Category Archives: General

Grab Those Number Twos!

By Corinne H. Smith

Last month I gave a talk about Henry Thoreau at a public library. More than a dozen people were in the room. I opened the gathering as I always do: by asking the audience members what they remember about the man. Whatever they come up with helps to drive the rest of the presentation. Typical responses are these:

“Didn’t he live at Walden Pond?” (Yes.)

“He followed The Road Less Traveled.” (Well, no, that was Robert Frost. But Henry probably would have liked that poem.)

“Civil Disobedience!” (Yes! What is it? “Uh …”)

“He was friends with Emerson.” (Yes.)

“Didn’t he spend a night in jail for not paying his taxes?” (Yes. That’s where Civil Disobedience comes in.)

“He went home for dinner every night and took his laundry home to his mother.” (What 19th-century man would have done differently?)

Actually, most people know at least something true and authentic about Thoreau. And I can tell when I meet someone who knows more details than the others do. This was the case at this particular talk. The first person who raised her hand asked, “Didn’t he make pencils?”

Yes!

I try to remember to bring up the Thoreau pencils later, if no one mentions it earlier. Sometimes I forget and am distracted by other Thoreau stories. I’m always grateful when someone prompts me for it. Perhaps the topic of pencils came up this time because we all had back-to-school days on our minds.

The Thoreau family came into the pencil-making business through Charles Dunbar, Henry’s uncle on his mother’s side. Eventually Henry’s father took over the firm, and it became John Thoreau & Co. Henry himself figured out a way to get the right clay that would bind well with graphite and produce a better pencil. He then labeled them with numbers 1-4, according to their hardness. The number 2 pencil was about average when it came to hardness and darkness. It didn’t smear as much as heavier pencils did.

pencils

The connection between Henry Thoreau and the pencil-making business is a fun one to think about and to talk about. Maybe this is because it’s something that’s slightly unexpected. We connect Henry Thoreau so closely with nature, philosophy, and social justice that such a small and practical matter like the act of making or using a pencil gets overlooked.

The next time you’re holding a number 2 pencil in your hand – even if it’s just to shade in a few tiny circles on a standardized form — you can thank Henry David Thoreau for the opportunity to do so.

Class dismissed!

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

September Days

I know the feeling.

The days of this September week have acted on me as they may have acted on Henry in 1855. His journal covers the month’s first 12 days in under a page, ending with two haiku-like entries (I have reshaped them to suggest the form, and yes, the syllable-count stricture is relaxed):

Sept. 11 loudly the
cricket mole creaks by mid-afternoon
muskrat houses begun

Sept. 12 a few
clams freshly eaten some
grapes ripe.

Perhaps the slanting light and the etched clarity of each branch and leaf kept Henry from more usual, detailed writing; perhaps he felt summoned outside, even as the year began to contract. Surely, it’s felt that way for me. Summer’s expansive and eternal mornings have been replaced by sharp, cool air and the sense that something stirs to my north. Every minute outside seems precious and won; the clear air has said, Look and see.

And I have been rewarded:

Bluest sky tall spruce
a single perch for survey
two bald eagles vie

Pebbles crunch underfoot
laughter peals from the white birch
pileated woodpecker

Sea to horizon
ripples shot with sun flight
all day to paddle

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

Living Space – Henry Thoreau

What square-footing did he have
in the world, living little
indoors, large
outside – anachronism
another way of saying
timeless which some
see as eternal – lair
fitting nicely the proportions
of his human animal
five foot seven and
let’s say 140 pounds
there he is “rapt”
in his doorway on
his limen “in revery.”

It’s deep summer nothing
lasts; he knows autumn
tints are on the way
the tubercular seed will
flare and droop the
scarlet oak will hold its
red a long time,
but today he is exactly
between worlds so
at home that even the birds
flit “noiselessly through
the house” suspended
above its 150
footprint.

“I grew in these seasons
like corn in the night,”
he will write
effectively closing
the loop of a day
encircling a lifetime
squaring its effect
again and again -
it ripples out still
reaching me in my slat
of sun by an open window
far from the pond
these 160 summers later.

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