Category Archives: Living Deliberately

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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The Cabin Site: Walden Pond

By Tom O’Malley

Your house is finally open now

No walls to interfere

With the sweeping winds of change

And the storm of ideas you found

Here — so long ago.

Now

Your roof is the endless sky

Of succulent colors

Filtered through the breath

Of patient

Trees

And the hidden language of birds

Who love to gather by your open

Door

And sing you to wakefulness.

So fitting here

Where we stand silent

Receiving the welcome blessing

Of your words

And the life you still live

In us.

Tom O’Malley is an adjunct professor of English at Canisius College. 

 

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Civil Disobedience French-Style: May ’68

By Lucille Stott

“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”

Paris 1968 credit: Lucille Stott

I stood on the balcony of the Roberts’ apartment overlooking the Boulevard de Strasbourg, watching students and riot police face off against each other. On this mild, sunny afternoon in mid-May, the scene felt surreal, like a bewildering moment in a Buñuel film. I don’t remember who charged first, but suddenly the two groups were on each other. Students hurled rocks, wielded tree branches, and yelled obscenities. Riot police fogged the air with tear gas and swung their nightsticks as they charged forward in a bloc.

I had my Kodak Instamatic camera in hand and started snapping photos. Two of the riot police knocked down a protester, and while one held him down, the other pummeled him again and again with his nightstick.

When I raised my camera again, I heard a cry from behind. My French mother, Madame Robert, was yelling for me to get back inside. I had never seen her so upset, and she had never once spoken to me in anger in the more than six months my roommate and I had been boarding with her family during our junior year in Paris. After getting me out of sight and back into her living room, Madame Robert started to cry. What if the riot police had spotted me? She was sure they would have stormed upstairs, smashed my camera, arrested me, and punished the Robert family.

Usually calm and reserved, Madame Robert had grown increasingly anxious as the street violence in Paris had escalated and the blare of sirens had become the soundtrack to our nights. After hauling me in from the balcony, she told me she had been suffering terrifying flashbacks to her childhood during the Nazi Occupation, when sirens had raged all night throughout the city, and she’d cowered in her parents’ bed. Her son was out there with the protesters, she reminded me, and even at home during the daylight hours, she didn’t feel safe.

For the first time since the student-led riots had begun in early May, I felt connected emotionally to what was happening around me. At 21, I was in Paris with the Hamilton College Junior Year Abroad program mainly to have fun and grab a bit of learning on the side. Most of our university classes had been suspended by then, and my American friends and I felt justified in not cracking our books. As we told each other repeatedly, history was being made in front of our eyes. The slogans scrawled on walls bore us out: “Power is in the streets!” “It’s forbidden to forbid!”

Youth uprisings like this one had been occurring in other countries — Mexico, Poland, West Germany, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Brazil, even the Soviet Union — since early in 1968, and were to continue throughout the spring. The rebellion at Columbia University in the U.S., which had erupted in early April, had definitely grabbed our attention from afar. Yet of all the youth protests that occurred around the world during the first half of 1968, the Paris riots in May have become the most romanticized probably because, well, they happened in Paris. Immortalized in books and on film, the student uprising in the City of Light became lasting symbols of student disillusion and alienation.

For weeks, our tendency to treat the street riots as performance art had kept me immune from the dark side of these events. But witnessing the reality of the violence and seeing Madame Robert so shaken changed all that for me. I felt her fear and hated that what was happening in the street below was causing her to relive long-ago trauma. And I still have the Kodachrome reminders of what it looked and felt like to watch brutality up close and be powerless to do anything to stop it.

A big factor in the way I experienced those weeks was the fact that I wasn’t sharing my life on social media. I had no cell phone, no email, no Twitter, no Instagram, no Internet. There was no such thing as a 24-hour news cycle. It took five days for an airmailed letter to cross the Atlantic. International calls were hard to manage and very expensive. Out on the street, I was on my own. I couldn’t text a friend, my French family, or the director of our program with a question or concern. Today, the joke is, “If it’s not on Facebook, is it really happening?” It was really happening.

This month, France is marking the 50th anniversary of May ’68. When I think back on the passion that galvanized a small, but visible segment of my generation in France and at home, so many years ago, I do so with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m sad to have lost the wide-eyed, youthful exuberance that made optimism so natural and imagined positive change to be within reach. On the other hand, I took away from that month in Paris a lifelong aversion to extremism, no matter what side it professes to support. Back then, we over-estimated how much our generation could change the world, and the causes we fought for were undermined at times by the things I found so troubling in Paris: fanaticism, exploitation, self-interest, macho posturing. But the world did change after May ‘68—sometimes because of us, sometimes in spite of us. As someone who came of age in 1968 and is now merely “of age,” my years place me squarely with the old but my hope still rests with the young. What would be truly radical would be for us to bridge our generational divide and share what we have — melding knowledge with vision; experience with energy —and change the world together. Now that would be a revolution.

Lucille Stott is a charter board member emerita and former president of Thoreau Farm Trust. Check out the three entries on Lucille’s new blog, “Touchstone,” for a more in-depth look at the events of Paris ’68.

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Filed under Henry David Thoreau, Living Deliberately, The Roost, Thoreau Quote