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Ripples From Walden Pond | Excerpt

Ripples From Walden Pond:
An Evening With Henry David Thoreau

Richard Platt

© Copyright 2007/2009

Ripples From Walden Pond | Excerpt

Our eyes do not rest so long as on the few who especially love their own lives – who dwell apart at more generous intervals, and cherish a single purpose behind formalities of society with such a steadiness that of all men only their two eyes seem to meet in one focus.

It is the height of art that on the first perusal plain common sense should appear – on the second, severe truth – on a third, beauty – and having these warrants for its depth and reality, we may then enjoy the beauty forever more.

I have great faith in a seed... Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.

— Henry David Thoreau

© Richard Platt, All Rights Reserved.
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Program Note: What Shall It Profit a Man?

By 1854, thirty-seven-year-old Harvard-educated Henry David Thoreau had written what would become one of the most reprinted and influential political essays in history, and no one knew it. He had published his masterpiece, Walden, one of the few books of nineteenth-century American literature that can claim indisputable status as a classic, and no one read it. He could read Latin, Greek, and French as easily as English, yet he had earned much of his meager living from manual labor. He had made genuine contributions to the Boston Society of Natural History in his discovery of previously unclassified plant and animal species, and his unraveling of the mysteries of the dispersion of seeds in forests. A few close friends called him a seer and a poet. Nathaniel Hawthorne called him a wholesome and healthy man to know. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most respected man of letters in America, called him his best friend. Everyone else called him a failure.

Thoreau is the quintessential American archetype: self-reliant, blunt, hostile to rank and privilege, unwilling to accept any philosophy as true without the test of implementation, and above all fiercely and passionately steadfast in his insistence that government exists for the benefit of the governed, that its power is derived from the consent of the governed, and that each man is the equal of every other man and superior to any government.

Henry Thoreau died in 1862. He was forty-four years old. At the time of his death, he knew that Walden was to be printed in a second edition. There has been a new edition, on average, every year since. Ripples From Walden Pond is a gesture of both gratitude and homage. Thoreau is one of the great men in the history of American letters.

Ripples From Walden Pond:
An Evening With Henry David Thoreau

Richard Platt

Act One

The lights are lit on stage center. Birds are heard softly in the background. Stage right and stage left remain in shadow. Stage center is Henry David Thoreau's home at Walden Pond: a small, lovingly-maintained, unpainted shingled cabin, ten feet by fifteen feet, with a forty-degree pitch to the roof, also shingled. It has a single, open door on one of the shorter sides which faces the audience, toward stage right, and a single open sash window on each of the longer sides, one of which faces the audience, toward stage left. A brick chimney rises from the fourth side. Only the top of it is visible at the rear of the roof. Attached to the rear of the cabin, stage left, is a small open shed stocked with firewood. Just outside the cabin is a simple wooden chair, a footstool, a small table with an ink well and a dip pen, a sheaf of blank paper and one of manuscript, a few pine cones, and a stack of books, including Thoreau's own Walden and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The bindings are diverse. Some are leather-bound; some are modern paperbacks. A dark, formal three-quarter-length coat is draped on one of the chairs. A podium stands at stage right. Two comfortable leather wingchairs stand at stage left, angled toward each other to be conducive to conversation. The background is filled with trees displaying the mature colors of autumn. The cabin remains lit as the theatre lights go down.

Henry David Thoreau stands at the rear of the theatre, silent and still, gradually appearing in spotlight. He is clean-shaven. His dark hair meets the top of his ears and is parted from the left, haphazardly combed over as if wet down with water and left to dry. He is a vigorous thirty-to-forty years old, thin, and just below average height. He is wearing dark pants with braces, sensible, sturdy leather shoes suitable for long walks, a vest, unbuttoned, with his reading glasses in the vest pocket, and a pale long-sleeve cotton shirt open at the collar. He has dressed carelessly, a man indifferent to his appearance. His clothing is worn. There is dust on his boots and around the cuffs of his pants from a long walk in the woods, but he is otherwise clean. He walks with assurance. His posture is erect.

His eyes are fixed on the cabin. He appears not to notice the audience. He walks slowly, deliberately, toward the stage. He approaches the cabin, carefully examining it. He stops at the door, hands clasped behind him in contemplation. He turns slowly to the audience, only now acknowledging that they are there. His eyebrows rise in astonishment, and a bemused half-frown spreads across his face as he surveys them. He smiles slowly, chuckling to himself, shaking his head in disbelief.

I had no idea. I used to live here. This is my house – at least it looks like my house. But it couldn't be. I'd heard that it had been rebuilt, in exactly same spot as the original, with the doorway looking down toward Walden Pond, and that even I wouldn't be able to tell the new one from the original, but I didn't believe it. I'm still not sure I believe it. The one that I built has been gone for more than a century, but every board, every shingle, looks just as it was then –

He examines the surface of the wood with his hands.

– even the nails are right. I knew that every year hundreds of people, just like you, came here to walk the paths through Walden Woods, but this

I was twenty-seven years old when I built a cabin here in 1845. I only had a handful of visitors then – I preferred solitude - but now, seeing all of you here, seeing this, lifts my heart. Welcome. It's a great comfort for a man to see that he's left something behind that endures, even if it's just a few trails through the woods for others to follow without fear of losing their way. Your age has lost its way, you know. So had mine. Prosperous ages have a way of convincing us that our spiritual needs can be met by worldly means. We strive to find our place in the world, but in the end it's the world that finds its place in us. Worldly prosperity binds our spirits. It keeps us from soaring. That's why I came here: so I could soar. So I could breathe freely as the first man. So I could shake from my boots the dust and grit that Mr. Jefferson didn't foresee in his "Pursuit of Happiness."

My parents first brought me here when I was five years old. This woodland vision for a long time made the drapery of my dreams. I can't remember a time when my soul didn't feel the tug of these woods, their silence and stillness.

During the two years I lived here Edgar Allen Poe published The Raven, Samuel Morse sent the first telegraph message, Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth debuted in Florence, and the first recorded baseball game was played. I had greater matters to attend to: I was planting a bean field just beyond the cabin, over there, and watching it grow.

He smiles broadly. He pauses to look through the doorway, shaking his head in disbelief.

Men and monuments don’t endure though. It’s ideas that endure. For many years this spot was marked by only a small pile of stones, each one left by a visitor. A sufficient monument to any man’s memory, I think. The first cabin was removed several years after I left here, about 1850. It was bought by the Estabrook family and taken on wheels to their farm on the old Carlisle Road, just north of here. They used it to store corn and beans, but I prefer to think it also sheltered squirrels and blue jays. It pleases me just as well to know that the work of my hands has sheltered an animal as it does to know that the work of my mind has sheltered a man.

He surveys the audience, then realizes he has forgotten something.

Oh… Pardon my manners. They’re a little rusty. Waldo Emerson used to tell me I spent too much time in my own company – maybe I did.

Permit me to introduce myself. My name is Henry David Thoreau. It’s pronounced THU – row, not Thu – ROW, but most people get it wrong. Actually, David Henry, but I prefer the fine New England ring of Henry to the biblical David. Not that I have anything against the Bible – my mother had me memorize large portions of it as a child, and I’d have done anything for her. I’ll take the truth wherever I find it, as long as I’m convinced it is the truth. Never much liked anybody telling me what I should think. Still don’t. But I digress…

Henry David Thoreau: Carpenter, Woodsman, Surveyor, Pencil-Maker, Philosopher, Poet; to which my neighbors would have added Slacker, Idler, Self-satisfied Prig…

He pauses briefly to reflect. There is a modest discomfort in the remembrance.

…Failure. Oh, I’d hear them as I walked past. “There goes Henry Thoreau. His family scrimps and saves to send him to Harvard and what do they get for it? He digs ditches for a living! Rents himself out as a hired hand! Didn’t need a Harvard education for that! They say he can read Greek, Latin, and French better than anybody, but what good has it done him? Knows the woods hereabouts better than anyone, though, I’ll give him that.”

He nods his head slowly in agreement.

All true. The failure part too – at least in those days there were times when I thought it was true. I was certainly a failure at everything my fellow men valued - but I didn’t value what my fellow men valued. The label 'Idler' I consider one of approbation. I wasn’t using my education to make a living because I was using it to make a life.

My mother understood. A kind and generous woman, my mother. She was the most determined person I’ve ever known, stubborn as a mule, a quality she passed on to me. If she told you she had just decided to drive her head through a brick wall, you wouldn’t bet your money on the wall. She was a woman of principle, my mother. A Christian woman who lived her beliefs. My mother hated slavery, and was rumored, quite correctly I’m proud to say, to hide fugitive slaves for the Underground Railroad, in defiance of federal law. Once when I was a boy I surprised one of them in our root cellar, and I don’t know to this day which of us gave the other the greater fright. When I ran to my mother, she sat me down and looked straight into me, right down to the bottom. It was the look that told you you had better listen or there was going to be trouble. She said to me, “Henry, do you think it’s right when a man isn’t allowed to eat the bread he earns by the sweat of his own brow?” I shook my head. “Do you think it’s right that he should be forced to give his bread to someone else, and be whipped if he doesn’t?” I shook my head again. I knew all about whipping. “Henry, there are people in this world that think it’s okay, but their thinking it’s okay doesn’t make it right. It’s not right, and I don’t want that man in the root cellar to be whipped anymore just for wanting to eat his own bread. Now pretty soon he’ll be on his way to a safer place, but until then we’re going to help him, because it’s the right thing to do, and you’re not going to breathe a word of it to anyone, do you understand me?” I had seldom understood anything so well. Then she hugged me, tighter than she had ever hugged me before, and she said, “Henry, if you don't live what you believe, then you don't believe anything. A life without principle isn't a life at all.”

That's a good thing to learn…

He pauses and smiles broadly.

… but it can make you unpopular with your neighbors.

He seats himself comfortably in the doorway.

I always wanted a broad margin for my life. Here in the woods I could feel the margins of my life expand. Sometimes on summer mornings I just sat here in this sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, gazing at the pines and hickories and sumaches in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang or flitted noiselessly through the house. It was only by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler's wagon on the distant road, that I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night. They made far better work of me than any work of the hands could have made. I was rich here, if not in money, in sunny summer days, and I spent them lavishly. I lived here in these woods for two years, July fourth, 1845 to September sixth, 1847. I didn’t spend all of my time daydreaming, though. I had two of the most productive years of my life here. I was writing…