Category Archives: Historic Preservation

Looking Up

Each day, it seems, brings the dissonant grinding of large gears – much of what rolls usually forward, socially, environmentally, personally seems instead stuck or damaging. And the noise can be deafening, disheartening. I’ve said often that, at such times, I turn to Henry Thoreau’s emphasis on the local and the little for the sometimes-thin music of necessary hope. Today and its troubles ask for this music.

And that has me paging back a few days to a conference I attended in early November. Perhaps it was the narrowed focus of The Alpine Stewardship Conference, sponsored by The Waterman Fund and hosted by Maine’s Baxter State Park, but there, in the company of 100 alpine-enthused others, I heard and felt hope, even as I also learned more about the fraught future of the northeast’s rare alpine zones. I’ve spent a lifetime in the northeast’s mountains, and so neither the zones nor their stresses were new to me. What was new were some of the visions and stories I heard. That the conference and its stories took place within easy eyeshot of Katahdin, or, to reverse the image, under Katahdin’s gaze, gave them added resonance for someone whose idea of a travelogue is Thoreau’s The Maine Woods.

Katahdin, or, as Thoreau had it, Ktaadn

Katahdin, or, as Thoreau had it, Ktaadn

That those woods and their preeminent peak are recognizable to Thoreau’s readers these 170 or so years after his first foray to Maine is my first good story. Yes, the woods have been cut more than once, and land ownership and corporate wobbles (leave aside, for now, climate change) threaten this huge area, but it retains a core that keeps it stable and offers hope. That core is Baxter State Park, a 200,000+ acre gift from former Maine governor Percival Baxter, offered over more than 30, mid-20th-century years and guided by a trust’s charter that, to me, is enlightened and inspired: “The park is to be preserved in its wild state as unspoiled wilderness…” That Park management is carried out by leadership that seems equally inspired is simply good news for anyone who likes a foot-won wild.

Baxter’s long story requires (and has gotten) more than one book’s length. Here’s a facet that lifts me: the huge, mountainous park is there for public recreation – Baxter wanted the people of Maine (and elsewhere) to be able to enjoy these lands. But another value informs our use (and our access), and that is the value of wilderness. The public is invited, but our use must not compromise the wildness of the park. It is “to be preserved in its wild state.” And so, we are limited – in our numbers, in our uses, in short, in our tendencies to overdo. Sure that creates a need for reservations and some gnashing of tourist teeth, (not to mention a thorough gumming by some libertarians), but it also creates a wilderness experience unmatched in our region.

Two word-ways there

Two word-ways there

Already, I stray to the limits of posting, and so I’ll close here, with a promise to return to some of these alpine uplands – the northeast holds a counted eleven – and some of their little stories – animals, plants…ants! – in later posts. Meanwhile here’s to the trust of Percival Baxter, to his current trustees and their staff and friends. And to looking up…and little hopes.

Here are three links for a deeper (or loftier) look:

Baxter State Park:

Friends of Baxter State Park:

The Waterman Fund:

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What Edward Emerson Knew

The following is Lucille Stott’s original letter to the editor, an edited version of which was published in this week’s New Yorker, the 11/9/15 issue. Lucille is a charter board member emerita and former president of The Thoreau Farm Trust.

Henry Thoreau as Remembered by a Young Friend


“In attempting to offer a provocative rereading of Henry David Thoreau’s life and work, Kathryn Schulz has instead succumbed to hackneyed stereotypes and common wisdom. A closer, more sensitive reading reveals a complex man deeply connected to family and community; an eccentric, to be sure, but a passionate man of genius, without doubt.

One of the lesser-known realities of Thoreau’s life was his warm relationship with the children of Concord, who gathered around him in his prime and brought him gifts on his deathbed. Edward Emerson, the son of Ralph Waldo, became concerned by the misconceptions that surrounded his friend, the kind that Schulz perpetuates in her unfortunately titled essay. He might have been writing directly to her when, in his 1917 book, Henry Thoreau: As Remembered by a Young Friend, he calls Henry “the best kind of an older brother.”

Emerson says he felt compelled to write about Thoreau “because I was troubled at the want of knowledge and understanding, both in Concord and among his readers at large, not only of his character, but of the events of his life—which he did not tell to everybody–and by the false impressions given by accredited writers who really knew him hardly at all. When I undertook to defend my friend, I saw that I must at once improve my advantage of being acquainted, as a country doctor, with many persons who would never put pen to a line, but knew much about him — humble persons whom the literary men would never find out, like those who helped in the pencil mill, or in a survey, or families whom he came to know well and value in his walking over every square rod of Concord, or one of the brave and humane managers of the Underground Railroad, of which Thoreau was an operative. Also I had the good fortune to meet or correspond with six of the pupils of Thoreau and his brother John, all of whom bore witness to the very remarkable and interesting character of the teachers and their school…. I wish to show that Thoreau, though brusque on occasions, was refined, courteous, kind and humane; that he had a religion and lived up to it.”

Schulz has done us something of a service, I suppose, in demonstrating that the transitory buzz of “gotcha” criticism can never erode the lasting pleasure and value of deep, contextual reading.”

Here’s the link to all 5 of the letters to the editor; Lucille’s letter is the 5th:

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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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