Category Archives: Historic Preservation

Meeting Thoreau at the Bookstore

By Corinne H. Smith

“The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked what I thought, and attended to my answer. I am surprised, as well as delighted, when this happens, it is such a rare use he would make of me.” ~ Thoreau, “Life Without Principle.”

In my work at a used bookstore, I happen upon references to Henry Thoreau on a semi-regular basis, often without warning. Last week he showed up three times. And in each instance, someone offered a unique interpretation of his words.

Thoreau emerges 3 times

Thoreau emerges 3 times

The first came in a 1927 book called “Handmade Rugs” by Ella Shannon Bowles (1886-1975). Bowles was the author of a number of craft-related books in the early 20th century, including “Practical Parties,” “About Antiques,” and “Homespun Handicrafts.” Later she wrote several books based on geography and New Hampshire. How did she somehow bring Thoreau into her narrative about home-made rugs? Amazingly enough, in the final and concluding paragraph, where she wanted to emphasize how much of themselves the rug-makers put into their work:

Thoreau says the value of a thing is determined by the amount of life that goes into it. So home rug-making will live on, as far as the craftswoman expresses herself in the products of the rug hook, the needle, and the loom.

While this is a nice sentiment, I don’t believe it’s quite what Thoreau had in mind. The sentence Bowles was referring to was from the “Economy” chapter of Walden: “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.” Bowles had remembered the idea from the point of view of the creator, and not of the purchaser, as Thoreau had. These are slightly different takes, and both equally valid. But hardly the same. We also have to wonder how Bowles knew of and read Thoreau, since his circle of fame was still rather small in the 1920s. Perhaps being based in New England helped her.

The second time Thoreau came to me was in the fifth edition of “Much Loved Books: Best Sellers of the Ages,” by journalist and literary critic James O’Donnell Bennett (1870-1940). It too originated in 1927, with a 1932 library edition. It was a collection of 60 lengthy columns that Bennett wrote for The Chicago Daily Tribune. Here he extolled the virtues of select classics, including Walden. He practically tripped over his enthusiasm for Thoreau and his work:

Of Thoreau’s masterpiece two wonderful things are true –
No man having attentively read it is ever the same man again,
Second – Nobody ever wrote a book in our tongue like it.

And this was just the beginning. Bennett gushed over Thoreau and Walden for nine pages. He mentioned that he had visited the Concord Antiquarian Society, the predecessor to the Concord Museum. And he was quite familiar with the 20-volume set of Thoreau’s works that was published by Houghton, Mifflin in 1906, as well as Ellery Channing’s biography, Thoreau: The Poet-Naturalist. I don’t believe I’ve read a more devoted tribute from someone from this time period. His concluding paragraph read:

He is the bonniest, gravest, honestest spirit in our literature, and his great book has the sunshine, the crisp snow, the bird notes, the morning light and the morning fragrance of Walden pond bound in with every one of its nearly 400 steadying, exhilarating, comforting pages. It lives and sings.

Wow! When Bennett died, he left his library of 7,000 volumes to The Tribune for use by the journalists. His funeral announcement in the paper said: “He liked to read random bits from such writers as Thoreau, Hazlitt, Tolstoy, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Shakespeare, his personal literary gods.” Bennett sure had a good core group at his fingertips.

The final time Thoreau showed up at the bookstore last week, it was in conversation with a regular customer, whom I’ll call Earl. Earl is in his late 70s, and he likes to talk. When he brought three big, colorful books on European castles to the checkout desk, he told me he was saving up his money to make the trip across the ocean to see some of these castles. We chatted about travel and books and other random subjects. Earl is the kind of person who has been places and has read widely, and this was not the first time he and I had talked.

Somehow my interest in Henry Thoreau came out. Earl seemed pleasantly surprised at this news, probably because it turned the conversation in a different direction. He admitted to me that he had once read the book that he mistakenly called “On Walden Pond.” (See my earlier post about this phenomenon at I chose not to correct him.

“Do you know what my favorite part was?” he asked.

I shook my head. With Earl, it could have been anything.

“My favorite part was when he said that you should dig deep. I liked that. I think this is what I’m doing with my castle research and with the other historical subjects I’m interested in. I’m really digging into them, and I’m enjoying it very much.”

I commended him on his research and his choices. At the same time, I marveled at the fact that out of the entire text of Walden, the one sentence that resounded most with Earl was: “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” Yet I had no doubt that this was exactly what Earl was doing.

Here were three different voices from three different sources and with three different interpretations. You never know what piece of Thoreau’s work people will take and what perspective they will have on it. I continue to be amazed at how far he continues to reach.

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

Easy Walker

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 … All Walden Wood might have been preserved for our park forever, with Walden in its midst, and the Easterbrooks Country, an unoccupied area of some four square miles, might have been our huckleberry-field.
— Thoreau, Journal, 15 October 1859

Happily, much of what Thoreau thought “might have been” has come to pass in Concord and Lincoln. And many, most, who visit these pages can sign on to such sentiment. But how, in these people-heavy times do we keep other lands free…of us? For many, putting land “in conservation” offers answer. That act can take a number of forms, but one that interests me here is the nicely titled conservation easement.

Part of what got saved at Walden

Part of what got saved at Walden

We are curious, expansive beings, ever nosing here and there, often settling in places where a first visit brings on a rush of exclamation: “It’s so beautiful! I wish I lived here.” And then, sometimes, we set about trying to do so. Beauty draws the heart, and often activates the hands. But once we set to with our building instinct, the results affect that beautiful place, and beauty itself. A little land rush of many of us compounds that effect; a beautiful place can become just another settlement. Conserving, saving, wildness and beauty then requires some way of easing that rush, holding us off.

Enter the easement. An easement in its simple form is a voluntary legal agreement made between a property owner and a land trust or government agency that permanently restricts certain land uses and activities. So, for example, a developer who offers a town a conservation easement on a 30-acre portion of a 60-acre subdivision could say that there will never be any houses or other development on those 30 acres. Once that agreement’s made, it’s up to the town to monitor whether it’s abided by.

Some easement land in my town

Some easement land in my town

Enter next, in my town’s case, the Conservation Commission, checker, among other duties, of easements.

It’s a middling summer day, enough heat to make me rue the blue jeans I pull on as guard against thorns, brush and, the new primary fear, deer ticks, but not so hot as to make you feel under the sun’s thumb. Two of us, members of our town’s Conservation Commission, meet a planning department intern at town hall, then drive to a stash of woodland that extends over 50 acres adjacent to a new development. We three are there to walk the easement boundary that marks the set-aside acres that the developer has said he won’t touch; these acres will be, by contract, forever wild…or, given nearby houses, wildish.

Surprise greets us as we pull up at the end of the dirt road: a logging operation is in full gnaw, its cuttings – 50 or 60-year old hardwoods – stacked by claw in a waiting truck. Quick consultation with the easement language says that part of this forest will also be “working.” Okay, add more “ish” to the word “wild.”

Still, we soon outwalk the cutting, and in the quiet woods fall to our primary task – following the easement borders by finding signs of that border. Those signs are three: best is a town “medallion” tacked to a tree as notice of easement boundary; next is some unofficial but prominent marker – a small cairn, a pipe driven into ground, a strip of orange “flagging”; last is the rusted wire bound of the old field this woodland once was. We fan out. I have a photocopied aerial of the woods; my fellow commission member uses her phone’s gps; our intern has the sharp eyes of youth.

Medallion - a best marker

Medallion – a best marker of conservation land

We nose our way along the wiggly border, which, on the map, is a straight line. Just as woodwalkers grow gradually adept at following animal tracks, we get better at spotting sign of easement; this saved patch takes live shape as we walk. What also emerges during our slow passage are some of the woods’ little secrets – a knob of ledge jutting whitely from the duff, a bull-pine rising well above the canopy, deer tracks in the mud of a hidden dell.

In the course of our tracings, a couple of hours slip by; we emerge from thick woods at the top of a field. The high grasses stretch down to a wink of pond, and a breeze stirs the field. To our west, the sky thickens and darkens; thunder grumbles announcement. We search for sign and find a driven metal pipe topped with orange flagging at field’s edge. Both map and gps say the rest of our walk’s a simply crossing of field and walking of road.

Time then to ease back for a moment and watch this conserved field bask in the late summer sun – birds cruise for insects, grasses bend heavy with seed; pines crowd the clearing’s edge. This land’s slow future’s easy to read, a good story lined out for an easement-walker.

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

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