Category Archives: Historic Preservation

One Honest Walk

By Corinne H. Smith

I left Concord, Massachusetts, Wednesday morning, September 25th, 1850, for Quebec. … I wished only to be set down in Canada, and take one honest walk there as I might in Concord woods of an afternoon. ~ Henry Thoreau, in his opening paragraph of  A Yankee in Canada.

Henry Thoreau and Ellery Channing made their Quebec trip at first by train and by steamer, and then took to the roads. Early this month, I joined a group of Quebecois and Americans to follow part of their walking path by car and on foot. The two-day outing was organized by Jacques Delorme and Jean Cloutier of Groupe de Simplicite Voluntaire de Quebec. We started in old Quebec city and ventured out into the countryside to the east, just as Thoreau and Channing did back in 1850. Along the way we saw many of the same sights, and we seemed to be truly following in their footsteps. Here is a short report to connect both trips.

As he rattled along the rails heading north, Thoreau “botanized” from the train. He noticed the woodbine, or Virginia creeper, turning its brilliant autumn red. It hung on trees “like a red scarf,” he wrote. “It was a little exciting, suggesting bloodshed, or at least a military life, like an epaulet or sash, as if it were dyed with the blood of the trees whose wounds it was inadequate to stanch.” Since this is one of my favorite natural observations from Thoreau, I made a point of searching for Virginia creeper during this visit. I wasn’t disappointed. The vine twirled around trees in the forests of the Adirondacks of New York. It rested on and took over fences in Canada. It hung from maples in Quebec, just as it had in Henry’s day. It is still here, still turning its signature maroon and crimson.

Virginia creeper on a tree in the Quebec countryside.

Virginia creeper on a tree in the Quebec countryside.

Like Thoreau and Channing, we toured old Quebec city. We saw the 1759 battle site of the Plains of Abraham, the citadel, the old city hall, the Wolfe-Montcalm monument, a few museums, and many other buildings and streets that Thoreau and Channing either saw or walked past. We three Americans kept saying to one another, “You know, we’re not that far from home. And yet it feels as though we’ve been transported to another place and time.” We meant this in a good and interesting way, of course. Thoreau must have had similar feelings. He wrote that after only two days of travel, “We were taking a walk in Canada, in the Seigniory of Beauport, a foreign country, which a few days before had seemed almost as far off as England and France. … Well, I thought to myself, here I am in a foreign country; let me have my eyes about me, and take it all in.” The trouble is that Quebec offers too much to take in. You can’t see everything at once, or even at all.

The citadel rampart and the city beyond.

The citadel rampart and the city beyond.

We left the city and walked east along present-day Avenue Royale, the same road that Thoreau took into the countryside. We passed homes that were built of native stone in the mid- to late 1600s. Most had old family-owned stone root cellars built right into the hillside. We were lucky: we had reservations to stay at local inns for the night. But Thoreau had difficulties finding a place to sleep, since he saw no public houses along the roadway. The language barrier was part of his challenge, too. The home where he and Channing finally ended up belonged to Jean Baptiste Binet and his wife, Genevieve. “We here talked, or murdered French all the evening with the master of the house and his family, and probably had a more amusing time than if we had completely understood one another,” Thoreau wrote. At bedtime, the men had to climb up to a high chamber with a wooden rail around it to reach a bed outfitted with linen sheets. Although Quebecois researchers disagree on the exact Binet house that Thoreau stayed in, they say that one of the prime candidates is a building that operates today as a Mexican restaurant called Senor Sombrero. We stopped here to take a peek and to imagine the past.

The former Binet home where Thoreau may have slept overnight.

The former Binet home where Thoreau may have slept overnight.

As we continued on, we passed pick-your-own orchards with long lines of cars waiting for spaces to open in the parking lots. Random apple trees stood right next to the road, just waiting for passers-by to reach out and to grab a few samples for themselves. Apple-lover that he was, Thoreau took note of the trees here, too. “There were plenty of apples,” he said, “very fair and sound, by the roadside, but they were so small as to suggest the origin of the apple in the crab.” Later, when he and Channing walked on to Sainte Anne, someone brought them more apples. “They were exceedingly fair and glossy, and it was evident that there was no worm in them; but they were as hard almost as a stone, as if the season was too short to mellow them. … I declined eating one, much as I admired it.” And so he turned away from Quebec apples. Our own Henry Thoreau (aka historical interpreter Richard Smith) did not decline the opportunity. He and some others took a few bites of fruit. I did not imbibe. Those who did said they were good but that they leaned toward the tart or sour side.

Our own Henry Thoreau, historical interpreter Richard Smith, picking a roadside treat.

Our own Henry Thoreau, historical interpreter Richard Smith, picking a roadside treat.

In crisp autumn sunshine, we walked between the hillside and the St. Lawrence River, where the natural geology makes for stunning waterfalls. The most spectacular ones are Montmorency Falls (Chute Montmorency) and Canyon Sainte-Anne. Thoreau and Channing scrambled around and admired both of these falls. Of Montmorency, he wrote: “It is a splendid introduction to the scenery of Quebec. Instead of an artificial fountain in the square, Quebec has this magnificent natural waterfall to adorn one side of its harbor.” Today both sites offer somewhat sturdy bridges so that visitors can walk above and over the falls. They can’t help those of us who have issues with heights, though. I wouldn’t have gotten over the Montmorency bridge without the support of several members of our group, for which I was grateful. I tackled the one at the canyon on my own – twice! both over and back! – but I did so on tiptoe, tentatively and gingerly, and without looking down at the water. I had to do it because I knew what lay ahead: the replica of the Walden house that had been built here years ago. Local people knew that Thoreau made his visit in 1850. The spot where you can first view the full length of the falls is now marked with a house built to Thoreau’s specifications. This was our final destination on this trip. Those of us who succeeded in reaching the house got signed certificates to show for our efforts.

Successful saunterers at the Walden house replica at Canyon Sainte-Anne, October 2, 2016.

Successful saunterers at the Walden house replica at Canyon Sainte-Anne, October 2, 2016.

“I fear that I have not got much to say about Canada, not having seen much; what I got by going to Canada was a cold.” ~ The opening sentence of “A Yankee in Canada”

What we got 166 years later were good photographs, great stories and memories, and a passel of new friends. Oh, and something else, too: an invitation to come back next year and to take this honest walk once again. Well, you don’t have to ask us twice. We’re in! Does anyone else want to come along?

The author, Mr. Thoreau, and walk organizer Jean Cloutier.

The author, Mr. Thoreau, and walk organizer Jean Cloutier.

[Photos by Mary Lynn Brannon and Corinne H. Smith]

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Filed under Arts, Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Historic Preservation, Literature, Living Deliberately, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote

A Deliberate Garden

by Deborah Bier

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Gardening Deliberately

Gardening deliberately is how we manage the 1878 Kitchen Garden at Thoreau Farm, the birth house of Henry David Thoreau.

Such gardening is also one way to live deliberately and to become more present to all that is unfolding within and around our garden.  A garden is a place of constant change, and, If we are conscious and aware of its nuances, we can be more responsive to its needs. Here at the birthplace, we explore all garden choices carefully, making decisions reflective of our deepest values and principals.  I do not follow any single practice or school of gardening, no pre-set protocols. Instead, through study and experience, I’ve equipped myself with a wide variety of approaches, using the each one to meet the challenge of the moment.  I rely strongly upon observation and experimentation, and, in turn, the garden regularly reminds me to be open and aware, present to the moment.

Thoreau Farm’s garden is entirely individual – it will never be exactly replicated anywhere else, not even in the same spot from one year to the next. And so, no famous book, gardener, farmer or horticulturist can know what to do with this kitchen garden better than those who tend and visit it often.

Like any type of deliberation, gardening deliberately is the opposite of living on “autopilot.” It is responsiveness, not knee-jerk reaction. It involves being fully alive to the experience, not being distracted, numb or deadened.  The sights, smells, sensations, sounds and tastes of the garden … the patterns and colors, the scent of the leaves, the feel of the wind – these are a source of much of my joy as I work here.

From the garden

From the garden

Deliberate laziness
“The true cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life that is required to be exchanged for it.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden

And so I ask:  Is “the amount of life required to be exchanged” for these garden tasks really worth their cost in time, energy, money, and opportunity? And from the sunflowers, from the squash, I hear answer – “Yes, they say. Yes.”

What is truly the most important task in the garden today? What is really not crucial, or even a waste of time?  How much is on the list because it’s what we think must be done – because that is what we have been told to do by others?

Such deliberation almost always leads to simplifying, throwing out some hallowed methods in favor of ones that more closely mimic the processes we discover. In doing so, we have ended up with what we think are some very effective gardening methods that also are a lot less time consuming and exhausting.

Let me give you an example of deliberate laziness we’re practicing during this nearly rainless and hot summer. Wild animals are desperate for water. Baby ground hogs and rabbits amazingly fit between our one-by-four-inch fence wires, and have eaten all of our beans and brassicas down to nothingness.

We could spend a lot of time and energy replanting multiple times, and go to all kinds of extreme measures to exclude, trap, or kill these animals. But we realize humans do not depend upon these particular crops to survive, and that replantings will end up being eaten by the next litter of baby rabbits (rabbits produce up to three litters per year; woodchucks, just one). We could also get very upset and angry at the animals, declaring war on them. But that, too, is likely a waste precious human resources.

So we are instead choosing to be happy with the crops we have that are growing well, despite the weather. We’ve chosen instead to exercise our “citizen scientist” muscles and learn from observing the garden under these conditions. Now we’re noticing what crops thrive best in the dry heat, and which are struggling. We’re also seeing which parts of the garden are doing better than others due to variations in soil quality, identifying areas we should improve this year or next. This is all important to learn as more extreme weather patterns become the norm, and gardeners need to adapt to varying unexpected conditions.
There are as many trends in gardening as there are other here-today-gone-tomorrow fashions. There are also sound gardening practices that become overblown into rigid, unbending systems with dozens of rules that adherents demand be followed exactly. You must, you should… you cannot, you must not. Adhering to so many pre-set rules is not being responsive to your garden, your conditions, your abilities.  Too many rules can actually create failure, not success, because their requirements are often complex, and there are too many to follow dependably. Such complexity also risks feelings of failure and anxiety in the gardener, which intrude on the joy of putting hands into warm, fragrant soil.  How often do we end up feeling that we can toil all day and never get everything done, much less done correctly or well?  Such work is not gardening deliberately, though it is a form of gardening.

It turns out that deliberate laziness was deeply intertwined with Henry Thoreau’s life and philosophy, though he never used the term.  He wrote that he became rich by intentionally reducing his wants. By living simply, he determined he could meet all his needs by working a mere six weeks a year.  In 19th century American terms, he was considered extremely lazy.  In 21st century terms, unlike so many of us, Henry was not too busy to pursue his self-created life path.  Only six weeks of work annually – think about the richness of life you could experience in 46 work-free weeks every year!

Reading about kitchen gardens in the 19th century suggests they were not the place for laziness, deliberate or otherwise.  Mostly tended by women who toiled endlessly, these kitchen gardens leave me utterly depressed and discouraged. But by applying the standard of deliberate laziness to Thoreau Farm’s kitchen garden we’ve updated the form to one that is far easier for 21st century denizens to embrace.

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Historic Preservation, Literature, Living Deliberately, Nature, The Roost, Thoreau Quote, Walden

Remembering Jim Harrison

by Scott Berkley

In his biographical sketch of Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson excused his friend and protégé’s fixation on local matters at the same time that he made a good case for Thoreau’s Concord-adoration. “I think his fancy for referring everything to the meridian of Concord did not grow out of any ignorance or depreciation of other longitudes or latitudes,” wrote Emerson, “but was rather a playful expression of his conviction of the indifferency of all places, and that the best place for each is where he stands.”

One of the places where Thoreau stood.

One of the places where Thoreau stood.

What Emerson calls the “indifferency” of place, however, we might see as the deep and abiding respect of the writer for local material and what it means. Thoreau, one of the great exemplars of writing from where one stands, has descendants in the poetry of place scattered across our fifty states. One of the greatest was the novelist and poet Jim Harrison, who passed away in late March after many years of wandering his beloved home ranges, first in the upper Midwest and later in the Arizona desert.

As all the obituaries that sprang up after Harrison’s passing have noted, he was prolific enough to make a new reader wonder where to start. Among more than twenty books of fiction, his 2004 novel True North stands out in my mind as a particularly Thoreauvian engagement with the Great Lakes and the land surrounding them: from the back woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; to the cities of Marquette, Sault Sainte Marie, and Duluth; stretching down along the Ohio River all the way to lake-less Indiana. Of course, it being Harrison, it is also a romp through a spread of pleasures both gustatory and sexual – matters that would have been too worldly for the nineteenth-century concerns of Mr. Thoreau.

Yet as in any of his novels, food and sex bolster True North just as much as Harrison’s carefully-honed prose style, making it an unusually sensitive meditation on the landscape and on the way we become ourselves in a world of knowing and unknowing, ancestors and descendants, ordered thinking and chaotic doing. David Burkett III, Harrison’s half-blundering, half-tragic protagonist, wrestles with the self much as young Henry did when first arriving at Walden Pond from the schools of Concord and Cambridge:

… I had high school and college courses in many aspects of the natural sciences but they didn’t enable me to put together the whole picture of what I was seeing around me. It had long been obvious to me that I wanted to know too much, perhaps more than anyone was capable of … I learned in my anthropology course that people prayed in every single culture. But where did the urge to know everything come from?

One can see David thinking all this while rowing a boat downriver, much like Henry Thoreau out floating on the Pond at the moment in Walden that he realizes, “my head is hands and feet.” David loves to row – and we imagine Harrison did, too –because it gives him a view of the past without allowing him to fixate on the future. As David comes to know his Midwestern landscape in search of his family’s history running an extractive logging operation, we realize his “project” is in conversation with Thoreau’s own sense of how to know a place anew, more deeply than ever before.

April water at Walden

April water at Walden

I wonder often what Henry Thoreau would have written had he survived his illnesses and lived to be sixty or seventy. It is unlikely that he would have become the sort of novelist and raconteur that Harrison still was in his seventies, but undoubtedly he would have kept his custom of spending several daily hours in the act of sauntering, encircling Concord with his footsteps over and over. An older David Burkett, late in True North, goes out on foot in the desert mesas of southern Arizona. After falling repeatedly in the steep and rocky terrain, he learns how different the place is from the forests and marshes of Michigan. “I was a flatlander, simple as that,” he admits. “One day I ran across a biologist disassembling a pack rat nest and midden and he said it took years to learn a new landscape.”

Constantly attuned and devoted to the act of learning the landscape through the saunterer’s vision, Thoreau and his words will endure in part because we come to know Concord so intimately through his. Who but Jim Harrison could have been the deviant saunterer of the upper Midwest, a place that we now know through his words and thus through his eyes.

Scott Berkley is a Middlebury College senior and AMC hutman; he’s writing a thesis on Wallace Stevens and looking forward to summer at Galehead Hut in the White Mountains.

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Filed under Arts, General, Henry David Thoreau, Historic Preservation, Literature, Living Deliberately, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Walden