When reading Thoreau for the first time, a reader might assume that the writer is speaking aloud his mind, giving a voice to his innermost thoughts, opinions and edicts. I came, I saw and this is what I think. Thoreau came to Nature as though he were responding to a call. It was his muse, the very source of his thoughts. In Nature we often find Thoreau near water flowing freely out of the earth, much like his ideas. In an attempt to guide you to more than just Walden, I headed out in search of Thoreau and the other waters that he traveled, namely to the Concord River and the outer reaches of Cape Cod.
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) was Thoreau”s first book which he wrote during his time at Walden Pond and later published at his own expense. It chronicles a canoe trip that he took with his late brother John and is intended as a tribute to him. The tale is divided into seven days beginning with Saturday and ending with Friday. As they travel downstream we hear Thoreau”s mind flowing from the beauty and simple power of the landscape to the early settler”s experiences with the Indians. He examines eternal themes such as truth, poetry, the classics, traveling, friendship and silence.
Thoreau did not make this trip alone and neither could I. My intention was to take a canoe trip along with my best friend, who happens to be my wife, down the Concord River and trace the beginnings of his journey. The river winds through the town bearing the same name and eventually unites with the larger Merrimack River which empties into the Atlantic. Concord is about twenty miles west of Boston and is small and affluent a mixture of town and country. There is a quaint downtown area that is conscious of its history and just outside of the town center, the river flows past main street and the South Bridge Boat House, where we rented our canoe.
It was a very bright Saturday morning in June and when we arrived there we weren”t the only ones. There were families, couples and groups of canoers and picnickers lined up about twenty deep. I wondered if any were there because of Thoreau. I resisted the urge to complain about the crowd and we waited as cheerfully as possible in the line that slowly moved down to the dock.
We needed to wear orange life preservers that felt just a little bit like old shoulder pads. At the edge of the dock there was a grizzled older man, possibly the proprietor, who was holding his dog as it barked wildly at another dog, who sat there very still, with a family getting ready to go out.
We had been canoeing once before when we were on our honeymoon. We smiled at each other as we got into a silver canoe, both of us knowing that the word canoeing was something that needed to be done as a team.
The water was a dark, clear brown and shimmered in the sun with each stroke. The beginning of our journey was slow and we headed north on the river. I wondered if the day Thoreau departed (August 31, 1839) was as warm as today. I looked around and thought if he would have minded the amount of people that we shared the river with. I think he would have enjoyed the company of other spirits searching for something in Nature. On his journey Thoreau remarks on the person, who is being themself, whether it is the farmer, or soldier or housewife, and he seems to respect them the more basic and true their nature.
On each side there were homes that sloped to the river. Some sat upon finely manicured lawns and others were hidden amongst the trees and the dense green vegetation that grew along the bank. Moving slowly out of the town the trees served as green walls that blocked the sun. The current was flowing with us and made the rowing easy although it was hard getting the right balance of strokes to stay straight on course, or at least out of the weeds in the bank.
The river moved slowly and we glided along at a pleasant speed. Here the river curved and turned forming little inlets. We noticed that there were small turtles usually on rocks or logs. Our presence frightened them when we got too close, and we watched them diving down with shiny yellow lined heads for deeper waters.
Time passed quietly on the river, marked only by the fellow travelers who passed us. Occasionally a bird would fly above the water and land in a branch to watch us. The farther from town we went the more ducks and geese we noticed traveling down the river in small chains, swimming in perfect time. It was really only time that separated us from Thoreau, just as time separated him from the settlers and Indians that he spoke of who had once also traveled the river. The river was in its essence the same as it had always been. The landscape around it had changed, and we were among its different travelers, but its waters kept coming from the same place and went on indifferent to whomever crossed its surface.
A few miles up river we pulled the canoe over to a quiet spot lined with trees and fallen branches. Through the trees I could see a farmhouse that bordered a black field. I could smell the early summer and the freshly turned earth. Above us, there a was a nuthatch moving up and down the trees. While watching it, I stepped in the soft mud, burying my ankles, as I pulled the canoe to shore.
As we rested in the grass, I felt it would be easy to stop and just watch the river flow all day. To lie on the bank and wonder. Why is it that so many feel the attraction, a pull to water? Even the sound of it rushing slowly past is calming and thought provoking. The stillness of a body of water can relax us, and serve as an unrippled standard of disposition. The ebb and flow of a great lake or ocean tide holds us and makes us remember something, that in living life we have forgotten.
On our return, as our paddles worked a little more in sync, I thought more about the water. I wondered why Thoreau came to it and what was he trying to remember? Water is the source of life, without it we would die. Water is a literal and metaphorical catalyst for reflection. Thoreau headed to water, to remember himself, to look into the water, to look in to his own reflection, and to catch a glimpse of what was inside his mind there under the surface, and then hold his reflections up as a mirror to our own thoughts, in hopes that we would do the same.
Francis McGovern is Founder and Editor of Literary Traveler
Walden pond State Reservation
Route 126, Concord, MA 01742
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