
In town, the trash clusters wherever pause happens — stop signs, crossings, waiting areas. People molt constantly, it seems. Our “feathers” are everywhere:
Vodka seems the favored nip. Its little plastic bottles lie crumpled, the effect, perhaps, of someone trying to suck the last drop out.
Who cut the tiny cable once connected to an Apple device’s recharger?
Who is missing one earplug?
Near the town library’s entrance, we comb bits of paper and plastic from the thick sand of a melted plough-drift. The little garden looks like a once-green land going to desert. It will need heavy raking to free its ground-cover. Not long ago, the snow must have been piled five feet deep.
While we are at our work, “thousands march on the White House” to protest climate change. Our conversation turns to redemptive behavior. Nick tells me a story from his classroom. They are studying ethics, truth and law, and he has posed this question from the Nazi era: You are part of a household sheltering people and the authorities burst in. “Are there any Jews here?” they demand. He then gives a favorite answer from his years in the classroom: “If,” a student answers after some pause, “you mean by that, are there any people here who deserve to die, then no, there are no Jews here.”
“I stopped the class,” Nick says. “Did you hear that answer?” I asked.
Then there is the other side. “How would a group of Thoreaus do at forming a society?” he wanted to know on an exam. “What’s a thoreau?” one student asked.
We talk back and forth about what “a thoreau” is, and I offer one of my exam questions: Using Thoreau’s definition of a good school in Walden, examine and assess your own schooling. Thoreau knew that all true learning, finally, is personal.
We approach the franken-building of the local UU Church, which — it turns out when you walk in — composes a calm, light-filled interior. How the odd, angle-and-strut-rich exterior becomes a coherent, reflective space inside is one of those little wonders of architectural vision. “That’s my church,” Nick says. Now I know where I’ve seen him before.
Our way back to the Common takes us down Everett Sreet. Despite having owned a house in Brunswick for 14 years, and despite the street’s central location, this is my first trip down Everett. Well-kept, modest houses and apartments with little yards and tiny flower gardens line the street; it is a little urban gem wedged into town. Everett is also largely litter free; no one, it seems, loiters on Everett, flicking away ones and twos of the over 500 cigarette butts we have collected. A young man attached to a blue-tooth device walks by, nods, and, noting our bags, bends and picks up two scraps of paper.
At the end of Everett, Nick says, “I’m glad to be at the end of our route.” It’s been nearly two bending hours. I’m glad too, even as some of the habit that makes scut-work possible has already taken over.
We walk back to the Common, where the noon line at the burrito truck is a dozen deep. I wonder what they’ll do with their wrappers.
By Donna Marie Przybojewski
“I would make education a pleasant thing both to the teacher and the scholar. This discipline, which we allow to be the end of life, should not be one thing in the schoolroom, and another in the street. We should seek to be fellow students with the pupil, and we should learn of, as well as with him, if we would be most helpful to him.” — Henry David Thoreau, Correspondence to Orestes Augustus Brownson, December 30, 1837
These words set the tone for St. Benedict Catholic School in Garfield Heights, Ohio this school year, as we “Saunter the Year with Henry David Thoreau” to celebrate the bicentennial of his birth. At our year-end faculty meeting last May, I presented my multi-grade curriculum proposal about the upcoming bicentennial year. Everyone was overwhelmingly positive and enthused about this collaborative endeavor.
Reflecting upon our Thoreau Bicentennial during summer break, however, it became clear to me that the students were not going to be the only recipients of Thoreau lessons, which would teach them about this iconic American author, philosopher, and naturalist. If our year was going to be successful, then the teachers would have to become pupils. As a Thoreau Bicentennial Ambassador, I was able to help the teachers become comfortable with Thoreau and his ideas, so they could impart that knowledge to their students.
I imagine that Henry would have been proud of our venture — teacher becoming pupil. Teachers were given websites to research Thoreau, which included the Thoreau Society, Walden Woods, Henry’s Hat, and Concord Museum. Our faculty worked as a collaborative team: asking questions, offering suggestions, and assisting partner teachers in preparing lessons.
As this educational enquiry transpired, I had to smile because Henry seemed to be the master teacher in every room since the Maxham daguerreotype of Henry hung upon the wall of each classroom.
Everywhere teachers and students looked, there was Henry looking over their shoulders and guiding them, including the halls, since he had a place of honor in our trophy cabinet. Henry had become so much an integral part of our school environment that during a particularly difficult day, I would look at the daguerreotype and ask myself, “What would Henry do?” Even students, when encountering a dilemma in class, would ask me what I thought Henry would say about the matter and what he might suggest to do about it.
The learning not only occurred in the classroom, but as Henry advised, it happened outside as well. When parents asked their children what they did in school, the typical answer, “nothing,” was not the response. Rather, parents were given a barrage of information about Henry and his visits to St. Benedict School. The enthusiasm of their children was the incentive parents told me they needed to refresh their own memories of this American author, as well as read his works.
As an educator, this bicentennial year provided me with the greatest growth I have experienced in years in a relatively short time. Surprisingly, even though I had incorporated Thoreau into my own Language Arts curriculum at the junior high level, I, too, became a pupil and learned. First and foremost, I knew that if Henry was going to be relevant, he had to become a real and tangible person to especially the primary school children. He could not just be an author in a book or a face on a wall. So, I became Henry.
At the September kickoff to the Thoreau Bicentennial, students met Henry at an assembly, and he took them for a saunter around the baseball fields of the school. Then, as he had done during his own time, he threw a watermelon party for everyone, and from that moment on, the year has been unbelievably filled with joy. Many accounts of Thoreau describe him as being aloof, caustic, and abrupt. Our year has proved these depictions as not entirely accurate. One could see how children would gravitate to him during his life as the students of St. Benedict Catholic School would flock to him when he walked through the halls or entered a classroom to read to the students.
They grabbed his hands and hugged his knees. Smiles permeated the faces of the children, and I had the distinct privilege of witnessing this firsthand as Henry.
As a Thoreau Bicentennial Ambassador, I saw the need to simplify Thoreau enough to make young minds receptive to him, if his legacy is to be preserved for future generations. In addition, I was learning more about myself and creative abilities through this special year. Creating and publishing three children’s books about this author was not something that I had ever anticipated doing. These books are enabling St. Benedict’s primary teachers to incorporate writing, history, art, and discussion into their curriculum while introducing Thoreau to their young students. Also, I became the pupil as my publisher guided me through my writing and illustrations. In turn, I taught my students the writing process in a very personal way and to always be awake for the unexpected opportunities that may enter into their lives.
Throughout our celebration of Henry’s 200th birthday, teachers were expanding their knowledge of Thoreau across disciplines.
Science teachers studied the biome of Walden with their classes, and then had students put Henry in an alternative biome explaining similarities and differences.
Math teachers had students graph the dimensions of Henry’s cabin at Walden then create their own tiny house on graph paper. Another teacher grew beans in the classroom just as Henry did in his garden and measure their growth. Social Studies teachers incorporated Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and “Plea for John Brown” during Black History month in February. In fact, one class attended a program on the Underground Railroad and actually “met” John Brown. Teachers were discovering that Thoreau, although primarily known as an author, could be introduced in all subject areas not just Language Arts.
It goes without saying that Language Arts teachers really soared in their classes. Students learned to model Henry and describe nature in unique ways as he had done with such clarity.
One student wrote, “When I was on a flight, the most beautiful thing I saw was the sun rising, making the sky orange, and all the clouds underneath me look like rolling pieces of cotton from a pillow.”
Another wrote, “The soft sounds of rain hitting my window, while light flashes and rumbles from the clouds. That sound soothes me even in my darkest days.
One young man described this feeling about the ocean saying, “I love watching the waves as they crash into each other, the various hues of blues are calming to me.”
Another student when explaining Henry’s profound words composed the following: “The world when I were born was clean and fresh. I hadn’t made an impact on it yet. Every day I fill it with myself and what I experience. I paint my life on the canvass before me. It is mine to create.”
Students were also able to journal their thoughts, sometimes disagreeing with Henry.
One response to Henry’s statement that his greatest talent was having few wants indicated the following: “Although I admire Henry for not wanting a lot of things, I could not do that. There are many things that I want, so need a good paying job to purchase them.”
Granted, this was not response that was desired, and the concept of simple living still needs to be understood; however, Henry would have desired such honesty in writing whether he agreed or disagreed with it, not just blind agreement but thinking for oneself. Another example included a debate about whether Henry had three chairs in his cabin or six. Some students were adding the one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society to equal six chairs. It was a good brain exercise as students finally came to the realization of what he actually meant through discussion.
In addition, students illustrated narratives they wrote to describe what they would do with Henry if he visited them today. A few students wrote beautiful accounts of taking him to the library.
One student tenderly stated: “I would take Henry to the library to show him the books he wrote on the shelf. Knowing how much he appreciated libraries, I think he would feel proud that people were still reading his books 200 years after his birth.”
Students across grade levels also received a Flat Henry to take home and record what they did together. Henry became a part of their family as he attended basketball games, went on park walks, to the library, and even to the emergency room as one kindergartner relayed, “I had to get an X-ray on my arm but having Henry with me made me feel better.”
Even art played a factor in learning about Thoreau. Students were involved in sketching items from nature as Thoreau had doodled in his journals, illustrating their narratives, and even creating editorial cartoons about what might be Henry’s comments on modern society. Also, students recycled their own paper to create covers for their journals. The list is limitless to what the students are learning about this American icon through various activities and lessons. What is wonderful is that we are all engaged — teacher as well as student. Teachers are learning from their students and students are learning from their teachers. All are actively sharing as Henry thought we should be.
Children can relate to the simplicity of Henry. He was a dichotomy, being complex, as well as quite simple. His innocence and pure joy for life endears him to children. Henry is continuing to inspire children as well as adults to grow creatively and intellectually.
Therefore, this year has been “a pleasant thing for both scholar and teacher,” as Henry put it. Through the years, we will all continue learning and sauntering with Henry David Thoreau since we have made him our resident author at St. Benedict Catholic School. He has a permanent place in our trophy cabinet and in our classrooms. More importantly, however, he will continue to impact our intellects and spirits. Isn’t this what education is all about? Henry knew this. Now, so do we. Henry’s daguerreotype will persist to look upon us as educators and scholars in the years to come silently encouraging us to grow with each other.
Donna Marie Przybojewski is the author of three children’s books. Mrs. Przybojewski will be speaking at Thoreau Farm on Thursday, April 20, from 3-4:30pm on how to introduce Henry David Thoreau to children and launching her latest book, Henry David Thoreau Loved the Seasons. Email email@example.com to reserve a seat.
by Natasha Shabat
For the past 16 months, I’ve been video-interviewing visitors to Walden Pond. Approaching random strangers at the pond requires going out of my comfort zone. Normally I photograph nature at the pond and post my photos on Facebook — on my own page, on the Thoreau Society group page, on other Concord-related pages — and print them on greeting cards. And, with the encouragement of some Thoreauvian friends, I created a Facebook blog called “Walden Pond People” and turned my camera toward people, talking with them about why they were visiting the pond.
Come summer of 2016 and the Annual Gathering of the Thoreau Society (AG16), I invited attendees to meet me at Walden Pond, Monday morning after the Gathering, to be interviewed at Thoreau’s Cove. I chose this rendezvous point since it’s easy to find, and it’s quieter near the western end of the pond.
Meanwhile, thanks to my Walden Pond photos on the Thoreau Society Facebook group, I had befriended Punit, a man from India, who had been in the U.S. for less than two years and was starting to explore the country.
“Walden Pond is one of my dream places to visit,” Punit told me last April.
In July, Punit traveled to New England to attend AG16. He had never been to Boston, Concord, or Walden Pond and attended AG presentations over the weekend, including mine on “Walden Pond People.” He waited to make his pilgrimage to the pond for when we met at Thoreau’s Cove for his “Walden Pond People” interview.
“I wanted to read more about philosophy. I picked up Gandhi, because of the impact he made on the destiny of India, the future of India, so I wanted to know more about him. When I read his autobiography there was something on ‘Civil Disobedience,’ which I later came to know was inspired by Thoreau’s essay. Another reason why I was attracted to Thoreau’s writings is because one of my friends recommended Walden to me. There were a lot of things which were telling me ‘Hey, go read Thoreau!’ So, first I got my book. I just bought it and put it on the shelf. I didn’t do anything with it!”
When Punit described his path toward Thoreau, he reminded me of my own experience. I, too, had bought a copy of Walden, put it on the shelf, and proceeded to not read it. I simply continued going to Walden Pond to swim, kayak and read and write, as I’d already been doing for a couple of decades.
Punit continued, “But my friends influenced me. They started reading Walden before I did. Then there were three of us reading this book at the same time. There are certain things in the book which are difficult to understand. So what we would do is, we would discuss these with each other through email, or by phone, or during the in-person meetings. Yeah, it was a fun way to read a book. I’ve never done anything like that with any other book. It was a really interesting way to study these ideas. ‘What does this guy even want to say in these lines?’”
As Punit, I was influenced by others finally to take my book off the shelf. In my case it was a bunch of Thoreauvians presenting at AG11, which I had spontaneously attended. There at the Masonic Temple in Concord I was surrounded by people who knew Walden and had plenty to say about it. I was intrigued enough finally to read Walden for my first time. I read it in small bites, chewing on Thoreau’s words, while sitting in my kayak on Walden Pond. I did this over the next six weeks, until I turned the last page on September 1, 2011.
“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.” — Walden, “Reading”
Punit: “I think of Walden, and Thoreau’s writing in general, I think of them as something which is connecting the dots. Think of civilizations which existed in a different time. On a scale of time. Think of Chinese civilization, Indian, or Hindu civilizations, or American, or European civilization. So Thoreau’s trying to connect the dots. As if he were saying ‘Hey! There really isn’t much difference between these different civilizations. The core philosophy remains the same.’”
After I finished reading Walden that summer of 2011, I, too, observed some dot-connecting, but of another sort: I was overcome by the parallels between Thoreau’s masterpiece and the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes. (More on this another time.)
Punit: “That core philosophy is one of the reasons that Thoreau got inspired by Eastern philosophy, even though he lived so much later afterward. That’s just amazing for me! And since I’m from India, Hindu philosophy especially attracted me to Walden. I think it’s really important to figure out what you want to do in life. This is one of those books which actually helped me to figure that out.
“Walden Pond is exactly what I was thinking of, how I imagined it to be: a simple place, just trees, pond, that’s it. It’s very peaceful, very nice, very green. Just the kind of place you want to be in when you want to think about the higher purpose of life, bigger things in life. Well, the cabin actually looks smaller than what I thought, so I’m wondering how Thoreau lived in such a small cabin. I would find it difficult. . . . he was here for a grander purpose, so it probably suited his purposes here.
“I really like the site of his cabin. I think he probably must have walked around the pond a lot of times. Probably there is some specific reason why he chose this as his site. I brought my camera – that’s really important, because I wanted to capture at least a part of what Thoreau felt. And I would love to visit this place again.”
I was impressed with Punit. Imagine living in India, learning about Thoreau as a result of studying Gandhi — and then, eventually, actually coming here to Concord, hoping to see what Thoreau saw and feel what Thoreau felt. Punit had graciously awarded me the privilege of accompanying him on his first-ever pilgrimage to the place where Thoreau wrote Walden. I felt honored.
By Scott Berkley
“Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation. … If any owners of these tracts are about the leave the world without natural heirs who need or deserve to be specially remembered, they will do wisely to abandon their possession to all, and not will them to some individual who perhaps has enough already.” — Henry David Thoreau, Journal. October 15, 1859
On the late-summer day last year when the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument was announced, former Roost editor Sandy Stott was out paddling a kayak in the Gulf of Maine. When he returned to the news that the state of Maine had added a parcel of the immense North Woods to its stock of public lands, the connection to Henry Thoreau, who loved both the northern reaches of New England and the idea of land deeded to the public good rather than held by private interests, was immediately evident. To Thoreau, the purpose of setting aside public lands was to make them “a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation,” as he put it in his journal.
When I met up with Sandy in Maine later in the fall, we went land-ward to the Brunswick Commons, a parcel set squarely between the housing developments which ring that prosperous coastal town and the manicured playing fields of Bowdoin College. The Brunswick town Commons – which have made an appearance on The Roost in the past – are encircled by all the signs of a community becoming more and more of a paved metropolis. And yet the sandy trails meandering across marshlands dense with low sedge and scraggly pitch pines seemed, as I ran through the slanting autumn light, to exist as the beating heart of the town as a whole – a region that spoke back to the encroaching development. Let every town have its forest, says Thoreau; and let it be, by extension, not separate from the town, but at the basis of this larger ecological and spatial community.
This past month, I found myself thinking often of Thoreau’s public-lands dictum and what it tells us about land use in the twenty-first century. In the past four weeks travel took me to two of our nation’s most famed national parks: Yellowstone and Great Smokies. On the move in these hallowed places of wild land, I thought about the historical importance of these National Parks, this one-hundred-and-one year-old idea. Even more, I thought about how the millions of acres in the national park system speak to the tiny parcels of public lands in towns like Brunswick, and how the town-parks speak back to these iconic locales that take up so much space in our collective American consciousness.
On my way to Yellowstone, I found one such town-park in the city of Bozeman, at the south end of the Bridger Mountains of Montana. Over the past few years a local nonprofit, the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, has spearheaded an ambitious trail-building initiative known as “Main Street to the Mountains,” connecting urban bike paths and trails in places like Linley Park and Peet’s Hill to mountain trails leading to the Bridger Ridge. As of next year, when a new connector trail is finished, a trail runner or hiker will be able to go from downtown to Mt. Baldy at the south end of the Bridgers without having to find a way to drive to the trailhead.
Two weeks later, in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, I recalled the significance of Bozeman’s urban trails when I visited Le Conte Lodge, perched near the summit of the park’s second-highest mountain. The continued existence of the Lodge, where up to sixty overnight guests can stay during the March-through-October full-service season, testified to the eleven million visitors who come to the Smokies each year. Le Conte itself is a kind of town, even in the cold and foggy month of March; dozens of dayhikers came to visit the Lodge, even though it was closed for the winter, every day. Bozeman’s trail network creates a park experience even in the midst of urban development, while Le Conte Lodge recalls how humans can interact with expansive wild places on their own terms: by finding a way to make a home in the mountains.
Back in my hometown of Concord after the second leg of this two-park tour, it was again the familiar, lower-case parks that beckoned: Walden Woods; Fairyland, with its stone engravings of quotes from Thoreau and Emerson; Estabrook Woods, where those two once walked. One quote not engraved was Thoreau’s advice to wealthy landowners, to “abandon” their holdings “to all, and not will them to some individual who perhaps has enough already.” Fascinating word, abandon – as though the common, once given over to the shareholders of a town or country, were a place to be left alone rather than used and appreciated for generations. One hopes that, in this time of increasing socioeconomic inequality and political volatility, the town common is true to its name, binding us together in the shared joy of use.
Scott Berkley, a recent graduate of Middlebury College, has worked for the past five years in the huts of the White Mountains and is at home at all speeds on woodland trails.
By Corinne H. Smith
“For many years I was self appointed inspector of snow-storms & rainstorms and did my duty faithfully – though I never received one cent for it.” ~ Henry Thoreau, Journal, after February 22, 1846
When I heard the sound of a nearby gas-powered engine starting up, I hurried to put on my boots and my coat and to head outside. I wasn’t about to let my next-door neighbor use his noisy and environmentally-unfriendly snow-blower on my sidewalk and driveway.
Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you that I am a snow lover. And one of the activities that I love most is shoveling snow. I cannot explain this addiction, other than to say that I like the sound, I like the solitude, and I like the rhythm of the physical activity. So when I woke up after our most recent storm and saw that more than seven inches of the white stuff had fallen overnight, I was overjoyed. Over the moon, really. But at least I waited until after dawn to go out and to attack the pavement and the driveway.
There’s a science to shoveling snow, you know. You have to time your approach to gauge the duration and consistency of the storm. Shovel too soon, and you could leave the sidewalk vulnerable to an ice coating that will be too slick to walk on. Put off shoveling until the storm ends, and you will have more snow to remove, and you may also have to crush through a thick top coating of ice. Wait a day or two longer, and that snow will become reluctant cement. Good luck clearing any of it without a pick-ax.
My strategy is to keep up with the snowfall reasonably and regularly. I go out early. Once I do the major work, I have to go back later only for quick touch-ups. Whenever the sun comes out, I let the warmth of the rays do the rest of the work for me. If my timing is perfect, the pavements are bone-dry within a few hours, or at least, on the following day.
It’s impossible to shovel a snowstorm without inspecting it. This time, I was one of only two people out there on our block. Someone three doors down and across the street was shoveling quietly, too. The snow fell straight down, steadily and softly. The township plow hadn’t come through yet. Sounds from our part of suburbia were magnified in the cold air. A murder of crows flew over me several times, calling to one other. A flock of geese went over, too, but the snowy sky hid them from view. Their’s seemed like voices from the heavens. A woodpecker tapped at a distant tree. A blue jay cawed from the top of another one. The songbirds were huddled in bushes somewhere, I was sure. But some of the other wild ones were out and about.
While I tidied up the walk a bit, a woman with Small Dog in Sweater walked by. I said hello and asked the little one if he was having a good time.
“We’re looking for a place to ‘go,’” his pet mother said.
I laughed. “Well, there aren’t any green patches out here today, unfortunately for him,” I said.
They continued on.
I successfully defended my sidewalk from the noisy neighbor’s machine. (Had he chatted with the woman and dog? No, because he was too busy and couldn’t hear them.) And look at the difference between my part and his! Mine is organic. His is mechanical. Nature doesn’t make straight lines. And he leaves tire marks behind. I leave only boot prints.
The woman and the Small Dog came back around several minutes later. “Success?” I asked.
“No, not yet,” the woman sighed.
“Oh, well. I know how that feels,” I said. She laughed.
Later in the morning, I heard Neighbor John start up his coughing snow-blower. Although his machine is even more intrusive than the one my other neighbor has, I tolerate John’s because he respects my space. He and I also tag-team on behalf of Mrs. Jones, the elderly widow who lives across the street. Her driveway is more than two times longer than either one of ours. Once John and I have attended to our own properties, we move over to hers. I tackle the carport and its edges with the shovel, and he does the driveway and the sidewalk with his blower. This is actually the only time John and I ever see each other. We live in suburbia, after all.
John waved as he aimed his snow-eater toward her driveway. “Hey, I haven’t seen you since …”
“… last year at this time,” I finished.
“Yeah, that’s right.”
We worked together to get the carport, driveway, and sidewalks cleared off. Mrs. Jones came to the door in her housecoat, and I warned her to stay inside for the day. I also waved off her offer to pay us. John was wearing earplugs – another inconvenience a shoveler doesn’t have to worry about – so we couldn’t talk when the machine was on. Whenever he had to turn it off to maneuver, he and I caught up a bit on personal news.
“Didn’t you write a poem about this last year?” he asked.
“Oh, yeah, I did.” (I had forgotten.) “I’m in the middle of writing a blog post about the snow right now.” (At least I’m consistent in what I get passionate about.)
We were almost done with the job when John called, pointed, and turned the machine off again. “What?” I asked.
“We flushed out a rabbit.” It had taken shelter under one of Mrs. Jones’s yews. “He ran over there.” John pointed to another neighbor’s yard, where another nice bush could provide refuge.
Wouldn’t you know? I had missed seeing this encounter myself. I called over an apology to the bunny to let it know that we were almost done with our work. When every surface was cleared for Mrs. Jones, John and I said our goodbyes and returned to our own houses. I admired our good work on the way back.
The next morning, an early-riser co-worker e-mailed me from the office. “Be careful when you come in,” she wrote. “The sidewalks and the parking lot haven’t been cleared yet.”
“No worries,” I replied. “I’ll bring my shovel.” A good snow-storm inspector is always prepared.
By Corinne H. Smith
“I have thus a tight shingled and plastered house, ten feet wide by fifteen long, and eight-feet posts, with a garret and a closet, a large window on each side, two trap doors, one door at the end, and a brick fireplace opposite. … I thus found that the student who wishes for a shelter can obtain one for a lifetime at an expense not greater than the rent which he now pays annually.” ~ Henry Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden
This week, I walked down a paved path and caught a glimpse of the Thoreau house perched quaintly beneath a stand of tall trees. This structure had been built to Henry’s specifications, 10 ft. by 15 ft. It even had its own pond, just two dozen steps away from the front door. But this was not Walden, and this was not Concord. This house sits on the property of Tyler Arboretum in Media, Pennsylvania, less than 20 miles southwest of downtown Philadelphia.
Four years ago here, I wrote about my visit to the Penn State Altoona campus in western Pennsylvania. Students there had built a Walden house replica in an adjacent woodland referred to as “Seminar Forest.” At the time, I thought this was the only such replica in the state. Now I’ve learned about and seen firsthand the one at Tyler, which is just a short drive away from my own home.
Tyler Arboretum consists of 650 acres of gardens, woodlands, wetlands, stream valleys, and meadows. The site began as a Quaker farmstead in the 1680s, when Thomas Minshall bought this land directly from William Penn. Generations of Minshalls, Painters, and Tylers lived here and planted representative trees, bushes, and flowers. In 1944, descendent Laura Tyler bequeathed the property to a board of trustees. It has operated as a non-profit public garden ever since.
In 2008, the arboretum launched a project called “Totally Terrific Treehouses.” Seventeen new, fun, and kid-friendly buildings were installed around the property. Some of them are still standing and are still in use. The Thoreau house is one of them.
At the time, arboretum executive director Rick Colbert explained to a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer that the exhibition was “about connecting people to trees and our natural world. And what better way to do that than to have visitors experience a cabin like the one where Thoreau chronicled his life in the woods?”
The Walden replica was created by Pine Street Carpenters of West Chester.
Company president Brendan Dolan said, “While not a traditional tree house, it captures the essence of what many of us long for in a tree house — a counterculture sanctuary that provides an intense experience in nature.”
His brother, Mike Dolan, who is also Pine Street’s marketing director, had been turned on to the Transcendentalists in high school and had majored in English at Villanova. He described the building as “a metaphorical tree house, a symbol of Thoreau’s effort to help us appreciate not only the beauty of trees but the splendor of nature in general.”
The workers followed Roland Robbins’ plans, based on his excavations at Walden Pond. They used cedar shingles for the exterior, horsehair plaster for the inside walls, and one thousand bricks for the fireplace and chimney. Two bark-covered logs for the rafters came from Maine. The two windows are reclaimed period antiques, with 16 panes over 16 panes. Unlike other replicas, this one includes a sleeping loft above the fireplace. It took six craftsmen about five weeks to build this Thoreau house. The final cost was about $30,000, with a dozen companies donating time, materials or money. Watch the video of the construction here .
Inside, the walls are decorated simply enough, with a picture of Thoreau, a brief biography, a description of his original Walden house, and seven framed quotes. Two benches and a bookcase are the only furniture present. Many children’s books are scattered around for visitors of all ages to read and enjoy. I recognized D. B. Johnson’s Henry Hikes to Fitchburg and Henry Builds a Cabin, as well as Henry David’s House by Steven Schnur and Walking with Henry by Thomas Locker. Other picture book favorites like Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar are also here. What a great use of this space!
Kelly Nicholson, who works in the education office at Tyler Arboretum, showed me around the property. We walked and talked for more than an hour, admiring many of the unique trees here, including the tallest sequoia east of the Mississippi River. She pointed out the garden area near the Thoreau house and explained that this part would soon be reconstructed and reconfigured. A new edible garden will be planted, using an integrated system of both vegetables and perennials. It will serve as a model for what gardeners can do at home. A new classroom and community space will be created here, too. Kelly showed me the beds of the previous garden that will be replaced over the coming months.
“I think that last year, the groundhog benefited the most from our garden,” she said.
Sounds Thoreau-ly familiar. But she warns that if people come to see the Thoreau house before fall, they may find that at least one of the pathways could be blocked by construction. If you’ll be traveling from some distance, you may want to call first to check on the status of the project.
But the Walden house is just one singular feature among the beautiful blossoms, fragrant flowers, and tall, majestic trees that you can walk among at Tyler Arboretum. It’s a restful place that is perfect for walks and thoughtful contemplation. An appropriate setting indeed for one of Henry’s houses.
Visit here for more information about Tyler Arboretum.
By Donna Marie Przybojewski
“Recalled this evening, with the aid of Mother, the various houses (and towns) in which I have lived and some events of my life. Born, July 12, 1817, in the Minott House, on the Virginia Road, where Father occupied Grandmother’s thirds, carrying on the farm. The Catherines the other half of the house. Bob Catherines and John threw up the turkeys. Lived there about eight months.” Journal, December 26, 1855
Whenever I use the Writer’s Retreat located in the birth room at Thoreau Farm, there is a protocol I follow. After organizing my books, journals, and writing utensils, I sit at the replica of Henry’s green desk and turn to face the wall where the bed would have been placed in the room.
I then reflect on what the day of Henry’s birth might have been like. As we prepare to celebrate the bicentennial of his birth, it is good to remember that at one time, Henry was not the naturalist, philosopher, and social activist that the world would come to know. Henry was not a complex dichotomy on the day of his birth, but an infant cradled in the arms of his mother, Cynthia.
As a mother, I am drawn to Cynthia as I imagine that day. When David Henry, as he was known then, was placed in her arms after birth, what joy she must have felt cradling her new son. I surmise that she counted his fingers and toes, not foreseeing that a few years later, he would be missing one toe due to his carelessness with an ax. I am grateful that mothers cannot foresee all the dangers their children will encounter as toddlers and somehow survive.
Cynthia probably kissed his face and saw the beginnings of a prominent nose and clear blue eyes. Did he focus on her and the room as my own children had done? At that time, she could not have imagined what those eyes would see with such vivid detail, not only the beauty of the natural world, of which she was so fond, but that her son would view with such clarity the wrongs that needed to be corrected in the world. Did she try to smooth a wild mess of downy baby hair growing in every direction? She would inhale David Henry’s baby smell that all mothers relish because it was too soon for him to smell like the woods with its mosses and pines. That would come a number of years later.
I feel a kinship with Cynthia. While embracing her tiny son, she probably had great hopes and plans for his future success evident by the fact that she promoted his education as he grew. She, as most mothers, would have desired happiness and a fulfilling life for her infant.
Also, I wonder if four-year-old Helen and two-year-old John ran into the room to see their newborn brother. Were they like my daughter, Ruth Rachel, who always insisted that she wanted a baby brother and examined my son, David, with the intensity of a physician making sure he was her baby brother when he was born? What were Helen’s and John’s thoughts? Was there a bit of jealousy on the part of Helen being old enough to understand the full meaning of having an addition to the family? Was she anxious to hold her new brother and touch his fingers? John, however, was too young to realize the impact he would have on David Henry’s life and the void he would leave in his brother’s heart due to his early death. He had no idea of the memorable camping trip they would share together that would be immortalized in a book.
Henry himself took pride in his stoic quality on the day of his christening. He proudly admitted he did not cry. There are other stories of Henry not expressing emotion, one being when his pet chickens were taken to the butcher or when he was accused of stealing a knife and he uttered not a word in his own defense except stating he did not take it. So, I imagine Henry did not fuss much, but took in his new world with silent contentment.
Being a good mother, Cynthia had a strong relationship with her brood as reflected in the many memories that Henry relates about his childhood. He inherited his love of nature from his mother, who took her family to the woods to imbibe in nature and cook their supper. It was she, in fact, who brought Henry to Walden for the first time. Did she even realize what an impact that made on his life and the importance the Pond would be throughout his life? She would even share stories of her childhood as Henry recalled in his journal when she spoke of sitting on the porch step of the farm where he was born. She related to him that as a little girl on that very farm, she would listen to the sounds of the night. Thus, she perpetuated the love of nature in her son.
Cynthia bought candy and treats to fill her children’s stockings at Christmas, only to have the illusion broken by a little girl who told young John and David Henry that she saw their mother purchasing the items and that there was no Santa Claus. Mothers everywhere can relate to a feeling of sadness when such innocent fantasies disappear.
Then, as all children eventually do, they grow up.
I cannot help but believe that Cynthia treasured all childhood memories in her heart while beaming with pride at the young man Henry was becoming, and when he became that adult, she had to call him by a new name, Henry David.
When he built his tiny home at Walden, it seems that she did worry about him. I can relate to her feelings of fear of how he would manage to take care of himself when my son moved to his own living space. So, when others find fault with Henry when he took her pies and cookies or say he took advantage of his mother’s goodness when he brought home his laundry for her to wash, I just chuckle. As a mother, with one child who has left the nest, it is a privilege to still take care of his simple needs. Just as my mother shared her love for me with her cooking, so, too, do I express my love for David by making sure his refrigerator is stocked. So, I believe that Cynthia shared that common thread as a mother with me.
Then, there is the issue of Henry moving back home and living there for most of his adult life in the yellow house. As a mother with a grown daughter still living at home, not by need, but by reason that she enjoys being with her family, I imagine Cynthia breathing a sigh of relief when Henry returned from an evening saunter especially during inclement weather, and she heard his footsteps going up to the garret as I do when my daughter returns late in the evening. Worry is part of the nature of being a mother no matter the age of the child. Cynthia, most likely, was no different.
I am certain that Cynthia felt the utmost pride in Henry. How could she not relish in her son’s achievements as a writer and a lecturer? She also must have appreciated his support for her concern for social justice. Following her example, Henry supported the abolitionist movement and demonstrated by word and action that injustice was a moral offense of society. Henry had learned well from his mother’s example. What mother could not take pride in that?
What we need to remember, and one of the most painful things that I reflect upon in the birth room is the fact that Cynthia suffered much. No mother should experience the death of a child, but she buried two of her children prior to Henry. How much more she must have been drawn to Sophia and him. As a mother who almost experienced the death of my son prior to birth, I can empathize the ache and unbearable breaking of the heart that she felt. Fortunately, my child lived, but I still share that bond with her. Then, the agony of seeing Henry during his final stages of tuberculosis when he could no longer take his daily walks. Knowing how he needed the outdoors for his own emotional health must have caused her such agony that she probably would have given her own life for his health. Such is the love of a mother. She probably remained strong before her family, especially Henry, as I did when I thought my son would die, but in the quiet of her room, she cried silently because of the final illness her son was facing.
As Henry took his final breath, Cynthia most likely remembered his birth when he took his first breath in her arms. As he lay dying, she was there to cradle him as he took his last. There was nothing that she could do to help him only be there with her loving presence.
At the moment of his death, could Cynthia in her deepest grief have possibly imagined the influence her son would have on the world and how many individuals would be drawn to him and his words in future generations? Could she even imagine that people one hundred fifty-five years in the future would continue to mourn his death just as she was mourning? Did she realize that because she gave birth to him that he would have a positive impact on the lives of thousands and would be influential in preserving the natural world that she so loved? How would she have felt if she knew that his 200th birthday would be celebrated around the world? Would knowing this have brought her some solace?
Therefore, as I look at the space where Henry was born, I feel a kinship with his mother and share her joy as well as sorrow. In this most special of rooms, I believe that one must reflect on Henry David Thoreau’s birth prior to any other activity. It is good to remember that Henry’s life and words are because of Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, a mother who influenced her son well. So, as we prepare to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s birth, let us feel indebted to Cynthia for giving the world this iconic author, philosopher, and naturalist who was at one time her infant son.
Donna Marie Przybojewski is the author of three children’s books,
Henry David Thoreau: A Discussion Starter Coloring Book, Henry David Thoreau, Who Can He Be?and Henry David Thoreau Loved the Seasons. Donna teaches junior high school and is a Thoreau Society Ambassador for the Thoreau Bicentennial.
By Kristi Martin
During the winter thaw, I went for a walk in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Henry David Thoreau’s grave is at the summit of a steep hilltop called “Author’s Ridge,” which is frequented by tourists making pilgrimages to the graves of Concord’s nineteenth-century literary residents. On this particular afternoon, I sought solace and inspiration on Sleepy Hollow’s paths. Various life circumstances and personal stresses had piled up over the winter months and I was feeling doubtful, unsure of how to handle the uncertainties of life.
Balmy temperatures rapidly melted the snow drifts accumulated from two recent storms. Small rivulets cut through the receding banks. The melt-water swirled into murky eddies and turbid, stagnant puddles, which I splashed through. In the warmth of the sun, I removed my jacket and walked in my short sleeves. Closing my eyes, listening to the bird-song from the tree along the cemetery’s glacial ridges, I stood soaking in the warmth on my bare skin. Then the wind blew a distinctly cold breeze off the snow banks, dispelling the pleasant assurance of spring’s return; this was a false spring, a teasing spring; it was winter still. March is typically a changeable month with tumultuous fluctuations in weather. As the old adage assures, a mild beginning will in all probability turn tenaciously to snowy storms again before true spring flourishes.
As I walked, the saturated ground had given way beneath my feet in places, but at Thoreau’s grave it was dry enough for me to sit on the bare earth. It is not unusual for this spot to be littered with mementoes left by visitors. However, at this time of year there were fewer. Among the rocks, pens, pencils, and pine twigs, I noticed a mollusk shell – a strikingly odd object to find in winter on a wooded New England hilltop. At once it mentally transported me to the nearby shores of Walden Pond, now nearly synonymous with Thoreau, and to the farther shores of Cape Cod, where he walked during three separate excursions.
For all the wit and wisdom distilled into his writings, Thoreau experienced misgivings and anxieties, too. In an 1841 poem he spoke of himself as a rootless and “dropping” flower bud seeking his life’s purpose.
He wrote, “I am a parcel of vain strivings tied…”
In his journal the previous summer, he advised himself, “be grateful for every hour, and accept what it brings. …No day will have been wholly misspent, if one sincere, thoughtful page has been written. Let the daily tide leave some deposit on these pages, as it leaves sand and shells on the shore.”
The shell on Thoreau’s grave reminded me that each day’s slow, but persistent accumulation amounts to something real, even if it seems but a grain of sand today.
“How vigilant we are! determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it; all the day long on the alert, at night we unwillingly say our prayers and commit ourselves to uncertainties. So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change. This is the only way, we say; but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one centre. All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant.”
In that moment, as I sat looking at the shell in the cemetery, I heard in my mind: the price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.
For every anxious moment we exchange a moment of peace. We cannot control the swell of life around us – the deadline pressures, the frenzied societal expectations, those claims we put on ourselves to have already achieved something particular, fearful change, or even failures. We can, however, be grateful for the sand and shells, knowing many paths can be taken from here.
Kristi Martin is a doctoral candidate in the American and New England Studies, Boston University and is a historical interpreter at The Old Manse, the Ralph Waldo Emerson House, the Henry David Thoreau’s Birthplace, and Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.
 Chapter One, “Economy.”
 This is a paraphrase; the actual Thoreau quotes is: “…the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run,” Walden, “Economy.”
 “Sic Vita” was first published in the Transcendentalist journal the Dial in July 1841. It was later republished in A Week of the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849).
 Journal, July 6, 1840.
By Ken Lizotte
president, Thoreau Farm Board of Trustees
“One is not born into the world to do everything, but to do something.” Henry David Thoreau
This year represents a significant milestone in the life and legacy of Henry David Thoreau.
That’s because on July 12, 2017, Henry will have been born two full centuries ago. And on that day, Thoreauvians throughout the world, and especially in Concord, will pause for a moment to reflect upon the impact of Henry’s ideas— not only for entire civilizations, but for each of us individually as well.
At Thoreau Farm we will be pausing, too. It is right here, on the second floor of our farmhouse, on a summer day in 1817, where Henry was born. This is where it all started, within the walls of what we refer to as “the birth room” (now redesigned as a writer’s retreat), or, perhaps just as accurately, “the birthplace of ideas.”
What are our actual plans for this year? We will be sponsoring educational programs, guided tours, a book comprised of reflective essays by Henry followers, authors’ talks, historical presentations and much more. Our plans are ambitious and built to coincide with the big day.
And we could use some help! We are a tireless, dedicated merry band of Thoreau Farm trustees who understands we cannot do it alone. Join us! Roll your sleeves up and get directly involved in our Thoreau Farm community and ensure that this momentous occasion receives its due.
We’re looking for Thoreauvians like you to participate in what we’re calling a “Board of Activists” to help us carry out such functions as marketing, publicity, gardening, program planning, office work, events, and tours.
Share your skills and develop new ones!
Your commitment can be as much (or as little) as you wish. You’ll be helping us honor Henry in the most genuine way possible, by helping us spread the word about the precise location where Henry came into this world, where the spirit of Henry David literally began.
Please join us! Email me or our executive director Margaret Carroll-Bergman, firstname.lastname@example.org , for more information. We look forward to working with you on Henry’s behalf.
By Peter Brace
On the morning of the second “big” sno’easter of Winter 2016/2017 to hit Nantucket, with a forecast of 60 mph gusts and five to eight inches of snow, I was sitting at the edge of my bed re-bandaging a wound on my left foot.
A podiatrist prescribed the daily bandaging procedure and forbade me from walking other than for daily needs for two weeks, an eternal Hell for my dog, Kismet, and me.
Normally, I’d be lacing up my hiking boots to go walk two or three miles; a year-round, circadian ritual I live for. And, I love winter! In fact, only spring barely approaches the nirvana of winter in my mind.
On Nantucket during the winter, the island is empty of visitors. With more than 60 percent of our 30,000 acres protected from development, 45 percent of it conserved as open space, and no dog harassing middle mammals, including raccoons, coyotes, skunks and porcupines, Nantucket is an ideal place to explore by shanks mare.
Having missed almost all of January to a debilitating cold and, recently getting back out into my hiking routine, to then be benched again was dispiriting given my new line of work.
In 2015, I’d launched a guided natural history hiking service on the island. After writing about the natural world on Nantucket for most of my career, guiding hikes around the island just sort of felt right.
My parents were my guides to the outdoors, but mostly my father.
I grew up in Concord, MA, where conservation land exists in abundant acreage relatively on par with Nantucket’s. With the parents divorced by the time I was 10, Pop didn’t slacken into the single dad who squandered father-time with his kids at malls, movies, the zoo or museums. Instead, we explored every inch of Concord open to hiking, cross-country skiing, orienteering, skating and swimming.
Our Thoreauvian adventures included but weren’t limited to the Hapgood Woods, the Walden Pond woods, the Estabrook Woods, the woods between there and Middlesex School, the Wright Woods, the Seton Woods, the Great Meadows and the Upper Spencer Brook Valley, 18 acres of which land my grandmother Elise Huggins donated to the Concord Conservation. I know he felt every second of exploring the outdoors with his children were teachable moments and that he reveled in his new role albeit forced as it was.
Now, through my business, Nantucket Walkabout, I think I’ve gotten inside Pop’s Thoreau psyche and learned some of the boundless pleasures of teaching adults and children as I guide them around the island.
A few months before his passing on Aug. 21, 2014, I saw my dad using a brand new purple Swiss Army pocketknife, cursing while explaining that he’d recently lost his original maroon one. A few days after his death, I found that knife under the cushions of his couch by the wood stove where he took his naps. Upon inspection, I realized that this was the knife he’d had most of my life because the main blade’s tip was rounded over and the blade itself well worn from decades of use and sharpening.
He had countless uses for it on our hikes together hut to hut in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, on Mt. Katadin and the mountains in Acadia National Park in Maine. I imagined it’d been a talisman for him, a direct link to his more active days, cherished and yet still handy.
So, here I was using my father’s pocketknife — maybe hoping for a little trail magic — to diligently keep to my bandaging schedule so I could finally get out walking again to get in shape for my season, my winter patience now worn thinner than his old blade.
Editor’s note: Peter Brace is a prize-winning journalist and environmental writer and the author of “Walking Nantucket: A Walker’s Guide to Exploring Nantucket on Foot,” and “Nantucket: A Natural History.”
By Tammy Rose
“I think that it is not too soon for honest men and women to rebel and revolutionize.” – Civil Disobedience
I never know where I’m going to be in my life when Henry’s words speak to me.
I was lucky enough to grow up near Walden Pond, close enough to think of it as a swimming hole primarily. The general aura of Concord as an historic and literary capital was something murmuring in the background. I just wanted to jump into the water on a hot day.
Henry’s words have always existed around me, I keep a beat-up copy of Walden in my beach bag and read a line or two, sitting in the sun in between swims. I’m still convinced it’s the best multimedia book of the 19th century, a meta-commentary of time travel and (at times comic) instruction manual for how to experience a pond. Reading Walden in a library is just not the same experience as having the sand between your toes on a hot day, as you are being careful not to drop the book or iPad into the water.
Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? – Civil Disobedience
His quotes about environmentalism populate the bumpers of SUVs. On Facebook and other social media sites, memes with his picture pop up, sometimes accompanied by a quote which may or may not be his original words. Take note, the comment threads of the incorrect quotes are, ironically, always the most educational and fun to read.
I have always felt that I’m on a first name basis with Henry. Like he’s the crazy uncle I always wanted (and still want) to grow up to be. I write plays about him and the Transcendentalists, which are based on direct quotes from primary sources. Some phrases have such resonance that they demand to be spoken out loud. It starts with one quote, then another joins the conversation, then another. And the voices get stronger, building into a larger narrative, a story from the past that wants to be told.
Civil Disobedience is suddenly relevant and speaking to a lot of us.
Other works are having a new moment of relevance, too. The novel turned non-fiction book 1984 became the #1 best seller on Amazon even though it was published in 1949, (exactly 100 years after Resistance to Civil Government). Or the Broadway show, Cabaret, about Berlin in between the wars. Even the movie Casablanca has a more poignant storyline now because the plot turns on crucial papers of transit, refugees who are caught between countries, trying to stay alive. And I bet you thought it was just a romantic movie.
Let every woman and man make known what kind of government would command her and his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it. – Civil Disobedience
With the internet, catchy phrases are democratized now. Anyone with a Twitter account can come up with a phrase, and anyone with a sign can contribute to the conversation. The goal is to keep it short and strong. Every hashtag is a reference to a larger story. #NoDAPL is about the protest of the Dakota access Pipeline by Native Americans and allies. “Nevertheless, she persisted,” about Elizabeth Warren speaking truth to power on the floor of the Senate and now a reminder of every bad girl who made history. And one of my personal favorites seen at a recent march, attended by a few million people: “So bad, even introverts are here.” Emphasis by understatement.
The new administration is intentionally trying to throw everything into chaos. They are trying to weave a narrative of #AlternateFacts. It is a strategy of disorientation. No matter what an individual’s political leanings might have been, every day seems to bring a new questioning of reality. Fortunately, as students of history, we may be well aware that this kind of upheaval has happened before. This new strategy of disorientation is ironically helping us to see parallels in history in relatable ways. How have the people of other regimes fought back? History doesn’t repeat itself, it just rhymes.
“Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” – Walden
It seems that we have reached a moment in which his words are speaking to us now.
Most of the people reading this post may have spent most of their lives in a time and place where Henry is known primarily for Walden and his writings about nature. Civil Disobedience can seem like an outside echo to those living in peace, we understand that it is relevant in only the most abstract sense. It’s not even enough to be published as a stand alone volume, coming in under 10,000 words. Even a fan of Thoreau, is more likely to own it as part of a package deal with his other writings. But those words crystalized into movements, and spoke to Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and millions more, and touched the evolution of humanity in ways that cannot be quantified. Millions of people in history suddenly finding a voice.
And now, in this political moment, we are speaking out on social media, staging marches, addressing our congresspeople. Making our voices heard.
I’ve always seen his words as powerful ideas waiting for their moment. Sometimes it’s the sense that you are dipping your feet into the same pond that he swam in. Sometimes it’s the sensation that you must make your voice heard, especially against a government that perpetrates evil. That’s what makes this country great, the ability to criticize with your right to free speech (at least for now).
This is Henry’s 200th birthday year. There is no better birthday present (or Valentine) for an author than for his/her words to become relevant. What a gift.
Tammy Rose is an award winning playwright and artist. In 2016, she wrote & presented “Skimming the Surface: Thoreau vs Schultz” at the Thoreau Society Annual Gathering and “Transcendental Ghosts of Fairyland Pond” in the Hapgood Wright Town Forest of Concord as part of the Emerson Umbrella Summer Art Ramble. In 2014, she brought SENSE (another one of her plays) to the Thoreau Annual Gathering.
Note to reader: To remind everyone, in Henry’s day, women did not have the right to vote in America. I’ve decided to “collaborate” with him to help him update his language to the current legal voting status of women. Thus all male pronouns will have female pronouns standing in solidarity next to them. Dear reader, if you feel this offends you, or worse- if you feel this does not matter- take heed, it will matter to your daughters.
- “Resistance to Civil Government” was Henry’s original name for the 1848 lecture. It was published in 1849 by Elizabeth Peabody in the “Aesthetic Papers.” Before Hollywood got a hold of it. Okay, before Ticknor and/or Fields changed it to the catchier “Civil Disobedience” in an 1866 publication. Read the original here: https://archive.org/details/aestheticpapers00peabrich .
“…if not the most beautiful, of all our lakes, the gem of the woods, is White Pond…” Thoreau, Walden
The big news on White Pond is the snow.
It’s falling about three inches an hour, and the folks in our immediate neighborhood, those who live at the end of White Avenue, are out in the street shoveling. The Town’s plow stops just short of our cluster of houses. In the best of weather, a truck with a plow could not make it up the narrow, steep hill and with the blizzard, it’s hard to maneuver a snow blower on the icy road, so we hand shovel.
We live in houses that were originally built as hunting and fishing cabins during 1925 – 1930. Except for being winterized, the cabins remain mostly unchanged. If you did not know better, you might think you had stumbled upon a base camp for an ice fishing expedition.
On our side of the pond, the houses are more like wooden tents with furnaces.
These houses are small, about 600 square feet or less, but don’t have the spit and polish or careful design of a modern Tiny House.
In many respects, we live the way people camped pre-World War II. Our houses were built during Prohibition!
Children share bedrooms; no one has a family room or more than one bathroom, and blessedly, there’s no central air.
It’s not Walden Pond, but it is the next best thing.
“White Pond and Walden are great crystals on the surface of the earth, Lakes of Light. If they were permanently congealed, and small enough to be clutched, they would, perchance, be carried off by slaves, like precious stones, to adorn the heads of emperors …” Thoreau, Walden
While the snow is blowing sideways and sticking to our cheeks, we talk about the pond: the toxic green algae that returned in September; the drop in water level; and the dead fawn that was discovered last week floating near the cove.
Had the fawn been poisoned? Did it get caught on a piece of floating ice? Was it shot? No one knows.
Talk of the pond gets us through the task at hand, making us each feel less like we are shouldering an oar. The snow keeps falling, and we’ll be out on the street again in a couple of hours, making another pass with our shovels.
“Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” Thoreau, Walden
February is a stirring month. Or, more accurately, a month of stirrings. Eyes closed, face to the sun, tucked into a sheltered tree trunk or backed by a building’s corner-nook, I find a blissed-out few minutes, where the blush of warmth spreads over me, along the folds of my scarf, even, finally, to my feet. Heat is the seed of dreams. And mine are of summer and its elastic days.
Yes, I/we bow to the intervals of onslaught, the storm also stirring to our southwest. But already, it’s clear the warm will win, already it’s clear that the future is light. So much to do- for that I am thankful.
Gratitude is much on my mind today, and part of that thankfulness goes to you, a reader, on occasion, or in sequence, of this blog’s skein of posts. Over these 4+ years and 100,000+ words, I have written for you. And in doing so, again and again I’ve encountered the serendipity of learning more as I write – more about what I see and find daily, more about what lies in the folds of the world, more about Henry Thoreau, whose spirit and wide, wild intelligence stays with me like a third parent’s presence.
I send on these thanks now, because my current writing work suggests that I stop writing here on the Roost and focus on the book I’m completing. It’s about search and rescue in NH’s White Mountains (working title – On the Edge Of Elsewhere – Searchers and Rescuers in the White Mountains, University Press of New England, spring ‘18), specifically about the people who do this saving work. And so it’s about mountain altruism, a spirit and practice that runs directly counter to our always-problems of greed and selfishness. It is hopeful work; they are hopeful people. Even in the face of difficulty and tragedy. And yes, Henry Thoreau’s a presence there too: his 1858 wanderings on Mt. Washington appear as a primer on how not to get lost, or stay found.
During my time as a teacher, when my students and I reached the end of reading Walden, with its sunlit image of a morning star, I always asked them what they made of it. By then they were well attuned to the sun’s central presence and morning’s promise, and so, quick to note both. But we often lingered as you do when reaching the door of a life-room, and often I got a version of this: “You know,” said any number of them, “Thoreau’s hope is that this book, our reading, is a beginning, not an end. If the book’s had effect, we’re about to begin.”
Part of the pleasure of writing to and for you has been this feeling of starting afresh, of beginning again and again. Part of the pleasure of saying thank you lies in a sense of its being another beginning.
I hope, if an occasional post here has had effect, it too has offered a start. Thanks for reading toward each beginning; surely, there is “more day to dawn.”
“The history of a woodlot is often, if not commonly, here a history of cross-purposes, of steady and consistent endeavor on the part of Nature, of interference and blundering with a glimmering of intelligence at the eleventh hour on the part of the proprietor.” Thoreau, Faith in a Seed.
While I read a morning poem, the snow wanes. A few tiny flakes slant still in from the north; spaced even father apart, a few fat flakes fall like random punctuation undecided about the day’s line – here and here; that will do. A flurry at the feeder makes me look over, reminds me to fill its sleeve before turning out to work.
Last evening, I went to a meeting of fellow citizens on two of our town’s commissions. Our charge was to look over a 30-year mistake involving two small parcels of a subdivision that had been set aside for conservation or recreation land and somehow never conveyed to the town as was intended. The recreation lot, suitable only for “passive recreation,” which is an oxymoron of sorts and to most of us means watching trees grow, had the added question of a right-of-way. That drive could only pass through in the shape of a question mark. More possible punctuation.
Tucked behind the houses and still-to-be-built lots was the prize. Down its few-acre center runs Great Gully Brook, and given our underlying sand-plain, this deep cut also features fragile banks. Not far to the south of the site, the brook runs into a broad, mud-rich bay, and also nearby are a couple of wildlife corridors. Smelt are rumored to run in the stream, and, reportedly, turkeys have become its bully-birds. So, keeping the brook’s gully intact is important for the bay, which needs no more silt, and for the fish who would swim and spawn there. The birds and quadrupeds who use it as passage also recommend the gully.
All of this was rich fodder for a little dreaming as the meeting-clock ticked forward. Each night the long darkness comes first to this gully, and through it pass any number of night wanderers; through it too pass the always-waters of the brook, on their way to the bay.
The current residents, who like their gully neighbor and want it protected, were at the meeting in numbers. They offered sightings of wildlife and the added life of having such a neighbor. The question-mark right-of-way, they said, was in such a shape because it needed to skirt the gully at enough distance to preserve its banks. They warned of disturbance, of loosing the banks and sending them to choke the bay.
Our commission, which will end up holding title or rights to the gully and so will become its overseer, listened to these stories carefully. We are already maxed out with such seeing over. But the right thing is what must be done – it’s part of being part of a town, of looking out for and after where we live. It is, we hope, the eleventh-hour “glimmering of intelligence” that joins us to our land. It helped to imagine Great Gully’s water running in the night and all who follow it to and from the sea. Even as we talked and listened that life was pulsing along the gully.
The wind has gently murmured through the blinds, or puffed the feathery softness against the windows and occasionally sighed like a summer zephyr lifting the leaves along the livelong night…We sleep and at length awake to the still reality of a winter morning. Henry Thoreau, “A Winter Walk”
I have declared this a day of calm at roiled week’s end. Yes, my current writing project tugs already at resolve – thinking about how we respond to mishaps in the mountains is seeded with its own turbulent drama. But when I work at that writing today, I’ll choose a stoic incident, one full of acceptance, and, perhaps near its close, even light.
The day opens with thin sun through the pines and the coverlet of a dusting of snow. The village of juncos who’ve settled the feeder keep adding to a circling calligraphy in that snow; as ever their subject is the urgency of food. For me, urgency points to the non-Thoreauvian beverage, coffee, and, beans ground, the pot dripped full, I settle in front of the window that makes me this morning’s ship captain. The yard looks navigable…and so the day…but it is the dark jolt of beverage that launches me on it.
Add a little toast and poetry. Dark bread, and a darkish poem as well about a long-ago marriage and its “unsnapped threads.” But the words and images are so apt, so chosen as to celebrate poetry’s answers to the hard questions we bring on through living. The poet’s words and images are so precise that I hear a faint click as each slots in behind the other.
I look up after reading. The gray squirrels sort themselves through a hierarchy of chase; not exactly poetry, but motion leading into the day.
And it is a day! exclamation point courtesy of the enduring cyclamen that looks out over the same scene Perhaps it is the rising light; perhaps it is plant-reminder to me, but this now 1+ year-old little plant (which deserves and so will get a larger pot) has chosen this month to exclaim in red. “Sunsunsun!!! … and don’t forget the water.” For all these weeks, I have not, though once or twice the plant had to lie down as reminder.
The wind arrives, announcing deeper morning, and I’ve begun tumbling through the day’s words, revising some passages and wondering specifically at the way mountain ridges generate turbulence as the wind rises to their crests and then tumbles into the ravine below. I have been pressed nearly flat by such a giddy wind, and I am wondering how to convey such a feeling in words. Strong wind is so-many-handed, in touch with so much of you all at once that it defies the linear, the singular touch of reason. Heavy wind can feel like a form of madness. Perhaps I should toss the words aloft and watch them fly.
But no madness on this day, designated “calm,” even if now a little wind-laved. After work, I’ll read some from Henry Thoreau’s “A Winter Walk.” Then, I’ll take one.
By Corinne H. Smith
“Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? – in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or to the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. … The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.” ~ Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government”
Like fellow blog poster Sandy Stott, I too am an introvert and am not the biggest fan of crowds of any size. Over the years though, I have set my discomfort aside to attend a fair number of Major League Baseball games, NFL football games, and stadium rock concerts. I even went to a Farm Aid gathering in Illinois farm country in the late 1990s. And, as events unfolded, I knew I had to participate in the March on Washington last weekend, even though I figured the crowd here would be sizable. I was prepared to walk among thousands of people. Naturally, I was somewhat shocked but downright heartened to end up sharing a personal space with HUNDREDS of thousands of people.
My two companions and I began the day at the Metro station near their suburban Virginia home. The first two trains that stopped were already packed solid with people, many of whom were wearing pink hats. The doors opened, but there was no room left for more passengers. “I’ve never seen it like this,” said one of my well-traveled friends. “It’s worse than Calcutta!” We decided to take a train going in the opposite direction, to ride through a few stops, and then to get off to board an emptier train heading toward DC. The plan worked. But soon enough, we too found ourselves fully immersed in a mass of humanity, cushioned inside a fully-loaded Silver Line bullet zipping toward the Mall. Every seat was taken, and every other inch of every car was filled with someone standing. We proceeded in fits and starts. The train came to a stop for seemingly no reason, and we groaned. After what seemed like an eternity, it started up again, and we cheered. Even in such close quarters, everyone was merry, kind, patient, tolerant, and respectful. We were going to the same place. We held common beliefs. We could be polite to every stranger and to every fellow traveler who had come from various parts of the country. Why couldn’t our government officials behave as politely?
From the Metro station at L’Enfant Plaza, we walked toward Independence Avenue. We quickly became part of the sea of people, stretching as far as we could see. Some folks had even climbed into the trees to get a better look. We waded through the crowd to find good places to stand. We weren’t anywhere near the stage, but we could hear and see the speakers through several Jumbo-trons and stacks of audio equipment. We got to hear Michael Moore, Ashley Judd, and some of the others before we waded again toward the edges. After what seemed another lifetime, our mass began moving down the street. No one commanded us to start marching, but march we did. With so many people, we could go in only one direction. A woman named Mary Ann from St. Louis chuckled from behind me, “This isn’t as much a march, as it is a mingle.” So it was. We chanted, we laughed, we marveled at the sight and the feeling and the sheer power of being among a large group of fully committed people. When my companions and I decided to cut out and head back to the train, we saw that the parallel streets and the Mall were also filled with people marching, heading toward the Washington Monument. Independence Avenue couldn’t hold us all. What a stunning sight!
“When I was let out the next morning, I proceeded to finish my errand, and, having put on my mended shoe, joined a huckleberry party, who were impatient to put themselves under my conduct; and in half an hour – for the horse was soon tackled – was in the midst of a huckleberry field, on one of our highest hills, two miles off, and then the State was nowhere to be seen.” ~ Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government”
Henry Thoreau’s act of civil disobedience constituted one small experience in his life. It was personally meaningful, but it was just one night in jail. When he was released, he could return to the schedule he had set before his day had been interrupted by the sheriff. He didn’t want or expect the government to take any more time out of his life than it already had.
Our experience today is different in terms of both scale and duration. These Marches were held in hundreds of cities worldwide and involved millions of individuals, not just one. This commitment constituted just one day in our lives, and it was spent in a different kind of environment than we were used to. But unlike Thoreau, we know that our work is far from over.
On Sunday, January 22, the Day After the March, my friends and I went back downtown to do some sightseeing and to see a gallery exhibit. Independence Avenue was empty now, without the hundreds of thousands filling it. I could see the buildings and the streets that I couldn’t see, 24 hours earlier. Birds had returned to the trees. Nearby pussy willows – ironically enough — were fuzzing out in the gallery gardens. Life had returned to normal. But only in a way.
Our March is hardly over. Yes, we have all returned to our homes and to our own schedules and lives. But our One Day Among Others marked just the beginning of our collective involvement in this particular resistance. This new government will continue to demand much more time and energy from us than it already has. Thoreau’s personal brand of civil disobedience was the once-and-done kind. Ours seems as though it will become infinite. Yet, like millions of battery-powered drum-beating bunnies, we and the movement will keep on going, with no clear end in sight. At least we can take comfort in knowing that we’re not going the path alone.
“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.” Henry Thoreau, Resistance to Civil Government
On this trip to Boston, I have, among others, Henry Thoreau in mind. We are going in protest, in to protest the needy turning of a new machine, and we are not alone. Each single I is intent on being we.
Henry Thoreau’s love of paradox rises before me. A route to truth is sometimes elusive. He had to leave town to see it for what is was; I must go to the city, to join what will turn out to be 175,000 new friends to become my singular self.
The day, curiously warm for January, deepens; the slate of cloud rolls back to blue sky. We gather on Common ground.
A good while later. My focus is immediate. Yes, there are helicopters a thousand feet overhead, and I’ve seen a large drone, and they have been incessant – round and round this Common they fly – but my concerns are more pressing. It has been 30 minutes since we moved, and unused to so much unknown, close company, I have been talking myself toward calm for past few minutes. “No need to worry, you’re in no hurry,” I’ve said at the same time noting body pressure from the back and both sides. I have nearly a foot free in front; it is my breathing space. The granite gate that anchors the black, wrought iron fence and issues on to Beacon St., with Charles visible beyond, is about 50 feet away. Still 50 feet.
A young woman arrives at my left ear. “I’m sorry,” she says, anxiety pitched in her voice, “I’m trying to get out. “We all are,” three of us who inhabit a single space say. “O,” she says, and takes up position leaning on my left shoulder. “O.”
To our back right, a vibrato voice still sounds from the ginormous speakers facing the Common. Nearly an hour ago, Elizabeth Warren ended her brief speech, which featured, “Me, I choose to fight,” with a resounding, “Let’s march!” “YEA,” we roared in thousands, “YEA!” Still the speakers arrive; still we go nowhere.
And yet…and yet…it works – I feel my shoulders drop, I lean a little on my new left-shoulder companion; the tall man who has been serving as our scout – “No motion, nope, no one’s being allowed out on to Beacon” – smiles; the nearby 7-year-old who must feel he’s lost in a human forest looks stoically at the small of a back before him; to my right someone tells a bad Boston joke: “What happens if you take Trump off the T,” he asks. You get what’s left, a rump. We all groan tolerantly. We go nowhere. My wife and I look at each other from time to time, but each of us is clearly trying not to alarm the other; mostly we talk with others. Or scan for motion.
A sudden call goes up, “Medic, medic,” and hands point over to our right. “Medic, medic!” And then, “give her some room,” and the whole crowd sways like underwater kelp with the ripple of nearby emergency, and some unseen rescuer presses in from the gate, parting our human sea. Is he a Medic? No one knows. We settle again; the swaying stops.
Crowd literature, or disaster literature, is full of stories of panic let loose in such tight-packed spaces, where fences contain any possible spillage. But this crowd is different. It’s as if, after two months of individual despair and angst at the election (sort of) of a repulsive man, who is so needy that he can’t even let us despair quietly, we have suddenly been given knowledge of citizenship and family we didn’t know we had. Close family, very.
I am crowd-averse, with an American’s need for wide personal space – Don’t fence me in – and yet, even as I work to contain anxiety at being immobile, I keep smiling. To myself, I whisper, “I love these people. I love what they mean, what they hope for; I am not alone.”
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