I met him at table in the basement of the Masonic Lodge after the morning bird walk at White Pond. How did he, a Scotsman, come to know the writings of Henry David Thoreau?
Through an obscure reference in a treatise penned by Robert Louis Stevenson, he told me. “It was actually derogatory in nature,” the Scotsman said. “Stevenson quoted another author as referring to Thoreau as a scoundrel. It piqued my interest. So I set out to learn if it were true.”
The first book he got his hands on was A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. After that he read Walden. By then he knew that Thoreau was no scoundrel. On the contrary, he found solace in Thoreau’s writing. “So much of what he wrote resonated with me in my soul,” the Scotsman told me. “Money and material things aren’t everything. These days I try, as much as I’m able, to live a simple life. My needs are few. Besides,” he said, paraphrasing Thoreau, “a man’s life is rich in proportion to those things that he can afford to live without.”
I asked him what he did for a living. “Now I’m retired,” he told me, “but I had a career in telecommunications. When I was a young man, I served in the armed forces as a paratrooper. I spent some time on deployment in the Middle East—special services,” he said with a wink. “Afterwards, my wife and I settled in the Wansbeck Valley, ‘dwelling midst woods and waters,’ as our motto says.”
“And how do you spend your days now?” I asked him.
“I rise early and watch the dawn come up over the valley and the river beyond,” he told me. “I ramble through the woods and fields. Lately, I’ve done a little column for our local gazette on natural history. I also paint—birds mostly—working in gouache. And then there’s my book collection.”
I merely had to wait for the narration.
“I’ve collected over a hundred books dealing with Thoreau alone,” he told me. “I’ve got several first editions of his works published in Great Britain. Walter Scott publishers picked him up in the 1880s. In some of the books the pages weren’t even cut. I had to go through them with a penknife. I believe a book should be read, not just put on the shelf.”
And what brought him to Concord year after year?
“Wall, it’s good to rub shoulders with like-minded individuals, you know,” he said. “And I bring poppies to place at the graves of British soldiers who died in the American War of Independence. I place two at the graves at Old North Bridge, two in Lincoln, one at Meriam’s Corner and one at the marker by the Colonial Inn in Concord,” he explained. “The war was really just a family feud. And these poor lads have been sleepin’ beneath the soil over here so far from home for over two hundred years. It’s the least I can do for ’em,” he said.