Category Archives: General

Henry and the Mouse

By Corinne H. Smith

“The mice which haunted my house were not the common ones, which are said to have been introduced into the country, but a wild native kind not found in the village. I sent one to a distinguished naturalist, and it interested him much. When I was building, one of these had its nest underneath the house, and before I had laid the second floor, and swept out the shavings, would come out regularly at lunch time and pick up the crumbs at my feet. It probably had never seen a man before; and it soon became quite familiar, and would run over my shoes and up my clothes. It could readily ascend the sides of the room by short impulses, like a squirrel, which it resembled in its motions. At length, as I leaned with my elbow on the bench one day, it ran up my clothes, and along my sleeve, and round and round the paper which held my dinner, while I kept the latter close, and dodged and played at bo-peep with it; and when at least I held still a piece of cheese between my thumb and finger, it came and nibbled it, sitting in my hand, and afterward cleaned its face and paws, like a fly, and walked away.” ~ “Brute Neighbors,” WALDEN

This week I partnered on a Thoreau-related project with a young fifth-grader named Henry. We met at Thoreau Farm and set up our stuff in the first floor parlor. For one part of our project, I needed some water. So I walked into the tiny kitchenette, found a glass in a cabinet, filled it with water, and took it into the parlor.

After we finished our project, I took the glass back to the kitchen. I dumped the water down the drain, rinsed the glass a bit, and left it in the sink. I hadn’t noticed anything else in the sink when I had first filled the glass. But now I thought I saw something small and dark in there. Perhaps, with a tail. I turned on the overhead light to look again. Sure enough, it was a tiny mouse. It was cowering against the stainless steel side. Had I accidentally dumped water on it? I hoped not. I spoke quietly to it and apologized. Then I went back to find Henry.


“I found something in the kitchen sink, Henry,” I said. “A live mouse.” His eyes got big. “Want to see it?” I asked. He nodded.

We walked into the kitchenette, and he peeked over the edge. “Oh, wow!” He hurried back to the parlor to tell his mother what he had seen. She was not a fan of mice. She shivered and stayed right where she was standing.

“I want to rescue and relocate it,” I said. “Will you help me, Henry?” He agreed. We walked back. I noticed that Henry kept his distance, though. He stayed away from the counter and let me, the grown-up, manage the task at hand. I had decided that putting the mouse outside was an unacceptable solution. Where else could I move it, away from the kitchen? The basement.

I grabbed a paper towel. “Okay, I’m going to grab it somehow, and we’re going to take it down to the basement,” I said. I looked at the mouse, who was still cowering. I didn’t know where it had come from or where its nest was. Naturally, there were spots along the edgework that didn’t quite meet the walls. Maybe the mouse lived under the cabinets. Maybe it had run across the counter in search of crumbs, slipped into the sink, and couldn’t find a toehold on the silvery walls. It had been temporarily trapped. Well, the basement should make a fine home for it, too. “I’m going to pick it up somehow,” I said again.

“Maybe you can put it in the glass to move it,” Henry suggested.

“Good idea. Except that I don’t really want to use that drinking glass. I wonder if we have any paper cups.” I opened a lower door and spied a few. I loosened one from the others. I put it into the sink and pushed the mouse into it with the paper towel. I covered the opening so it couldn’t get out.

“Its tail is sticking out of the cup.”

“That’s okay. Let’s go.” Henry fairly ran to the basement door, turned on the lights, and led the way down the steps. I followed, carrying the covered cup.

“Now. Where should I put it?” The basement is semi-finished. The limestone rocks of the foundation jut out from every side. I guessed it didn’t matter where I put the mouse. It would figure out the best place to go, on its own. So I laid the cup on its side near a central wall. I took the paper towel away and peeked inside. Now it was the mouse who had the big eyes, looking right at me. I wished it well. Henry and I backed up. We watched the cup rock back and forth slightly, as the mouse moved around inside. It would be okay. We didn’t wait for its re-appearance. We trudged back up the steps. Our work for the day was finished, all around.

Well, Mr. Thoreau, we didn’t go the extra mile that you did. We didn’t deliberately feed this mouse and let it run all over our clothes. I guess I did kind of play peek-a-boo with it, though. And we saved it for you and put it in the basement. Now we can confirm that one of your houses is once again enlivened by mice.


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

Life Book

“Every man, I think, reads one book in his life, and this one is mine,” E.B. White wrote of “Walden” in a 1953 New Yorker piece. “It is not the best book I ever encountered, perhaps, but it is for me the handiest.”

The other day a Google alert that feeds me regular notice of Thoreau’s appearance in media across the web, offered me a link to a reflective piece that had just appeared on Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey’s pleasureable essay opened at the end of E.B. White’s life and then rolled back through his long attachment to Walden and the many copies White owned, read and gave away, including a 1964 edition (complete with a rain-shedding duraflex cover) to which he wrote the introduction.

Thoreau and White Credit: Wikimedia

Thoreau and White
Credit: Wikimedia

The traced arc of White’s connection to Walden made me look back over my own, a mostly pleasant stroll through seasons of learning and teaching, and that, in turn, brought on reflections from over three years of writing for The Roost. How many books and writers could both sustain my interest and provide so many points of thinking and writing departure? Answer: one.

If one accepts White’s proposal, the question follows: how do you know when you’ve picked up and read your life-book? For me the answer arrived slowly. My first reading of Walden was hardly a reading at all. Assigned the book in a high school English class, I turned dutifully to it on evening one and fell promptly asleep. The pattern continued through the three weeks we considered sections of the book, and there was also an alarming transference to class time, where my chronic head-bobbing intensified, lowering my teacher’s already low estimation of me. I missed entirely Thoreau’s discontent with the sort of schooling I was sleeping through, and I missed his affection for the outdoor world where I felt truly animated. I did benefit from the cautionary message of this sleepy passage years later when I began to teach Walden, but my first meeting with Henry Thoreau was akin to passing someone of the street.

Jump to college and a reading with a touch more adhesive. I got – mostly by listening to lectures – some of Thoreau’s central critique of his (and, by extension, my) world, and I noted that the place he went for insight and wisdom was like mine, wooded and hilly. All good, but not exactly a scrivmance.

Then there was the long, oblique approach to my life’s work, teaching. By the time I landed in an English Department some 20 years along, I knew quite a bit about teaching and writing and a lot about being outside, but I’d not returned to Walden, though as a journal editor, I’d received any number of pieces to which it was important. Then, a year or two into my English career, my department chair said, “So here we are in Concord, and, since Phil retired, no one’s been teaching Walden. You spend too much time in the woods. How about you?”

Of such questions long affection is born. I arrived at my life-book late, much later, for instance than White did, but, after 25 years of readings, teachings, and any number of epiphanies, major and minor, I’m still turning its pages, still awake to its possibilities. I keep Walden handy.

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Filed under Arts, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Living Deliberately, News and Events, The Roost, Walden

In Philadelphia

Henry Thoreau and Pope Francis

By Corinne H. Smith

“To Philadelphia. 7 A. M., to Boston, 9 A. M. to New York, by express train, land route. … Arrive at 10 P. M.; time, four hours from New York, thirteen from Boston, fifteen from Concord. … [The next day I] Looked from the cupola of the State-House, where the Declaration of Independence was declared. The best view of the city I got.”

No, these words weren’t written by Pope Francis during his visit to Philadelphia. They’re from Henry David Thoreau’s journal from November 1854. Our favorite transcendentalist had made the journey south by train to the City of Brotherly Love in order to deliver a lecture at the Spring Garden Institute. It was the only time he visited the place, and it was the farthest south he would ever travel.

Most likely, you have seen some of the footage from Pope Francis’s time in Philadelphia. He was a busy man. Among other activities, the Pope gave a speech in front of Independence Hall. He attended the World Family conference. He rode along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway several times. He attended an evening concert and conducted a mass on a special stage set up in front of the Museum of Art. Thousands upon thousands of people came from around the world to catch a glimpse of him, to be blessed by him, and to eagerly listen to his messages. Many more watched him on live broadcasts from home.

By comparison: Henry Thoreau was hardly famous when he was here. He had just published his second book, “Walden; or, Life in Woods.” But instead of talking up his time at the pond to his Tuesday-night audience, Henry had decided to give the lecture he called “The Wild.” Eventually it would become the second half of his essay, “Walking.” It now includes two of the most quoted Thoreau sentences we know today: “In Wildness is the preservation of the World;” and “In short, all good things are wild and free.”

Thoreau reached Philadelphia on Monday night. He had all of Tuesday to tour the city. Thanks to his escort — Emerson friend and local Unitarian minister William Furness — he hit some high spots. Literally. Mountain-lover Thoreau climbed eight stories to reach the top of the cupola of Independence Hall and to get a higher view of downtown. He also climbed the hill behind the Fairmount Waterworks along the Schuylkill River, in order to see the city from its western edge. Then he and Furness spent time examining the exhibits at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Thoreau was amused to see that the moose on display in Philadelphia was not as large as the one he had seen in Maine the year before.

Independence Hall in 1852

Independence Hall as depicted in 1852

By comparison: Pope Francis spoke to thousands of people – not only in front of Independence Hall; but also in front of the Museum of Art, which now stands upon that hill next to the Fairmount waterworks. When he rode along the parkway in the Pope-mobile, he passed right by the Academy of Natural Sciences. The museum is in a different building and in a different part of the city than it was in 1854. But it still has a moose on display. It turns out that Pope Francis and Henry Thoreau stopped in some of the same places and followed some of the same routes across the city, 161 years apart.

Independence Hall

Independence Hall in 2015, 12 days before Pope Francis’ arrival

Alas! According to our best information, Henry Thoreau’s lecture was barely noticed by Philadelphians. No review of it appeared in the newspapers. Even Reverend Furness hadn’t been able to attend it. Furness wrote to Emerson that from what one of his parishioners had said, it sounded as if “the audience was stupid & did not appreciate him.” A scholar in the 1960s was only slightly more polite when he summed up his research on Thoreau’s trip this way: “It is hard to escape the conclusion that his impact on Philadelphia was even less than a soft thud.” (Charles Boewe, “Thoreau’s 1854 Lecture in Philadelphia,” English Language Notes, December 1964.) Henry Thoreau’s message of the importance of having wild areas to explore must have fallen on few and deaf ears.

By comparison: In 2015, it’s good to see that SOMEONE has delivered a series of successful speeches in Philadelphia, and to a massive and receptive audience, at that. And on this American trip, Pope Francis continued to repeat his concerns about saving the environment. What do you know? Perhaps “The Wild” is finally Landing with a loud thud here.

Corinne H. Smith will be speaking on “Henry David Thoreau: From Concord to Philadelphia … and to Us Today,” at the Philips Autograph Library, West Chester University, West Chester, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, October 17, 2015, from 10 a.m. to noon. For more information, see



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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Historic Preservation, Literature, Living Deliberately, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote, Walden