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On The Concord River

By Tom O’Malley

“The life in us is like the waters in a river,” HDT

What is it about rivers?

Tom O’Malley, with daughter Nora and wife Meg.

They pull us in and push us along. Sometimes, rivers will sweep us away, but I think that is only because they get excited when we accept their invitations. Rivers can be sociable, but can get out of control in their enthusiasm. Funny, I live right near a famous river, the Niagara. I have swam in it, boated on it, walked along it and have been hypnotized by it. My wife Meg and I love to drive along the Canadian side of the Niagara from Fort Erie to Niagara on the Lake. It is a time machine with passing glimpses of British forts and quiet villages. Such a slow and pretty drive.

Still, I don’t feel the warm attachment to this river that I do for the Concord River in Massachusetts. The Niagara is a powerful god, a Poseidon the earth shaker, a ribbon of fear that sweeps toward oblivion at the Falls. If the Niagara is a time machine, then the Falls are the fearful Apocalypse that lurks in the darker pages of the Bible.

The Concord is the river of peace, as its name suggests. I prefer its Algonquin name, the Musketaquid or river of grassy banks. This river moves so slowly that Nathaniel Hawthorne, an avid boater, was never sure of the direction of its current when he lived up at Emerson’s Old Manse in the 1840’s.

I have walked and paddled on the Concord many times. It is never a fearful place, even when I was caught in a rainstorm a few years ago. The trees and bridges seem to spring up whenever shelter is required. The gentle river is always inviting , protective and generous.

As I floated down the Concord just a short time ago, I couldn’t help but recall my secret image of this river as a concrete image of time. In fact, the Concord is timeless. We floated past 18th Century farm houses shaded by trees that were seeded during the American Revolution. I could clearly feel and see Emerson walking along the banks with Henry Thoreau. Their poetry was written on these waters and continues to nourish the generations that spring up along its shore. Geese still jet over our heads while frogs sit meditating on logs.

Soon we approach the Old North Bridge, surely the birthplace of American independence. It is hard to imagine that an epic battle was once fought in these pastoral fields. To our right, we see the Old Manse, a house built by Reverend William Emerson and home to his grandson Ralph Waldo Emerson and later to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who enjoyed writing haunting stories while watching the river float by his window.

Back on land, time seems like a straight line as we mark off the days, months and years. While we are carried along by this mystic water, time has no meaning. The Native peoples still make treaties near Egg Rock, while up ahead, stout Concord farmers trade their plows for muskets. The transcendentalists learn to see heaven on earth, and I float along through all of it in the company of those I love the most. Here there is no dreary human time, only the bells of shared experience and visible manifestations of wonder. Every time.

Tom O’Malley is an adjunct professor of English at Canisius College. 

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Filed under Environment, Henry David Thoreau, Nature, The Roost, Thoreau Quote

A Singing Bridge

By Corinne H. Smith

July 11, 2015, 6:30 a.m. North Bridge, Concord, Massachusetts.

I was due at Walden Pond at 7 a.m. to lead the annual silent Memorial Walk during The Thoreau Society Annual Gathering. I had fifteen minutes to spare before I had to pick up a fellow walker at her hotel. So I headed over to my favorite place in the area: the North Bridge.

Thankfully, the hour was too early for tourists. And the timing must have been off for joggers or dog-walkers too, because I had the place blissfully to myself. Or, I should clarify: I was alone, only as far as fellow humans were concerned. Once I tiptoed to the crest of the bridge, I was instead surrounded by birdsong.

Looking down the river

Looking down the Concord River at dawn

The usual little brown chatterers were perched in the tall trees by the riverbanks. A catbird mewed from the thicket. A pair of red-wing blackbirds chased each other through the marsh on the opposite shore. Pigeons cooed from underneath the bridge boards. Every few seconds one of the pigeons would whappity-whap-whap to one of the other wooden posts below.

Looking up the Concord River at dawn

Looking up the Concord River at dawn

As I had hoped, the clear and cloudless sky made for a beautiful scene. My favorite scene. One so full of peace that it confounded me to think that the Revolution started here with weapons, confusion, gunshot, injury, and loss of life.

It was at this hour on the morning of April 19, 1775, that the colonial minutemen gathered in anticipation on the other side of the bridge. The red-coated soldiers would soon arrive in Concord from Boston, after having exchanged shots with the minutemen lining the road in Lexington. The paths of the two groups would cross here in about three hours. What happened would eventually be described by Ralph Waldo Emerson as “the shot heard ‘round the world.” Had the birds been singing on that morning, too?

I looked downriver, to the right. The Concord was beautiful. I looked upriver and toward the Old Manse boathouse, to the left. Suddenly I realized that a heron was fishing along the far shoreline, just beyond a bit of rising mist. I hadn’t noticed it before. I had had too much history on my mind.

Heron fishing

Heron fishing

Still, the birds sang, all around me. After a quick look around to make sure there were no further witnesses, I decided to join them. I chose the chorus from the John Denver song “Summer,” which I thought was one of the most transcendental sets of lyrics he ever wrote:

“And oh, I love the life within me,
I feel a part of everything I see.
And oh, I love the life around me,
A part of everything is here in me.
A part of everything is here in me.
A part of everything is here in me.”

Most singing bridges come with decks of metal grates that make automobile tires “sing” when they travel across them. This morning I changed the definition to include this other kind of singing: vocal, not physical. I sang the chorus several times, getting louder with each one. The heron must not have been a John Denver fan. When I looked back to the far shore, he was gone.

Still, I have a sense for what Henry David Thoreau may have thought if he’d been able to look down from this “rude bridge” and see the reflection of the morning sky in the Concord water:

“Heaven is under our feet, as well as over our heads.”

The Concord is an impressionist river, reflecting both trees and sky.

The Concord is an impressionist river, reflecting both trees and sky.

 

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