Sunday, June 30, 2002

Stone, Wood, Water

It is three days before Christmas and only a few degrees above freezing in Concord, MA when I crest the rise in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery known as Author's Ridge. Laid out below me is a slumping dell clustered with graves, wound through by footpaths that crisscross before leading back out through the trees. The morning light sets aglitter a few stubborn patches of snow; in contrast the slatted shadows of the evergreens seem as heavy as the tombstones over which they pass.

Family plots are numerous -- central obelisks swarmed by smaller stones, like satellites orbiting a fixed celestial point. Such are the markers for the Family Thoreau, at the head of the ridge. The focal marker is tall and stout but of modest craftsmanship, bearing only names and dates -- no titles, no epitaphs. At the northeast corner of the plot, on ground suitably gnarled with the exposed roots of a nearby oak, stands a simple weather-worn stone, barely a foot high. Henry. It is adorned by no "bawbles" but a few yellow flowers only, preserved in the cold, and by piles of smaller stones, undoubtedly brought by other pilgrims, from the Pond to here. Many a traveler came out of his way to see me

The Thoreau family marker broadcasts a long shadow across the footpath, over a plot of graves even more anonymous, each marker carved identically with a single name: Hawthorne. We sometimes congratulate ourselves at the moment of waking from a troubled dream; it may be so the moment after death. Bartlett's 1885 guide to Concord describes Nathaniel's grave as "surrounded by a low hedge of arbor vitae, as if the gifted author sought in death the modest retirement which he loved in life." No such flora exists now, and I am left to guess that Hawthorne's grave is the one farthest from the path. It too is garlanded with frozen daisies.

A walk farther down this increasingly sunlit path reveals a who's-who resting ground of 19th century Transcendentalists and social reformers and literati who were the architects of the American Renaissance -- that moment when we at last shrugged off English and Continental cultural influences and came into our own on the stage of Global Thought. A man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the World. Here is Elizabeth Peabody, the progressive educator who opened the first kindergarten in the United States. Here is Harriet Lothrop, author of Little Peppers and How They Grew. Here is Sam Staples, the constable who jailed his friend Thoreau, thus inspiring Civil Disobedience. The Alcott family is marked by an elaborately carved obelisk, still faithfully decorated each Memorial Day by the residents of Concord.

Finally there stands a towering boulder of native pink quartz, alchemically glistening as though fresh from the quarry. Bartlett mentions that friends of Thoreau, after his passing, had intended to place just such a monument at Walden Pond; that dedication seems to have been reserved instead for his mentor and friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Give me insight today, and you may have antique and future worlds.

And here I pause. There is a natural expectation of graveyards for a spectral haunting, or at least some chance of revelation -- that to visit and refresh a feeling of loss and disconnection will allow us to reroute those emotions into something more privately constructive. These are the places where we might allow the Dead to lead us back to ourselves. A parapsychologist would argue that the expectation itself is the key; poltergeists appear only in conjunction with certain personality types, just as specific chemical reactions occur only when the correct elements are mixed in the correct proportions.

If so, then this particular morning the Dead and I don't mix. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. My own experience with death has convinced me funerals and burials and the hallowed grounds that result are for the living. (What living person haunts the site of his future burial, if he knows it? What ghost would want to linger at his eternal one?) The spirits of the departed, if they move among us, are more likely to do so in familiar environments, both psychic and physical, and appear to us in ways to which we are most receptive.

So though I have come here to pay my respects to a pocket of men and women who noticeably shaped their world, and I believe still weave a certain magic in our own, I am left bereft. I am too late, even to kneel before unfamiliar stones and send silent prayers, a few words of thanks… Perhaps they have been dead too long, and there is nothing beneath these rocks but dust, and more dust. For what are they in all their high conceit, when man in the bush with God may meet?

The fabled row of black ash trees leading to the front door of the Old Manse is now gone, as is the apple orchard which once connected the backyard with the bank of the Concord River. It is certainly the most unexcitable and sluggish stream that ever loitered, imperceptibly, towards its eternity, the sea. Only a few winter-barren birches remain. Leaves float on an updraft breeze, like angels seeking heaven at last.

The Manse itself appears much as it did in 1770, when it was built according to the specifications of Rev'd William Emerson (Ralph Waldo's grandfather), and the furniture within still dates from the time of construction. Relatively modest by current standards, the arched, barn-like structure was the first two-story (three, if you count the garret) home in Concord; chock-a-block extensions of the ground floor snake from the rear, toward the river -- symbolic of Concord at-large, which has expanded and modernized gracefully, retaining a historical identity without falling victim to excessive over-development and franchising.

This persistence of Native Spirit could very well be attributed to the silent influence of the Manse. Built for a minister and later inhabited mainly by clergymen, including Ezra Ripley, it seems a spot conducive to that reverence and meditation which concerns the soul. Awful to reflect how many sermons must have been written there. One exception was Nathaniel Hawthorne -- a "profane lay occupant," though certainly known for wrestling with his own Demons of Morality; Mosses from an Old Manse was scribed here, including Young Goodman Brown's midnight encounter with the Devil. Hawthorne claimed the house haunted by none other than Ripley -- describing how door latches would raise without the aid of human strength, and cold otherworldly gusts would sweep through the rooms.

As a gift to newlyweds Nathaniel and Sophia, upon their moving in, a new garden was planted on the south side of the house by Henry Thoreau; each spring this vegetable patch is resurrected, as per the specs of Hawthorne's journals, with the eventual produce donated to local soup kitchens. The giddy Hawthornes employed Sophia's wedding ring diamond to etch inscriptions in the windowpanes of the upstairs study (the room where Emerson wrote "Nature," a cornerstone of the Transcendentalist movement, a few years prior). These etchings can still be seen: Nath Hawthorne/This is his study/1843.

Through this same window, eighty-six years earlier, William Emerson viewed a singular skirmish on the planks of the Old North Bridge. Here once the embattled farmers stood. Four hundred minutemen, tipped off by Samuel Prescott, lay in wait for the advancing British army. (Paul Revere was already captured at Lexington, ten miles east of Concord.) Setting a pattern which has resonated throughout history, the Americans did not fire until fired upon, but at the command of Major John Buttrick -- Fire, fellow soldiers, for God's sake, fire! -- let loose volley after volley after volley, and sent the Redcoats scrambling.

The original bridge, of oak and stone, was dismantled in 1793 due to dilapidation from wear, weather, and war. When Hawthorne wrote the introduction to his Mosses, only a modest cenotaph erected in 1825 marked the spot. (Some locals were rankled that this monument stood on the east bank, where British, not Colonial soldiers, fell.) The North Bridge now in place, built in 1956 and of a design and materials meant to replicate the original, links with the west side where stands the famous Minuteman statue, commissioned by Louisa May Alcott's friend, Daniel Chester French.

If there is any ounce of soil that might be said to lay claim to the conception of the American nation, this is it. Yet this field, separated from the Manse grounds by a shin-high stone fence, interested Hawthorne less as a historic battleground than as a former Indian village. Thoreau, who has a strange faculty of finding what the Indians have left behind them, first set me on the search. It is not hard to imagine the two of them, Thoreau stooping low to scrape the earth with the blade of his garden-trowel, while Hawthorne allows himself a moment of distraction at the beauty of the early springtime blue squill in bloom. There is an exquisite delight in picking up an arrow-head that was dropt centuries ago, and has never been handled since, and which we thus receive directly from the hand of the red hunter.

The first places we go in seeking a past, whether personal or cultural, are the graveyards. The stones point the way back into immovable history, even as the temporal sun winds shadows around and around them. Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it, but I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. We are, for the same reason, drawn to the wood in well-traveled homes -- window sills and doorframes, shelves, cabinets, the handles of hammers and shovels, knives and cutting boards -- any place that wears away beneath our hands, soaks up our natural oils, allowing the grain to rise and speak in testimony of our arrivals and departures, of the work we have done.

In the Concord woods, one half-mile from Walden Pond, is a ten-by-fifteen foot patch of land, lined in stone. A small house once stood here. I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately. A replica of that house stands nearer the pond; it is built of new and treated wood and will serve, for now, as well as any monument.

And here is a kettle-hole, formed 12,000 years ago by the retreat of a mighty glacier. It is lined with evergreens, along steep grades that lead down to a broad sandy cusp. The water is mirror-clear: green and silver where it reflects the trees and sky, shading to blue towards the center, where mysteries arise about its ultimate depth, a quarter-mile from shore. The scenery of Walden is on a humble scale, and does not approach to grandeur.

On the shore, a curiosity on this bitter winter day, a lone seabird pecks at the shallows. My life is like a stroll upon the beach, as near the ocean's edge as I can go. The temptation is too great not to walk toward it, as though it might carry some message... but the bird launches itself from the sand, over the water, then into the sky.

Overhead, the moon floats in the afternoon heavens -- that glowing rock loved by poets and dreamers ever since we have had language for our dreams. For it is those dreams that allow us to trespass against time -- and language that allows us to navigate the way. In a way, it is Language that brought you here... Heaven is under our feet.

Closer, to the spot so hurriedly abandoned by the seabird, where just beneath the water caressing the shoreline is a smooth white rounded stone, about the size of an egg and appearing to hold as many secrets, and as much promise. The water is cold, remembering the glacier it once was. The stone is quickly fished from the shallows, snatched from the threshold of another world. Not a stolen treasure, but a measure of wordless insurance -- proof that this place is real.

What better could be done for anybody, who came within our magic circle, than to throw the spell of a tranquil spirit over him? And when it had wrought its full effect, then we dismissed him, with but misty reminiscences, as if he had been dreaming of us.

Originally published in the Mobile Register, June 30 2002

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