Echoing Anthony Burns Today

By Sandy Stott

All spring and into summer, I’ve been reading day by day through Thoreau’s 1854, and, as we do when we read the Journals, matching his days to mine. I chose ’54 because it was the year he was at work on the final proofs of Walden and then awaiting its publication. I wanted, as I “sheltered” in place, a live mind for a reading companion.

I got just that, and, small confession: I knew I would, as this was not my first time through the ’54 Journal. Still, as I’d also expected, I got surprised. Not in the form of a writer’s notes about completing his life’s masterwork; there’s almost nothing about Walden in those pages. They are instead rife with that spring’s outburst of plant-life, and Thoreau is often out on the rivers to see it all. Even as he had been spending long unremarked hours making manuscript corrections and emendations, he was also trying to keep up with what was blooming and would bloom, trying to track and guess those openings to the very day.

Perhaps this happens to you when you read Thoreau’s Journals, or perhaps I simply lack the visuals in mind to illustrate them, but I sometimes lose traction amid his notations of what’s just come out and what’s on the verge. Yes, yes, I say, but give me a little gossip, or even a weather report. Tell me about the train, or some hapless burgher. We differ in our fascinations.

But I persist, sometimes reading his listings aloud, in part to remind myself of life’s central lesson — pay attention; see and sense what’s here; be here. Thoreau helps me attend the only life there is, the one here. Adhere, inhere, cohere; be here.

Credit: Library of Congress

So it was further surprise when, in late spring of ‘54, his journal made clear that he could not be “here” habitually, comfortably. Something was bothering him to beyond distraction; he was being transported out of his daily world by anger. That something was the capture and return to slavery of Anthony Burns, an occasion that sent Boston into protest and then martial law and near-insurrection, which roiled the streets. And roiled Henry Thoreau.

Burns was eventually sent back to the south under the Fugitive Slave law, but during that time and in its aftermath, Thoreau and other abolitionists, felt themselves overturned and further radicalized. Thoreau’s everyday life, the one he put his whole self into, seemed suddenly trivialized, undone. His Journal makes this clear.

Here are a few moments from those days. I call these eruptive entries because Thoreau will be writing along as usual — noting this, recording that — when, without transition, Anthony Burns and our system of government appear. They are suddenly there, seen, perhaps more clearly for their suddenness.

May 28th finds Thoreau offering what seems prescient worry: “The inhumanity of science concerns me, as when I am tempted to kill a rare snake to ascertain its species. I feel that this is not the means of acquiring true knowledge.” That brings question to Thoreau’s daily inquiry.

On May 29th, he notes, “Stellaria longifolia, apparently apetalous!, ten or twelve inches high, will soon open on the bank near the Ranunculus abortivus.

“These days it is left to one Mr. Loring to say whether a citizen of Massachusetts is a slave or not. Does anyone think that Justice or God awaits Mr. Loring’s decision?”

Three tightly wound pages follow, tracing and condemning our government’s, our military’s, our media’s and our roles in supporting Judge Loring’s judgement, which said that Anthony Burns, as property, must be returned. The entry ends this way:

“Rather than thus consent to establish hell upon earth, — to be party to this establishment, — I would touch a match to blow up earth and hell together. As I love my life, I would side with the Light and let the Dark Earth roll from under me, calling my mother and my brother to follow me.”

For the next three weeks, at irregular intervals, similar moments burst from the surface of the Journal, building to Thoreau’s public response, Slavery in Massachusetts, his attempt to to nudge, to shape how his fellow citizens will think and act. That essay/lecture gets delivered on July 4th in Framingham where he appears and speaks amid a number of abolitionist luminaries, including Sojourner Truth and William Lloyd Garrison. The essay gets noticed, talked about, reprinted; it vibrates in the public sphere.

Being transported by anger is no easy moment. Whatever the routines and circumstances of your life, they dwindle in import; you are lifted instead to new sight, vision. The everyday goes away, and you are left with, confronted with, a question: what do I do now?

Our current national moment surely offers resonance with these Journal entries and their record of a mind and soul ill at ease, outraged, confused as to what to do. I wake at night, as perhaps you do too, and lie there wondering at the scale of national disease articulated by the protests following George Floyd’s murder. Daylight wondering at the news tugs me from current work, which is a local parsing of a watershed as part of a conservation effort. I can’t concentrate; at the same time, I feel powerless to contribute to solution. I know enough to fight stasis, inertia, but I can’t list actions, (as Thoreau could list what bloomed on one day or the next, or as I might list what is amiss and potentially fixable in our brook).

Some solace: Even as Thoreau wrote and delivered Slavery in Massachusetts as part of his answer to that moment, he kept also at his daily life and work as well; he did not sink. Instead, he endeavored to live both a local and national life; he tried to be a full citizen.

I find myself searching for ways to do likewise.

Note: Thoreau’s actions and state of mind at this time in his life are described powerfully, ably, by Laura Walls in her recent biography, Henry David Thoreau, A Life. It’s worth paging to 345 and reading what follows.

Sandy Stott, formerly of Concord, Massachusetts, lives in Brunswick, Maine. The Founding editor of The Roost, hewrites 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 2018. He may be reached at

Today’s Great Awokening: Henry’s Tools Can Guide Us to Do Right

By Ken Lizotte, president Thoreau Farm Board of Directors and Margaret Carroll-Bergman, executive director

“The fate of the country… does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot-box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.”  — Henry David Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts.”

Henry believed that social reform began with the individual. His words rang true in the mid-19th century and, with time, are more relevant today, as our country confronts systemic racism and the legacy of slavery.

Henry stopped paying taxes to protest slavery.  In 1846, he was arrested for being a tax scofflaw and as a result spent one night in the Concord jail. He wrote “Civil Disobedience,” an essay which many consider the cornerstone of American democracy — the right and duty to protest, even at the risk of being jailed for breaking an actual law.

“Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”  — Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience

After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required enslaved people to be returned to their owners, even if the former slave lived in a free state, Thoreau and his family and friends became involved with the Underground Railroad and the Abolitionist Movement.

Frank Sanborn, one of the so-called Secret Six who secretly funded John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and similar actions — describes Henry’s escorting a fugitive slave to the Acton railway station on December 3, 1859, the day after Brown was hanged:

“I engaged Mr. Thoreau to drive his friend’s {Emerson} horse to South Acton the next morning, and there put on board the first Canadian train a Mr. Lockwood, whom he would find at my house. Thoreau readily consented, asked no questions, walked to the Emerson stable the next morning, found the horse ready, drove him to my door, and took up Merriam, under the name of Lockwood, neither knowing who the other was.”

Unknown to Henry, he had taken on a dangerous task: Francis Jackson Merriam was one of John Brown’s raiders at Harpers Ferry. He did this without question to help a fellow human being.

For many white Americans, there has lately been a “Great Awokening” concerning the economic, legal, and educational institutions that keep Black and brown Americans in poverty. The senseless murder of a 46-year-old Black man, George Floyd, by a Minneapolis police officer brought home the systemic racism that exists in our country. Captured on a cell phone, no one could deny Floyd’s repeated cries “I can’t breathe” as he was pinned to the ground by an officer’s knee on his neck. These cries have now have become the bellows for reform.

As Thoreauvians we have inherited both tools and actions from Henry to see that social justice and reform are finally realized. We have Henry’s writings on “Civil Disobedience,” “Slavery in Massachusetts,” “A Plea for John Brown,” and “Walden” as well. All together, Henry’s example offers a guide for taking responsibility without question or hesitation so as to do right and not “lend” ourselves to the wrong, as Henry put it. This crucial period of social reform we are living in demands it.






Rivery Days

By Sandy Stott

“I was impressed as it were by the intelligence of the brook, which for ages in the wildest regions before science is born, knows so well the level of the ground and through whatever woods or other obstacles finds its way. Who shall distinguish between the law by which the brook finds its river [sea], the instinct [by which] a bird performs its migrations, the knowledge by which man steers his ship around the globe?” — H.D. Thoreau, Journal, May 17, 1854

Though I am later out the door than Henry Thoreau was in the late spring of 1854, (often, he began at 6 a.m., or earlier, summoned by the early light, and the long, possible days), we share often a common destination. I mean “common” in a larger sense, in that we are also separated by 140 miles as well as by the span of years. We live in different places and times.

What joins us this spring-going-on-summer?

Thoreau and I go often in search of water, which in its streaming is on its own search. As I’ve read through spring 1854’s Journal outpouring of local excursion and observation, I’ve lost count of the number of times, Thoreau wrote, “Up Assabet,” or “To Fairhaven,” or “To the river…” His boat barely slept, I think. And from those waters, he kept track of spring’s profusion of leafings and flowerings out. So much to see; so much to be, he might have written in summary.

Mere Brook in Brunswick, Maine

My own spring of ’20 has also been water-infused and -enthused. Here in Brunswick, Maine, we have a brook that runs through us, much as the Assabet, Sudbury and Concord run through Thoreau’s town. But our brook, aptly named Mere Brook, has nowhere near the name or volume of Concord’s waters. It is just under five miles long before it becomes sea, and for much of its length, I can switch banks in a single bound (or once could have). But once gathered into initial pooling, Mere Brook knows where it must go. And it works impressively through our town to do so.

Mere Brook also has a lot going on over its few miles. So much so that it’s earned an unwanted descriptor from our state; MB is “urban-impaired.” Which is no better than it sounds. In short, in its shortness, our brook bears enough toxins and sediment and bacteria to make it unwelcome when it unburdens itself in Harpswell Cove, when it returns to its Mare. A number of us have taken on the cause of clearing Mere Brook of its “impaired” designation.

The brook’s burden has a number of sources — streets, houses, storm drains, backyards, piles of discard — in short, us and our various uses of the world. It also has one large-handed contributor: Mere Brook runs its intermediate miles through an old naval air base going-on industrial park. There, its east branch endures a 3/4-mile passage through a culvert beneath two runways, the imposition of a storm water and spill containment system on a tributary stream, and a legacy of dumped pollutants in groundwater named the Eastern Plume. No fancy feather that.

Still, like all its watery brethren, Mere Brook bears on, its waters surprisingly clear, it manilla sands firm in the center, its gullies and forested reaches passage for both waters and wild critters. It is in many places beautiful and expressive. And, like Thoreau’s rivers, Mere Brook occasions vision and visions.

I was, just a month ago, especially taken with Thoreau’s short description of “brook intelligence,” which pointedly he compared with our intelligence that enables us to rove the world. In his tri-part yoking of brook, bird and human, he unseats the usual assumption of our superiority as derived from our consciousness. We see ourselves as separate, apart from the usual flow; Thoreau begs to differ. “Who shall distinguish between the law by which the brook finds its river [sea], the instinct [by which] a bird performs its migrations, the knowledge by which man steers his ship around the globe?” he asks.

It has, these past few days, been just so on Mere Brook. Over those days, I have followed the wonderfully-named John Field, a fluvial geo-morphologist, as he walks the brook and susses out how it moves and why in this direction or that. “What’s on its brook-mind?” he asked. Over the hours of brook-walking and brush-bashing, I have watched man and stream take each others’ measure. “See this mudded root system,” said John the other day. “It shows me how our brook ponded here for a number of years, dropping silt as it slowed in the pooled water. We need to find out what made Mere do this.”

And some yards downstream, we found our forming force, an old, overgrown beaver lodge, shaped like a giant yurt. Another intelligence. Fifty yards downstream, a crushed rock berm rose fifteen feet, with two culverts punched through it for stream passage. Naval imposition.

The beavers, on the other hand, must have thought they’d reached the afterlife — dam already built, wild pond-plain guarded, people kept out; all they had to do was plug two culverts, pretty simple work for such engineers. So, for some years, the beavers thrived. When, finally, the food ran out, they moved on; the grasses and bushes grew back.

Mere words? Perhaps. Tomorrow we go out again to walk another reach of the brook, to see what’s next as Mere Brook knows its way to the sea. We take with us a growing sense of Thoreau’s “brook intelligence.”

Sandy Stott, formerly of Concord, Massachusetts, lives in Brunswick, Maine. The Founding editor of The Roost, 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 2018. He may be reached at