Category Archives: Henry David Thoreau

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

Free Speech Around the World

By Harriet Martin

The law will never make a man free; it is men who have got to make the law free. – Henry David Thoreau

While on a trip in Northern Europe, I visited the Oslo Parliament building in the capital of Norway. Oslo is the center for government in the country of 5.2 million people. Scandinavian countries like Norway are famous for their constitutional protections of free speech. Norway gained a constitution in May of 1814, yet censorship has been banned since 1770. On the World Press Freedom Index, Norway ranks one out of 180 countries. The United States ranks 43. These Northern European countries paint a picture of a land, where Thoreau would look on in favor. Thoreau’s ideas conflicted with the mainstream in his time; the protection for those with new ideas  in some countries today would make him proud. Yet, the range of free speech protections can vary greatly around the world.

Parliament building in Oslo, Norway. (Credit: www.visitoslo.com)

On the negative end of spectrum, the first country we will look at is Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a country rich in resources, namely oil, located in the Middle East. The Saudi government consists of a theocracy headed by a king, who commands the military forces. Internet censorship is one of the most prevalent examples of free speech limitations in the country. According to Free Speech and Free Press, over 2,000 pages are blocked, including pages on religion, humor and media. The right to peaceful protest, a cornerstone of American democracy, is definitely not followed in Saudi Arabia. Activists in the country have to live with the risk that they could be injured, or in some cases killed by police. 

Another country with a questionable record on free speech is China. A modern superpower with over 1.3 billion people, China will imprison journalists. NPR reports that China has imprisoned a record 199 journalists. In the graphic below, from the website Freedom House, countries are ranked by their level of freedom, which is a metric that takes into account many factors. The prevalence of free speech protections is a good indicator of the stability of a country.

Europe is completely free, when compared to the African and Asian continents. Africa and Asia are the current centers for political turmoil, which is reflected in how “free” they are. As you can see China as well as Saudi Arabia are a resounding “not free.”

Enough virtual globetrotting, let’s turn our gaze to home. In the U.S Constitution, the First Amendment guarantees every citizen very important rights: Freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. It allows citizens to hold different points of view and is what makes the cultural mixing pot of America so fascinating. For the purpose of this blog, we will look at freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

However, the U.S is not completely free. As mentioned earlier, the U.S ranks 43 on the World Press Freedom Index, down from a ranking of 20.  This low ranking on the World Press Freedom Index is attributed to the Obama administration’s aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers that included eight Espionage Act Prosecutions as well of its investigation of journalists, according to rootsaction.org.

While the world and the United States have changed significantly since the time of Thoreau, it’s more vital than ever that we stand for what we believe in so we can live up to our moniker of  “nation of the free.”

Harriet Martin is a youth blogger for The Roost and a student at Concord-Carlisle High School.

 

    

    

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Filed under Civil Disobedience, General, Henry David Thoreau

‘I Declined.’

By Kristi L. Martin

American society is currently embroiled in a political tumult over the suitability of certain public monuments and what to do with those that are questionably objectionable to present sensibilities and values. This raises abstract questions about the values of American society, as well as the symbolic meaning and power invested in objects. These questions interest me as an American public historian.

Yet, thoughtful conversations seem hard to come by in this moment of impassioned civil strife, cultural disconnect, and often violent agitation. Ours is a moment in history that resonates with the writings and life of Henry Thoreau on many levels. Hailed as the forefather of “civil disobedience” and spokesman for living a life of principle, Thoreau was an ardent abolitionist who had little use for the form of politics. Thoreau was also an advocate of listening intently.

Amid the angry, echo chamber of voices on social media, I stopped scrolling on a post that was distinctly different in tone from all the others – serenely composed, without sacrificing the strength of the author’s principles. I read:

“I would have no problem living my life without statues of specific people. Give me more trees, flowers, open skies, waving grasses, freely flying birds, roaming herds of animals and all of God’s creation. If man feels that isn’t enough, make your artwork general. No human being is that important we need to see them immortalized in stone.”

I was struck by the uniqueness of this statement. Here was someone not arguing for memorializing this human over that human. Instead the author appealed to the transcendent humility of human history in the grandeur scheme of the life. Her words reached something in my heart that elevated my thoughts above the turmoil and disquiet. I was instantly reminded of Thoreau.

On September 18, 1859, Thoreau recorded in his journal that he was asked to contribute toward a statue in memory of his neighbor, the educational reformer Horace Mann.

Thoreau wrote, “I declined, and said that I thought man ought not any more to take up room in the world after he was dead. We shall lose one advantage of a man’s dying if we are to have a statue of him forthwith. This is probably meant to be an opposition statue to [Daniel] Webster. At this rate they will crowd the streets with them. A man will have to add a clause to his will. ‘No statue to be made of me.’ It is very offensive to my imagination to see the dying stiffening into statues at this rate. We should wait till their bones begin to crumble – and then avoid too near a likeness to the living.”

Thoreau died in 1862, three years before the end of the Civil War. I will not condescend to imagine what Thoreau might say about our present day debates regarding monuments. Though it begs the question of what Thoreau would think of the statue of himself that now stands near Walden Pond.

The proliferation of public monuments to statements that Thoreau lamented were part of nation building in the 19th century. New Englanders attempted to define their own historical heroes in granite and thereby what cultural values would be upheld in the future.

The passage from Thoreau resonates more deeply with present debates than its general comment on public statuary. Daniel Webster was a noted statesman and famed orator, who disgraced his reputation in the estimation of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau by enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law, requiring New Englanders to comply with slavery. Horace Mann, whose statue Thoreau presumed was to be erected opposite of Webster’s on Boston Common, literally opposed Webster over the Fugitive Slave Law in Congress. But this is more of an aside, than to the purpose.

What I’d like to draw out of this passage in connection to the social media post written by my friend Lisa, is not a debate or an answer to a debate. My purpose is to draw out the quality of reflection, humility, and transcendence present in both passages in response to the impulse conceit, and predictability of reaction.

Rather than prompt further debate, controversy, or angst, reading Lisa’s words took me outside of myself, outside of anger, worry, and fear. Her words inspired me to surrender my own ego, to let go of the loud opinions bombarding my virtual environment, and to reconnect to the nurturing beauty of nature and my higher self. Perhaps you, too, will want to decline relation to stone statues – at least for a moment. Perhaps you, too, will go outside and look up at the sky, smell the air, feel the wind, listen to the birds, taste the fruits of the season, and remember the blessing of being human … and be present, be peace, for a Thoreauvian moment.

Kristi Martin is a doctoral candidate in the American and New England Studies, Boston University and is a historical interpreter at Thoreau Farm.

 

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Filed under Civil Disobedience, General, Henry David Thoreau, The Roost