Category Archives: Living Deliberately

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Living Deliberately, 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

Elliott Merrick: A Remembrance

By Lawrence Millman

Lawrence Millman, left, and Elliott “Bud” Merrick

Elliott Merrick died in 1997 less than three weeks before his 92nd birthday. Toward the end of his life, he would joke that he was so old he’d become “historical.” But I didn’t think of him as historical at all. Rather, I thought he was an ardent contemporary. I also thought of him as a dear friend and mentor.

From the very beginning, Bud (as he was known to his friends) looked to Thoreau for guidance. For, like Henry, he believed that we should let Nature govern us rather than visa versa. He grew up in upscale Montclair, Jersey, and was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale. After he graduated from the latter, he went to work for his father’s firm, the National Lead Company. But how could a young man for whom Walden was a veritable Bible devote his heart and soul to producing copy for Dutch Boy Paints?

The answer is a single word: Labrador. Bud signed on as a summer Worker Without Pay with Labrador’s Grenfell Mission. He fell in love with Labrador (“that pristine, beautiful land,” he called it) and stayed on as a schoolteacher in Northwest River. He also fell in love with the Mission’s resident nurse, the tough-minded Kate Austen, with whom he shared a palpable love of the out-of-doors and whom he sometimes referred to as “Cast-Iron Kate, the Boiler-Maker’s mate.” They were married in 1930, and for a time lived in a small cabin near where the Goose Bay Airport now stands.

The highlight of Bud’s Labrador years was a long winter trip he and Kate took with trapper John Michelin. From North West River, they journeyed by canoe and portage up the Grand (now the Churchill) River with  Michelin and then continued by snowshoe and toboggan deep and deeper into the bush. Altogether, they covered more than 300 miles of mostly unexplored wilderness. The trip’s difficulties, for Bud, were not difficulties at all. In his journal, he wrote, “We have traveled to the earth’s core and found meaning.”

The Merricks returned to the United States in the early 1930s. “The day I left Labrador was the saddest day of my life,” Bud told me, adding, “A major in English from Yale hardly prepared me for a trapper’s life.”   Eventually, they bought an old farm in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, one of the few parts of the country that could ever be mistaken for boreal Labrador. Indeed, the similarity of northern Vermont to Labrador doubtless gave Bud the distance he needed to write about the latter.

The book he wrote about his trip with John Michelin is a Walden of the North, its voice now celebrating the boreal wilderness, now decrying the urban one. Entitled True North, it starts out with a lengthy quote from Walden. From then on, the book (published in 1933) abounds with remarks that Henry himself might have made. “I prefer mud to cement, and water out of a bucket to water out of a faucet,” Bud says at the book’s beginning. “Do I want to bend my life to a system of law evolved solely to enable millions of people to live together packed like sardines in a tin?” he also says. To me, True North’s ecological message is more relevant today than it would have been when the book was published.

Bud later wrote an account of his life in northern Vermont entitled Green Mountain Farm. This is not a book that will teach you how to become a successful farmer, for success was not a word that’s part of Bud’s (or Henry’s) vocabulary. Indeed, Green Mountain Farm is not so much about renovating a hardscrabble farm as it is about renovating one’s soul by contact with the natural world. It concludes with this Thoreauvian utterance: “In me and in my children, I hope, will be a consciousness that natural things are as powerful and all-pervading as they were in the time of the pagan Greeks and the wine-dark sea and the sylvan gods.”

He continued writing about Labrador in his somewhat fictionalized autobiography Ever the Winds Blow (1936) and a novel about a traditional Labrador trapper entitled Frost and Fire, along with various magazine articles. Then, drawing on his wife Kate’s experiences as a nurse, he wrote Northern Nurse (1942), which is (in my humble opinion) the finest book ever written about a woman’s life in the North. (A personal note: I succeeded in getting Northern Nurse reprinted in 1994 and wrote an extended introduction for the reissue.)

Neither his writing nor the farm paid the bills, so Bud took a job as an instructor in English at the University of Vermont. The academic world was totally alien to his temperament. “Promise me that you’ll never become a professor,” he once told me in a grave voice, as if he were telling me not to become a serial killer. His dislike of professoring was genuine.   Still, I can’t help but think that he might have liked it more if he could have done it in some open-air setting, in the middle of a lake, say, or on a mountain. As he wrote me in a letter: “Nature, love it or leave it, is all we’ve got.”

Bud was not only a staunch, but also a quite witty traditionalist. Here’s an example. I once wrote him about a pair of neoprene-and-aluminum snowshoes I’d used on a winter trip to Labrador. He wrote back: “I have invented a snowshoe far superior to your aluminum ones. Its frames are composed of old garden hose, which bends readily, taking either the bear paw shape or that of the Alaska tundra runner. Crossbars are of Victorian corset stays bound together with baling wire, and the mesh is of state-of-the-art chicken wire layered in an intricate pattern. I am depending on you as a qualified expert to see that my creation is installed in the Smithsonian’s Hall of Artifacts.”

I count myself fortunate to have been among the handful of people who were Bud’s wandering eyes and ears in his last years, when he was more or less housebound. If I encountered something unusual on a trip to Labrador or elsewhere in the North, I’d say to myself, “Wait until Bud hears about this!” And when I got home, I’d ring him up. He would query me closely about my experiences, and then maybe tell me that he knew the native camp I’d visited when it was still occupied some sixty years ago. Sometimes I’d hear the rustling of a map in the background.

Bud may or may not have been living vicariously through these conversations. One thing I do know, however: without him as an invisible sidekick, my own journeys in the North have become less interesting.   Lonelier, too.

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

 

 

 

 

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