Today’s Great Awokening: Henry’s Tools Can Guide Us to Do Right

By Ken Lizotte, president Thoreau Farm Board of Directors and Margaret Carroll-Bergman, executive director

“The fate of the country… does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot-box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.”  — Henry David Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts.”

Henry believed that social reform began with the individual. His words rang true in the mid-19th century and, with time, are more relevant today, as our country confronts systemic racism and the legacy of slavery.

Henry stopped paying taxes to protest slavery.  In 1846, he was arrested for being a tax scofflaw and as a result spent one night in the Concord jail. He wrote “Civil Disobedience,” an essay which many consider the cornerstone of American democracy — the right and duty to protest, even at the risk of being jailed for breaking an actual law.

“Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”  — Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience

After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required enslaved people to be returned to their owners, even if the former slave lived in a free state, Thoreau and his family and friends became involved with the Underground Railroad and the Abolitionist Movement.

Frank Sanborn, one of the so-called Secret Six who secretly funded John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and similar actions — describes Henry’s escorting a fugitive slave to the Acton railway station on December 3, 1859, the day after Brown was hanged:

“I engaged Mr. Thoreau to drive his friend’s {Emerson} horse to South Acton the next morning, and there put on board the first Canadian train a Mr. Lockwood, whom he would find at my house. Thoreau readily consented, asked no questions, walked to the Emerson stable the next morning, found the horse ready, drove him to my door, and took up Merriam, under the name of Lockwood, neither knowing who the other was.”

Unknown to Henry, he had taken on a dangerous task: Francis Jackson Merriam was one of John Brown’s raiders at Harpers Ferry. He did this without question to help a fellow human being.

For many white Americans, there has lately been a “Great Awokening” concerning the economic, legal, and educational institutions that keep Black and brown Americans in poverty. The senseless murder of a 46-year-old Black man, George Floyd, by a Minneapolis police officer brought home the systemic racism that exists in our country. Captured on a cell phone, no one could deny Floyd’s repeated cries “I can’t breathe” as he was pinned to the ground by an officer’s knee on his neck. These cries have now have become the bellows for reform.

As Thoreauvians we have inherited both tools and actions from Henry to see that social justice and reform are finally realized. We have Henry’s writings on “Civil Disobedience,” “Slavery in Massachusetts,” “A Plea for John Brown,” and “Walden” as well. All together, Henry’s example offers a guide for taking responsibility without question or hesitation so as to do right and not “lend” ourselves to the wrong, as Henry put it. This crucial period of social reform we are living in demands it.






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Rivery Days

By Sandy Stott

“I was impressed as it were by the intelligence of the brook, which for ages in the wildest regions before science is born, knows so well the level of the ground and through whatever woods or other obstacles finds its way. Who shall distinguish between the law by which the brook finds its river [sea], the instinct [by which] a bird performs its migrations, the knowledge by which man steers his ship around the globe?” — H.D. Thoreau, Journal, May 17, 1854

Though I am later out the door than Henry Thoreau was in the late spring of 1854, (often, he began at 6 a.m., or earlier, summoned by the early light, and the long, possible days), we share often a common destination. I mean “common” in a larger sense, in that we are also separated by 140 miles as well as by the span of years. We live in different places and times.

What joins us this spring-going-on-summer?

Thoreau and I go often in search of water, which in its streaming is on its own search. As I’ve read through spring 1854’s Journal outpouring of local excursion and observation, I’ve lost count of the number of times, Thoreau wrote, “Up Assabet,” or “To Fairhaven,” or “To the river…” His boat barely slept, I think. And from those waters, he kept track of spring’s profusion of leafings and flowerings out. So much to see; so much to be, he might have written in summary.

Mere Brook in Brunswick, Maine

My own spring of ’20 has also been water-infused and -enthused. Here in Brunswick, Maine, we have a brook that runs through us, much as the Assabet, Sudbury and Concord run through Thoreau’s town. But our brook, aptly named Mere Brook, has nowhere near the name or volume of Concord’s waters. It is just under five miles long before it becomes sea, and for much of its length, I can switch banks in a single bound (or once could have). But once gathered into initial pooling, Mere Brook knows where it must go. And it works impressively through our town to do so.

Mere Brook also has a lot going on over its few miles. So much so that it’s earned an unwanted descriptor from our state; MB is “urban-impaired.” Which is no better than it sounds. In short, in its shortness, our brook bears enough toxins and sediment and bacteria to make it unwelcome when it unburdens itself in Harpswell Cove, when it returns to its Mare. A number of us have taken on the cause of clearing Mere Brook of its “impaired” designation.

The brook’s burden has a number of sources — streets, houses, storm drains, backyards, piles of discard — in short, us and our various uses of the world. It also has one large-handed contributor: Mere Brook runs its intermediate miles through an old naval air base going-on industrial park. There, its east branch endures a 3/4-mile passage through a culvert beneath two runways, the imposition of a storm water and spill containment system on a tributary stream, and a legacy of dumped pollutants in groundwater named the Eastern Plume. No fancy feather that.

Still, like all its watery brethren, Mere Brook bears on, its waters surprisingly clear, it manilla sands firm in the center, its gullies and forested reaches passage for both waters and wild critters. It is in many places beautiful and expressive. And, like Thoreau’s rivers, Mere Brook occasions vision and visions.

I was, just a month ago, especially taken with Thoreau’s short description of “brook intelligence,” which pointedly he compared with our intelligence that enables us to rove the world. In his tri-part yoking of brook, bird and human, he unseats the usual assumption of our superiority as derived from our consciousness. We see ourselves as separate, apart from the usual flow; Thoreau begs to differ. “Who shall distinguish between the law by which the brook finds its river [sea], the instinct [by which] a bird performs its migrations, the knowledge by which man steers his ship around the globe?” he asks.

It has, these past few days, been just so on Mere Brook. Over those days, I have followed the wonderfully-named John Field, a fluvial geo-morphologist, as he walks the brook and susses out how it moves and why in this direction or that. “What’s on its brook-mind?” he asked. Over the hours of brook-walking and brush-bashing, I have watched man and stream take each others’ measure. “See this mudded root system,” said John the other day. “It shows me how our brook ponded here for a number of years, dropping silt as it slowed in the pooled water. We need to find out what made Mere do this.”

And some yards downstream, we found our forming force, an old, overgrown beaver lodge, shaped like a giant yurt. Another intelligence. Fifty yards downstream, a crushed rock berm rose fifteen feet, with two culverts punched through it for stream passage. Naval imposition.

The beavers, on the other hand, must have thought they’d reached the afterlife — dam already built, wild pond-plain guarded, people kept out; all they had to do was plug two culverts, pretty simple work for such engineers. So, for some years, the beavers thrived. When, finally, the food ran out, they moved on; the grasses and bushes grew back.

Mere words? Perhaps. Tomorrow we go out again to walk another reach of the brook, to see what’s next as Mere Brook knows its way to the sea. We take with us a growing sense of Thoreau’s “brook intelligence.”

Sandy Stott, formerly of Concord, Massachusetts, lives in Brunswick, Maine. The Founding editor of The Roost, he writes for a variety of publications. His recent book, Critical Hours — Search and Rescue in the White Mountains, was published by University Press of New England in 2018. He may be reached at

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Could Henry Have Accepted This?

By Ken Lizotte, President, Board of Trustees

Thoreau Farm Trust Board President Ken Lizotte

I keep wondering these days what would Henry do. What would Henry think, say and do about the coronavirus crisis? Or about how the Federal government is helping us out … or making things worse? Or how people are suffering and sacrificing to get thru each day? Has it only been a few weeks since this entire horror show began? What would Henry be doing by now?

Certainly social distancing would have been just fine with him. What was it he once said about having people over to his Walden cabin? “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” With no lectures to attend, no concerts, no family gatherings, would the only recreation available sauntering thru Walden Woods, be enough? Well, maybe.

But the struggling, the governmental incompetence, the wastes of our time and our lives? Could Henry have accepted this? As a “civil disobedient” he had refused to pay what he considered an unjust tax and willingly spent a night in Concord’s jail as a consequence. He also penned a passionate defense of the rebel John Brown despite the violence at Harper’s Ferry. He assisted too in the very illegal Underground Railroad. That’s what he did in HIS time! What are we doing in ours?

It’s a hard one to answer with certainty by any one of us. But I am guessing he would have observed the shelter-in-place guidelines and used the time to play his flute, written a sequel to Walden, shouted a lecture-rant from the top of Cemetery Hill, and refused to pay all taxes until enough test kits were made available, coupled with a sensible plan for contact tracing and whatever else might likely end this madness once and for all. That’s what I think Henry would do.

What about you? Do you agree? Have other ideas? What do YOU think Henry would think, say and do? If you’d like to try, I invite and challenge you to share your thoughts with our Thoreau Farm community. Just email me a brief reaction or two, which I will compile in an upcoming blog post report on all responses.

Maybe together we will develop concrete actions that help resolve things. Maybe Henry’s very spirit will reach out and inspire us. Maybe we can end this nightmare.

Send your thoughts to .






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