While I was away at this year’s annual gathering of the Thoreau Society in Concord, Massachusetts, a good friend, who had no idea where I was at the time, e-mailed me a selection from the beginning of Thomas Wolfe’s epic novel, Of Time and the River.
The Concord gathering, held every year at the anniversary of Thoreau’s birth, consists of four days of scholarly lectures, panel discussions, outdoor activities, a memorial walk around Walden Pond, and a keynote address on the current year’s theme.
In Of Time and the River, Wolfe begins: America has a thousand lights and weathers and we walk the streets, we walk the streets for ever, we walk the streets of life alone.
During his lifetime, Henry Thoreau spent many of his afternoons sauntering through the fields and forests of Concord. Although I attend many of the gathering’s scheduled activities, at times I feel a need to break away from the crowd and strike out on my own to explore the town and wander through the woods as well.
The selection from Wolfe continues: It is the place of the fast approach, the hot blind smoky passage, the tragic lonely beauty of New England, and the web of Boston; the place of the mighty station there, and engines passive as great cats, the straight dense plumes of engine smoke, the acrid and exciting smell of trains and stations.… the strong joy of our youth, the magic city, when we knew the most fortunate life on earth would certainly be ours, that we were twenty and could never die.
This year my daughter took the train from Boston to Concord to spend an afternoon with me. We had lunch together and canoed the Sudbury and Concord Rivers from the Southbridge Boathouse to the Old Manse at Old North Bridge and back. Afterwards we sauntered around Walden Pond, and dropped in to see an old friend nearby. Back at the depot we enjoyed an ice cream together while waiting for her return train. My daughter gave me a big hug before boarding and sat by the window to wave as the train pulled away from the station, leaving “the tragic lonely beauty of New England” and me behind.
Again, Wolfe’s words: It is the place where great boats are baying at the harbour’s mouth, where great ships are putting out to sea; it is the place where great boats are blowing in the gulf of night, and where the river, the dark and secret river, full of strange time, is for ever flowing by us to the sea.
The following morning I arose early and packed my gear. I stepped out onto the balcony of my hotel room at the edge of town and looked up into the morning sky peppered with wisps of cottony clouds. Suddenly, there in the midst of them I caught sight of four large birds soaring together, circling round and round, wing tip to wing tip. At first I thought they were turkey vultures, but then I realized that their wings had no defined dihedral. Moreover, the span of those wings must have approached six feet. Then I saw the white heads and white tails—four mature bald eagles dancing together in the morning sky.
Wolfe: It is a fabulous country, the only fabulous country; it is the one place where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time.
I carried my bags to the car, checked out of the hotel and made a final stop at Sleepy Hollow cemetery. There, up on Authors’ Ridge, Thoreau’s remains rested beneath the simple white stone marker covered with a miniature cairn of pine cones, stones and leaves that bears his first name only: Henry.
Wolfe’s introduction concludes: And always America is the place of the deathless and enraptured moments, the eye that looked, the mouth that smiled and vanished, and the word; the stone, the leaf, the door we never found and never have forgotten.