Category Archives: The Roost

A blog at Thoreau Farm, written and edited by Sandy Stott

A Reply to Pond Scum – a critique of Thoreau in the New Yorker

First a link to this long essay by New Yorker staff writer, Kathryn Schultz:

Second a short response: That’s an amazing, it seems willful, misreading of Thoreau’s work. Where to begin? For starters, Schultz ignores Thoreau’s repeated purpose, awakening his neighbors, as opposed to trumpeting his own life. She also opens with a 21st-century awareness of the wreck of a famine ship as a way to cast Thoreau as coldhearted, a cheap writerly trick, I think, in that her opening anecdote is hardly from the core of Thoreau’s life and work. Then there is the tired charge of hypocrisy, even as Schultz tries to breathe new life into it. Here is a paragraph from late in the piece:

“But Thoreau did not live as he described, and no ethical principle is emptier than one that does not apply to its author. The hypocrisy is not that Thoreau aspired to solitude and self-sufficiency but kept going home for cookies and company. That’s just the gap between aspiration and execution, plus the variability in our needs and moods from one moment to the next—eminently human experiences, which, had Thoreau engaged with them, would have made for a far more interesting and useful book. The hypocrisy is that Thoreau lived a complicated life but pretended to live a simple one. Worse, he preached at others to live as he did not, while berating them for their own compromises and complexities.”

But really, did Thoreau claim to live a simple life? He aspired to simplify, to make good choices, but he never claimed that he led a simple life overall. His point that he had “other lives to live” after his Walden “experiment” aims in that direction. Thoreau was endlessly complex, and he knew it. He had a global awareness before it was fashionable to admit such. But he also knew that complexity must be balanced by the drive to simplify, to get at what’s meaningful in a world where we can be buried in drifts of information and yearning.

Just as Schultz accuses those who find wisdom or solace or guidance in Thoreau as cherry-pickers of the phrase, she too quotes liberally out of context. And she would have Walden be straight nonfiction, which it never claims to be, and surely isn’t.

I am in more sympathy with Schultz when it comes to T’s critique of government. We seem to be in the process and in the business of proving that narrow-minded principle and individualism lead to chaos; we’ll see. I’ve been long surprised that our radical right wing has made less use of Thoreau than they might have. Still, even in this area, Thoreau’s primary beef was with slavery, which, as Schultz acknowledges, was and remains our central national stain and shame.

Is the rescue of the world to be found in the individual? Thoreau would have it so; I’m not so sure. Especially when the number of individuals exceeds 7,000,000,000.

I am surprised that a magazine that says it features “the best writing anywhere” would go long with this piece. But provocation seems the name of the game in writing, and so there it is.

So much with which to take issue. So directly counter to what I’ve found as a teacher over long years of rereadings. And so missing in the spirit of joy that overflows from Walden and other writings, even in their sharp criticisms.

By chance I had just picked up Autumnal Tints for an annual rereading, and in his forward, Robert Richardson points to Thoreau’s early and sustained conviction voiced first in the Natural History of Massachusetts: “Surely joy is the condition of life. Think of the young fry that leap in the ponds, the myriads of insects ushered into being on a summer evening, the incessant note of the hyla with the woods ring in the spring, the nonchalance of the butterfly carrying accident and change painted in a thousand hues upon its wings, or the brook minnow stoutly stemming the current, the lustre of whose scales worn bright by attrition is reflected upon the bank.” That seems more in keeping with the writer I’ve read these many years.

Surely, however, Schultz has achieved what Thoreau sought in writing – even on a rainy and sleepy afternoon, she has provoked and awakened.

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

Tawny Grammar – Hearing the Leopard-wind on the Kerry Way

There are other letters for the child to learn than those which Cadmus invented. The Spaniards have a good term to express this wild and dusky knowledge, — Gramatica parda, tawny grammar, — a kind of motherwit derived from that same leopard to which I have referred. Thoreau, Walking

The old way to Killarney: first there is the music in the name; who wouldn’t want to walk toward Killarney, with its lingering “aaar” sound following the hard opening K? To say that I will spend the day walking to Killarney calls up a little mist of romance from my Gaelic ancestors, albeit Scots-Gaels, who are, the Irish tell me, a different sort of Gael. But in the larger world, a Gael is a Gael, and so a sliver of me feels at home here; that feeling will deepen as I reach the wind-washed, treeless mountainscapes later in the day. This will be a day on “the old way to Killarney,” a stretch of a path now called the Kerry Way, and every “old way” leads back as well as on.

As is true for many ways, to reach a semblance of trail on the Kerry Way, you must leave town. Kenmare, in this case. And after some early bumbling that almost sets me on the way to Sneem, I find the street that aims straight into the hills that rise above Kenmare, climbing through new housing that looks down on the town and then cresting the first ridge to find wire-girt fields with cows or sheep nosing about. Behind that ridge stretches a little valley of farms, and then above, there are the mountains that separate Kenmare from Killarney; my way makes for the mountains.

The way up from Kenmare

The way up from Kenmare

A few kilometers in, I’ve outwalked the tarmac, but not yet (never to?) the wires. Soon the trees too are gone, and sheep speckle two bony mountains that rise before me. A signpost assures me that I am indeed headed for Killarney; I hum a little made-up tune whose only word is “Killarney.” The aptly-named pass at Windy Gap draws my eye and then my feet, and I go up.

The Kerry Way is a 200+kilometer walkers-loop around the Iveragh Peninsula, which holds also the much more famous auto route, The Ring of Kerry. The Way was only completed in 1989, and as it meanders it also intersects with other walking ways that reflect a quiet surge of long-distance walkers among the myriad, motoring public. Chief among these intersectors is the E-8, which travels from Cork to Istanbul, over 2000 foot-miles away. And so a winding line of connection stretches out before me.

The way down the valley to Killarney

The way down the valley to Killarney

But mostly, I feel I am following the present into the past. The way to Killarney is foot battered, and it is more direct than the twisting, newer road that rises from Kenmare with the same goal. Why the new route doesn’t follow the old seems a mystery, but I am glad to be in foot-country and out of even aural contact with machines. The wind has taken over.

The day’s high point blows in at the pass between two knuckled mountains, Knockanaguish and Peakeen. The long grasses that grow the sheep ripple like water and the air washes and swirls uphill with a liquid roar, turning somersaults over the ledges, then leaving the downhill grasses on the other side untouched. Just as we find voice by pressing air over our vocal chords, so too does the wind as it calls against the grasses and rocks. It is a wild language, what Henry Thoreau calls a “tawny grammar” in his essay Walking. Mere words would fly away on this wind, scatter like bits of confetti; there is no writing this wind. It moves like a leopard. But there is listening as this cat-wind yowls the story of this old land, writes itself on the way to Killarney.

Click on this link to hear the wind, see its passage through the gap: IMG_0719

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

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