Tag Archives: Henry David Thoreau

Walking With Henry

By Tom O’Malley

It is good to walk with someone who knows how to put one foot in front of the other and move forward.  For modern educators, it’s a downright necessity.  What with all the theories, strategies, lesson plans, faculty meetings, parent associations, and student advocacy groups, one needs to find a companion who knows how to keep his or her feet on the ground.

Over the years, 36 and counting, I’ve never found a better schoolyard  companion than Henry David Thoreau.  He died in 1862, but luckily he left his voice with us in the form of two wonderful books and his grand opus Journals.

Henry’s journals were not published during his lifetime, and I suspect he might not appreciate the fact that they are readily available today.  He was a precise writer, fond of editing and revising his work — honing it to literary sharpness.  Perhaps that is why his voice still speaks to me here in the 21st century.  My life in the classroom is often a combination of problem solving, handwriting, shoulder leaning, and all sorts of listening opportunities.   Through it all, Henry remains my mentor, enduring wisdom sprung from the head of Zeus and deposited on the doorway of my classroom. 

Here are two lessons:

In 1836, Henry was a newly minted Harvard graduate. He was also unemployed.  One day, in desperation, he visited his famous friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lived in the same neighborhood.  The philosopher asked, “What are you doing now?”  That is the ultimate question for students and teachers alike, one that should be asked over and over.

Henry spent the rest of his life confronting that question and using it as a guide. The answer prodded him to explore self-reliance at Walden Pond, and to create the genre of American nature writing. It also led him to prison in opposition to slavery.  Good questions can shape a life.  Good questions can shape a nation.  As a teacher, I use Emerson’s question as a guide.  What am I doing now? It connects me to my students and pushes our studies forward.

Can we learn how not to be bored?   In his journal for June 27, 1840, Henry confronted  boredom: ”I am living this 27th of June, 1840, a dull cloudy day and no sun shining. The clink of the smith’s hammer sounds feebly over the roofs, and the wind is sighing gently, as if dreaming of cheerfuller days.”  I never realized life could be dull in the 19th century, what with all the discovering and Civil Warring going on.  Yet there it is.

This is the kind of day the history books gloss over.  Students often suggest that this is a world without computers,  Blu-rays, or social media.  What can you expect but boredom?  Still, not one to give in, Henry found that boredom could be a useful part of life.  He did this by taking up journal writing in a serious way. I like people who turn a perceived bad into a perceptive good, and that’s what he did.  Notice the good, careful observation on that 27th of June entry.  It’s just an ordinary day, but Henry turned it into something special by paying attention and then writing about it.  There’s a lesson in all this for my students.

Journal writing went on at an almost daily pace for Henry, and it does for my students as well.  Often times writers sit and wait for those moments of inspiration.  I often see my students waiting for the Muse to descend and inspire them.  Yet, as Thomas Edison pointed out, “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.”  This applies to writing as well.  

Henry found this out on January 29, 1851 when he wrote:  “Of all the strange and unaccountable things, this journaling is the strangest.  It will allow nothing to be predicted of it.  Its good is not good, nor its bad bad.  If I make a huge effort to expose my innermost wares to light, my counters seem cluttered with the meanest homemade stuffs, but after months or years I discover the wealth of India…” 

See what I mean? There’s no waiting around for writing or most kinds of learning.  It is really a matter of rolling up your sleeves and getting to work. There is magic in this work.

In the end, good writing requires patience, confidence and discipline.  The writer needs faith that the ideas in his of her head can be fleshed out, sharpened and transferred onto the page.  That is no easy task as anyone who has stared at the blank page will verify. Yet, walking with Henry will keep the journey interesting, and fuel the imagination every step of the way.

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

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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, The Roost

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

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