“I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden.
Earlier this month a friend and I hiked the Falls Trail at Ricketts Glen state park. During the descent through Ganoga Glen, we paused to watch a feeder stream rush down the steep hillside into Kitchen Creek. Although dwarfed by the spectacular falls along Kitchen Creek, the small cataract on this feeder stream exhibited a charm of its own. We debated a name. “Let’s call it ‘No-Name Falls,'” I suggested. “How about ‘Imagination Falls?'” my friend said. I’m unsure what name stuck, but I shall always recall the vibrancy of the clear white water as it tumbled down over the rocks beneath the small wooden footbridge on which we stood.
“Wild water left to itself can never fail to be beautiful,” Odell Shepard writes in his treatise on angling Thy Rod and Thy Creel; “and it will not endure the slightest ugliness about it.”
As I look back over my youth, I am struck by the number of creeks, streams and rivers that formed and deepened my appreciation of the natural world. “We need the tonic of wildness,” Thoreau writes, and what can be more wild in the eyes of a boy than a stretch of free-flowing natural water?
I think back to the streams of my Pennsylvania childhood: Echo Valley Brook, Trout Run, Indiantown Run, Stony Brook, Swatara Creek, Quittapahilla Creek (the Quittie) — streams in which we played and fished and swam and paddled. Later the circle would be expanded to include others: Broad Creek in Stroudsburg, Pine Creek in Wellsboro; the Musketaquid in Concord; Riga Brook, Salmon Brook, the west branch of the Upper Farmington; and the Rio Sor, which cascades down through the mountains of northern Spain where a good friend from long ago and I fished one summer.
I think of them now with a certain warmth and pleasure, thankful that I had the chance to know them intimately, as a lover knows his beloved.
In the final pages of his boyhood memoir The Old Man and the Boy, Robert Ruark lovingly relates the final trek home back to North Carolina with his aging grandfather:
When we got to a place called Jackie’s Creek, where we had seen turkeys and shot quail, the Old Man said, “Stop the car. I want to took at it.”
When we got to a place called Allen’s Creek, and Moore’s Creek, he said the same thing. We stopped and we looked. The Old Man nodded his head, and said, for no reason at all that I could think of, “I’m satisfied. Nobody owes me nothin’.”
As I look back on these streams, the streams of my youth, the streams of my middle years and those of my older age, I find myself thinking the same thing.
While I don’t entirely agree with every point put forth by Jedediah Purdy in his recent rebuttal of Kathryn Schulz’s vitriolic New Yorker piece on Henry David Thoreau, like Mr. Purdy I do find Ms. Schultz’s argument off-putting as well as off the mark in many respects. In a nutshell Ms. Schulz bases her assessment of Thoreau as a contentious, fallible human being almost entirely on bits and pieces of text extracted from Walden, a book which is every bit as complex as the soul of the man who wrote it.
Ms. Schulz maintains that “any reading of Thoreau that casts him as a champion of nature is guilty of cherry-picking his most admirable work while turning a blind eye on all the rest.” And yet that is exactly what she has done, albeit in reverse: she has cherry-picked some of the more controversial lines and passages in the text and used them to argue that at core Thoreau was an amoral, unfeeling, antisocial, narcissistic coot, who cared only for himself — in short, mere “pond scum.”
When you revisit the entire Thoreau canon (as I have done over the course of my life), especially the journals, a very different picture of Thoreau emerges. Certainly he was inconsistent in his outlook over time — which of us is not? — but there are scores of examples of empathetic interest that Thoreau took in others in his community. (Witness his reaction to the deaths of his older brother John, Emerson’s son Waldo, or Bill Wheeler, a village outcast who died of drink.) As a philosophical treatise Thoreau wrote Walden in part “to brag as lustily as Chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up” — to goad them into seeing that there is more to life itself than eating and drinking and getting a living.
Much of what eventually became the text of Walden came directly from Thoreau’s journal entries. There is some evidence that even Thoreau was less than pleased with the final result. In his introduction to the 1961 Dover edition of The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals, editor Odell Shepard argues: “In comparison even with Walden, the disconnected jottings of the journals seemed to [Thoreau] in some ways more truly his own.”
With a nearly complete manuscript of Walden on his writing desk, Thoreau himself did not find the result entirely satisfactory. “Perhaps I shall never find so good a setting for my thoughts as I shall have taken them out of,” he muses in an 1852 journal entry. Yet in Thoreau’s defense, Mr. Purdy has written elsewhere that “Walden remains, despite superficial popular characterizations, an extraordinary document of reflection on the extent and nature of personal responsibility for common things.” (Purdy, Jedediah. For Common Things. New York: Knopf, 1999, p. 74)
Mr. Shepard maintains that, taken as a whole, the journals “bring back alive a man who, with all his extravagances, perversities, and fierce denunciations of much that America now stands for, is as quintessentially American as Abraham Lincoln.” It was in his journal writings that Thoreau “achieved a unanimous personality, sharply defined, and marched through life with an unerring sense of direction and goal.”
“With a fit audience, though few,” Mr. Shepard concludes, “[Thoreau] is likely to win a more thoughtful reading now that the superficial critics have had their say, now that individuals are so obviously withering among us, now that men are quite obviously enslaved by machines, now that we have floundered about as far as we can in the bogs of stupidity, greed, and cowering compliance that he warned us against long ago.”
In her opening paragraphs Ms. Schulz makes much of Thoreau’s callous description of the corpses that washed up on the beach at Cohasset after the ship that bore the travelers from Ireland broke up in a violent storm off the Massachusetts coast. “Who was this cold-eyed man who saw in loss of life only aesthetic gain, who identified not with the drowned or the bereaved but with the storm?” she asks.
During a recent sojourn to a secluded bungalow in Wellfleet, steeped in the stark beauty of the landscape and sea, I re-read the greater part of Thoreau’s Cape Cod, specifically the section on Thoreau’s reaction to the dead bodies on the beach at Cohasset after the shipwreck. My thoughts immediately flew to Dylan Thomas’s poem A refusal to mourn the death by fire of a child in London – “After the first death, there is no other.” Like Thomas, Thoreau might have been crushed by the horror of what he witnessed and chose to deal with his feelings in a more objective, philosophical — dare I say “poetical” — way.
In the concluding paragraph of Walden Thoreau muses: “I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is mere darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake….”
Had he the foreknowledge, Thoreau might have appended Kathryn Schulz’s name to his list, right behind John and Jonathan.
On the morning of this Independence Day I sit on the stoop of my back porch, feet planted firmly on the short stretch of concrete walkway, husking sweet corn. I select an ear from the brown bag, part the dark tassel and strip down the outer husk. Rows of shiny kernels, yellow and white, glisten in the late morning sun. I snap off the base and lay the cleaned ear on the heavy oval plate at my side. High in the trees that tower above my neighbor’s house a vireo pipes his clear, crisp notes. Momentarily, I pause in my labor to look up; but the bird is hidden in the densely leafed canopy.
A chipmunk pops her head up from a crevice in the red stone wall to survey the scene. In a moment she poses prettily on a capstone, watching me work. Sparrows descend to perch atop our weather-worn wooden fence and take turns attacking the birdfeeder. Languidly, our black cat lounges on the driveway below, content to bask in the morning sun.
One hundred seventy years ago on this day, July 4th, Henry Thoreau moved into his small one-room house near the northwest cove of Walden Pond, eight days shy of his 28th birthday. He had begun to clear the site with a borrowed axe four months earlier before ice-out. By mid April the house was framed and ready for raising. Thoreau dug his cellar in the side of a small rise that sloped to the south; and “at length, at the beginning of May, with the help of [his] acquaintances,” he set up the frame of his house. Before the following winter he had built a chimney, shingled the sides and plastered the interior walls. The final structure measured ten feet wide by fifteen feet long, boasted “eight-feet posts, a garret, a closet, a large window on each side, two trap doors, one door at the end and a brick fireplace opposite.”
“There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest,” Thoreau wrote. “Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged?”
As I reach for the final ear of corn, a catbird calls from its nest in the thicket behind the garage. I have never heard so many catbirds as I have this year. They might be making a comeback, I think, as I strip the husk from the last ear of corn. I pick off the few remaining strands of corn silk and add it to the stack on the plate.
I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite – only a sense of existence. —Thoreau
“Mike’s back,” my neighbor told me. “He’s been living under a tarp down in the woods at the back of the park.”
Thirty years ago Mike had run a small cobbler shop in town. Later he moved the business a few miles up the road. Eventually it went belly up; no one thought to have old shoes repaired any more.
Mike and his girlfriend bought a house in the neighborhood, an old Victorian cottage. They drank too much. Over the years the house fell into disrepair and Mike’s girlfriend succumbed to the effects of alcoholism. The house was sold, and Mike disappeared. Now after 30 years he had returned.
“My buddy bought him a tent,” my neighbor said, “and I got him some canned food. Every day he walks to the package store for cigarettes and booze, then sits in front of his tent and stares off into space. Winter’s coming — I don’t know what’s going to happen to him.”
“One of these nights he’ll freeze to death,” I said. “Maybe you should tell someone about him.”
“I’m afraid the police will just throw him out of the park, and then where would he go?”
“Maybe talk to Father Tom.”
Father Tom is the local priest. My neighbor spoke to Father Tom and in the end it was Father Tom who called the police. They came to the park to talk with Mike. They made several attempts to get him hooked up with social services. In the end Mike wouldn’t budge.
Heavy wet snow fell across the region yesterday afternoon and continued into the night; temperatures dropped below freezing.
I awoke early and looked out the back window just as the heavy snow on the uppermost branches of the distant pines caught the morning sun.
Suddenly I understood why after all these years Mike had come back, and now I knew why he would never leave.
It had been some time since I hiked the mountain trail by myself. The other morning on a whim I decided to climb the knoll to survey the rocky ridge.
The chain that formerly spanned the squat stone pillars at the entrance to Laurel Hill had snapped and lay rusted among the traces of last year’s leaves.
Freshly fallen white catalpa blossoms littered the trailhead. I made my way up the shaded path to the top of the rise, where it disappeared into a newly cut dirt road. The access road had been paved with crushed stone. I hunted for the trail below the concrete water cistern and followed it across the muddy run up the switchbacks to the old chimney. Here I paused to study the charred remnants of an ancient fire at the base of the rocks before moving ahead into the forest.
Warblers wheezed from their treetop hideouts. Off in the distance a thrush sounded his fluid refrain. Tiny yellow wildflowers edged the path near the power line cut.
I had but an hour, so I dropped down to the first ridge and followed it back through the ancient hemlock grove. Here I encountered the remnant of a giant evergreen that had been struck by lightning during a summer storm fifteen years ago. Although the massive trunk had since snapped in half, you could still make out the smooth grey groove spiraling up the tree.
I thought of Thoreau’s pitch-pine on the shore of Walden Pond:
In one heavy thunder shower the lightning struck a large pitch-pine across the pond, making a very conspicuous and perfectly regular spiral groove from top to bottom, an inch or more deep, and four or five inches wide, as you would groove a walking stick. I passed it again the other day, and was struck with awe looking up and beholding that mark, now more distinct than ever, where a terrific and resistless bolt came down out of the harmless sky eight years ago. (“Solitude” in Walden)
A little ways ahead I paused to survey two towering hemlocks. Both had shed their green needles long ago. One tree cracked at the base and had fallen across the path into the uppermost branches of the other, which held it firmly — a final filial embrace before eventually collapsing onto the forest floor, there to decay amidst the verdant moss and moist rotted leaves.
“A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts.” –Thoreau in “Spring,” Walden
Up early, out for a walk under overcast skies, the overarching dome uniformly grey.
I set out on my usual circuit up to the heights. It wasn’t long before I felt the first drops of rain, the quality not unlike a “gentle dew from heaven.”
At first I berated myself for not having brought an umbrella; but then I had the thought that if the rain continued in its present form, I should not get soaked to the skin; and if it accelerated enough to soak me through, I would strip off my clothing when I returned home and enjoy a hot shower to counter the chill.
I picked up the pace during my ascent of the hill, conscious of the new drops dotting the macadam. A catbird mewed from a stand of dense bushes as I passed by, while overhead a chipping sparrow chatted from a high wire. Further up the road a mockingbird rehearsed his repertoire from the top of a tall spruce. Bird calls — indeed, sounds of any kind — are always accentuated in a close morning.
The valley lay in a fine mist at my feet, its green shades muted in the grey light.
As I descended the hill, the rain picked up a bit; but here I had the advantage of strolling along beneath the trees where the path was still dry. A solitary mosquito buzzed at my ear; I lifted a hand to brush him away. Were it not for the rain, the mosquitoes would be out in force; and I counted myself fortunate indeed to have the gentle rain for a morning companion on my walk.
As I made the turn at the end of the cul-de-sac, the rain fell with more force. I picked up the pace and ascended the hill, taking advantage once again of the overhanging trees for shelter.
And so I picked my way along the street toward home, my clothing somewhat damp, but not my spirits. At home I could sit on the front porch alone with my thoughts and watch the rains descend.
“The gentle rain which waters my beans and keeps me in the house to-day is not drear and melancholy, but good for me too…
“In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops…
“Some of my pleasantest hours were during the long rain storms in the spring or fall, which confined me to the house for the afternoon as well as the forenoon, soothed by their ceaseless roar and pelting; when an early twilight ushered in a long evening in which many thoughts had time to take root and unfold themselves.”
–Thoreau in “Solitude,” Walden