Tag Archives: Henry David Thoreau

‘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 Both books were compiled from previously published essays and unpublished material from Thoreau’s Journal.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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Choosing to be Born – a Day in Thoreau’s Birthroom

By Sandy Stott

Henry David Thoreau’s birthroom serves as a writers’ retreat. Credit: Margaret Carroll-Bergman

In your first room, the one where you sleep, and, at many hours, take in the light as it shifts and illuminates (or shadows) the faces (and the face) that appear above you, there’s a lot to see. Everything asks for your eye. And the other four senses chip in too. It is all incoming. Life that is.

We can’t return to the mystery of that long intake and our squalls of comment. Whatever remains from our first months of life is narrated by others, or stored in film clips of some “other” crawling about a screen, or simply waving limbs. “Who is that?” we wonder as we watch our little, former selves; what was it like?

***

The morning light streams through the east window of Henry Thoreau’s birth room, where, as summer slipped into fall in 1817, he passed hours of time absorbing. It is a ho-hum February day with only a hint of the corona-horizon in the offing, and I am receiving the gift of time to think and write in Henry Thoreau’s birth room, the centerpiece of the Thoreau Farm Trust’s restored and vital birth house.

What’s it like to be given time in the presence of? Here are a few notes, unvarnished observations and thoughts from that day. They are beginnings … as any birth will be.

I hope that, as we reach beyond our current isolations, you too may find your way to this gift … or a similar one.

Selected Notes from 2/22/20:

Pre-amble: East-facing, twelve-pane window. Outside, windless, just below freezing, cloudless — a replica of yesterday. Inside, at this replica-desk, built to the dimensions of Thoreau’s desk at Walden; it raises my arms to write. My eyes, I note, get raised too.

On this still, winter morning, in this sunlit room, with a hint of sun-warmth, I have come to spend hours emptied of obligation, to attend … if it seems the right attention … to these hours in the life of the ash tree beyond the window. Or to the verge of woodland brush some yards beyond. Or the wooded interior of my mind. To attend also to new writing about a local stream many miles north of here in Brunswick, Maine. It is, as I wrote on a first piece about it, (no) Mere Brook.

Thoreau’s birthroom. Credit: Margaret Carroll-Bergman

When I got here, I read my way around the birthroom, paying particular attention to the short bios and old representations of the Thoreau family. The four siblings drew a long look; passing from one to the next, I traced the family resemblance, returning often to their eyes, which seem outsized for the faces they inhabit. I suppose I can say now that I’ve felt the gaze of Thoreaus. It felt a little like looking through clear ice.

It is quiet, but for a passing car every so often, and the clock, still set on daylight time, which ticks by the seconds, compiling the minutes, and is — I’m guessing — here to complement Cynthia Thoreau’s memory of stoop-sitting as a child late at night, and hearing only “the ticking of the clock in the house behind her.”

I’ve brought current writing to this day, though I’m uncertain whether or not I’ll turn to it. These notes in my Future is Local notebook may be the day, spiced perhaps by water-readings I’m carrying: (David James Duncan’s’s My Story as Told by Water and Franklin Burrough’s Confluence). I’ve also brought two pencils, which I’ve sharpened for note-making in my scatter-book. And I have two Henry-books — Walden, of course, and Faith in a Seed. The Walden edition is my first teaching copy, and so is filled with notes, many rudimentary; after years of teaching, I see many of my notes as kin to those taken in high school or college, when, following advice to be an “active reader,” I might have written “metaphor” in the margin next to (I hoped) the same.

But some of these notes or checkmarks or underlinings caught passages that deepened over time, that I returned to again and again as I sought to open little windows for my students (see memory of Henry sprawled on the new ice of early winter/late fall, looking down through his “window” into the pond and its winter beings and stories). Or refresh my own sense of a work as bottomless as Walden Pond.

It is, these notes later, morning still, even as the sun has edged south and heated the air outside enough to stir the twigs on the ash.

“Write while the heat is in you,” says one of the many quotations before and around me. Kindle that heat every day, it might say, as in you must set the matter of your fire up and ablaze; no one else will do it for you.

I wonder if Thoreau had a well muscled tolerance for boredom and the limits of self, which I take to be one of writing’s primary problems. “Well, I showed up at this desk again and found … the same self, the same “selfie.” It would, of course, help to have Henry’s genius, to have a mind so capable, but still that mind was not unencumbered, and that mind was not his full self. Surely that’s part of what sent him walking every day that he could.

As Franklin Burroughs writes in his introduction to Confluence, the walker strikes a deal with the earth every step (paraphrase from memory). Relationship! the way out of the tight circle of self.

From earlier writing, a good deal so:

Declaration

Two years, two months, two days.

Henry Thoreau was wary of symbols

thoughts and things that go two

by two into the ark of the mind.

And when he took time off, absconded

with it to the pond on July 4th,

1845, he scoffed at those who saw

declaration of independence, in truth

he might have said, I am more

dependent than ever, on this pond

on this earth, on these feet, not

to mention the sky that shines

in the water, a medium really

for seeing up and down, for

seeing two ways at once, a unity

upon which I row my boat and

in which I bathe every day.

***

That was the first hour.

Yesterday, partly as prep for today, I walked to and through Estabrook Woods. Getting out of town took some time…and wariness — the commuter cars were plying the back road, looking to hurry to some edge amid the general swarm of traffic. But once turned onto the dead end of Estabrook Rd., I was solo, and, where the walkers’ cars are usually five or eight deep, there were none.

Into the woods then, along a track of scuffed and fragmented leaves, with only occasional remnants of foot-beaten ice and some frozen mud. North along the Carlisle Road, and fresh from Maine’s woods, I am — once again — amazed the the size of the trees in his old forest. Yes, of course, the white pines, some of which must be verging on 150+ years. Hardwoods also have escaped the saw; some of them are two-people thick. As befits lordly trees, the forest floor is free of scrub brush.

That memory nudges me to run; my feet know this glacial rubble, even down to some individual stones; I break into a small-stepped shuffle wherever the trail climbs. Which it does along the esker that rims Stump Pond’s north side. I have always liked running uphill … tap tap tap, it is all so … me.

From beneath the hill at Punkatasset, I turn south, small stepping up the ridge rise, the tipping down toward town. I run through a few new signs that say, “Don’t,” and “Private Property.” These are cross-lots moments. I have some sympathy for the landowners as these woods get crowded with walkers and bikers and dog-annoyers who pop up in yards, asking the way, or trampling on. We are too many on many days. But on this one, I have seen four people in an hour; the 4 o’clock light slants in. I’m not even leaving prints on the hard ground. I cross over, cross up our confused notions of private property.

Is property private when you are the only one there?

I alternate: when I walk, I tree-gaze. These woods are worthy of intense attention; when I little-step run up the trail, I mind the rocks and their vests of leaves. There’s a lot to read on such a trail, and each right step is a little pleasure. Linking them is foot-writing, script of motion.

I am, I realize repeatedly, happy, very.

***

Through lunch — a croissant, an orange, some water — simple fare. The sun is in the south, warming the room still, some. I feel the day’s turn. Morning’s freshness has worn away; there’s a skim of usual across my mind — my thoughts, my words; I know them, you, him. Still, these morning hours untethered from e-mail and word-games and news-sites have been good. They suggest better practice when I return to my own room.

Now would be time for a walk, but today I’ll stay on at this desk, before this now-cool window, in this always calm room. I’ll see what appears, whether morning-mind comes again, or sends some afternoon sibling.

***

Back with the ash, whose branches show the way so much expresses from the single fact, and how much depends upon that fact, trunk.

The sunlight has reached the foot of my chair, welcome foot-warmer in this cool room.

Franklin Burroughs at the end of his introductory essay in Confluence:

So if you sit in your boat in the middle of the bay on a sweet late summer morning, your sense will be of a surprising solitude and of lovely modulated distances, and your pleasure in that will be augmented by the old pleasure, which must be rooted in our hunter-gatherer heritage, of being surrounded by life, seen and unseen. Human and natural history appear to have settled into a peaceful co-existence. In fact they have not — not here, not anywhere else on earth. Part of your mind knows that, and it is important not to ignore what you know. But it is also important to see what is, at and for the present moment, in front of your eyes. (p.8)

Just so. Kindred surely to Henry.

***

Part of this day’s lesson, I/he said, returning to this day, to this room, lies in having stuck with it. That’s so old and obvious as to be no lesson at all, and still, it insists. Here, I have been quieter, more persistent; I have let whatever shallow seep there is pool to where I can drink of it, a bit. And I have, for these hours, kept company with the ash. Speak with the wind; persist like a tree.

Sandy Stott, formerly of Concord, Massachusetts, is a Brunswick, Maine resident, chair of the town’s Conservation Commission, and a member of Brunswick Topsham Land Trust’s Board of Directors. 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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Following in Thoreau’s Footsteps During the Pandemic: Sauntering in the Time of Social Distance

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least —and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. — HDT, “Walking,” June 1862

Thoreau died from tuberculosis. There was no cure for TB in Henry’s day. It was the leading cause of death in the 1800s. Yet, TB wasn’t the only infectious disease in 19 th century America, there were outbreaks of dysentery, cholera, malaria, pneumonia, and typhoid fever.

So, what did Henry do?

He walked. He spent time — a lot of time— outdoors.

My vicinity affords many good walks; and though for so many years I have walked almost every day, and sometimes for several days together, I have not yet exhausted them. An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see.— HDT, “Walking”

It was thought that Henry developed tuberculosis in 1835 when he was a student at Harvard College. He died nearly three decades later in 1862, a month before “Walking” was published in “The Atlantic.”

His example of living outdoors was heralded by doctors who prescribed the “outdoor cure” for TB patients in the early 1900s. “Thoreau as an Exponent of the Modern Treatment of Tuberculosis,” was the title of a 1908 article in a Boston medical journal, and Henry was featured as a “Hero of Tuberculosis” in a 1908 journal devoted to the “outdoor cure.”

COVID-19 has changed the way we live.

It has led many of us to a “deliberate life” in ways we never thought possible.

Everything from grocery shopping to taking a walk to interacting with others now has to be planned in excruciating detail to avoid crowds and, more importantly, situations where one might get coughed or sneezed upon.

COVID-19 makes us think about life and death, and with limited medical resources, who will live and who will die and who will make these decisions. In a pandemic the world looks to doctors and nurses and scientists to tell the truth.

Blessed were the days before you read a President’s message. Blessed are the young for they do not read the President’s message. Blessed are they who never read a newspaper, for they shall see Nature, and through her, God. — HDT, Letter to Parker Pillsbury, April 10, 1861

Here in Massachusetts, residents are advised by the governor to work from home and to only go outside only for a walk or the weekly shop.

As a result of the modern world coming to a halt, we are now able to hear through the silence — songbirds, peepers, and hikers in the woods — the sounds Thoreau heard in his day, without the hum of cars and planes.

Life as we know it is upended, but nature’s embrace is open.

And, many of us, as Henry David Thoreau did, are heading into the woods.

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