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A READER'S JOURNAL
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
Henry David Thoreau
ARJ2 Chapter: A Reading for Enjoyment
Published by The Library of America/LA in 1985
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2019
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
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Thoreau and a friend took a boat to float, sail, oar, and camp for seven days along the meadowy river of Concord north through the logging-filled river of Merrimack and back home. Why should we care? They didn't get attacked by wild Indians or get over-turned in rapids causing them to nearly drown. They simply went somewhere they had never been before, carrying minimal provisions, and finding places along the shore to spend the night. Together they had to pass through locks with their boat so often that the word "lock" was most often used as an action verb. Thoreau described his companion rarely, referencing perhaps when he stayed with boat while Henry walked into the woods to seek some berries, so I will refer to Henry as if he were a solitary traveler. Henry occasionally stopped at a home along the shore to ask for some fresh water. Once he bought an apple wrapped in a sheet of newspaper, and for his nickel received nourishment for his body and news of the world.
There may have been only two men in the boat, but Thoreau carried companions in his mind as he described the men he encountered along the river. He was a writer, comparing these men to writers, who lacking paper on which to write, left records on the fields as they toiled. It was their writing that Thoreau came to experience, their journals written along the riverside in the materials of their trade, turning into the words of Thoreau's journal as he boated by.
[page 9] You shall see rude and sturdy, experienced and wise men, keeping their castles, or teaming up their summer's wood, or chopping alone in the woods, men fuller of talk and rare adventure in the sun and wind and rain, than a chestnut is of meat; who were out not only in '75 and 1812, but have been out every day of their lives; greater men than Homer, or Chaucer, or Shakespeare, only they never got time to say so; they never took to the way of writing. Look at their fields, and imagine what they might write, if ever they should put pen to paper. Or what have they not written on the face of the earth already, clearing, and burning, and scratching, and harrowing, and ploughing, and subsoiling, in and in, and out and out, and over and over, again and again, erasing what they had already written for want of parchment.
He talks about the shallow Concord river flowing peacefully through a meadow except where during sharp bends it turns briefly into a river, saying, ". . . the meadow is skirted with maples, alders, and other fluviatile trees overrun with the grape-vine". For all but nine years of my life, I lived near the great river Mississippi and might consider myself to be fluviatile as well. For most of my life I bathed in and drank water harvested from its inexhaustible waters. Throughout my lifetime our monthly water bill cost me the equivalent of six hotdogs.
The boat which carried them to New Hampshire and back they had built during a week in the spring, fifteen feet long by three and a half feet at it widest, equipped with wheels to be rolled around falls, two sets of oars, several push poles, and two masts for sails, one which served as a tent-pole to cover their bed, a mattress of buffalo-skin, and a sheet of cotton for a roof. After loading it with potatoes and melons from their garden, they pushed it a half-mile to the river and disembarked. As they floated beneath the old North Bridge as we now call it, Henry recalls what his pal Emerson wrote, "By the rude bridge that arched the flood/Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,/Here once the embattled farmer stood,/And fired the shot heard round the world."(Page 15) And today in 2019 some 244 years forward the wondrous sound of freedom still echoes across the world.
Thoreau was a man who drank from deep wells. As a writer both his poetry and prose were filled with graceful tropes and similes.
[page 18, poem]
For lore that's deep must deeply studied be,
As from deep wells men read star-poetry.
[page 18, prose]
Gradually the village murmur subsided, and we seemed to be embarked on the placid current of our dreams, floating from past to future as silently as one awakes to fresh morning or evening thoughts.
Thoreau gives us the Latin name of plants he writes about which makes it easy, with the help of Google and Wikipedia, to share a couple of photos with you, namely the Chelone glabra(left) and the Eupatiorium purpureum (right).
What Thoreau mused about that was impossible in the mid-19th century is easily accomplished by any traveler on a boat with a Smart Phone in our 21st century. Besides, large hibiscus flowers can be seen on drives around one's neighborhood, so popular and available the plants have become.
[page 19] As we were floating through the last of these familiar meadows, we observed the large and conspicuous flowers of the hibiscus, covering the dwarf willows, and mingled with the leaves of the grape, and wished that we could inform one of our friends behind of the locality of this somewhat rare and inaccessible flower before it was too late to pluck it . . .
My brother David loved to fish and every day when he was off work, he beat the sunrise to his fishing spots. It was a meditation to him to be in his boat and fishing. Friends of his who did a catch-and-release kind of fishing, David caught and released.
[page 22] His fishing was not a sport, nor solely a means of subsistence, but a sort of solemn sacrament and withdrawal from the world, just as the aged read their Bibles.
Fish therapy is a new form of earning income is certain Caribbean cruise ports as we discovered last December. Booths has sprung up with tanks of water to sit in and small fish come to your feet and nibble the dead skin away. Reports are the sensation is pleasing as well as therapeutic. But few people today would have the patience to get a bream guarding its eggs to nibble one's fingers.
[page 24] The breams are so careful of their charge that you may stand close by in the water and examine them at your leisure. I have thus stood over them half an hour at a time, and stoked them familiarly without frightening them, suffering them to nibble my fingers harmlessly . . .
Nearing the end of their first day they passed between Carlisle and Bedford and noticed the men cutting hay in the distance, "we see men haying far off in the meadow, their heads waving like the grass which they cut." They said good night to Saturday and camped for the night. Thoreau describes the repast which they will enjoy from their food stores and local bushes before they erect a tent on shore using one of the boat's masts.
[page 33] Here we found huckleberries still hanging upon the bushes, where they seemed to have slowly ripened for our especial use. Bread and sugar, and cocoa boiled in river water, made our repast, and as we had drank in the fluvial prospect all day, so now we took a draft of the water with our evening meal to propitiate the river gods, and whet our vision for the sights it was to behold. The sun was setting on the one hand, while our eminence was contributing its shadow to the night, on the other. . . . The sides of these cliffs, though a quarter of a mile distant, were almost heard to rustle while we looked at them, it was such a leafy wilderness; a place for fauns and satyrs, and where bats hung all day to the rocks, and at evening flitted over the water, and fire-flies husbanded their light under the grass and leaves against the night. When we had our lonely mast on the shore, just seen above the alders, and hardly yet come to a stand-still from the swaying of the stream; the first encroachment of commerce on this land. There was our port, our Ostia(1) .
Thoreau hears hounds baying in the distance before he drops off to sleep, and shares with us what he considers the most perfect art in the world.
[page 35] All these sounds, the crowing of cocks, the baying of dogs, and the hum of insects at noon, are evidence of nature's health or sound state. Such is the never-failing beauty and accuracy of language, the most perfect art in the world; the chisel of a thousand years retouches it.
One Sunday morning Thoreau and his companion eats breakfast in the fog through which their fire's smoke spiraled into the air, fading away as the rosy light of morning filled the sky. "But the impressions which the morning makes vanish with its dews, and not even the most 'persevering mortal' can preserve the memory of its freshness to mid-day." (Page 36)
In this wonderful passage he gives us a synopsis of how the name Yankees was given by the Red man natives to the solid White men who came to plant the town of Billerica etal with civil apples among the wild pines. We can see the colonial culture of New England rising before our eyes, brick upon brick, town after town, name after name.
[page 43, 44] Some spring the white man came, built him a house, and made a clearing here, letting in the sun, dried up a farm, piled up the old gray stones in fences, cut down the pines around his dwelling, planted orchard seeds brought from the old country, and persuaded the civil apple-tree to blossom next to the wild pine and the juniper, shedding its perfume in the wilderness. Their old stocks still remain. He culled the graceful elm from out the woods and from the river-side, and so refined and smoothed his village plot. He rudely bridged the stream, and drove his team afield into the river meadows, cut the wild grass, and laid bare the homes of beaver, otter, muskrat, and with the whetting of his scythe scared off the deer and bear. He set up a mill, and fields of English grain sprang in the virgin soil. And with his grain he scattered the seeds of the dandelion and the wild trefoil over the meadows, mingling his English flowers with the wild native ones. The bristling burdock, the sweet-scented catnip, and the humble yarrow planted themselves along his woodland road, they too seeking "freedom to worship God" in their way. And thus he plants a town. The white man's mullein soon reigned in Indian cornfields, and sweet-scented English grasses clothed the new soil. Where, then, could the Red Man set his foot? The honey-bee hummed through the Massachusetts woods, and sipped the wild-flowers round the Indian's wigwam, perchance unnoticed, when, with prophetic warning, it stung the Red child's hand, forerunner of that industrious tribe that was to come and pluck the wild-flower of his race up by the root.
The White man blends in with the Red man but brings knowledge of different things, of building fixed houses, of attaching new names from foreign countries to these collection of framed houses he calls towns, buying the Red man's mocassins and hunting grounds and plowing their burial grounds into oblivion.
[page 44] The white man comes, pale as the dawn, with a load of thought, with a slumbering intelligence as a fire raked up, knowing well what he knows, not guessing but calculating; strong in community, yielding obedience to authority; of experienced race; of wonderful, wonderful common sense; dull but capable, slow but persevering, severe but just, of little humor but genuine; a laboring man, despising game and sport; building a house that endures, a framed house. He buys the Indian's moccasins and baskets, then buys his hunting-grounds, and at length forgets where he is buried and ploughs up his bones. And here town records, old, tattered, time-worn, weather-stained chronicles, contain the Indian sachem's mark perchance, an arrow or a beaver, and the few fatal words by which he deeded his hunting-grounds away. He comes with a list of ancient Saxon, Norman, and Celtic names, and strews them up and down this river, — Framingham, Sudbury, Bedford, Carlisle, Billerica, Chelmsford, — and this is New Angle-land, and these are the New West Saxons whom the Red Men call, not Angle-ish or English, but Yengeese, and so at last they are known for Yankees.
Skipping to myths and fables, Thoreau tells of Joseph Wolff, a missionary who read the tales of Robinson Crusoe to the Arabs who exclaimed, "O, that Robinson Crusoe must have been a great prophet!"
[page 49] To some extent, mythology is only the most ancient history and biography. So far from being false or fabulous in the common sense, it contains only enduring and essential truth, the I and you, the here and there, the now and then, being omitted. Either time or rare wisdom writes it. Before printing was discovered, a century was equal to a thousand years. The poet is he who can write some pure mythology to-day without the aid of posterity.
He would have thought J.R.R. Tolkien to be a true poet as his tales of the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are pure mythology with no anchor in historical fact whatsoever. He even projects Ben Franklin as a god-like human in some future classical work: "He aided the Americans to gain their independence, instructed mankind in economy, and drew down lightning from the clouds." (Page 50) He explains how metaphor preceded many inventions, such as the dagger, in this expressive phrase, "He looked daggers at me."
[page 52] First, there was the glance of Jove's eye, then his fiery bolt, then, the material gradually hardening, tridents, spears, javelins, and finally, for the convenience of private men, daggers, krisses, and so forth, were invented.
Traveling on Sunday led Thoreau into pages of discourse about churches and the people who would scorn anyone boating by on the Sabbat. But they managed to lock their boat into the Merrimack by a man who came to help them, in spite of this being his day of rest, enter the state of New Hampshire. We learn that the Merrimack ran fast enough that it formed no "broad and fertile meadows."
"History," in Thoreau's mind, "is but a prose narrative of poetic deeds." He deems "poetry to be a natural fruit" of mankind, as the acorn a natural fruit of the oak. To him all the written wisdom should have the rhyme and rhythm of poetry.
[page 74] There is no doubt that the loftiest written wisdom is either rhymed, or in some way musically measured, — is, in form as well as substance, poetry; and a volume which should contain the condensed wisdom of mankind need not have one rhythmless line.
He advises us: "Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all."
[page 78] Certainly, we do not need to be soothed and entertained always like children. He who resorts to the easy novel, because he is languid, does no better than if he took a nap. . . . Books, not which afford us a cowering enjoyment, but in which each thought is of unusual daring, such as an idle man cannot read, and a timid one would not be entertained by, which even make us dangerous to existing institutions, — such call I good books.
He admonishes us, "We do not learn much from learned books, but from true, sincere, human books, from frank and honest biographies." (Page 80) We can learn as much from an honest man as we can from a law-breaker because our need of laws can be inferred from those who observe them, but is obvious in those who flagrantly violate them. We can also learn a lot from the naturalist Thoreau who explains how poets, like bears, nourish themselves on their excess fat during winter hibernation by sucking their claws.
[page 80] At least let us have healthy books, a stout horse-rake or a kitchen range which is not cracked. Let not the poet shed tears only for the public weal. He should be as vigorous as a sugar-maple, with sap enough to maintain his own verdure, beside what runs into the troughs, and not like a vine, which being cut in the spring bears no fruit, but bleeds to death in the endeavor to heal its wounds. The poet is he that hath fat enough, like bears and marmots, to suck his claws all winter. He hibernates in this world, and feeds on his own marrow.
Some sentences flow easily and quickly as if in a rush into battle.
[page 84] Compared to these, the grave thinkers and philosophers seem not to have got their swaddling-clothes off; they are slower than a Roman army in its march, the rear camping to-night where the van camped last night.
A wonderful farming metaphor: "A sentence should read as if its author, had he held a plough instead of a pen, could have drawn a furrow deep and straight to the end." (Page 87)
And when Sunday draws to a close, Thoreau gives us a close up sample of their nightly activity on a peaceful shore.
[page 93] Having reached a retired part of the river where it spread out to sixty rods in width, we pitched our tent on the east side, in Tyngsborough, just above some patches of the beach plum, which was now nearly ripe, where the sloping bank was a sufficient pillow, and with the bustle of sailors making the land, we transferred such stores as were required from boat to tent, and hung a lantern to the tent-pole, and so our house was ready. With a buffalo spread on the grass, and a blanket for our covering our bed was soon made. A fire crackled merrily before the entrance, so near that we could tend it without stepping abroad, and when we had supped, we put out the blaze, and closed the door, and with the semblance of domestic comfort, sat up to read the Gazetteer, to learn our latitude and longitude, and write the journal of the voyage, or listened to the wind and the rippling of the river till sleep overtook us. There we lay under an oak on the bank of the stream, near to some farmer's cornfield, getting sleep, and forgetting where we were; a great blessing, that we arc obliged to forget our enterprises every twelve hours. Minks, muskrats, meadow-mice, woodchucks, squirrels, skunks, rabbits, foxes, and weasels, all inhabit near, but keep very close while you are there.
Monday morning brought a bit of housekeeping before the two brothers could eat and get underway. "One of us took the boat over to the opposite shore, which was flat and accessible, a quarter of a mile distant, to empty it of water and wash out the clay, while the other kindled a fire and got breakfast ready. At an early hour we were again on our way, rowing through the fog as before, the river already awake, and a million crisped waves come forth to meet sun when he should show himself." (Page 95)
Thoreau seems to be saying below that in the furrow of tomorrow we can discern the results of our efforts of today.
[page 104] We know not yet what we have done, still less what we are doing. Wait till evening, and other parts of our day's work will shine that we had thought at noon, and we shall discover the real purport of our toil.
A lot of the day Thoreau spent in writing about the country of India and its mythology, but remembers at one point having encountered the Aeolian harp when he reached a railroad. Telegraph lines were strung along the railroads as they provided a straight route through the forest to the next town. The wind blowing across the wire sounded like a harp being plucked and played by the gods to Thoreau.
[page 143] . . . when I reached the railroad in Plaistow, I heard at some distance a faint music in the air like an Æolian harp, which I immediately suspected to proceed from the cord of the telegraph vibrating in the just awakening morning wind, and applying my ear to one of the posts I was convinced that it was so. It was the telegraph harp singing its message through the country, its message sent not by men, but by gods. . . . It told of things worthy to hear, and worthy of the electric fluid to carry the news of, not of the price of cotton and flour, but it hinted at the price of the world itself and of things which are priceless, of absolute truth and beauty.
Monday had come in like a lamb, but at night it went out like a lion, tearing apart cornfields in the area, but causing little inconvenience for Thoreau and his brother nestled ashore in their tent.
[page 144, 145] There was a high wind this night, which we afterwards learned had been still more violent elsewhere, and had done much injury to the cornfields far and near; but we only heard it sigh from time to time, as if it had no license to shake the foundations of our tent; the pines murmured, the water rippled, and the tent rocked a little, but we only laid our ears closer to the ground, while the blast swept on to alarm other men, and long before sunrise we were ready to pursue our voyage as usual.
Tuesday morning Thoreau gives us a sample of their daily preparations before sailing away.
[page 147] Long before daylight we ranged abroad, hatchet in hand, in search of fuel, and made the yet slumbering and dreaming wood resound with our blows. Then with our fire we burned up a portion of the loitering night, while the kettle sang its homely strain to the morning star. We tramped about the shore, waked all the muskrats, and scared up the bittern and birds that were asleep upon their roosts; we hauled up and upset our boat and washed it and rinsed out the clay, talking aloud as if it were broad day, until at length, by three o'clock, we had completed our preparations and were ready to pursue our voyage as usual; so, shaking the clay from our feet, we pushed into the fog. Though we were enveloped in mist as usual, we trusted that there was a bright day behind it.
Thoreau never felt alone, except perhaps in the presence of poor company. Like Thomas Jefferson, he was "in the best of company when he dined alone". So Thoreau scoffs at the idea of being lost.
[page 15] If a person lost would conclude that after all he is not lost, is not beside himself, but standing in his own old shoes on the very spot where he is, and that for the time being he will live there; but the place that have known him, they are lost, — how much anxiety and danger would vanish. I am not alone if I stand by myself. Who knows where in space this globe is rolling? Yet we will not give ourselves up for lost, let it go where it will.
I have encountered in several of his Journals Thoreau talking about a fast-moving squirrel which dashes about and wondered if this squirrel came to be called a chipmunk. On page 159 he gives us the Latin name for the squirrel, which, when Googled, gives us "the eastern chipmunk." Sometime between the mid-1800s and today, the name chipmunk was coined to describe Thoreau's chipping and striped squirrel, Sciurus striatus.
Next he offers a novel explanation of the Sahara desert being a "great sore caused by the bite of an African flea". This was a theory Thoreau arrived at by close analysis of the origin of a sandy area along the road in Litchfield.
[page 161] Here too was another extensive desert by the side of the road in Litchfield, visible from the bank of the river. The sand was blown off in some places to the depth of ten or twelve feet, leaving small grotesque hillocks of that height, where there was a clump of bushes firmly rooted. Thirty or forty years ago, as we were told, it was a sheep-pasture, but the sheep, being worried by the fleas, began to paw the ground, till they broke the sod, and so the sand began to blow, till now it had extended over forty or fifty acres. This evil might easily have been remedied, at first, by spreading birches with their leaves on over the sand, and fastening them down with stakes, to break the wind. The fleas bit the sheep, and the sheep bit the ground, and the sore had spread to this extent. It is astonishing what a great sore a little scratch breedeth. Who knows but Sahara, where caravans and cities are buried began with the bite of an African flea? This poor globe, how it must itch in many places! Will no god be kind enough to spread a salve of birches over its sores?
Thoreau loved reading classical works, finding them a source of peace and solace. He enjoyed his readings, likening them to a tour of Greece or Italy, like a long walk down the Appian Way into Rome perhaps, a high way where the cares and troubles of the world are left far behind.
[page 183] I know of no studies so composing as those of the classical scholar. When we have sat down to them, life seems as still and serene as if it were very far off, and I believe it is not habitually seen from any common platform so truly and unexaggerated as in the light of literature. In serene hours we contemplate the tour of the Greek and Latin authors with more pleasure than the traveler does the fairest scenery of Greece or Italy. Where shall we find a more refined society? That highway down from Homer and Hesiod to Horace and Juvenal is more attractive than the Appian. Reading the classics, or conversing with those old Greeks and Latins in their surviving works, is like walking amid the stars and constellations, a high and by way serene to travel. Indeed, the true scholar will be not a little of an astronomer in his habits. Distracting cares will not be allowed to obstruct the field of his vision, for the higher regions of literature, like astronomy, are above storm and darkness.
In the late afternoon, they transited Moore's Falls via the locks and entered a broad reach of the river where it was possible to see pickerel lying near the bottom of the shallow water.
[page 189] Strange was it to consider how the sun and the summer, the buds of spring and the seared leaves of autumn, were related to these cabins along die shore, how all the rays which paint the landscape radiate from them, and the flight of the crow and the gyrations of the hawk have reference to their roofs. Still the ever rich and fertile shores accompanied us, fringed with vines and alive with small birds and frisking squirrels, the edge of some farmer's field or widow's wood-lot, or wilder, perchance, where the muskrat, the little medicine of the river, drags itself along stealthily over the alder-leaves and muscle-shells, and man and the memory of man are banished far.
The brothers wished to make camp on a large rock in the middle of the shallow river, but with no place to anchor their tent, they moved to the mainland shore to say goodnight to Tuesday.
Wednesday begins with their discovering that out their choice of place to spend the night was in the middle of the path used by the masons who worked the locks. The word lock is used mostly as a transitive verb by Thoreau as a shorthand for "moving a boat and raising it as the water fills the area behind the downstream side of the movable dam of the lock."
[page 194] It was a pleasant change, after rowing incessantly for many hours, to lock ourselves through in some retired place, — for commonly there was no lock-man at hand, — one sitting in the boat, while the other, sometimes with no little labor and heave-yo-ing, opened and shut the gates, waiting patiently to see the locks fill.
Thoreau examines the pools and eddies near Shelburne Falls and admires the work of Nature in its delicate and smooth shaping of the stones, sees the rocks losing the battle to the fluids with the inexorable passage of time.
[page 202, 203] The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools, but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure with a liberal allowance of time. . . . That which commenced a rock when time was young, shall conclude a pebble in the unequal contest. With such expense of time and natural forces are our very paving-stones produced. They teach us lessons, these dumb workers; verily there are "sermons in stones, and books in running streams." In these very holes the Indians hid their provisions; but now there is no bread, but only its odd neighbor stones at the bottom. Who knows how many races they have served thus?
One recent race forged the brass kettle that was unearthed by an old woman gathering pennyroyal, a plant used to make tea and for various medicinal purposes.
[page 208] A little south of Uncannunuc, about sixty years ago, as the story goes, an old woman who went out to gather pennyroyal, tript her foot in the bail of a small brass kettle in the dead grass and bushes. Some say that flints and charcoal and some traces of a camp were also found. This kettle, holding about four quarts, is still preserved and used to dye thread in. It is supposed to have belonged to some old French or Indian hunter, who was killed in one of his hunting or scouting excursions, and so never returned to look after his kettle.
Considering the story he heard about the old woman picking pennyroyal likely steered Thoreau's thoughts to the physician using medicines created by drug companies and the native American medicine man (a Powwow) who created his own medicine using locally available herbs and plants.
[page 209] In respect to religion and the healing art, all nations are still in a state of barbarism. In the most civilized countries the priest is still but a Powwow, and the physician a Great Medicine. Consider the deference which is everywhere paid to a doctor's opinion. Nothing more strikingly betrays the credulity of mankind than medicine. Quackerv is a thing universal, and universally successful. In this case it becomes literally true that no imposition is too great for the credulity of men. Priests and physicians should never look one another in the face. They have no common ground, nor is there any to mediate between them. When the one comes, the other goes. They could not come together without laughter, or a significant silence, for the one's profession is a satire on the other's, and either's success would be the other's failure. It is wonderful that the physician should ever die, and that the priest should ever live. Why is it that the priest is never called to consult with the physician? It is because men believe practically that matter is independent of spirit. But what is quackery? It is commonly an attempt to cure the diseases of a man by addressing his body alone. There is need of a physician who shall minister to both soul and body at once, at is, to man(2) .
Thoreau devotes pages 211 to 236 to a discussion of friendship, beginning with a short passage on being kind, which to my philological mind means to treat someone as if they were kin. What we mean by kin literally is someone who shares our blood, is of our blood-line. But we are told in the New Testament that we are to treat everyone as if they were of our blood-line, that the physical blood is to be replaced by a spiritual blood.
[page 211] While we float here, far from that tributary stream on whose banks our Friends and kindred dwell, our thoughts, like the stars, come out of their horizon still; for there circulates a finer blood than Lavoisier has discovered the laws of, — the blood, not of kindred merely, but of kindness, whose pulse still beats at any distance and forever.True kindness is a pure divine affinity,
Not founded upon human consanguinity.
It is a spirit, not a blood relation,
Superior to family and station.
A learned professor from the West wanted to meet a famous sage in the East and learn from him. He was invited for tea. The ancient sage pours the tea into the professor's teacup, and, as the tea fills the cup to the brim, he continues to pour the tea, which spills over the sides of the teacup, scalding the professor's hand. Dropping the teacup, the professor exclaims, "Can't you see the teacup is full? You can't pour tea into a full teacup!" To which the sage replies calmly, "Yes, you are right. Unless one brings an empty teacup, one cannot receive new tea." The learned professor, with his mind packed with knowledge, had lacked the "intellectual humility" necessary for him to learn anything from the sage, up until now. Thoreau discusses such people who came to visit him with their full teacups on occasion.
[page 215] One or two persons come to my house from time to time, there being proposed to them the faint possibility of intercourse. They are as full as they are silent, and wait for my plectrum to stir the strings of their lyre. If they could ever come to the length of a sentence, or hear one on that ground they are dreaming of!
As I wrote in this review, Meditative Thinking, to bring an empty teacup to a conversation is to have intellectual humility. To say to yourself, "You never know until you find out" and "There's allways even more" is to open yourself up to intellectual humility and to seed the possibility for spiritual-filled thinking. This is the essence of applying the principles of spiritual activity to our language: In time the empty phrase may be replaced by language filled with the content of our souls.
Thoreau quotes a poet's couplet about love (Page 218):Why love among the virtues is not known,
Is that Love is them all contract in one.
It is true that the list of virtues does not contain love as a separate virtue. Why? Because, rightly understood, love is the combination of all the listed virtues in one. The most complicated form of love in my experience is friendship. Often friendship disappears when love goes away. The truest kind of love is that which lives in friendship.
Thoreau warns us:
[page 221] Beware, lest thy Friend learn at last to tolerate one frailty of thine, and so an obstacle be raised to the progress of thy love. There are times when we have had enough even of our Friends, when we begin inevitably to profane one another, and must withdraw religiously into solitude and silence, the better to prepare ourselves for a loftier intimacy. Silence is the ambrosial night in the intercourse of Friends, in which their sincerity is recruited and takes deeper root.
A handful of what I had considered very good friends in the 1980s have moved into that ambrosial night with me. I await the taking deeper root of their sincerity. I agree with Henry that "The language of Friendship is not words, but meanings. It is an intelligence above languages." (Page 222) He adds from Confucius, "The only motive of Friendship with any one, ought to be a contract of Friendship with his virtue."
[page 229] But men wish us to contract Friendship with their vice also. I have a Friend who wished me to see that to be right which I know to be wrong. But if Friendship is to rob me of my eyes, if it is to darken the day, I will have none of it.
During a time when a moderate-sized hurricane was approaching, I had decided to stay at home and ignore the evacuation order. They predicted sustained winds barely at the 75 mph minimal-hurricane rating. I had bought a large generator after Hurricane Katrina and a window air-conditioning unit big enough to cool my bedroom, neither of which I had set up and used before. I would be busy full-time getting everything ready. I had moved an axe into the ceiling over the garage to break through the roof if a levee were to break and flood my area. My wife had already left to evacuate to her daughter's home 200 miles away and I was in the middle of all these preparations when a Friend called me. He asked if I would pick up a friend of his that I had never met before at the hospital and have her stay with me during the storm. I asked my Friend, "Where are you?" He replied, "Oh, I'm in Shreveport already." I gulped. This was a huge decision for me to make. My thirty-year friendship hung in the balance. He was asking me to do something illegal: to break the evacuation order. If I allowed this person of unknown health to stay with me, I would be responsible if she couldn't climb into the attic to keep from drowning. If she got hurt or further sick while with me, I would also be responsible. Plus there would be no air conditioning in the room for her, and I had only planned on enough food for me to last about three days. He was depending on my frailty of always helping him and this request was definitely an obstacle to the continuance of our friendship. Helping me make this decision was my realizing how often he had asked me for help in recent years and I had obliged, only to find out later the favor I was doing was not for him, but for a friend of his. I told him over the phone that I was unable to help him in this matter and hoped for his forbearance. Alas, our friendship collapsed and we haven't spoke since.
Thoreau says that two travelers must share the same view of things or there will be problems. He gives an example of a blind man and his friend are walking together when they came to the edge of a steep cliff. The friend said, "Take care, here is a precipice, go no farther this way." "I know better," said the other and stepped off. (Page 230)
[page 230] It is impossible to say all that we think, even to our truest Friend. We may bid him farewell forever sooner that complain, for our complaint is too well grounded to be uttered.
Wednesday is being put to bed by Thoreau as he lies awake in the tent with his brother beside him and a brook close by the river as he shares with us his reverie.
[page 241] Whole weeks and months of my summer life slide away in thin volumes like mist and smoke, till at length, some warm morning, perchance, I see a sheet of mist blown down the brook to the swamp, and I float as high above the fields with it. I can recall to mind the stillest summer hours, in which the grasshopper sings over the mulleins, and there is a valor in that time the bare memory of which is armor that can laugh at any blow of fortune. For our lifetime the strains of a harp are heard to swell and die alternately, and death is but "the pause when the blast is recollecting itself."
He leaves us with this couplet about the singing brook (Page 242):
Silver sands and pebbles sing
Eternal ditties with the spring.
Thursday morn the brothers awaken to gentle rain falling on the cotton roof of their tent and proceed further on foot. Thoreau as a gifted handyman could find odd jobs when on a journey by foot. Often he was asked to sell or make things he carried with him, like a tin cup or an umbrella, or was offered a job in a factory after he succeeded in closing a window. He gives us the minimal necessities he required when traveling on foot.
[page 249, 250] We now no longer sailed or floated on the river, but trod the unyielding land like pilgrims. Sadi tells who may travel; among others, "A common mechanic, who can earn a subsistence by the industry of his hand, and shall not have to stake his reputation for every morsel of bread, as philosophers have said." He may travel who can subsist on the wild fruits and game of the most cultivated country. A man may travel fast enough and earn his living on the road. I have at times been applied to to do work when on a journey, to do tinkering and repair clocks, when I had a knapsack on my back. A man once applied to me to go into a factory, stating conditions and wages, observing that I succeeded in shutting the window of a railroad car in which we were traveling, when the other passengers had failed. . . . Farmers have asked me to assist them in haying, when I was passing their fields. A man once applied to me to mend his umbrella, taking me for an umbrella-mender, because, being on a journey, I carried an umbrella in my hand while the sun shone. Another wished to buy a tin cup of me, observing that I had one strapped to my belt, and a sauce-pan on my back. The cheapest way to travel, and the way to travel the farthest in the shortest distance, is to go afoot, carrying a dipper, a spoon, and a fish-line, some Indian meal, some salt, and some sugar. When you come to a brook or pond, you can catch fish and cook them; or you can boil a hasty-pudding; or you can buy a loaf of bread at a farmer's house for fourpence, moisten it in the next brook that crosses the road, and dip into it your sugar, — this alone will last you a whole day; — or, if you are accustomed to heartier living, you can buy a quart of milk for two cents, crumb your bread or cold pudding into it, and eat it with your own spoon out of your own dish. Any one of these things I mean, not all together. I have traveled thus some hundreds of miles without taking any meal in a house, sleeping on the ground when convenient, and found it cheaper, and in many respects more profitable, than staying at home.
He adds, when walking let weariness be your pillow and appetite. Thoreau has little use for the complaining person, using lawyer-talk to make his case, "We can never have much sympathy with the complainer; for after searching nature through, we conclude that he must be both plaintiff and defendant too, and so had best come to a settlement without a hearing. He who receives an injury is to some extent an accomplice of the wrong-doer." (Page 253) After waxing satirical about the complainer, Thoreau says, "The greater the genius, the keener the edge of the satire."
Thursday draws to a close with an account of his restless sleep and awaking one time thinking he was in bed at home instead of on the banks of the Merrimack. He observes what I have found in my 20 years of creating a monthly publication, I cannot spend my whole time writing or I will have nothing to write about, I must budget my time between doing things and writing about them. Thoreau had promised himself to write down all his experiences, but on Thursday night he records his failure and the reason for it:
[page 270] Having eaten our supper of hot cocoa and bread and watermelon, we soon grew weary of conversing, and writing in our journals, and, putting out the lantern which hung from the tent-pole, fell asleep.
Unfortunately, many things have been omitted which should have been recorded in our journal; for though we made it a rule to set down all our experiences therein, yet such a resolution is very hard to keep, for the important experience rarely allows us to remember such obligations, and so indifferent things get recorded, while that is frequently neglected. It is not easy to write in a journal what interests me at any time, because to write it is not what interests us.
On this theme, Thoreau writes an couplet: (Page 279)My life has been the poem I would have writ,
But I could not both live and utter it.
Thoreau says they went to sleep in summer and awoke in autumn. They were soon back in their boat and headed for home, enjoying the sights and sounds of the new season.
[page 273] We heard the sigh of the first autumnal wind, and even the water had acquired a grayer hue. The sumach, grape, and maple were already changed, and the milkweed had turned to a deep rich yellow. In all woods the leaves were fast ripening for their fall; for their full veins and lively gloss mark the ripe leaf, and not the sered one of the poets; and we knew that the maples, stripped of their leaves among the earliest, would soon stand like a wreath of smoke along the edge of the meadow. Already the cattle were heard to low wildly in the pastures and along the highways, restlessly running to and fro, as if in apprehension of the withering of the grass and of the approach of winter. Our thoughts, too, began to rustle.
Thoreau recognized that his riches could not be stolen. As a surveyor he could walk over every piece of Concord's 1100 plus acres without being accosted by the owner who holds the deed. He was rich in everything which was important to him and pitied the so-called "rich man." On this journey the Merrimack River was his.
[page 285] The poor rich man! all he has is what he has bought. What I see is mine. I am a large owner of the Merrimack intervals. . . . He is the rich man, and enjoys the fruits of riches, who summer and winter forever can delight in his own thoughts. Buy a farm! What have I to pay for a farm which a farmer will take?
Floating on a river one sees the patterns the clouds display on the water, as if a type-setter were filling up a sky-full of type and embossing it upon the water for our entertainment .
[page 292] If there is nothing new on the earth, still the traveler always has a resource in the skies. They are constantly turning a new page to view. The wind sets the types on this blue ground, and the inquiring may always read a new truth there. There are things there written with such fine and subtle tinctures, paler than the juice of limes, that to the diurnal eye they leave no trace, and only the chemistry of night reveals them. Every man's daylight firmament answers in his mind to the brightness of the vision in his starriest hour.
Thoreau and his brother carried no Smart Phone with which to discover the happenings in the world, but the method they used brought them nutrition with their news.
[page 292, 293] With a bending sail we glided rapidly by Tyngsborough and Chelmsford, each holding in one hand half of a tart country apple-pie which we had purchased to celebrate our return, and in the other a fragment of the newspaper in which it was wrapped, devouring these with divided relish, and learning the news which had transpired since we sailed.
For fourteen years I worked at a nuclear power plant, and saw to my daily work till I retired, but that work was punctuated by numerous delays which I filled with my own thoughts. Even my hour-plus drive each way, to and from work, I filled with my own thoughts as I drove alone, radio off, and learned to drive safely on remote stretches of road reading with a book on my steering wheel. Over 300,000 safe miles and hundreds of books read — that was the salary I paid to myself for having to work long hours, 40, 60, and sometimes 84 hours a week. My wife and I called it "nuclear prison" because there was razor wire topping all the fences around my work areas and the work consumed much of life, but I didn't allow it consume all of my thoughts.
[page 294] Behind every man's busy-ness there should be a level of undisturbed serenity and industry, as within the reef encircling a coral isle there is always an expanse of still water, where the depositions are going on which will finally raise it above the surface.
When I left the nuclear plant with my pension, my real work began: writing. I compiled my early reviews into two volumes of A Reader's Journal, then wrote a novel about how humans would learn two-way communication with dolphins and other cetaceans, A SPIZZNET FILE. I continued to write poetry, publishing two books of poetry, Flowers of Shanidar and Rainbows and Shadows. In addition I continued to draw cartoons, take photos, and collet Cajun jokes which eventually found their way above the surface of my life. I became, in the words of my friend Calvin, like a volcano "which forms in its own water." People ask me why I never got into social media. To me it would have been like driving to work to the nuclear plant listening to talk radio or to a handful of carpoolers everyday. I had no use for the interruptions of Facebook, for example, a media that came out several years after I was already saying all I had to say to the world in every DIGESTWORLD Issue. Plus I maintained complete copyright ownership of my original works when they appeared like volcanos above the watery surface of my life.
Back to Thoreau, rounding third and heading for home, he pens a long prose paean to Chaucer, saying we should come to Chaucer after we have read the writings and poetry which preceded him. Our reading these works would be equivalent to a long, somber Lent of fasting and abstinence which will leave us hungry for some real food, such as the banquets we will find in Chaucer's works. Isn't Chaucer old-fashioned and stuffy? Not to Thoreau, who writes, "Chaucer is fresh and modern still, and no dust settles on his true passages. It lightens along the line, and we are reminded that flowers have bloomed, and birds sung, and hearts beaten in England. Before the earnest gaze of the reader, the rust and moss of time gradually drop off, and the original green life is revealed. He was a homely and domestic man, and did breathe quite as modern men do." (Page 301)
Yes, Thoreau cautions us about Chaucer: "His genius does not soar like Milton's, but is genial and familiar. It shows great tenderness and delicacy, but not the heroic sentiment. It is only a greater portion of humanity with all its weakness. He is not heroic, as Raleigh, nor pious, as Herbert, nor philosophical, as Shakespeare, but is the child of the English muse, and that child which is the father of the man. The charm of his poetry consists often only in an exceeding naturalness, perfect sincerity, with the behavior of a child rather than of a man."
Thoreau says a true poem is distinguished by the atmosphere it creates in us. (Page 304) He sees two types of poets.
[page 304] There are two classes of men called poets. The one cultivates life, the other art, — one seeks food for nutriment, the other for flavor; one satisfies hunger, the other gratifies the palate. There are two kinds of writing, both great and rare; one that of genius, or the inspired, the other of intellect and taste, in the intervals of inspiration.
The first kind bubbles with life, filling us with inspiration and is immune to criticism by all. If there are laws of poetry, this kind creates its own law.
[page 304] It vibrates and pulsates with life forever. It is sacred, and to be read with reverence, as the works of nature are studied. There are few instances of a sustained style of this kind; perhaps every man has spoken words, but the speaker is then careless of the record. Such a style removes us out of personal relations with its author; we do not take his words on our lips, but his sense into our hearts. It is the stream of inspiration, which bubbles out, now here, now there, now in this man, now in that. It matters not through what ice-crystals it is seen, now a fountain, now the ocean stream running under ground.
The second kind fills us with admiration for its technique and wisdom.
[page 304] The other is self-possessed and wise. It is reverent of genius, and greedy of inspiration. It is conscious in the highest and the least degree. It consists with the most perfect command of the faculties. It dwells in a repose as of the desert, and objects are as distinct in it as oases or palms in the horizon of sand. The train of thought moves with subdued and measured step, like a caravan. But the pen is only an instrument in its hand, and not instinct with life, like a longer arm. It leaves a thin varnish or glaze over all its work.
"A good book," Thoreau tells us, "is the plectrum with which our else silent lyres are struck." He anthropomorhizes the absence of noise, knowing Silence to be uninterruptible except for short periods by authors striking their printed lyres.
[page 319] It were vain for me to endeavor to interrupt the Silence. She cannot be done into English. For six thousand years men have translated her with what fidelitv belonged to each, and still she is little better than a sealed book. A man may run on confidently for a time, thinking he has her under his thumb, and shall one day exhaust her, but he too must at last be silent, and men remark only how brave a beginning he made; for when he at length dives into her, so vast is the disproportion of the told to the untold, that the former will seem but the bubble on the surface where he disappeared.
As I come to the end of Thoreau's boat journey over the Concord and Merrimack, I am left in alone in the boat as the two brothers go ashore, hearing only the distant bubbling of the locks and waterfalls and the fading music of Henry's lyre lapsing at last into silence.
-------- Footnotes ---------
1. The ancient Roman port which in 2019 sits about twenty-five miles from the Italian shoreline, no longer useful as a port.Return to text directly before Footnote 1.
Footnote 2.Return to text directly before Footnote 2.
Such a physician can be found in 2019 in a doctor who practices "anthroposophical medicine", a practice of medicine founded by Rudolf Steiner a century ago which is coming more into use as faith in the doctor of the body wanes and the seeking for a doctor of body, soul, and spirit increases.
Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne
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