News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mike Lunsford

June 28, 2010

The Off Season: Why I went to the woods …

TERRE HAUTE — I first met Henry David Thoreau as a young man in college, when I was most often in blue jeans and flannel shirts and in need of a haircut. I carried his most famous book, “Walden,” in my ratty red backpack, not to be different or to transcend reality, but because he wrote from the heart, simply and honestly. There has been a copy of it on my bookshelf ever since.

I got reacquainted with my old friend here last week; I loaded my family and too much luggage into our van and drove nearly 1,100 miles to this beautiful Massachusetts town, not on a pilgrimage or for hero worship, but to reconnect with a man who lived a good and quiet life, and to do so on his home tromping grounds.

We found Concord a remarkable place. Here, the first shots of the American Revolution were exchanged, and in the very middle of town sits “Monument Square,” a simple stone obelisk bearing the names of all the townsmen who fought in the “War of Rebellion” against the British.

We visited that battlefield, and the Old North Bridge, where the shot “heard ’round the world” was fired. But even in those most historically sacred of spots, we found Thoreau, a quiet revolutionary in his own right, walking through the scenes again and again.

His friends seemed to be with him often, as well, for it was within shouting distance of the house built by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s grandfather in 1770 that the famous battle took place, and it was in that house that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote his “Mosses From An Old Manse,” a remarkable collection of short stories. We enjoyed wandering the grounds there, visiting the graves of fallen British soldiers, and standing on the boat dock and looking north toward the lazy river that flowed beneath the bridge.

We also, of course, made our way to Walden Pond — a 60-acre lake really — that sits just west of town. It is the site of the famous 10 feet by 15 feet cabin that Thoreau built on property owned by Emerson, who wanted nothing in exchange but the labor of clearing out a patch of briars and planting a stand of pine trees. Thoreau lived at Walden for two years, two months and two days, not in an attempt to drop out of society, but rather to try to live independently of society’s trappings and expectations. It was not unusual for Thoreau to have done such a thing; he was seen, after all, as an odd duck by those who knew him. But he was no hermit; he frequently walked into town, and could even hear the trains running from his spot near one of the pond’s beautiful, calm coves.

Henry David Thoreau (originally David Henry) was born in July 1817, not long after our second war with England had ended. His father, who struggled financially, hit upon the idea of being a pencil maker, a profession that Henry took up himself when he occasionally needed money. The family, with the help of Henry’s mother taking in boarders, eventually moved to Concord from Boston; Thoreau’s grandmother already lived there.

The third of four children, Henry graduated from Harvard in 1837, and almost immediately fell into step with Concord’s celebrated philosophers and writers — Emerson and Hawthorne and Bronson Alcott and Ellery Channing being the most prominent. He began a career as a teacher, but when he was chastised for sparing the rod too often in his classroom, he quit, worked a while for his father (he improved several of the techniques and machines that his father used), then started a private school of his own with his brother, John. In fact, all four of the Thoreau children became teachers of some sort and never married.

The time he spent with his brother was the best of Thoreau’s life, I think. Not only did the school prosper — the brothers were innovative and took their students on field trips and nature walks — but also Henry and John found the time to take a rowboat trip up the Concord and Merrimack rivers together, eventually ending up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Thoreau wrote his “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” while he lived at Walden Pond, dedicating it to John, who, already suffering from tuberculosis, died in 1842, the victim of tetanus.

John’s death ended Henry’s career as a school teacher. He took work as Emerson’s handyman and gardener, tutored Emerson’s brother’s children in New York, helped his parents build a new home in Concord — he dug and laid all of the stone for the foundations — lectured, surveyed and wrote. In the spring of 1845, he went to Walden to build his cabin.

My Hoosier family visited Walden Pond on a cool, cloudy day, and we dodged sprinkles as we walked the paths around it in search of the place where Henry built his cabin and planted the beans made famous in his book. My daughter and son, too old to be called kids now, endured the history lessons and nature walks for a good while, but couldn’t have understood what being this close to Thoreau meant to their English major parents who seemed to wander around in a reverie. We were in no hurry to leave the place, standing a good while on the edge of the pond to watch a trio of brave souls swimming in the cold water, and we gazed at the far shore as if we’d seen Henry himself plumbing the depths of the pond in his row boat. The water was as clear as Thoreau said it was 165 years ago, so clear that it was obvious why Boston’s “Ice King,” Frederick Tudor, harvested ice there for years.

Our first stop was the replica of Thoreau’s cabin that sits near the main gate of the park; it was built using Henry’s own description in “Walden” as a guide, although it was more than likely the price tag for the newer version was higher than the $28.50 Thoreau spent on his. As interesting as its shingles and sparse furniture and woodshed were, we wanted to see the spot where he had built his own place. In 1945, exactly a hundred years from the time Thoreau moved into his cabin, archeologist Roland Robbins discovered the site, which is today commemorated with a cairn of stones and a plaque, and, of course, the beauty of the pond and the scent of pine.

Thoreau wrote in “Walden,” that he “went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I went to his woods to feel a little of what he lived.

I believe that Henry Thoreau, the oddball who was often seen wading in streams and playing games with children, who gave lectures on walking and wild apples, who cleaned wells and repaired fences for pocket money, who played his flute as his boat drifted down the river, did live that life and learned its lessons.

After he died at just 45 in the front parlor sickbed of his parents’ Concord home, three-fourths of the town’s children followed his funeral procession to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. His old friend, Emerson, said of him, “Wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.”

We were glad we found his home at Walden.

Mike Lunsford can be reached at hickory913@aol.com, or by regular mail c/o the Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Mike’s Web page can be found at mikelunsford.com.

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