Connections: A Bifocal Look at Thoreau Society History

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Author: Ron Hoag | © Ron Hoag 2016

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 “A subtle chain of countless rings
The next unto the farthest brings”
(Emerson, Nature)

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The other panelists in today’s Charles Dickens-framed session will address the Thoreau Society present and future, while I speak as the ghost of gatherings and other doings past. But past is not passé. Famed non-Yankee William Faulkner assures us: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” In the “Ktaadn” section of The Maine Woods, Thoreau asks: “Who are we? Where are we?” Good questions, a suggestive answer to which was given at an annual gathering by Roderick Nash, author of Wilderness and the American Mind, who ended a terrific keynote talk by reminding his First Parish audience, “Just remember, wherever you go, there you are.” My contribution to this session is a look at where we’ve been, which of course has implications for where and who we are at later points along the way. A caveat: because the history I know best is my own, and because Henry in Walden advises me to stick to that account, I’ll give my impressions of Thoreau Society history over the three-plus decades of my involvement. My experience being so partial, however, I’ll make this retrospective bifocal by beginning with an account by someone who knew much more than I do about our group, Walter Harding. Mark Twain said of his acquaintance with Rudyard Kipling: “Between us we cover all knowledge. He knows all that can be known and I know the rest.” That’s how I feel about Walt Harding although I am no Mark Twain.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Walt’s “A Rambling History of the Thoreau Society,” published in the 1995 Concord Saunterer, which I edited, covers our organizations’s first half-century culminating with the 1991 Jubilee. Walt, too, acknowledges Thoreau’s Walden admonition when he declares, “This will be my history [of the society] and if anyone doesn’t like it, he can write his own.” “I have got to begin this history with me,” he continues, “for I was the one who started the whole thing off.” He explains that with a fresh-from-college job as grammar school principal in an isolated Massachusetts town, he was, in his words, “terribly lonely.” The year was 1939. “Having become very excited about Thoreau in college,” he says, “I now started writing to people about him—just to maintain my own sanity.” The recipients of his letters had in common an interest in Thoreau that had come to his attention. “The amazing thing,” he recollects, “was that just about everyone wrote back.”

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Before long this grapevine led Harding to Raymond Adams at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whom he hails as “the Thoreau scholar of the day.” Their correspondence prompted Walt to take summer courses at UNC in 1940, where he recalls spending “many a happy afternoon or evening in [Adams’s] office talking Thoreau or looking at his great Thoreau collection.”

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 “That fall,” Harding says, “when I got back to Northfield, I decided that we—or at least I—had to have a Thoreau Society.” Contacting everyone he could think of to promote this idea, Walt was told repeatedly that there were not enough Thoreauvians in the whole country to form a society. “Even Raymond Adams discouraged me,” he says. Finally, Rev. Roland Sawyer, a Universalist minister, Massachusetts state representative known as the barefoot legislator, and author of a pamphlet commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Thoreau’s birth in 1917, offered to help arrange a celebration in Concord, a Thoreau birthday party at which Walt might recruit for his proposed society. Harding got to work. Concord historian Allen French organized a host committee and Walt advertised the event in the major newspapers of the Northeast. Just 10 days before the circled date, French called to urge cancellation because of few responses. Walt stood his and Henry’s ground.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 “On the [morning of] July 12th,” says Walt, “I rode into Pittsfield on the milk truck and took the train to Boston. Sawyer picked me up at the State House and we drove to Walden Pond, where it was raining the proverbial cats and dogs. The wettest boy scout I have ever seen . . . told us the meeting had been rescheduled at the D.A.R. hall on Lexington Road. To our amazement, when we got there we found the tiny hall absolutely filled and people crowded around the doors and windows trying to see in. . . . I remember particularly the brief papers by Odell Shepard, the Alcott scholar who was then also lieutenant governor of Connecticut, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana . . . and by Raymond Adams. . . . I made a motion that a Thoreau Society be established. It was immediately passed, and Raymond Adams and I were elected president and secretary. . . . By noon the rain had stopped and . . . we adjourned to the Colonial Inn for a luncheon and the showing of Herbert Gleason’s beautiful photographic slides of the Thoreau country, hand-colored by his wife.” Raymond Adams continued as Thoreau Society President from 1941 to 1955, while Walter Harding served 50 years as secretary till the Jubilee in 1991; thereafter and forevermore as Founding Secretary. He was also President in 1964.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Harding’s reminiscences of characters and controversies during our formative years are fascinating. He recalls, for example, the 1942 society meeting, at which a “quarrel . . . arose when someone suggested that we ought to include a [bylaws] statement that crackpots (or some such term) were not to be admitted.” The motion was “laughed off” when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana pointed out that such a policy might “keep Henry Thoreau himself off the membership list.” [Note: the namesake grandson of both the famed schoolroom poet and author Richard Henry Dana Jr. of Two Years Before the Mast, H.W.L. Dana combined the Brahmin pedigree of the former with the working class sympathies of the latter, teaching literature at Columbia University and the Sorbonne and promoting global socialism. His online profile is a great Google read.]

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Among the colorful characters who enliven Walt’s history was Roger Payne, an Oxford graduate and author of a Thoreau study titled Why Work? Payne hitchhiked from New York City for society meetings, sleeping on the old high school porch. His contributions to the Thoreau Society include the letters “Inc.” after our name, legally required to make us eligible for a promised bequest in his will. When Roger went to his reward, the society’s proved to be 24 copies of Why Work?

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Also colorful and highly influential was Mary Sherwood, the first woman in the nation to earn a degree in forestry; a relentless, hands-on, in-your-face advocate for Walden Pond restoration; and the founding force behind the Thoreau Lyceum, where, as first director, she lived and greeted visitors at its Belknap Street headquarters next to the site of the Thoreau family’s so-called Texas House. Mary, who saw and did things her way, antagonized Lyceum directors till they replaced her with Anne McGrath. In protest, she attended the Thoreau Society’s 1968 meeting wearing a burlap dress garnished with wild flowers, brandishing a lantern to aid her search for an honest man. Writes Walt, “in the midst of the business meeting she rushed up the aisle, lantern thrust forward, took over the podium from flabbergasted society president Reginald Cook of Middlebury College, and launched into a violent denunciation of all the Lyceum officers.” Doc Cook, as he was known, was rescued by Gladys Hosmer, herself dramatically attired in robin’s egg blue gown, elbow length gloves, and wide-brimmed lawn party hat, who rushed the podium shouting “Point of order, Mr. President! Point of order!” An indignant Mary was led from the platform. [Note: The complex relationship of the Thoreau Society and Thoreau Lyceum culminated in eventual merger, with the Society absorbing the Lyceum and the Belknap Street property later being sold. But that’s another story.]

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Colorful characters aside, Harding’s entire Concord Saunterer article will remind you of—or introduce you to—the evolutionary contributions of many others including Concord historian Ruth Wheeler, naturalist Edwin Way Teale, cabin site archaeologist Roland Robbins, quintessential New Englander and longtime treasurer Eric Parkman Smith, and Edmund Schofield, ecologist, Antarctic explorer, and, as society president, the moving force behind the fiftieth anniversary celebration in 1991, a two-week, multi-venue, pricey extravaganza that he dubbed the Jubilee.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 For a look at the next 25 years, we now transition from the Founder’s Eye perspective of Walter Harding to the more rank-and-file vantage of Ron Hoag. Professionally and personally, the society has been a big part of my life, although as a Needham boy fishing in Thoreau’s favorite pond, I gave him nary a thought. I encountered Walden first in a Middlebury College class taught by Reginald Cook, the fine Thoreau scholar not yet dispossessed of his podium by Mary Sherwood channeling both Ophelia and Diogenes. I did not realize, as I read my assigned “Variorum” Walden, edited by Walter Harding, that the Middlebury library held Thoreau’s own copy of Walden, a fact possibly revealed by Doc Cook during one of many classes I cut during my less than conscious freshman and sophomore years. Much later, at the UNC-Chapel Hill campus where Walt Harding and Raymond Adams talked of Henry, my reformed self did a Thoreau dissertation under Lewis Leary, longtime friend of both Doc Cook and Walt, and himself a past president of our society. Whether coincidence or destiny, almost none of this happened by my design. Mostly I became aware of connections as they manifested themselves but did not seek them out.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 About 1980, I did make a deliberate summer pilgrimage to the Thoreau Lyceum, where I was welcomed by curator Ann McGrath and assistant Peggy Brace, who got my attention with an earnest “Come, let us talk of Henry.” I much liked the Lyceum’s Old Curiosity Shop atmosphere, one curiosity being, I believe, the exact Thoreau pencil that now miraculously appears in virtually all of our online auction fundraisers, a Thoreauvian baton passed electronically from hand to hand. Even more impressive was that day’s chance encounter with Walter Harding himself, who dropped by the Lyceum while I was there. When Peggy introduced us, I felt I was “in the presence.” These and other knockings of opportunity made me a Thoreau Society member, with my first annual gathering, not yet called by that name, coming in 1982. Since then I have missed only a couple.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Because my own society experiences are representative of opportunities available to most involved members, I will mention, as history and inducement, a few vignettes that have made this a valued association, the first being Saturday evening picnics at the Belknap Street lyceum. In my mind’s eye I see, above the paper plates, casseroles, and salads, people like Tom Blanding, Ed Schofield, Joel Myerson, Jayne Gordon, Bob Galvin, Parker Huber, Walter Brain, and Brad and Debra Dean, spirited participants in a good time. Far more than strictly academic meetings, the annual Thoreau Society gatherings have remained for me a fond hybrid of scholarly conferences, old home week, family reunions, and Church of Henry transcendental revivals.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Later and more upscale editions of this movable feast shifted to afternoon receptions at the historic Lexington Road home of John and Lorna Mack, where I’ve enjoyed stimulating beverages and the sparkling company of Bob Hudspeth, Beth Witherell, Joe Wheeler, Mike Berger, Tom Potter, Dick and Mary Schneider, Dale and Kay Schwie, Ron Bosco and others too numerous to mention but never to be overlooked. Still more recent soirees have taken place at the Thoreau Institute’s grand cabin on Baker Farm Road, holdout against the tiny house movement. And while that Tudoresque country manor seems anomalous to the regulation Thoreau lifestyle, let us not be simplistic in our simplifying. That house was conserved and restored by current owners whose abiding ethic also conserves and restores hope for Walden Woods and other Thoreau haunts, lest they suffer the fate of that corner of Esterbrook Woods once sauntered by Henry Thoreau but now known as the playing fields of Middlesex School, a trick of time narrowly spared Walden Woods by, first, the minute man muster of the Thoreau Country Conservation Alliance with Blanding, Schofield, Brain, and others, and, thereafter, the white knight arrival of the Walden Woods Project with Don Henley, Kathi Anderson, and others—both in the very nick of Concordian time. The Henley Library on Baker Farm Road also houses the Harding and other Thoreau Society collections, used by researchers including recipients of the society’s Marjorie Harding Memorial Fellowship such as this year’s awardee, Joseph Johnson, with us today.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Indeed, the Thoreau Society connections with TCCA, WWP, Mary Sherwood’s Walden Forever Wild, the Esterbrook Woods Movement of Steve Ells and others, the Thoreau Lyceum, the Walden Pond Reservation, the Virginia Road Birthplace initiative, and many other entities and personalities are the stuff of history plays and soap operas. And when you factor in the dramatis personae of good, smart, committed people with differing and shifting agendas and alliances, well, as the title of the George Clooney movie suggests, It’s Complicated.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 By no means the captain of anybody’s huckleberry party, I have over the years of my society involvement at least risen from raw recruit to different drummer, one of the many fence-jumping mavericks contrarily sporting the Circle TS brand. At my first First Parish luncheon, I sat next to a very civil engineer from a neighboring town who was interested in a former Concord surveyor. I emphasize that you don’t have to be a scholar to participate meaningfully in the Thoreau Society and its management. Henry was lots of things to himself and to others, and our society board reflects that spice of life, traditionally comprising both scholars and “normal people,” including current society president and my good friend Michael Schleiffer, who, come to think of it, is neither a Thoreau scholar nor “normal.” (Just kidding, Groucho.)

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Thanks to the Thoreau Society, I have traveled a good deal in Concord and beyond. Like many annual gathering attendees I’ve hiked to destinations frequented by Henry on his afternoon saunters and resonantly named in his Journal, seeing, for example, Fairhaven Bay from Fairhaven Hill and the reversed image from a canoe. Among longer trips linked to gatherings, an exploration of Brook Farm led by Rick Delano, who wrote the book on that subject, stands out. Brook Farm had not been preserved and still held ungathered artifacts including nails from the Margaret Fuller cabin and charred bricks from the Phalanstery, a multipurpose edifice whose uninsured burning doomed the community whose communal spirit it was meant to embody.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 In important ways the society introduced me to Thoreau’s Maine Woods and his Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Parker Huber, who authored The Wildest Country: A Guide to Thoreau’s Maine, was an annual gathering regular, bicycling to Concord from New Hampshire and Vermont. We met at an AG. In 1986 he guided Dana Brigham, for whom the keynote is now named, and me on a canoeing and hiking expedition that began on Moosehead Lake and climaxed on the sublime summit of Katahdin. Parker had previously guided noted British watercolorist Tony Foster on a plein air painting trip on this same Thoreauvian trail, a journey recounted and illustrated in Foster’s annual gathering keynote address. Indeed, these society contacts with Huber and Foster prompted my own Huber-led contact with Katahdin. And if you know Thoreau’s book, you know I use the word “contact” advisedly.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 A few years later I joined Walt Harding and some 20 other paddlers on an abridged re-creation of Thoreau’s Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, putting in near Concord, New Hampshire, and taking out days later on the bank of the grass ground Musketaquid in time for the annual gathering. The trip was arranged by society member Bob Madison, then of the Naval Academy; and by sheer luck my assigned fellow paddler was ecologist author Anne LaBastille, the Cornell educated Adirondacks Woodswoman (her book title) who provided a steady stream of travel tales and the close quarters companionship of her beloved German shepherds, umbrella-shaded Condor and Chekika. It was an amazing journey in many ways, punctuated when a volunteer overnight host showed an unpublished family letter describing the Civil War battle between the Confederate raider Alabama and the United States battleship Kearsarge off the coast of Cherbourg, France. This blow-by-blow account was penned the day after action by a Kearsarge officer who wanted the record to be fresh as wounds and feelings.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 My interest in the Maine Woods, book and place, led to further society adventures. In 1996 I presented a Thoreau Society plaque to Baxter State Park for its stewardship of Thoreau’s revered Mount Katahdin, located on land given by former Maine Governor Percival Baxter, whose conservationist spirit abides in his grand niece and annual gathering regular Connie Baxter Marlow, here this week. The occasion was a sesquicentennial celebration of Thoreau’s 1846 “Ktaadn” trip. I limped to the Millinocket banquet just in time for my presentation, having wrenched a knee that day on Katahdin. The knee survives, our plaque still hangs, and I’m thankful for another memorable ring in the subtle chain of seemingly countless Thoreau Society experiences, which the next unto the farthest brings.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Another chain-linked experience involves Maine independent filmmaker Huey, in Concord this weekend to add footage for his upcoming bicentennial documentary called Henry David Thoreau, Surveyor of the Soul. Having worked with him on his 2001 film Wilderness and Spirit, A Mountain Called Katahdin, screened and discussed at an annual gathering, I’m glad to be one of many society members assisting with his latest production. It’s been fun to watch a talented filmmaker work, and I’ve learned the humbling lesson that knowing what I want to say and saying it on camera are different things. Huey is a good editor, but to paraphrase actor Roy Scheider’s police chief when he first sights “Jaws,” “We’re going to need a bigger cutting room floor.”

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 I’ll offer two promising recollections, possible “seeds,” if you will, in the Thoreauvian sense of the word. Two years ago I took part in a multi-stage re-creation of Thoreau’s Maine Woods canoe travels. Sponsored by the State of Maine to promote environmental tourism, a flotilla of canoes spent 16 days on lakes and rivers close to Henry’s heart. Just after ice out I did the first leg of that journey, including Moosehead and Chesuncook Lakes, the West Branch of the Penobscot River that connects them, and the fun-to-say Umbazooksus Stream. As on the Concord and Merrimack trip, I was lucky in my assigned fellow paddler. Chris Francis, better known as Charlie Brown, is one of Penobscot Nation’s most respected hunters and among the very best storytellers I’ve ever heard. I could not have surpassed Charlie with Joe Polis himself, whose still extant house I saw on Indian Island across the road from the grave of another Thoreau “Joe,” guide Joseph Attean, who died saving men in a log jam. Nothing Thoreauvian has pleased me more than having Charlie Brown, Penobscot historian James Francis, and Penobscot cultural officer Chris Sockalexis participate in the Maine Woods program at last year’s annual gathering. The Penobscots proudly display, on their truly native ground, an outdoor kiosk mapping and explaining the Thoreau-Wabanaki Trail. I trust that in the years ahead of our organization and their tribe, the trail between Concord and Indian Island will be worn in both directions.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 I will almost end my saunter down memory lane with a nod to where all things Thoreau including Henry himself began, at a farmhouse on Virginia Road. The salvation of that birthplace, through its acquisition and restoration by the alliance culminating in the Thoreau Farm Trust, is an inspirational story. Acknowledging that this hallelujah chorus has many voices, I don’t think anyone will question my singling out Joe Wheeler, raised just down Virginia Road at the original site of the house, as the early and longtime point man in the effort to preserve this time-capsule treasure. His presence on the Thoreau Society board of directors, where he persistently and persuasively argued for birthplace support, is a foundation of our organization’s presence there today. Years ago, when an earlier edition of the board was tweaking our mission statement, I suggested that we add the open-ended goal of “advocating for the preservation of Thoreau Country.” The Thoreau Society is living history, a work in progress, and I am glad to see that attention to where we are and go remains part of our awareness of who we are and will become.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 I will add only a brief postscript to this remembrance, already long for your comfort if short for my intent. For me, seven years editing the Concord Saunterer plus annual gathering and other introductions have personalized our global demographics, adding names like Henrik and Michiko, Nikita, Shinji, and Albena to a society—and a world—where Thoreau matters. These gains help balance losses like that of Concord naturalist Walter Brain, Secretary Walter Harding, and Walt’s successor in that role, my close friend and colleague Brad Dean, whose editing of the “Dispersion of Seeds” and “Wild Fruits” manuscripts helped turn the direction of Thoreau studies for a generation of scholars including Laura Walls and our next two panel speakers, Michael Berger and Rochelle Johnson. If my impressionistic remarks prompt your responses of “But you didn’t mention. . . .” or “I wish you’d said . . . , ” then I’m happy to have seeded such thoughts. Please let your important Thoreau Society connections also be known.

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Source: https://commons.digitalthoreau.org/tsag2016/friday-july-8/connections-a-bifocal-look-at-thoreau-society-history/