Home ➨ Slightly Foxed - Streams of Consciousness
A soft summer rain cloaked the Concord River with an iridescent mist in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday, 31 August 1839, as two young men, brothers, eased a small boat of their own construction into the water. She was painted blue and green to reflect the element in which she would live, and christened the Musketaquid after the name given to this river of many meadows by the indigenous peoples. They boarded her with happy anticipation as she slipped from the muddy ooze of the bank.
Each man was slightly built and just below medium height. The elder of the two, John Thoreau, 24, was a genial, easy-going, eminently likeable man with a talent for friendship; clever, but rather less bookish than his classically educated younger brother, who had recently come down from Harvard. The younger brother, Henry, was of sterner countenance, his demeanour inspired by the Roman stoicism he so admired, though his passions ran deep. Henry was 22 and more respected than liked, though he had a way with children. He had a reputation for extracting absolute obedience from the most recalcitrant boys in his days as a teacher, though he never resorted to the cane, and he had lost a well-paid teaching position for voicing his objections to its use.
Life had been kind to the Thoreau brothers. They were fit, healthy, enjoyed nothing so much as their time together in the open air, and having successfully taken over the Concord Academy, the local private school where they themselves had been educated, they had cause for optimism. They were finding their place in the world. It was a time to breathe deeply and venture forth with confidence. These would be among the happiest days of Henry Thoreau’s all-too-brief life, and would inspire A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849).
This is a young man’s book, brimful of life, self-confidence, faith and doubt, with just that whiff of paganism Thoreau so enjoyed holding under the noses of his neighbours. We accompany him as he hews wood for his campfire, the chips flying through the summer sun and dancing in pinwheels as they touch the ground. He quotes bits of history and folklore from his voluminous reading as place names along the river ignite memories of frontier heroism, Celtic myth and even minor Greek poets (which he translates himself); he drops a line in the river to catch his dinner and fries it up over a campfire at sunset. Living when a ‘natural philosopher’ needed little more than eyes to see, ears to hear, a sense of smell, time and patience, Thoreau would make genuine contributions to the study of natural history, yet he saw every creature that soars, swims or saunters, every landscape, with the eyes of a poet.
the harebell and the Rhexia Virginica . . . growing in patches of lively pink flowers on the edge of the meadows, had almost too gay an appearance for the rest of the landscape, like a pink ribbon on the bonnet of a Puritan woman. Asters and goldenrods were the livery which nature wore at present. The latter alone expressed all the ripeness of the season, and shed their mellow lustre over the fields, as if now declining summer’s sun had bequeathed its hues to them. It is the floral solstice a little after mid-summer, when the particles of golden light, the sun-dust, have, as it were, fallen like seeds on the earth, and produced these blossoms.
It is a quietly uneventful journey: there are no life-threatening rapids, no tales of derring-do, no predators stalking our heroes in the dead of night. It is Thoreau’s inner journey that takes centre stage, his thoughts moving freely through the vast ocean of Western civilization. There are flowing cataracts of philosophy, poetry (his own and others’), reflections on primitive versus modern man, the nature of God, and the stuff that the best books are made of. There are leisurely interludes down quiet tributaries, with discursions on solitude, conscience and man’s place in the hierarchy of the natural world. It is no surprise that Nathaniel Hawthorne, an astute observer who was not easily impressed, wrote of Henry Thoreau, ‘Nature, in return for his love, seems to adopt him as her special child, and shows him secrets which few others are allowed to witness . . . I find him a healthy and wholesome man to know.’ And so he is.
One is struck by the extraordinary self-sufficiency of the Thoreaus, of the ease and comfort with which they navigate water and woods. The brothers built their river-worthy craft, fifteen feet long, three feet across at the widest point, with two sets of oars and two retractable masts, in seven days (and recall: without power tools). For their trip, which was to take them many miles through a sparsely populated country marked by settlers’ graves and the campfire stones of the natives who had murdered those settlers only a generation before, they took buffalo skins to sleep in, a canvas tent, salt, sugar, corn meal, a bit of oil, fishing line, cocoa and a few melons and potatoes. Thoreau’s voice is bright, hopeful and seemingly spontaneous, the narrative rendered quietly heroic when we realize that when he wrote this paean to life, years later, he was fighting his way out of a crippling depression.
Soon after their return to Concord, the Thoreaus discovered that they were falling in love with the same woman, Ellen Sewell, whom they had met just the month before. Henry loved no one as he loved John. As he was later to write, ‘The only remedy for love is to love more,’ and, ever true to his ideals, he gave John his blessing and removed himself from Ellen’s society. Ellen’s father, convinced that neither of the Thoreau brothers could provide for themselves, much less a wife and family, forbade his daughter from seeing either of them. No woman would ever turn Henry’s head again. The journal he had begun two years earlier would eventually fill fourteen volumes, but he would never write Ellen’s name or speak of her again.
Soon after the departure of Ellen from their lives, John Thoreau’s health began to fail, and his inability to perform his duties as a schoolmaster forced the brothers to close their school. During his convalescence, he cut himself with a rusty razor. He contracted lockjaw and died an agonizing death in Henry’s arms two weeks later. His death was so traumatic for Henry that he developed psychosomatic symptoms, and friends feared for his own life. The symptoms eventually abated, but Henry sank into a black depression. For the first time the stoicism which he so valued failed him.
In his distress he turned to his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was the most respected man of letters in America, and was fond of young Henry Thoreau. Thoreau had often worked as a handyman for him and as a tutor to his children. Emerson had recently purchased land on the shore of Walden Pond, just one mile from the centre of Concord, and he needed someone to clear it. Thoreau seemed the natural choice for the job. Emerson had also considered building a small cabin on the land in which to write. Thoreau, an accomplished carpenter who had helped build his family’s house with his father, asked if he might build a cabin for Emerson with the felled timber. Emerson consented.
Thoreau borrowed an axe and fled to the woods. He was not, as he would have us believe in Walden, a cocksure (and rather priggish) young philosopher-king on a quest to search the depths of his soul and solve the Mysteries of Existence and the Meaning of Life. He was coming apart: a young man on the run, from death, disappointment, failure and his own grief. The next two years would be among the most productive of his life, and the first fruit of his literary labours was A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
Friends had learned never to speak of John in Henry’s presence, and nowhere are we told that John was his companion on his river idyll, save for the poignant reference which begins the selection of verse and epigraph that serve as prologue:
Where’er thou sail’st who sailed with me,
Though now thou climbest loftier mounts,
And fairer rivers dost ascend,
Be thou my Muse, my Brother‒.
Throughout he writes of ‘one’ and ‘the other’, but never of ‘my brother’. His stoicism, or denial, is in the ascendant. There is no self-pity, no sense of a groping for sanity. Yet for a man who endeavoured to spend his life at a walking pace to such a degree that it was to become a virtual creed, his thoughts race forth, a cleansing, shimmering cataract of effervescence, of exuberant exaltation and wonder. Late in the journey, he reflects on the ideal Friend.
As surely as the sunset in my latest November shall translate me to the ethereal world, and remind me of the ruddy morning of youth; as surely as the last strain of music which falls on my decaying ear shall make age to be forgotten, or . . . the manifold influences of nature survive during the term of our natural life, so surely my Friend shall forever be my Friend, and reflect a ray of God to me, and time shall foster and adorn and consecrate our friendship, and no less than the ruins of temples. As I love nature, as I love singing birds, and gleaming stubble, and flowing rivers, and morning and evening, and summer and winter, I love thee, my Friend.
Only John could have inspired these words.
In my youth Henry Thoreau was a comrade, Chanticleer crowing atop his roost for the sheer delight of making a noise loud enough to wake his neighbours. Now, thirty years on, as I move rather too briskly through middle age, his song still refreshes my spirit. His thoughts dance like tumblers in a carnival, never failing to raise a broad smile with their muscular, self-conscious agility. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is a great lusty cry of animality, of a creature stretching itself in every conceivable way, stumbling occasionally, sitting down to the banquet of life and gorging himself with both hands. It is more than a journey of body and mind. It is a testament to the nourishing and healing power of love, friendship and hope.