Thursday, May 30, 2013

Pilgramage to Concord

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify. Simplify.
-Henry David Thoreau
I made a pilgrimage last week to Concord, Massachussets in search of simplicity. Concord is where the first shots of the American Revolution were fired. But it may be even better known for it’s literary history. It is where Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden and where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women. Both writers were greatly influenced by two other famous Concord literary figures, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson. They were all lifelong friends, teachers and students to each other. They were all at the forefront of the transcendental movement in America and they all strove for simplicity in their lives. 

Obviously, Thoreau is best known for truly simplifying his life. He built a one- room cabin with reclaimed boards on borrowed land. He plowed his own garden and gave up all non-essentials so he could work as little as possible to sustain himself. He walked wherever he needed to go. If he was cold, he chopped wood and built a fire. He grew his own beans or foraged in the woods for wild berries and nuts. He ate no meat, dairy, sugar or salt. He reasoned he didn’t need them, so why spend the money. He drank water, because it was free. I dipped my toes in Walden Pond, where Thoreau drank his water from a ladel rather than digging a well. I peaked in the cabin where he wrote: “If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel the cold in your extremities, if we are alive, let us go about our business.”

The idea of secluding yourself from all distractions for two years, two months and two days so you can have as much free time as possible to read, write and think sounds amazing and frightening. Thoreau, at one point, questions his sanity and alternates between referring to himself as a hermit and a poet. It was Independence Day, 1845 when he spent his first night in the woods. He was 28 years old.

“I am more independent than any farmer in Concord for I was not anchored to a house or farm, but could follow the bent of my genius, which is a very crooked one, every moment.”

His writing does not hint at regret with his choice. Although, one wonders why it took him nine years to publish his memoir of the experience. The account is so rich in detail of the sounds of nature to the happenings in the woods to his observations of ants fighting and recording when the pond first thaws in Spring.  But the ending seems so abrupt or is it just simplistic?

“Thus was my first year’s life in the woods completed and my second year similar so. I finally left Walden September 6th, 1847”

His book, Walden, was not a commercial success when he died at age 44. In his brief life, Thoreau never married and he never accumulated wealth or property. Today, Thoreau’s writing is credited with influencing the National Park System, The British Labor Movement, the Civil Rights Movement and the Environmental Movement. Leaders ranging from President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. Leo Tolstoy and Mohandas Ghandi have also been influenced by Thoreau’s writings. Walden is now regarded as one of the most important books in American literature.

Thoreau didn’t fully reject civilization or society. He entertained guests in his small cottage and often walked to Emerson’s house or into town if he needed something or wanted company. But who can really live the way he did? For those of us who choose to own a home and raise a family, where are our woods?

I visited Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott lived with her parents and sisters. Little Women is a fictional account of the Alcott family. It is on the same street as Emerson's home and less than a mile from Walden pond. I happened to go on May 23rd, the 153rd anniversary of Alcott’s sister’s wedding. A scene fictionalized in the book. I was struck by the fact that the wedding gown was a simple grey dress, because the bride did not want to look different than she does on any other day. The flowers were hand picked from whatever was in season in the yard. Invitations were sent out the morning of the ceremony to an intimate circle of friends. The wedding took place in the parlor. Thoreau and Emerson were both in attendance. They were not served a feast of meat. The Alcott girls, who were once students of Thoreau, were raised to embrace simplicity. Keeping animals was too much work and not as sustainable as keeping a garden. I am not sure what if any gifts were given. But Thoreau gave his friends Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne a garden for their wedding, which still stands today at Old Manse in Concord.


The Alcott, Emerson, and Hawthorne families enjoyed the amenities of their time. Rather than making sacrifices, they appeared to make conscious choices of what was really most important to them- "distinguishing the necessary and the real", as Thoreau would say. Nature, individuality, freedom and friendship took priority in their lives.

If you ever go to Concord, be sure to stop at the Sleepy Hollow
Cemetery. It is another mecca for writers because Thoreau, Emerson, Alcott and Hawthorne are buried next to each other on Author’s Hill. I left amazed with the sense of place.It is no coincidence that so many famous writers would create their masterpieces in the same small New England town at the same time. Their friendship and ideals propelled each of them to greatness.

How can you reduce to the simplest terms?

For today's "sky's the limit" on what you can learn: A bit more about Concord. Ralph Waldo Emerson's grandfather was the town minister and revolutionary. The first shots were fired along the bridge of the Concord river in front of the Emerson home, later named by his grandson, Old Manse. The elder Emerson was killed in the revolution. Ralph Waldo Emerson was also a minister who did not toe the party line of the church. He was the first to encourage this idea of transcendentalism, which is a philosophy that there is inherent goodness in people and nature. Emerson, like all the writers he kept company with, placed their faith in the self reliance of the individual rather than in institutions like organized religions or political parties. The transcendentalists were very progressive in their thoughts on women's equality and the abolition of slavery. The Orchard house, where Louisa May Alcott lived was a stop on the underground railroad. There was more than one freed slave squatting in the woods next to Walden Pond when Thoreau lived in his cabin.

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