Thoreau on the Big Screen

By Lucille Stott

I had the pleasure recently of meeting Huey Coleman — of Films By Huey — and his wife, Judy Wentzell, in Brunswick, Maine, where Huey was screening his feature-length documentary, Henry David Thoreau: Surveyor of the Soul. Thirteen years in the making, this engrossing film celebrates Thoreau’s short but rich life in images, interviews, and music.

Huey films Henry in the snow.

With the expert help of Thoreau biographer Laura Dassow Walls, who served as lead scholar consultant, Huey traces that life from Thoreau’s birth on Thoreau Farm to his death in the “Yellow House” on Main Street. Though a good portion of the film centers on Walden Pond, Huey doesn’t allow Thoreau’s legendary time there to overwhelm the fuller life story, which was more varied, nuanced, and communal than so many people realize. The Henry depicted on screen, much like the man who emerges from Walls’s groundbreaking biography, is the Thoreau that the birthplace has always sought to celebrate: the son, the friend, the citizen, the forward-thinking guide to a better future.

Throughout the film, we’re treated to interviews by more than thirty prominent scholars, writers, and activists, among them Robert Gross, Robert Richardson, Howard Zinn, Robert Bly, Bill McKibben, Ron Hoag, Beth Witherell, and Tom Blanding. But we also hear from local Thoreauvians, including Concord’s Joseph Wheeler, the first president of the Thoreau Farm Trust, who was born on Thoreau Farm, and the late, great Walter Brain, who notes that the correct way to pronounce Thoreau’s name is by placing the accent on the first syllable: THOReau. Those who have visited Thoreau Farm will recognize several shots of the interior, where both Joe Wheeler and Laura Walls were interviewed.

Like Thoreau, the film remains mainly in and near Concord but does venture outside its borders to places Henry visited, including the Maine Woods, Staten Island, and Minnesota. At one point, Huey visits the site of the Walden Project, an outdoor alternative public education program in Vergennes, Vermont, serving students in grades 10-12. As students read from well-worn copies of Walden, they show us that Thoreau, so popular among the children of his own time, can still win the affection of today’s young. In another significant segment, he interviews members of Maine’s Penobscot Nation, one of whom, Darren Ranco, is the great-great-nephew of Joe Polis, Thoreau’s guide on his third and last trip to the Maine woods.

There is also an intriguing visit with video game developer Tracy Fullerton, who has created a game that allows players to experience a virtual life at Walden Pond.

The cinematography, particularly when focused on the natural landscapes, is beautifully envisioned and edited, and the evocative music, coordinated by folk musician and composer Dillon Bustin (former executive director of Concord’s Emerson Umbrella), was taken entirely from the Thoreau family’s songbook.

To view a trailer for the film, purchase DVDs for home or classroom viewing, and find dates for future screenings, visit www.filmsbyhuey.com. It is well worth the trip.

Lucille Stott is a charter board member emerita and former president of Thoreau Farm Trust. Follow  Lucille on new blog, “Touchstone.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Tree That Tamed Me

By Deborah Bier

“I’m looking for friends,” said the Little Prince. “What does tamed mean?” “It’s something that’s been too often neglected. It means, ‘to create ties’…” “…[i]f you tame me, we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you…” The Fox and the Little Prince (The Little Prince, Saint-Exupery, 1943)

The most prominent tree at Thoreau Farm, Birth House of Henry David Thoreau, is a tall and splendid Northern Catalpa, located beside our parking lot. It lends grandeur and scale to not just the 1878 Kitchen Garden, but to the entire property.

The Northern Catalpa is a fast-growing native tree with rot-resistant wood. She is one of the first features visitors see, and often they pause with her before moving on to the house.

Its trunk and branches can tend to twist and bend. Ours has a large branch a few feet above and parallel to the ground, that bends and swoops like an elephant’s trunk, tempting visitors to touch and pat her as they walk by.

Before the birth house opened to the public for the first time in 2010, we oh-so-wise board members agreed: that Catalpa tree should be cut down. However, for reasons none of us can actually recall, it was left standing. Looking at her, I am awash with relief, though no one now can remember what we were thinking when we all voted to have her removed.

“My life is monotonous…I’m rather bored. But if you tame me, my life will be filled with sunshine. I’ll know the sound of footsteps that will be different from all the rest…The only things you learn are the things you tame…” The Fox to the Little Prince

Because I created, manage, and tend our Kitchen Garden, I spend scores of hours annually near this tree. Bit-by-bit, she’s slowly “tamed” me, and I’ve come to adore her in every season. She’s a sweet friend who smiles over the garden. I have come to need her in my view.

But I have a confession to make: I used to heartily dislike Catalpa trees. I can’t quite say why. Their long, dried “string bean” seed pods make a mess. I found the enormous leaves too big to please my personal esthetic. And those flowers: I found them from a distance to be quite tacky.

But I’d never seen the blooms up close before, which totally revolutionized my view of Catalpa, and began my seeing our tree in a new light. She’s very amenable to a face-to-flower close-up for anyone taller than four feet, taming with her sultry and copious blooms in snowy white with orange and purple markings on their throats. They grow in lovely clusters, which decorate the tree in beautiful profusion in June. They have a light scent that for me is almost touches a memory I can’t quite grasp before the smell dissipates.

I still am not a fan of those seed pods, which can be up to 20 inches long! They fall in equal profusion in the fall. Between flower and pod fall, the leaves shed in the fall, too, after turning a stunning yellow. Any tree that requires three clean-ups a year (one each for flower, leaves, and pods) is what I consider “high maintenance.” But it turns out, I think she’s worth it.

And when the time to leave was near: “Ah!” the fox said. “I shall weep.” “It’s your own fault,” the little prince said. “I never wanted to do you any harm, but you insisted that I tame you…” The Fox and the Little Prince.

The Catalpa is not a long-lived tree, some living only 50 years, though they can live much longer in the best conditions. We had wondered how old ours was, and working in the garden one day a few years ago, two visitors provided clarity. They were a pair of the Breen sisters, part of the last generation of children who grew up in the house, daughters of the farm’s last private owner. They revealed that the tree was planted to mark the birth of their youngest sister. It’s in that way we learned the tree’s age, now around 65 years. Given that the Northern Catalpa typically grows to a height of 40–60′ with a spread of 20–40′ at maturity (according to the Arbor Day Foundation), we can see that our tree has likely reached her full glory.

This past fall, a storm brought down a massive branch, really an entire section of the tree. We discovered that our Catalpa is not fully well. In fact, her main trunk has become hollow, which can just barely be seen by looking up at the gaping hole that’s opened in her torso, located over six feet above ground. This tree’s time is perhaps not immediately neigh, but her end moves into sight.

When I think of her no longer gracing that spot, I am touched by grief. Despite her failing strength, she bloomed magnificently this year with her usual timing. I ponder that if I had never had the chance to fall in love with her, I wouldn’t have become so sad at her anticipated departure. But our relationship was entirely worthwhile; now no other Catalpa is “our” Catalpa, as the time I’ve spent with her has made her special to me.

I muse about the possibility of replacing her with another special tree, something native – perhaps a blight-resistant American Elm or Chestnut? But that would be a tree I haven’t met yet – one that is not yet special to me.

Said the fox, “Here is my secret. It’s quite simple: One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

Deborah Bier is a rabid gardener and a board member of Thoreau Farm Trust. She is a best-selling author and a dementia behavior specialist.

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Critical Hours: Search and Rescue in the White Mountains

By Richard Higgins

I was startled a few years ago when the man training me in CPR, a very safety-conscious person who had saved many lives, declared flatly that there were no accidents.

No accidents? What could be more preposterous, I thought. “What about car accidents,” I asked with moderated sarcasm, “don’t they fit the bill?

Car crashes are not accidents, he replied. “They always could’ve been prevented with adequate forethought or risk assessment. Yes, that could mean not passing, not taking a certain road or not driving at all, but if that’s the cost of your life, it’s worth it.” I grudgingly had to admit he was probably right.

Sandy Stott makes the case for prudence more firmly in his book Critical Hours: Search and Rescue in the White Mountains, a compendium of heroism and hubris in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. The hubris comes from hikers who perished (or nearly did) near those peaks, and over the course of the book their tales tumble together into an avalanche of poor choices and missed cues. The heroism comes from the hundreds of dedicated volunteers and professionals who test their own limits as they yank injured, dazed or frozen people from the jaws of danger again and again.

In recent years, search and rescue has become more necessary and more challenging, writes Stott, himself a seasoned hiker and former editor of the Appalachian Mountain Club journal Appalachia. The promise of safety from cell phones, locator beacons and other high-tech devices has made recreational hikers, and sometimes even experienced ones, overconfident. And the hell-bent, triathlon-before-breakfast extreme fitness culture has turned to mountains paths for endurance training.

Critical Hours is partly a history of hiking, from the Romantic era forward, and of search and rescue efforts when the hiking goes awry, as well as the culture behind each, partly an inquiry into why we ascend summits and partly a biography of Mount Washington—all wrapped around a series of rescue stories Stott analyses for lessons.

The mistakes take many forms: not knowing the weather forecast, hearing but ignoring it, being fooled by mildness at the base, setting off too late, being experienced or poorly equipped and leaning over a waterfall. A missed trail sign, glove dropped or twisted ankle can snowball into full-blown crisis. While most of those who make such mistakes live to tell about it, the rescues are not always pretty or even truly necessary. My favorite numbskull is the large man who reported a badly sprained ankle, which required alternating teams of 12 men to carry him down in a litter—and then, in the parking lot, pronounced himself better and got up and walked away.

Trouble above the tree line is not confined to the clueless or naïve, Stott tells us, noting that even Henry David Thoreau nearly lost the trail in a fog on Mount Washington. Even legendary climbers of the Whites are not immune. One famous hiker, Bill Curtiss, was so strong and fit at age 67 that doctors could not believe the deep musculature of his chest. Unfortunately, their discovery came during an autopsy. Curtis was consumed by winter’s fury atop Washington.

Stott is well equipped to narrate the tragedies.. Born into a family of hikers—his father performed one of the rescues in the book — he is steeped in the history and culture of the White Mountains. And insightful about why some of us are driven to extreme challenges.

He is very good at describing the twilight dimming effect of hypothermia of the body, how it slowly robs first our physical, then our mental, faculties. Indeed, the weather is almost a character in this book, and its personality is fickle and sometimes cruel as it teases or deceives us about its true intentions.

Self-awareness, the ability to see and take in actual conditions, regardless of preconceived thoughts or expectations, and alertness to potential perils, Stott says, is the only the way to avoid becoming an anecdote in any sequel to this book. A little fear doesn’t hurt either. In Moby Dick, the second mate, Stubb, declares that he won’t allow a man in his whaleboat who doesn’t have a healthy fear of the whale.

Those who ignore the perils will likely be rescued by the large and increasingly professional network of private and government rescuers. But these teams have their work cut out for them. Prometheus was in bad enough shape when he had merely stolen fire from the gods. Now that we, his descendants, have GPS, emergency locator beacons and various other high-tech gizmos, it seems inevitable that the vultures will have a lot more picking to do.

Richard Higgins is the author of  Thoreau and the Language of Trees.

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