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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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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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Floaters – Notes from Late Summer

On September 13th in 1853, Thoreau set out from Boston Harbor on his second trip to Maine. “It was a warm and still night,” wrote Thoreau, “and the sea was as smooth as a small lake in summer, merely rippled.” A little later, he noted about the view from the sea, “We behold those features which the discoverers saw, apparently unchanged.”

This September’s early weeks seem also to be “merely rippled,” the sort of season that invites one out on the water. The summer crowds have dispersed, and as you float in solitude, or paddle languidly, “those features which the discoverers saw” are “apparently unchanged.”

Two Times to the Sea

September 8th: It is warm, and the day is suffused with a late summer, insect-hum; such days suggest pause, equipause, we might call it, in honor of the oncoming equinox.

I come in to Ragged Island from the west on mildly-ruffled water with a light north wind opposing the incoming tide, and I ride on today’s little sea-breathing, the swell that swells only to a few feet and then falls. The stubby rock arms of the coves reach a few meters into the sea, and, on a calm day – this one – they create little protected inlets, where the seaweed sways with the inflow and the tidal rocks draw breath with each outflow.

On either side of me, there’s the emerald backside to shoaling water with its inset of opal-white as swells arrive and lift themselves on the ledges’ backs.

Today’s tide – very high, an 11-foot one – lands me on the sea-grass fringe of the northwest side, where the small beach features a huge drift-log – say 20 inches in diameter – perfect for sitting. I notice that the long arm of rock that reaches west at beach’s edge has a 5-runged, wooden ladder perched atop a broken-off boulder; I don’t wade to it and climb, but perhaps I should have. Ladders have their lure; they go up, the direction of life. But on this day, I’m content with sea-level surveying.

Amid the sea rubble, the remains of a duck, its wingbone disappearing into the mass of feathers still intact, the meat all gone – fly until you’re food.

Sitting on my beach-log and looking over all the little, ground-down pieces of the beach, piled a little deeper at the tideline – wash and grind, wash and grind.

On all sides of this island, the rocks are water-battered and rubbed smooth up to heights of 20 feet; it is talk of towering waves.

Anomalous Island Stone

Anomalous Island Stone

Later, I read that a California exercise physiologist (who among other projects, has measured the Vo2 Max of mountain lions) has measured big wave surfers’ heart rates (HRs) and found that they stayed at an astounding 180+ throughout a 3-hour stint of surfing (this at the legendary Mavericks break). Even sitting on the beach looking out at the break, their HRs soared. This makes me wonder what my HR is while paddling, even contemplatively. Probably there is some rising graph that tracks with the liveness of the water I’m riding (or watching). It makes me think back to the wave-battered stones on the island; I feel my pulse jump…a bit.

September 15th: a paddle to and from Little Whaleboat Island. Sightings: 4 loons, and they were either molting or first-year loons; clearly loons, but without the distinctive patterning of neck and breast; also, the water where they were hanging about was rife with little loon feathers. As in years past, they were in the indent of water between Lower and Upper Goose islands. I floated with them and “vocalized,” even getting single note answer from one, though “answer” is too strong a word.

Today, a pleasing mix of quiet and ruffled water: in the lee of the Gooses, and, later, out by Little Whaleboat, the water was nearly calm, with a light brush of west wind. On the way out, between Upper Goose and Mere Pt., the water was bumpy, with tide running out and wind amplifying it a bit from the west. Then, the early crossing to L. Whaleboat was choppy, again with wind running 90 degrees off of tide. A mix of waves from west and southwest, but at a foot+ simply enjoyable.

At all the usual pullouts, there’s empty sand and strand; the flattened grass at the “secret” campsite on the south end of Little Whaleboat is starting to rise; the Goslings have gone quiet, as has the anchorage in their shelter.

One butterfly making its way southwest across the reach of water, making perhaps a knot better than I am. Such stamina. A few seals, curious periscopes. Perhaps the last week for the ospreys, who still keen at my approach, even as their nests are long empty; they hang in the air facing the southwest – perhaps they too feel migration’s call.

Last note: The 60-year-old apple tree I’ve watched for years on my favorite islet is, as this spring announced, truly defunct; already, it is weathering to sea-grayed wood. I looked for shoots of offspring, but the miracle of apple islet doesn’t seem set to repeat itself. The islet reverts from eden to the primrose-lined usual, its “features which the discoverers saw, apparently unchanged.”

Evening Light, post-paddle, Casco Bay

Evening Light, post-paddle, Casco Bay

Added note: what didn’t happen to me: video of a breaching whale and kayak-folk from the BBC:

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