Massachusetts, part I: of books and houses and hospitality

On our very brief trip to Massachusetts last weekend, Martin and I drove straight from Boston’s Logan Airport to Concord in hopes of glimpsing one of the hotbeds of American utopian thinking before the winter sun set. Driving through snowy woods and by quaint (and probably drafty) colonial homes, it was clear that we were a loooong way from Texas.

On the plane, Martin was reading a compilation of Henry David Thoreau’s writings. Martin reading is not an unusual sight. Noteworthy was the fact that he was underlining in the book, something I have never seen him do in nearly thirty years of pretty continuous association. (Our ongoing “discussion” over the propriety of marking up books could well be the subject of another blog.) For the first time, he just couldn’t help himself; Thoreau’s aphoristic and slyly funny prose begged for some kind of physical interaction. In the same vein, he required me to listen or read for myself what so tickled him. Thoreau’s spirit, utterly inaccessible to Martin (and me) when Walden was assigned reading in high school, was suddenly uncontainable and had to be shared.

I found this slightly annoying. The snippets I heard and read clashed with what I was reading on the plane, Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, a somewhat dystopian novel about post-9/11 life in a Midwestern university town, narrated by a woman student raised on a nearby farm by early organic-minded parents. Thoreau’s mid-nineteenth-century voice felt arch and artificial in comparison and the contrast was grating, like walking from a quiet, dim study into the brightly lit noise of a teenager’s room. But the shock of seeing Martin underline in a book stunned me into keeping, just barely, a receptive ear.

We conquered the tangle of highways to Concord with only a few wrong turns. Walking into Orchard House, the Alcott home (Louisa May, Bronson, et al.), at 2:58 and knowing that it closed at 3 (that’s me approaching the front door in the photo above), we played the we’ve-traveled-so-far card and won a wonderful private tour with a sympathetic and knowledgeable docent. Although Little Women may have a sentimental ring to twenty-first-century ears, it resonates with the profoundly utopian thinking—and physically taxing reality—of the world Louisa May Alcott lived in. Orchard House showed signs of both worlds: charming eccentricities (Louisa’s sister May’s sweet pre-Raphaelite pencil drawings on her bedroom walls) and structural frailties (buckling floors, chilly drafts).

Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s father, was a visionary of the first order, rarely concerning himself with such practicalities as earning enough money to feed and shelter his family, and thereby propelling Louisa into the unusual role of supporting her family financially with her writing. As a teacher, Alcott developed a race- and gender-neutral child-centered pedagogy that most people found scandalous, even immoral, and that most Americans today take for granted. He helped establish a commune, Fruitlands, an early back-to-nature effort, which failed quickly but interested many other questing spirits of the time, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Thoreau among them. He was a frequent contributor to the Transcendentalist journal The Dial and was often mocked for his opaque prose, and yet the influence of American Transcendentalism, especially in the environmental movement, is still alive and kicking today. It was a tour worth taking and a house worth visiting.

From the Alcott home we drove to Walden Pond in the waning light. I’ve heard many people express the same dismay on seeing Walden Pond they do when they see the Alamo (“it’s so small!”), but it’s several times the size of the “lake” at Madroño Ranch, so I wasn’t at all disappointed. We crunched through the snow along the edge, noting the space between the pond’s ice and the shore while watching two men out on the ice doing something indecipherable with unidentifiable equipment. As the heatless sun began to sink behind the trees, we came to the spot where Thoreau built his cabin, now marked only by low concrete posts (see photo above), although his words remain carved on a nearby wooden sign: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” As I stood there beating my hands together and stamping my frozen feet, I wondered if on a monochromatic winter afternoon like this Thoreau would have high-tailed it to Emerson’s house for a little warm food and company, as apparently he was wont to do.

Later, as we sat in a blessedly warm house in Wellesley, I began reading Martin’s volume of Thoreau and found myself beguiled, first by the slightly fustian voice of Joseph Wood Krutch, who wrote the introduction, and then by Thoreau’s own words, until Martin rather selfishly reclaimed his book. I went back to my literary farm girl, reading about the role of her father’s farm in her recovery from multiple heartbreaks.

This week, while waddling around Austin’s Lady Bird Lake (a body of water as beloved to me as Walden Pond was to Thoreau), I found myself thinking about Martin’s spontaneous overflow of powerful underlining and the odd stability of words, their capacity to be sturdy dwelling places despite their formless origins in the tohu-bohu of the human spirit. (Isn’t “tohu-bohu” a word you can live in? I do, actually, since it means chaos.) Martin’s invitation on the plane for me to join him in Thoreau’s house was a kind of evangelism, the best kind: a delighted discovery that clamors to be shared. Even though I was seated happily in Lorrie Moore’s house (which, with its love of place, is built on top of Thoreau’s) with all the doors closed and blinds drawn, Martin convinced me that the house Thoreau built was so splendid that I had to go in—which I did, grudgingly at first, but with increasing pleasure.

Hospitality from so many quarters: from the kind docent at Orchard House; between the walls of books; from my tickled husband; from the friend of a friend who opened her house to us; even in the cold empty space in Walden Woods marked off by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. Thoreau reached out from the past and invited us into its tohu-bohu, asking for our response and drawing from us a tiny new creation. Not bad for a crusty, allegedly misanthropic Yankee.

What we’re reading
Billy Collins (ed.), Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds
Martin: Jonathan Gould, Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America

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4 Responses to Massachusetts, part I: of books and houses and hospitality

  1. Anonymous says:

    Beautiful – thank you. Makes me long for snowy winter New England day and also makes me realize how very dependent I am on my creature comforts.

  2. Sarah Bird says:

    Loved it all but especially insightful comments about Alcott's world. PBS just had a wonderful program about her and that world and it was lovely to read your personal expansion.

  3. Isa Catto Shaw says:

    Heo, I think it is time to read Little Women to Fi and I wish I had been with you two. Your blog posts pull me out of the wee world of small children. Oh, and another thing — you do not waddle. Ever. You stride. I have been huffing and puffing to keep up with you lo these many years!!!!

  4. ellen says:

    Thank you Isa…I have never seen Heather waddle(as wonderful a word as it is)either. But if I were a duckling, I would follow her anywhere!

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