Tag Archives: Thoreau Farm

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

The New Henry in Town

By Corinne H. Smith

When Richard Smith moved to West Virginia at the end of 2017, he left behind nearly a two-decade legacy of portraying Henry David Thoreau in Concord, especially at Walden Pond, where he greeted visitors as Henry in the Thoreau house replica on a regular basis.

Last summer while Smith was contemplating his move, another Thoreauvian, Brent Ranalli, was exploring the idea of taking his efforts at historical interpretation to the next level. Ranalli did not know there would soon be an opening for some one to portray Henry David Thoreau in June 2018.

Brent Ranalli as Henry David Thoreau at Thoreau Farm.

Ranalli’s path first intersected with the Thoreau crowd when he participated in a panel presentation at The Thoreau Society Annual Gathering in 2009. The subject of the session was the publication of Environment: An Interdisciplinary Anthology, a textbook which Brent helped to edit. He quickly felt a camaraderie with the people involved and attending the conference. He has been a regular presenter at each Gathering ever since.

Ranalli is interested in Thoreau’s fascination with Native Americans. He admires how Thoreau was able to take on a walking style that many of his friends equated with that of an American Indian. Ranalli has written and spoken about Thoreau’s gait, as reported by the people who were close to Henry. His research made him wonder: Why not study Thoreau’s gait by donning Henry’s style of clothing and portraying Thoreau himself? Ranalli began to gather parts of the wardrobe and the props he would need for this venture.

Meanwhile, Visitor Services Supervisor for Walden Pond State Reservation, Jennifer Ingram  was responsible for finding a new historic interpreter who could portray Henry and fill the void Smith had left. Over the winter, Ingram sent queries to members of the local historical collaborative in Concord. While she pursued some leads, none of the applicants seemed to fit the position.

Ranalli eventually heard about this new opening through The Thoreau Society, where he is a member, and contacted Ingram. She was immediately impressed. He certainly had the background and the interest; was in the right age range; and had the right build to portray Thoreau.

Ingram had a final test for Ranalli, however. The two met at the Pond office one day, and went to sit in the replica for an hour. Ingram felt that this experience would be critical for the prospective Thoreau. It would offer the reality of the interpretation. If the potential Henry didn’t feel comfortable being in this space, or if he felt he had to leave after a few minutes, then that would be that.

Instead, Ranalli stayed.

“It felt comfortable,” he said. “One could make a home there. With the replica furniture and the working wood stove, the house definitely feels authentic. It makes it easy to enter the world of the 1840s.”

He had not only passed Ingram’s test, but one of his own. And, he interacted well with the public who stopped by the house that day to meet Henry.

This month, Ranalli did his first Henry gig at an Acton elementary school. (He was careful not to talk to any classes that included his own sons as students.) He reports that the appearance went well. He was stymied only once. This was when someone asked what kind of car Thoreau would drive, if he were alive today.  (I suggested that Thoreau would be likely to take public transportation.) Yet, Ranalli feels as though he has already gained a deeper understanding of the author-naturalist by stepping into his shoes.

Brent Ranalli will portray Henry Thoreau at Walden Pond State Reservation on Sunday, May 27, 2018, beginning at 1 p.m. Be sure to stop by and chat with him as he “is” Henry at the house replica. Just don’t ask him about cars!

Corinne Smith is the author of Henry David Thoreau for Kids among other books; a frequent contributor to The Roost;  and is a tour guide at Thoreau Farm.

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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, News and Events, The Roost

Inside and Outside the Birth Room

By Donna Marie Przybojewski

“I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk. I would fain forget all my morning occupations, and my obligations to society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is. I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” — “Walking,” HDT

I spent time recently at the Concord Free Library Special Collections rereading Thoreau’s “Walking” revisions. Henry’s lecture brought to mind the need for all of us to remove  stress and tension  from our minds, before we embark on activities to refresh ourselves.

Children’s book author Donna Marie Przybojewski at work in the HD Thoreau birth room.

No one can deny that we live in an age of technological overload, making personal introspection difficult and almost impossible to accomplish. Although technology has made life easier, it also has been the root of many of our problems. Technology pervades our lives and surrounds us with excessive stimuli that makes it challenging to relax and clear our minds. Cell phones, iPods, iPads, and Smart watches keep us connected with the world while complicating our attempts to be stress free.

Henry obviously did not contend with such technology, but he did find it troublesome to leave the world behind at times during his saunters. Even though life was a lot less complicated during Henry’s time, people still had worries, matters to attend to, and anxiety. Even Henry was not exempt from these types of troubles. We all face obstacles at one point or another, but Henry knew it was vital to abandon problems, thoughts, and stress when going into nature, and he was conscious of when he had not done that. Such was the difference. He was perceptive enough to appreciate that removing oneself from all that cluttered the spirit was essential to achieving clarity and health in one’s life. Whenever a person requires time for reflection and personal growth, nothing must muddle the mind.

As an avid hiker in the national parks, I adhere to Henry’s philosophy to leave the world behind and all that does not belong in nature when I am on the trails. It does not matter whether I am climbing to view Delicate Arch at Arches National Park in Utah in the sweltering heat of summer; hiking around the hoodoos in Bryce National Park also in Utah; the Sonoran Desert of Arizona; the Rocky Mountains in Colorado; or simply sauntering on the Towpath of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park near my home.

During such excursions, big or small, my mind is clear of all that creates tension in my life and complicates it. My thoughts are turned to lofty things.  As I immerse myself into the beauty of the natural world, my inner self emerges as it becomes refreshed and restored leaving behind all that is troubled and blemished. I gain new perspectives which assist me in reawakening what might have been lost in me.

However, there are moments, when the spirit is willing, the flesh does not cooperate, and I sometimes need a reminder from Henry when I allow the world to creep into my space of solitude during my time in nature.

Now, the same holds true for me when I am at the Writer’s Retreat in the birth room of Henry David Thoreau at the Thoreau Farm. That time is sacred to me because I can only visit once or twice a year. Therefore, the world is left outside as I spend time in reflection and creative growth. During this time, it is vital for me to experience the solitude and spiritual ambiance that the room offers. When I am at the Writer’s Retreat, I find myself energized with creativity and a special inner peace that enables me to exist only in the present, not realizing that eight hours or so has passed in what seems to be minutes.

On my visit in July of 2016, however, I am ashamed to admit, I did not adhere to Henry’s wisdom on that particular day. For some reason,  I unfortunately brought the world into the birth room that morning. Now, for a person who does not own a cell phone, I acted as if my life depended upon technology. There happened to be a number of pressing issues in my life that I believed needed to be dealt with, so I brought my iPad with me to check for the email that I was expecting. Immediately, I felt a difference — my sense of peace was missing. I brought the world into the room. Since it is my practice not to  leave the birth room once I arrive, this caused me great anxiety. The more I checked my email, the more tension I felt, which caused my heart to race and most likely, my blood pressure as well. There was no peace, no ambiance, and no creative energy.

I was flitting back and forth from my iPad to writing and contemplating. I felt anxious because I was not relaxed and knew I was wasting precious time and could not concentrate or write my thoughts. The more I was aware that time was passing, the more agitated I became. I felt nothing. I was broken. The room was not serving its purpose. Why?

Since I have never had a problem leaving my thoughts behind whenever I stayed at the birth room, this was confusing to me. The only technology I relied on was my iPod because I enjoyed playing the Thoreau Family Flute Book as well as Aeolian harp music. Both were the background to my journaling and meditation. This time though something changed. Even the music had now become a distraction.

This back and forth went on for about two hours when suddenly my iPod went dead. I heard no music. Shrugging, I assumed that the battery went dead and needed to be charged. Although I could not figure out why, since I had charged it the previous night. I went to plug it into an outlet — nothing happened. There was no charge. I thought thought the battery was completely drained and needed to be plugged in for a few more minutes before a light would come on. After twenty minutes, I checked — blank screen. My heart sunk. My iPod was dead —no Aeolian harp and no flute music.

Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Henry’s words reverberated in my mind, “What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something outside of the woods?” Precious time was being wasted because I was not allowing my spirit to leave the world that I was supposed to leave behind. What business did I have trying to contemplate and write if my mind was outside this special room?

Upon realizing this, I quickly shut my iPad and put it away. “I’m all yours, Henry,” I silently thought to myself. Without the technology, including the music, my sense of peace was restored. My respirations were slow and steady, and my mind was clear of all that did not promote the sanctity of this room. The remaining six hours turned out to be one of complete renewal for me and the beginning of an extraordinary journey that I would be taking in the months that lay ahead.

After my time at the Writer’s Retreat was over and I returned to my hotel, a surprising thing occurred. My iPod turned on and worked. Now, I tend to believe in guidance from other realms, and I have no doubt that I was being reminded (perhaps, by Henry) that if my time was to be renewing for me, then I had to leave all that was not necessary behind. It was a remarkable lesson to learn from one who never had a problem doing that. It is a reminder we all need from time to time — leave the world outside. Sometimes, silence can be the most inspirational background music we can hear.

Therefore, I am left with this one thought for the next time I use Henry’s room: “What right do I have to be in the birth room, if I am thinking about something outside the birth room?”

Donna Marie Przybojewski is a teacher and children’s book author, who writes about Henry David Thoreau. Her books provide many young people with their first introduction to Henry and Transcendentalism.

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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau