Laughter Amid The Storm

By Sandy Stott

Snapping turtle at Thoreau Farm

Perhaps you too could use a laugh … or at least a smile curling across your face where worry often sits. Here’s a recent moment that shifted me from smile to laughing aloud.

Many of us read Henry Thoreau for wisdom, solace, otherness, but not many go fishing with him for a laugh. Yes, I know that he is funny at times, and also that he thought himself so. A little redemption for being a sometimes-scold; and yes, I’ve smile-groaned at his affection for puns. But straight-out laughing? Not so often.

The other day, here in Maine, May began (finally) to utter itself. We’ve had a lot of cold rain and cold wind; our last snowflakes greeted me in the morning under a week ago. It’s been bundle up and bear-it weather, even as our green has come on. Throughout the month, I’ve been reading along, day by day, with Thoreau’s May of 1854 Journal. That May sums to 88 pages rife with observation. So much to see and note; so much change. Thoreau’s head seems to have been bursting with necessary notes. And, throughout it, he is always headed for the door, often to take his boat out onto the rivers and flooded meadows.

Thoreau’s May 16th features such a boat trip to Conantum in the afternoon, and, as ever, he is overflowing with observation. Leafing out is coming on so fast. On prior days he has been noting up a storm of openings, many of which are tagged as having happened, “say yesterday.” Enough so that I have begun to suspect that witnessing spring’s births really means arriving just after each event; it must always seem to have just happened. Then, on this day, he throws up his hands at trying to record in sequence, and in essence says, “It’s all happening; too much to record. Go out and be joyful.” Good advice. I went out the door.

Later, I returned to my reading. Here’s where image morphed to laughter. The 16th ends with a fine comic scene that involves a medium-sized snapping turtle. Thoreau spots commotion in the shallows of flooded Hubbard’s meadow. Of course, he floats over to see. There he finds the turtle on the bottom. Then, being himself, removing his coat and rolling up sleeves, he plunges his arm in repeatedly up to his shoulder, trying to catch the turtle, which in turn tries to hide under the boat. Finally he snags the turtle’s tail and hauls it aboard. The turtle is, as we all would be, a little put out. Henry reads as unperturbed, even as the turtle catches hold of his boot’s toe. He begins doing what Henry does — observing closely: carapace, moss on it, little leeches embedded. “It was wonderful how suddenly this sluggish creature would snap at anything.”

As he floats on through the late afternoon with the turtle now under the seat, Henry scratches the turtle’s back, a sort of absent affection that we visit on dogs. The turtle, however, is having none of it and pitches hissy (literally) fits, startling Henry repeatedly, even “though I was prepared for it. He suddenly went off like a percussion lock snapping the air.”

What made me laugh, beyond the descriptions of the two boated personalities, was the lack of resolution to the story. The little story ends there. Does the turtle get back into the water? When does Henry go home?

For me then this: on they sail, turtle and man, two tempered beings. Perfectly matched, it seems; still out there.

Sandy Stott is the Roost’s founding editor. He is a writer and educator, and the author of  Critical Hours — Search and Rescue in the White Mountains. He may be reached at fsandystott@gmail.com. 

 

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Afterday

By Sandy Stott

During all the years I taught Thoreau’s work and through that larger span — ongoing — when reading him has prodded and settled me, I’ve missed noting his death-day, May 6. Realizing its passage on say, May 11, or some such proximate but late date, has always felt like a deficiency.

“What sort of reader and walker are you?” I said to self on more than one occasion. “At least nod to the man’s day of passing.” Never happened, and I offered myself the usual, mealy “he’s alive to me,” reasoning, and vowed weakly to do better. Never happened.

But here it is early on May 6, 2020, and here I am already a paragraph into remembrance. I’ve also just read The Roost and found Richard Smith’s fact-rich tribute, and so, here in the morning’s slant-sun — the right time, you will agree — I have Henry in mind. And still: my “recall” of this date has been one more instance of fortuitous bumbling.

In late April, as our new adherence to home wore on, I, like many of us, wanted more companion reading that was illuminating and distracting, words that wore spring’s rising light well. Slow pony that I am, it took a little while before, during a circuit of the living room, I stopped by our gathering of the blue-bound 1906 edition of Henry Thoreau’s Journal. Over the years, I’ve often chosen stretches of time where I read through a particular year at the calendar’s pace. “Let’s go to 1854 again,” I thought, recalling points of its passage, including Henry famous, terse note on August 9.

So, as May began, so did I. It was and is spring; what’s ahead, or, more aptly, what’s coming up?

For starters: “May 1. A fine clear morning after three days of rain — our principal rain-storm of the year, — raising the river higher than it has been yet.

6 A.M. — Up railroad. Everything looks bright and as if it were washed clean…”

First Light. Credit: Sandy Stott

Even a pedestrian start soothed. Here it was, 6 A. M., light flooding in, and already we were off. It looked to be a long, light-filled, local day. Which it turned out to be. On that first May day, Thoreau went out three times, first on foot, then twice by boat on the swollen rivers. I would go out thrice too, even as our forecast promised rain. I thumbed ahead in the Journal to see how many pages the month would bring. In my volume, they summed to 88, one measure of May ’54’s expansive feel, a measure I hoped to feel one day at a time.

That May’s early pages are rife with notes of noticing. Its header reads helpfully, Observation and Life; Thoreau seems to swell with life just as the many plants and animals he finds do. Also, in that May’s early pages, I experienced a moment of sympathetic recognition that suddenly jarred.

Thoreau wrote: “The red maples, now fully in bloom, show red tops at a distance.”

I looked up, nodded. “Yes, just so,” I mumbled to self, and began reading again. And stopped. “Wait a minute,” I said aloud. “Wait a minute.”

The problem clicked clear: Thoreau and I were on to the same maple-time of spring, but I was not where he was. Instead, I live over 100 miles mostly north in Maine. My spring in 2020 was his in 1854.

So, here I am, and it’s May 6. The white pine’s needles are shining, as he said they did, and these eight years before he died, Henry Thoreau has nearly four pages of observations about life for me.

They are large, “There is no such thing as pure objective observation.” And little, “Horse-mint is an inch or two high, and it is refreshing to scent it again.”

They are the expansive and precise observations of his life and his world, and they offer me the nudge to go and inhabit my world as fully as I can.

I have set aside afternoon hours that will take me from the headwaters of a local brook I am getting to know into the forest full of glacial leavings that the brook drains. Who knows what I’ll find? I will be both Maine in 2020 and Concord in 1854, and I am getting the gift of being able to live locally in each.

“It matters not where or how far you travel — the farther commonly the worse —, but how much alive you are.”

What will tomorrow bring? On May 7, I will open this journal and this window and this door and find out.

Sandy Stott, formerly of Concord, Massachusetts, is a Brunswick, Maine resident. He is the Roost’s founding editor, and 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 April, 2018; Tantor Media released an audio version of the book in February, 2019. He may be reached at fsandystott@gmail.com 

 

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

‘Now Comes Good Sailing’

By Richard Smith

Henry David Thoreau’s grave on Author’s Ridge. Credit: Richard Smith

Henry Thoreau died from tuberculosis at his parent’s home in Concord, Massachusetts, on May 6, 1862. His mother, sister Sophia, and Aunt Louisa were with him at the end. Not long before he passed, Sophia heard Henry mutter the words, “Now comes good sailing”; he was 44-years-old.

Thoreau’s family and friends were understandably devastated by his death. His obituary appeared in newspapers across the country, yet it would be a stretch to say that he was anywhere near famous. He was called “original” and “genial.” One newspaper reported that Thoreau was “very peculiar in his views of society and the ways of life.”

In death as well as in life, Thoreau was considered by some an eccentric writer and by others, an imitator of Ralph Waldo Emerson. His life and writings were appreciated by few. At the time of his death, both of his books, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” and “Walden” were out of print.

It would be up to his sister and friends to remedy the situation and save Thoreau’s reputation. In a town that was filled with famous writers, it was ironic that Thoreau, the only native Concordian among them, was the least known.

Louisa May Alcott said, “Though he wasn’t made much of while living, he was honored at his death.”

And, the honors flowed. Emerson eulogized Thoreau at his funeral and Emerson’s tribute would later appear in the prestigious “Atlantic Monthly.” The magazine also published some of Thoreau’s essays posthumously, including “Walking,” “Life Without Principle,” and “Autumnal Tints.” The Boston publishing company of Ticknor and Fields  released second editions of both of Thoreau’s books, within a few weeks of his death.

Sophia would continue to work closely with Ticknor and Fields over the next few years, and, thanks to her, two of her brother’s best known books were published: “The Maine Woods”  in 1865 and “Cape Cod” in 1866. Both books were compiled from previously published essays and unpublished material from Thoreau’s Journal. Today, both books are favorites among Thoreau fans.

Thoreau’s best known essay, “Civil Disobedience,” was published in the 1866  collection of his essays, “A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-slavery and Reform Papers.” While “Civil Disobedience” had been virtually ignored when Thoreau was alive, this new release gained a new generation of appreciative readers. By the beginning of the 20th Century, Leo Tolstoy and Mohandas K. Gandhi both wrote of their admiration for “Civil Disobedience.”

Thoreau’s slow rise to fame continued. Naturalist John Muir acknowledged that Thoreau’s writings spurred his advocacy in the protection of Yosemite. After reading “The Maine Woods,” Theodore Roosevelt climbed Mount Katahdin to follow in Thoreau’s footsteps. E.B. White and Rachael Carson both wrote of their admiration for him and Jack Kerouac was influenced by “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” to go on the road.

Which brings us to the 21st Century, where today Henry Thoreau is considered to be one of the greatest writers in American literature. “Walden” is required reading in many schools. Thoreau is considered one of the Founding Fathers of Environmentalism and Conservation. Anyone who protests anything will use “civil disobedience” as their battle cry; indeed, many people think that Thoreau himself coined the term (he didn’t). People of all political stripes, from Libertarians on the Right to Anarchists on the Left, quote him for inspiration. Hippies, punks, goths, say they “march to a different drum,” a phrase Thoreau used in “Walden.”

More than 150 years after his death, Henry Thoreau continues to inspire and influence us.

In 1862, Emerson believed that the country was unaware “how great a son it has lost.”

Today, we are very much aware of Thoreau’s greatness.

Emerson predicted, “Wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.”

And, in a very real sense, these words have come true. Henry Thoreau has found a home in the hearts and lives of millions of people around the world.

Richard Smith has lectured on and written about antebellum United States and 19th-century American literature since 1999. He has worked as a public historian in Concord, Massachusetts for 21 years, specializing in Henry David Thoreau, the Transcendentalists, the Anti-Slavery movement and the Civil War. He has written six books for Applewood Books.

 

 

 

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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, The Roost