Category Archives: Henry David Thoreau

At the End of the World With Henry

By Lawrence Millman

Henry David Thoreau is not only one of the dozen dedicatees at the beginning of my book, At the End of the World: A True Story of Murder in the Arctic, but he also figures prominently in the book itself, although he never visited the Arctic. Indeed, he never made it farther north than the Saguenay River in Quebec.

Lawrence Millman researching the Belcher Islands murders.

Consider the Belcher Islands, an archipelago in the turbulent waters of eastern Hudson Bay. So remote were these islands that the first white person to set foot on them did so only as recently as 1916. But they weren’t remote from the violence in the name of religion that’s currently common on our planet. In the mid-1930s, a missionary visited the Belchers and gave the local Inuit a simplified tutorial on the merits of Christianity.

Here are the consequences of that tutorial: some years later, during a winter when game was very scarce, one Inuk declared him Jesus, another declared him God, and anyone who didn’t believe in them was killed because that person was Satan. A plethora of Satans were killed in the Belchers.

So what do these killings have to do with Henry? I didn’t have the answer to that question myself when I first tried … and failed … to write a book about those killings. Years passed, but I still couldn’t seem to get a fix on the story. Then I happened to be in Tasiilaq, East Greenland, and I heard about a recent incident where a young woman was sitting on a rock by the sea and texting, unaware that a polar bear was approaching. At the last moment she saw the bear and screamed, whereupon the bear loped away. Presto! I realized I couldn’t write about the past without also writing about the present, and I got the necessary fix I needed to write the book.

In one of the book’s epigraphs, Henry says, “Let your life be a counter friction against the machine.” If he were alive today, he might replace“machine” with “screen.” For digital technology not only has become the silver SUV of global economy, increasingly so with the advent of COVID-19, but also something akin to a religious obsession, a pill-sugaring fantasy that, in making our lives seemingly easier, has removed us from the natural world. An example: In the book, I refer to a woman fixated on her iPhone and smashing into me on a sidewalk in Boston, then saying, “Sorry, but I was just trying to find out the weather.”

If Henry were alive today, I can imagine him also smashing into me, but only because he was gazing up at the sky in an effort to identify a certain type of cloud … or smashing into me because he was gazing down at the ground in order to identify a plant species (he donated 1,100 botanical specimens to Harvard’s Farlow Herbarium). A very different type of smashing.

Twice in the book I describe being in the vicinity of Henry’s grave in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. The first time I was collecting Suillus mushrooms near the grave when a burly man in a pickup truck shouted at me,“Hey, my GPS crapped on me — can you tell me how to get to Route 2?” I gave the fellow directions without consulting a GPS, a device I don’t own, since it would remove me from the natural sights that document my whereabouts.

The second time I’d given a lecture at a New England college, after which one of the professors told me the college was jettisoning all of its books and going completely digital. No more palpable reading matter! I visited Henry’s grave and said, “I think we’re in trouble, Henry.” There was no response, but in a nearby tree a white-throated sparrow was singing, “Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody,” perhaps the saddest of all bird songs.

At the End of the World mentions the elderly Concord woman who used to put flowers on Emerson’s grave, but who muttered as she passed Henry’s, “And none for you, you dirty little atheist.”

Regardless of his religion or lack thereof, what would Henry have done if he happened to be in the Belchers when the missionary arrived in the mid-1930s and left a Bible translated into Inuit syllabics? He gives some idea of what his response might have been in this sentence from Walden: “If I knew for certain that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”  Note that he says “run” rather than “saunter,” one of his favorite words.

But rather than run or even saunter for his life, Henry might have simply stayed put and addressed the Belcher Inuit with these words: “O my animist friends, do not forsake the natural world, for it’s the best of all possible worlds. Game may be scarce on occasion, but Nature doesn’t exist for the benefit of us humans. You might succumb from want of food, then perchance Arctic heather and purple saxifrage (not ’weeds’ and ‘brambles,’ as my New England-based Journal observes) may constitute your second growth…”

Lawrence Millman is an adventure travel writer and mycologist from Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

 

 

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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, The Roost

Laughter Amid The Storm

By Sandy Stott

Snapping turtle at Thoreau Farm

Perhaps you too could use a laugh … or at least a smile curling across your face where worry often sits. Here’s a recent moment that shifted me from smile to laughing aloud.

Many of us read Henry Thoreau for wisdom, solace, otherness, but not many go fishing with him for a laugh. Yes, I know that he is funny at times, and also that he thought himself so. A little redemption for being a sometimes-scold; and yes, I’ve smile-groaned at his affection for puns. But straight-out laughing? Not so often.

The other day, here in Maine, May began (finally) to utter itself. We’ve had a lot of cold rain and cold wind; our last snowflakes greeted me in the morning under a week ago. It’s been bundle up and bear-it weather, even as our green has come on. Throughout the month, I’ve been reading along, day by day, with Thoreau’s May of 1854 Journal. That May sums to 88 pages rife with observation. So much to see and note; so much change. Thoreau’s head seems to have been bursting with necessary notes. And, throughout it, he is always headed for the door, often to take his boat out onto the rivers and flooded meadows.

Thoreau’s May 16th features such a boat trip to Conantum in the afternoon, and, as ever, he is overflowing with observation. Leafing out is coming on so fast. On prior days he has been noting up a storm of openings, many of which are tagged as having happened, “say yesterday.” Enough so that I have begun to suspect that witnessing spring’s births really means arriving just after each event; it must always seem to have just happened. Then, on this day, he throws up his hands at trying to record in sequence, and in essence says, “It’s all happening; too much to record. Go out and be joyful.” Good advice. I went out the door.

Later, I returned to my reading. Here’s where image morphed to laughter. The 16th ends with a fine comic scene that involves a medium-sized snapping turtle. Thoreau spots commotion in the shallows of flooded Hubbard’s meadow. Of course, he floats over to see. There he finds the turtle on the bottom. Then, being himself, removing his coat and rolling up sleeves, he plunges his arm in repeatedly up to his shoulder, trying to catch the turtle, which in turn tries to hide under the boat. Finally he snags the turtle’s tail and hauls it aboard. The turtle is, as we all would be, a little put out. Henry reads as unperturbed, even as the turtle catches hold of his boot’s toe. He begins doing what Henry does — observing closely: carapace, moss on it, little leeches embedded. “It was wonderful how suddenly this sluggish creature would snap at anything.”

As he floats on through the late afternoon with the turtle now under the seat, Henry scratches the turtle’s back, a sort of absent affection that we visit on dogs. The turtle, however, is having none of it and pitches hissy (literally) fits, startling Henry repeatedly, even “though I was prepared for it. He suddenly went off like a percussion lock snapping the air.”

What made me laugh, beyond the descriptions of the two boated personalities, was the lack of resolution to the story. The little story ends there. Does the turtle get back into the water? When does Henry go home?

For me then this: on they sail, turtle and man, two tempered beings. Perfectly matched, it seems; still out there.

Sandy Stott is the Roost’s founding editor. He is a writer and educator, and the author of  Critical Hours — Search and Rescue in the White Mountains. He may be reached at fsandystott@gmail.com. 

 

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Filed under Henry David Thoreau, Nature, The Roost

Afterday

By Sandy Stott

During all the years I taught Thoreau’s work and through that larger span — ongoing — when reading him has prodded and settled me, I’ve missed noting his death-day, May 6. Realizing its passage on say, May 11, or some such proximate but late date, has always felt like a deficiency.

“What sort of reader and walker are you?” I said to self on more than one occasion. “At least nod to the man’s day of passing.” Never happened, and I offered myself the usual, mealy “he’s alive to me,” reasoning, and vowed weakly to do better. Never happened.

But here it is early on May 6, 2020, and here I am already a paragraph into remembrance. I’ve also just read The Roost and found Richard Smith’s fact-rich tribute, and so, here in the morning’s slant-sun — the right time, you will agree — I have Henry in mind. And still: my “recall” of this date has been one more instance of fortuitous bumbling.

In late April, as our new adherence to home wore on, I, like many of us, wanted more companion reading that was illuminating and distracting, words that wore spring’s rising light well. Slow pony that I am, it took a little while before, during a circuit of the living room, I stopped by our gathering of the blue-bound 1906 edition of Henry Thoreau’s Journal. Over the years, I’ve often chosen stretches of time where I read through a particular year at the calendar’s pace. “Let’s go to 1854 again,” I thought, recalling points of its passage, including Henry famous, terse note on August 9.

So, as May began, so did I. It was and is spring; what’s ahead, or, more aptly, what’s coming up?

For starters: “May 1. A fine clear morning after three days of rain — our principal rain-storm of the year, — raising the river higher than it has been yet.

6 A.M. — Up railroad. Everything looks bright and as if it were washed clean…”

First Light. Credit: Sandy Stott

Even a pedestrian start soothed. Here it was, 6 A. M., light flooding in, and already we were off. It looked to be a long, light-filled, local day. Which it turned out to be. On that first May day, Thoreau went out three times, first on foot, then twice by boat on the swollen rivers. I would go out thrice too, even as our forecast promised rain. I thumbed ahead in the Journal to see how many pages the month would bring. In my volume, they summed to 88, one measure of May ’54’s expansive feel, a measure I hoped to feel one day at a time.

That May’s early pages are rife with notes of noticing. Its header reads helpfully, Observation and Life; Thoreau seems to swell with life just as the many plants and animals he finds do. Also, in that May’s early pages, I experienced a moment of sympathetic recognition that suddenly jarred.

Thoreau wrote: “The red maples, now fully in bloom, show red tops at a distance.”

I looked up, nodded. “Yes, just so,” I mumbled to self, and began reading again. And stopped. “Wait a minute,” I said aloud. “Wait a minute.”

The problem clicked clear: Thoreau and I were on to the same maple-time of spring, but I was not where he was. Instead, I live over 100 miles mostly north in Maine. My spring in 2020 was his in 1854.

So, here I am, and it’s May 6. The white pine’s needles are shining, as he said they did, and these eight years before he died, Henry Thoreau has nearly four pages of observations about life for me.

They are large, “There is no such thing as pure objective observation.” And little, “Horse-mint is an inch or two high, and it is refreshing to scent it again.”

They are the expansive and precise observations of his life and his world, and they offer me the nudge to go and inhabit my world as fully as I can.

I have set aside afternoon hours that will take me from the headwaters of a local brook I am getting to know into the forest full of glacial leavings that the brook drains. Who knows what I’ll find? I will be both Maine in 2020 and Concord in 1854, and I am getting the gift of being able to live locally in each.

“It matters not where or how far you travel — the farther commonly the worse —, but how much alive you are.”

What will tomorrow bring? On May 7, I will open this journal and this window and this door and find out.

Sandy Stott, formerly of Concord, Massachusetts, is a Brunswick, Maine resident. 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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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Living Deliberately, The Roost