Category Archives: Living Deliberately

From Germany, with love

I’ve never put a rock on the rough pile of stones at Thoreau’s cabin site, until a 59-year-old man from Germany sent me one from a lake near his hometown and asked me to hike out and place it there for him.

Werner Meyknecht

Werner Meyknecht

Werner Meyknecht is an IT Project Manager who lives in Recke, Germany. A Thoreau enthusiast, Meyknecht wanted to celebrate the Thoreau Bicentennial with fellow Thoreauvians in Concord, Massachusetts. He had hoped to come to Concord and be a part of the festivities on July 12, but money, time, and distance kept Meyknecht in Germany. He reached out to the Town of Concord for help. One of the town employees put Meyknecht in touch with Thoreau Farm.

This seemed fitting, since Thoreau Farm is the birthplace of Henry, and what better organization to help Meyknecht and his desire to be a part of the Thoreau Bicentennial, without actually traveling to Concord!

After a volley of emails— Meyknecht doesn’t speak English well and I don’t speak German — Meyknecht via the miracle of Google translation services  — was able to tell me that he was going to send a stone to Thoreau Farm, and asked if I could I place it on the cairn at the cabin site at Walden Pond.

Meyknecht is a solo sailor in a vast sea when it comes to finding like-minded Thoreauvians in his hometown.

“Unfortunately, I don’t know how popular he is in Germany,” wrote Meyknecht. “He who seeks finds. I would like to ask you to place a stone, which I have chosen from my homeland, to the place where his cabin was.”

How could I refuse?

The stone arrived two days before our birthday celebration at Thoreau Farm, but not without some anxiety on Meyknecht’s part. It was expensive to send the 3-pound rock in the mail, but Meyknecht’s friend, Peter Berkenharn of Mettingen, offered to help with the postage. It arrived packed in a styrofoam box, placed inside a simple cardboard box decorated with German and United States custom’s stickers.

 Peter Berkenharn

Peter Berkenharn

Meyknecht, Berkenharn’s and Henry’s initials were hand carved into the stone they had decorated with gold paint.

Carved into this rock are WM, PB, and HDT.

Carved into this rock (small rock)  are WM, PB, and HDT.

“I like attentive people who have a clear conception and clear ideas,” wrote Meyknecht about his love of Henry Thoreau. “People who don’t follow the mainstream. No other author has impressed me so much like Henry David Thoreau. He has really struck a chord with me. It is perhaps because my inner spirit comes very close to that of Henry. Have your courage to show your rough edges. Don’t be a yes-man. … All citizens of Concordia will know what I mean.”
 Thank you, Werner Meyknecht, for reminding us how lucky we are to have our spiritual home of Concord, whether we are in Germany or in New England.
 Werner2

 

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

An Appreciation: Reading “Thoreau and the Language of Trees”

Editor’s note: Thoreau and the Language of Trees is a new book by Concord author Richard Higgins.

By Sandy Stott

As I begin this book, a patient presence of white and pitch pines stands ten or so feet from my open window. One, a pitch pine, has died, though its trunk rises still to 30 feet, and it has become a lure for a pileated woodpecker whose exploratory peckings offer a braille I run my hands over, even as their poetry eludes me. The other 42 trees of this small, yard-girt woodland vie for light, for sky, and they stir whenever the wind blows. Tonight though, they wait, stilled in the late light of this summer’s solstice. Perhaps the owl who called from them a few nights ago will visit all of us later. They are of my yard; all will outlive me; even the pileated-stippled pitch pine trunk may endure decades. Making the acquaintance of these trees takes me beyond myself.

****

When I taught parts of Thoreau’s work to the sometimes hurried young, I had a favorite moment in the semester: some weeks of reading into the term, and some minutes into a class, I closed Walden and asked simply, “are you ready?” Most said, yes; a few demurred: “um…for what?” they asked. “Let’s go,” I said, and they followed me out from the rectangular classroom, down the stairs and to the door. Once outside, I offered them a choice — find any natural object, get comfortable, and concentrate on it (and only it) for ten minutes. I’ll let you know when time’s up.

ITree

Most often people picked trees. I would watch them watch their trees. Some lay on their backs and looked at the canopied sky; other stood at mimicked angle a few feet from the tree; a good number climbed into a tree of choice and sat or stretched out upon a limb. A few got inches away from the trunk or a twig. For an age group often slandered for their rabbity attention, they had remarkably little trouble “getting lost” in their trees. When I read their findings later, I realized that some of them had remained with the tree for paragraphs well after I’d summoned them back into the usual school world of call and response.

I knew, of course, of Thoreau’s fondness for and scrupulous attention to trees. What I didn’t know was that as I was working with the rudiments of this tree-teaching, Richard Higgins was afoot in nearby Concord and in the pages of Thoreau’s journal making a much deeper study. Would that I had been able to bring Higgins and his tree-findings to help my classes toward their trees.

That is, I realize, a rather lengthy preamble to what I mean to be a praise-song for Higgins’s new book, Thoreau and the Language of Trees, but I have taken a personal route to praise because this attractive, compact volume has touched me. Three presences are prominent in its pages — Thoreau, Higgins and a cast of character-trees too numerous to name. Higgins shapes his short essays at the outset of each chapter with an appealing clarity, using them to introduce small groves of short readings from Thoreau. The trees rise from their words. And they rise also in a generous offering of illustrations — photographs (many by Higgins) and, familiar to readers of Thoreau’s journals, a scattering of his quick sketches.

Here is an excerpt that perhaps offers enough window into Higgins’s book for you to see your way there:

Trees brought out another side to Thoreau, one we rarely hear about. They stirred a boyish joy in him. He found “an inexpressible happiness” in the woods. “Their mirth is but just repressed.” Lichen lifted his spirits, and trees seen from a mountain delighted him: “Nothing is so beautiful as the tree tops. A pine or two with a dash of vapor in the sky—and our elysium is made.” (p. 36)

tree 2

When work has confined me, boxed me into its rectangles, I’ve always pointed to the reward of a next woods-walk as part of what sustained that work. But what Thoreau and his modern companion Higgins have done is to enrich my relations with trees, to sharpen my eye, broaden my heart and encourage my narrative impulse to include my patient neighbors. Who may or may not — who knows? — be patient with me.

I return to the page. Here, deep in the book, I’ve found that Robert Richardson’s first sentence in the Forward rings true: “There is real magic in this book.”

I look out at my 42 friends a few feet away. So many stories. Now, it is time to go out.

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

Sauntering the Year with Henry David Thoreau

By Donna Marie Przybojewski

“I would make education a pleasant thing both to the teacher and the scholar. This discipline, which we allow to be the end of life, should not be one thing in the schoolroom, and another in the street. We should seek to be fellow students with the pupil, and we should learn of, as well as with him, if we would be most helpful to him.” — Henry David Thoreau, Correspondence to Orestes Augustus Brownson, December 30, 1837

These words set the tone for St. Benedict Catholic School in Garfield Heights,  Ohio this school year, as we “Saunter the Year with Henry David Thoreau” to celebrate the bicentennial of his birth. At our year-end  faculty meeting last May, I presented my multi-grade curriculum proposal about the upcoming bicentennial year. Everyone was overwhelmingly positive and enthused about this collaborative endeavor.

Reflecting upon our Thoreau Bicentennial during summer break, however, it became clear to me that the students were not going to be the only recipients of Thoreau lessons, which would teach them about this iconic American author, philosopher, and naturalist. If our year was going to be successful, then the teachers would have to become pupils. As a Thoreau Bicentennial Ambassador, I was able to help the teachers become comfortable with Thoreau and his ideas, so they could impart that knowledge to their students.

I imagine that Henry would have been proud of our venture — teacher becoming pupil. Teachers were given websites to research Thoreau, which included the Thoreau Society, Walden Woods, Henry’s Hat, and Concord Museum. Our faculty worked as a collaborative team: asking questions, offering suggestions, and assisting partner teachers in preparing lessons.

As this educational enquiry transpired, I had to smile because Henry seemed to be the master teacher in every room since the Maxham daguerreotype of Henry hung upon the wall of each classroom.

It was as if he were saying, “Here I am. Remember my thoughts about education for both teacher and pupil.”
image cartoon(2)

Everywhere teachers and students looked, there was Henry looking over their shoulders and guiding them, including the halls, since he had a place of honor in our trophy cabinet. Henry had become so much an integral part of our school environment that during a particularly difficult day, I would look at the daguerreotype and ask myself, “What would Henry do?” Even students, when encountering a dilemma in class, would ask me what I thought Henry would say about the matter and what he might suggest to do about it.

The learning not only occurred in the classroom, but as Henry advised, it happened outside as well. When parents asked their children what they did in school, the typical answer, “nothing,” was not the response. Rather, parents were given a barrage of information about Henry and his visits to St. Benedict School. The enthusiasm of their children was the incentive parents told me they needed to refresh their own memories of this American author, as well as read his works.

As an educator, this bicentennial year provided me with the greatest growth I have experienced in years in a relatively short time. Surprisingly, even though I had incorporated Thoreau into my own Language Arts curriculum at the junior high level, I, too, became a pupil and learned. First and foremost, I knew that if Henry was going to be relevant, he had to become a real and tangible person to especially the primary school children. He could not just be an author in a book or a face on a wall. So, I became Henry.

Donna as HDT

The author as Henry David Thoreau

At the September kickoff to the Thoreau Bicentennial, students met Henry at an assembly, and he took them for a saunter around the baseball fields of the school. Then, as he had done during his own time, he threw a watermelon party for everyone, and from that moment on, the year has been unbelievably filled with joy. Many accounts of Thoreau describe him as being aloof, caustic, and abrupt. Our year has proved these depictions as not entirely accurate. One could see how children would gravitate to him during his life as the students of St. Benedict Catholic School would flock to him when he walked through the halls or entered a classroom to read to the students.

They grabbed his hands and hugged his knees. Smiles permeated the faces of the children, and I had the distinct privilege of witnessing this firsthand as Henry.

knees-29

A young child hugs Henry’s knees.

As a Thoreau Bicentennial Ambassador, I saw the need to simplify Thoreau enough to make young minds receptive to him, if his legacy is to be preserved for future generations. In addition, I was learning more about myself and creative abilities through this special year. Creating and publishing three children’s books about this author was not something that I had ever anticipated doing.  These books are enabling St. Benedict’s primary teachers to incorporate writing, history, art, and discussion into their curriculum while introducing Thoreau to their young students. Also, I became the pupil as my publisher guided me through my writing and illustrations. In turn, I taught my students the writing process in a very personal way and to always be awake for the unexpected opportunities that may enter into their lives.

BIOME

Students studied the biome of Walden Pond.

Throughout our celebration of Henry’s 200th birthday, teachers were expanding their knowledge of Thoreau across disciplines.

Science teachers studied the biome of Walden with their classes, and then had students put Henry in an alternative biome explaining similarities and differences.

Math teachers had students graph the dimensions of Henry’s cabin at Walden then create their own tiny house on graph paper. Another teacher grew beans in the classroom just as Henry did in his garden and measure their growth. Social Studies teachers incorporated Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and “Plea for John Brown” during Black History month in February. In fact, one class attended a program on the Underground Railroad and actually “met” John Brown. Teachers were discovering that Thoreau, although primarily known as an author, could be introduced in all subject areas not just Language Arts.

It goes without saying that Language Arts teachers really soared in their classes. Students learned to model Henry and describe nature in unique ways as he had done with such clarity.

One student wrote, “When I was on a flight, the most beautiful thing I saw was the sun rising, making the sky orange, and all the clouds underneath me look like rolling pieces of cotton from a pillow.”

Another wrote, “The soft sounds of rain hitting my window, while light flashes and rumbles from the clouds. That sound soothes me even in my darkest days.

One young man described this feeling about the ocean saying, “I love watching the waves as they crash into each other, the various hues of blues are calming to me.”

Another student when explaining Henry’s profound words composed the following: “The world when I were born was clean and fresh. I hadn’t made an impact on it yet. Every day I fill it with myself and what I experience. I paint my life on the canvass before me. It is mine to create.”

Students were also able to journal their thoughts, sometimes disagreeing with Henry.

One response to Henry’s statement that his greatest talent was having few wants indicated the following: “Although I admire Henry for not wanting a lot of things, I could not do that. There are many things that I want, so need a good paying job to purchase them.”

Granted, this was not response that was desired, and the concept of simple living still needs to be understood; however, Henry would have desired such honesty in writing whether he agreed or disagreed with it, not just blind agreement but thinking for oneself. Another example included a debate about whether Henry had three chairs in his cabin or six. Some students were adding the one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society to equal six chairs. It was a good brain exercise as students finally came to the realization of what he actually meant through discussion.

In addition, students illustrated narratives they wrote to describe what they would do with Henry if he visited them today. A few students wrote beautiful accounts of taking him to the library.

One student tenderly stated: “I would take Henry to the library to show him the books he wrote on the shelf. Knowing how much he appreciated libraries, I think he would feel proud that people were still reading his books 200 years after his birth.”

Students across grade levels also received a Flat Henry to take home and record what they did together. Henry became a part of their family as he attended basketball games, went on park walks, to the library, and even to the emergency room as one kindergartner relayed, “I had to get an X-ray on my arm but having Henry with me made me feel better.”

Even art played a factor in learning about Thoreau. Students were involved in sketching items from nature as Thoreau had doodled in his journals, illustrating their narratives, and even creating editorial cartoons about what might be Henry’s comments on modern society. Also, students recycled their own paper to create covers for their journals. The list is limitless to what the students are learning about this American icon through various activities and lessons. What is wonderful is that we are all engaged — teacher as well as student. Teachers are learning from their students and students are learning from their teachers. All are actively sharing as Henry thought we should be.

Children can relate to the simplicity of Henry. He was a dichotomy, being complex, as well as quite simple. His innocence and pure joy for life endears him to children. Henry is continuing to inspire children as well as adults to grow creatively and intellectually.

Therefore, this year has been “a pleasant thing for both scholar and teacher,” as Henry put it. Through the years, we will all continue learning and sauntering with Henry David Thoreau since we have made him our resident author at St. Benedict Catholic School. He has a permanent place in our trophy cabinet and in our classrooms. More importantly, however, he will continue to impact our intellects and spirits. Isn’t this what education is all about? Henry knew this. Now, so do we. Henry’s daguerreotype will persist to look upon us as educators and scholars in the years to come silently encouraging us to grow with each other.

Donna Marie Przybojewski is the author of three children’s books. Mrs. Przybojewski will be speaking at Thoreau Farm on Thursday, April 20, from 3-4:30pm on how to introduce Henry David Thoreau to children and launching her latest book, Henry David Thoreau Loved the Seasons. Email margaretcb@thoreaufarm.org to reserve a seat.

 

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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Living Deliberately, The Roost, Thoreau Bicentennial, Thoreau Quote