Friday, 3 August 2012

A Walk Round Walden Pond.

A long drive North. We set out early and curled back round Cape Cod and were across the Sagamore Bridge into central Massachusetts by ten am. I'll miss the Cape,  Sand dunes, salty air, quaint little villages here and there. The American Dolche Vita. It's everything Patti Page promised.

We motored on and took the ring road round the West side of Boston, back to Concord, where we stopped for lunch at the Colonial Inn, overlooking Monument Square.

When we were here a week or so ago we were so full of revolutionary history that we didn't pay any attention to Concord's other major contribution to the evolution of American identity, namely the transcendental movement, which grew up in the town from the 1830s.

Transcendentalism speaks to the American longing for escape and self-sufficiency and the distrust of organised institutions or religions. In many ways they were the first environmentalists, resisting the growing intellectual rationalism of the Harvard scholars, philosophising just ten miles down the road

The father of the movement was Ralph Waldo Emerson, the third generation Emerson, to occupy the Old Manse, a large detached house overlooking the North Bridge. It was here his seminal essay Nature was first drafted. Nine years later Emerson rented the house to newlyweds Sophie Peabody and Nataniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne's interest in transcendentalism seems to have been encouraged more by a desire to be with Sophie, rather than deeply held belief, despite this the years in the Manse seem poor but happy. Another friend Henry David Thoreau created a vegetable garden for them, which exists to this day.

For a while Hawthorne enraptured by the glory of his new life failed to write anything. Sophia, ever the pragmatist and with children to feed, turned his desk away from the window. Facing the blandness of the wall Hawthorne began to write again producing Mosses from an Old Manse, the book of sketches that inspired Herman Melville to dedicate Moby Dick to him.

We toured the house with a laconic guide, who took all the time in the world to lead us through rooms. A living embodiment of the philosophy. He was particularly impressed with the stuffed owl in the living room, which Hawthorne named Longfellow, after his Harvard-centric friend. Most touching to me was the gentle observations engraved with diamond on the window panes.

 The smallest twig leans clear against the sky
Composed by my wife and written with her diamond
Inscribed by my husband at sunset, April 3 1843. In the Gold light.

Perhaps the most famous transcendental tract is Thoreau's  meditative Walden. A study of his two years, looking for the meaning of life from the simplicity of a tiny cabin on the water's edge of Walden pond a couple of miles South of the town. We drove there late in the afternoon, parked the car and walked a circuit.

Impossible now to imagine the isolation Thoreau sought, the pond is happily filled with swimmers and canoeists, whilst day trippers populate the surrounding woods with picnics and barbecues. Eventually we came across a cairn, built a stone at a time by Thoreau's admirers on the site of the long gone cabin and took a moment to imagine waking in the wilderness. Although I'm still unconvinced that setting up a mile or so away from your family home, really constitutes a brave adventure. It's like when you run away from home as a child, only to sit on the pavement round the corner waiting to be found.

Time had run out. which meant a visit to Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women would have to wait for another time.

Back on the road we headed north across the State line into New Hampshire. As twilight approached the landscape changed. The river's became wider, the mountains higher and the towns smaller.

Just as the light began to fail we reached Franconia Notch, turned off the Interstate and wound our way through to Pinestead Farm Lodge, where we received a warm welcome from farmer Bob, who shows us to our simple, but comfortable room.

All is quiet here. The White mountains brood, their outline picked out by the silver moon. Mist rolls across the meadow and, unlike the mugginess of the coast, we feel a welcome chill in the air. Just three hours north of Boston we feel like we've made it to the backwoods. I can't help but think Thoreau might have been overwhelmed.

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