Category Archives: Arts

A Good Walden Is Hard To Find

By Corinne H. Smith

On a Friday, my day-job boss told us that our workplace wouldn’t have electrical power on the following Monday until 2 p.m. Our computer-based jobs would be suspended until the electricity came back on. If we wanted to, we could still come in and do other manual tasks instead. Suddenly I saw terrific potential for an extra four or five hours to work on my manuscript at home. So I told the boss that I would see him at 2 p.m. on Monday. And I left to create the perfect, home-based writer’s retreat.

When we rented this ranch house eighteen months ago, I set up my office in a room in the basement. It’s big enough for my desk and printing station, most of my personal library, and most of my research files. The space is quiet and is fairly nice to sit in throughout the year, and it is super cool during these hot and humid days of summer, without having to turn on any air conditioning. It’s got only one window, though. It doesn’t open, and it looks out onto the carport. All I can see from my desk is the left-rear tire of my Dodge Avenger. It’s A Room without a View.

I’m in the midst of writing a book about Henry David Thoreau that’s aimed at a middle-school age audience, and I want to be inspired by nature as I write this manuscript. I want to be able to see leaves and trees and greenery growing around me, as I gleefully tap the keys on my laptop. I want an outside office.

Happily, this house also has an enclosed porch around back. You can reach it only by walking through the carport and using the door that leads to the yard. So far I’ve used it for storing stuff that hasn’t made it into the basement. But past the 10-speed Schwinn and underneath the many boxes and my thick rolled-up sleeping bag is a table and four cushioned chairs. All along I had intended to sit out here and write. I just hadn’t done it yet. So over the weekend, I dragged some of the boxes down the stairs, and I piled others into corners. I cleared off the table and prepared my space. I got it ready for my Monday morning writing marathon. Here I could sit and type and look out at the trees and the shaggy grass that I haven’t mowed for a while. This would be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Local Walden

Local Walden

Henry Thoreau went to the shoreline of Walden Pond to write. Oh, sure, you can say that he wished to live deliberately and wanted suck out all of the marrow of life. But really, he wanted a nice space to figure himself out as the writer he intended to be. His first self-imposed assignment was to write a book about his Concord and Merrimack boat trip with his brother John. So he left the Thoreau home – which could be a busy and noisy one, what with all the visiting aunts and boarders and such – and moved a mile away to a small house he built on Emerson’s lot along the pond. The view from his doorway was a dirt path that led to a lazy tree-lined cove. The only disturbances to this bucolic setting were the occasional trains running along the nearby Fitchburg Railroad line, heading either to Boston or to Fitchburg. Lucky Henry.

I got up on Monday morning in a great mood. This would be the day I would go out and write in the porch! I would adopt a more productive writing routine, and I would finish a nice chunk of Chapter Four. Hooray! But as I ate my breakfast, I heard disturbing sounds coming from outside. Dump trucks, heavy equipment, scraping noises, early morning man chat. Then the beep-beep-beep of a Caterpillar backing up. I looked out of the window to see what was up. That’s when I saw the township trucks and the men in fluorescent green shirts walking around with measuring wheels. Surprise! They were ripping up our road, for who-knows-what reason. They were putting out the red cones to close off the intersection. And there was no telling how long this project would last, or how much noise it would make.

Now, I don’t need complete silence to concentrate and to write. I can sit in a corner of a busy fast-food restaurant and type away for as long as my laptop battery lasts. But today was supposed to be my perfect day for porch writing. I was supposed to hear bird song and the natural nuances of the neighborhood. My suburban sanctuary was suddenly the site of road work. I wasn’t sure what to do.

I trotted downstairs to check on my basement office. I could barely hear the trucks here. It would be a quieter place, and one that would surely stimulate creativity. Plus, all of my reference and Thoreau books were here. No, I told myself. You need to go to the porch, in spite of the noise. You need be outside. You need to make this situation work.

So I came back upstairs and made several trips out to the porch: carrying my laptop, a selection of reference books, a notebook, a pen, and my mug of hot tea. I sat myself down and turned on the computer. The angle of the morning sun made it difficult to see the screen. And if I moved it and myself to another side, the shade made it too dark, and I couldn’t look out to the yard. Well, I’d just have to compensate until the sun rose over the roofline. I squinted out a window. It shouldn’t take too long.

Off and on, I worked on several paragraphs for Chapter Four. But new distraction appeared: of course our wifi connection was still accessible out here. Checking e-mail and Facebook were too-easy diversions, even if I warned myself not to click on them. And then there was the issue of the tea. I had to keep going back inside to the kitchen for more. Granted, when I worked in my basement office, I also had to keep climbing the stairs for more tea. This was a challenge I had to surmount in both places. I needed to find a bottomless source of hot tea to keep me going.

Two feline muses watched me with interest. Maizie, our indoor cat, looked over my shoulder from the kitchen window. Jackie Blue, the little stray kitten I’ve been feeding outside, came into the porch every once in a while to check on me. She swirled around my feet, jumped onto a chair and then on the table, and rubbed against the edge of the open laptop. I stopped her from walking over the keys. I like her well enough, but I was not about to give her editorial control.

I heard the road workers talking and scraping and digging in the distance, with lots of intermittent back-up beeps. But I resisted the temptation to see what they were doing. Gradually I realized that they had given me a gift. Closing the road meant that the regular bus line was temporarily diverted to another street. I wouldn’t hear buses or any of the other traffic that we normally had. And when the men broke for a lengthy lunch, the world got a lot quieter. My creative juices began to flow.

Then I wondered how my writing retreat compared to Henry’s Walden house. He told us that his was “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.” How big was my room? I went back to the kitchen, got the contractor-grade measuring tape out of the toolbox from underneath the sink, came outside and unrolled it across the porch floor. The measurement was about eleven feet by nine and a half feet. In square footage, my space was smaller than Henry’s was. Also, I didn’t have a fireplace, a root cellar, a garret, or a closet as he did. But I was surrounded on three sides by windows and I had four chairs, not just three. (“One for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”) I guess my fourth one was for the kitten.

Somehow, over the course of those four and a half hours, in spite of responding to many distractions and in spite of running back for more hot tea, I was able to get 700 good words added to Chapter Four. Then it was time to close the laptop and the books, and to head off to the day job. I was pleased with my progress. I was pleased with the layout of my suburban writer’s retreat, my Walden away from Walden. I hoped to return to it very soon. But I also hoped that the township guys would be finished with the roadwork by
then. That beep-beep-beeping can back up right over your brain.

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In Touch with the Past

Many of us read Henry Thoreau for the way he reaches forward from his world and touches our lives. In his journals, he often seems a conversant, albeit deeply learned, neighbor who has come over to tell us of his newest sighting or thought. But in his particularity, in the fine grains of his writing, Thoreau also enables his readers to touch the past, and thereby span more than just a lifetime.

A number of years back, we received a gift from an acquaintance who had reviewed books for the local paper my wife, Lucille, edited: the book-heavy box contained culls from an octogenarian’s library, but it was also clear that Eleanor Parkhurst was looking for a home for these particular books. I unpacked and found the central tenant of the box was a set of blue, hardcovers with lettering only on their spines. Thoreau’s Writings, it read, and my heart fluttered; they were twenty in total, and the title page gave me their provenance: this was Houghton Mifflin’s set of Thoreau’s writings, edited by Bradford Torrey, published in 1906.

I was put in mind of all of this the other day while reading my copy of Thoreau’s Journal from 1855, and it was the volume itself that did the prompting. Part way through the June 2nd entry, I turned the page…and lost my way; I’d turned two pages, and the rest of that day was hidden between two joined sheets. I reached for the sharp buck-knife I now keep beside me when reading these volumes, slipped it between the pages and drew it carefully outward and down, releasing these two pages 108 years after their printing for the first time. I was their first reader. And that seemed to clear my sightline to that day.

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On the newly-free page, “About the middle of the forenoon Sophia came in and exclaimed that there was a moth on my window. At first, I supposed that she meant a cloth-eating moth, but it turned out that my A. cecropia had come out and dropped down to the window-sill, where it hung on the side of a slipper (which was inserted into another) to let its wings hang down and develop themselves.”

Thoreau goes on, predictably, to precise description of “how it waxed and grew, revealing some new beauty every fifteen minutes, which I called Sophia to see…”

In the wonder of the moment, in the brother calling his sister to come see, I had slipped into the room, and they had materialized in mine; there is something about cutting your own pages that brings this migration about.

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Filed under Arts, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Nature, The Roost, Thoreau Quote

Narcissus and Henry

Reflective Writing Near the Water’s Edge

Walden Pond is alive again with wind and light. I’ve been there often during the past month, admiring its blues and greens (depending upon where I am in elevation and the day’s light) and wondering at its still-clear waters. One day soon I’ll wade in. But for now, as the water warms a bit each day, I’ve only been looking, and, as looking often does, this pond-gazing has triggered memory.

Walden's Reflective Waters,  (albeit in a different season)

Walden’s Reflective Waters, (albeit in a different season)

Last spring, a student sat down to describe a dilemma she’d encountered while writing about her reading of Walden. “As I write, in part about myself, I don’t want it to seem narcissistic,” she said. This worry followed a description of the expansive pleasures of meeting with friends to talk about whatever ideas were current in the air of school, to talk about something other than the self.

As we talked over her concern, a thought grew. First we looked up the legend of Narcissus and reread the story of his falling in love with his reflection, which he took to be real. Before he saw himself, Narcissus was puzzled and harried because the local nymphs simply wouldn’t leave him alone. “I’m just me, just a man,” he seemed to be thinking as he wandered and pondered this unwanted attention. Then, he came to a pool of water and looked down. All that attention seemed merited now; Narcissus couldn’t bear to leave the pool in which his beautiful image floated, and so he wasted away there.

Then we began to talk about Henry Thoreau and water.

Henry too looked into the waters of Walden often, she noted, but, when he did so, he saw something other than himself; he saw, in fact, another being, perhaps a companion-self – the pond.

All of this got me to thinking that what we were really talking about was the difference between Thoreau’s faith in “I” and our society’s fascination with “I.” At the beginning of Walden, Thoreau points out that he will write about himself, about “I,” in no small measure because he knows no one else so well. But this writing will not celebrate the trivial “I,” the “I” of gossip and small affairs. It will, instead, follow the questing “I,” the one who would learn of the world and send that learning on to others…with the admonition, finally, that they learn for themselves, that they learn the “I’s” they are.

So, to see yourself in a pond, not because it looks like you, but because it lives like you seems the right distinction. As we emerged from our conversation, my student went off to write, and I thought about my faith in the “I” she is and will be.

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Filed under Arts, Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Nature, The Roost, Walden