Sunday, January 17, 2021


the news, of 1854

January progresses, hour by slow hour.  We are doing our best to make it through, unscathed or otherwise.  The news is harrowing and my spirits sink lower and lower.  However, books help, as they always do.  And the weather helps, since it is milder than in years past.  As Thoreau says of the winter of 1854 (Journal, Volume Six p.128):  "It does not take so much fuel to keep us warm of late.  I begin to think that my wood will last."  I'm counting the remaining rows in our woodpile here, am halfway into Volume Six of Thoreau's Journal, and think we'll make it to spring on both fronts.  Soon I'll take a break from the latter, to read Walden.  Here's the copy I recently purchased.  It arrived last week, and what a pleasure it is to contemplate:

I carry it around the house with me, just for the satisfaction of holding it.  Another little green book.  This photo makes it look a little brighter than it does in real life, but still.  When I saw an image of this copy I knew it was the version I want to read (Visitors' Edition, The Riverside Press, Houghton Mifflin, 1922).  That gorgeous cover!  Elements of it were borrowed by the unnamed designer from the title page of the first edition of Walden (Thoreau's sister Sophia Thoreau was the artist in that case).  I can almost make out some initials, in the clump of grass in the lower right corner, but I may be imagining them (H? A?).  Tempting to think that the designer might be hidden there.

But before I attempt Walden, a reasonable question could be:  How's it going with the Journal?  Dull as ditchwater?  That depends on how someone feels about ditches, I think.  Most pass them by.  Thoreau, however, loved them and found them a rich source of study, full of frogs and toads, plants aquatic and otherwise, lined by trees, home to ducks and muskrats and fish.  He speaks for pages and pages (and pages and pages and...) about the beauty of ditches, as well as streams, ponds, swamps, fields, and woods.  And weather; the Journal as a whole is a song of praise to weather.

Honestly, I love his writing, and find myself in sympathy with him much more often than not.  The close observation he engages in is similar to the kinds of looking I do as a painter.  Who sits and stares at, and communes with, a few trees for hours (and sometimes years) on end?  Uhh, I do (raises hand).  Who wonders about the life energy emanating from a field?  That's me.  Add to that my love of reading diaries, and this year's winter reading project is a resounding success.  I'm halfway in, and already I don't want the Journal to end.  Volume Five found me reading about varieties of fall asters, under a quilt, with Hodge wrapped up in one of my old sweaters (cashmere, nothing but the best for this cat, who just turned fifteen), wedged up against my leg:  

Notice that roughly cut deckle edge?  It means that the previous owner of this set wielded a paper knife with gusto.  Since the paper itself is thin and fairly fragile, after I read a while my lap contains a miniature snow flurry, or scatter of seeds, as if the books are emitting more than just thoughts.  They are weather themselves, and planting, and the harvest, all in one.  I'm so careful, as I go, but still find bits of the book about my person, whenever I get up.

Speaking of this particular set - sad to say it was originally part of a much larger set.  I wish the set wasn't broken, but am still grateful to have the eleven volumes I do have, to read.  In my convoluted internet wanderings in pursuit of other odd volumes, I came across an excellent article about collecting Thoreau on the ABAA website.  The author states that the green cloth sets with the paper spine labels, such as I have, included a handwritten page of random Thoreau manuscript, inside Volume One.  Not Volume One of the Journal, but Volume One of the twenty-volume set of Writings, from 1906, of which the Journal comprised the last fourteen volumes.  So the rest of my set, out there somewhere... SIGH.  I can't think about it for long.  Poor old books!  Let's move on!

Volume Six gets really good, as Thoreau writes several times about editing his own work.  What he's editing is Walden.  Little does he know that his book will long outlive him.  His first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (Munroe 1849), sold around two hundred copies.  He bought the remainders back from the publisher, and I have yet to see even a hint that Thoreau thinks he will ever be well-known as an author.  Of course Walden will go on to become one of the greatest-loved works of American literature.  The first time he mentions it by name is in this day's entry, at its very end, and when I read it, my skin prickled (p.176):

"March 28.  P.M.  - To White Pond.
     Coldest day for a month or more, - severe as almost any in the winter.  Saw this afternoon either a snipe or a woodcock; it appeared rather small for the last.  Pond opening on the northeast.  A flock of hyemalis drifting from a wood over a field incessantly for four or five minutes, - thousands of them, notwithstanding the cold.  The fox-colored sparrow sings sweetly also.  Saw a small slate-colored hawk, with wings transversely mottled beneath, - probably the sharp-shinned hawk.
     Got first proof of 'Walden.'"

(!!!)  Thrilling news, from 1854.  I'm going to finish Volume Six, then pause, read Walden, and perhaps another book I currently have on approach, of which more later.  I decided that I need some definite small things to look forward to, so I went on a minor book-buying spree last week and this weekend, and now have incoming packages, of all kinds:  poetry books, some literature, more Thoreau-related works, and other subjects besides.  I don't need much right now, just some sense of the future as a place it might be possible to inhabit, and the hint of a promise of bright days, whenever the current ones, with their fears and menace, fade.  I wish this coming week was already in the past; I dread what might happen, even as I hope for the best, as I always do.  Here in the welcome quiet of the Maine winter, I'll continue to do my work, lose myself in books, and find myself there too.  Take care, until next time.  

Wednesday, January 06, 2021


the most cheerful winter reading

This is a two-cup-of-tea morning.  It's January, a new year, and a new day.  Hope looms on many fronts.  We're still staying safe by staying close to home as much as possible, and will continue to do so for as long as it takes.  To help, Santa brought me a box of new jigsaw puzzles, with images from some of my favorite artists.  I'll start one soon, because I'm rewarding myself in satisfying small ways for finishing something big.  Except for a few very minor nuts-and-bolts issues, which a local editor is helping me resolve, my memoir about painting on Bear Island is done.  I feel like it finally says what I want to say, and I think I'll be moving ahead with self-publishing some copies in the spring.  Pursuing traditional publishing routes isn't for me, at this time.  What I'd really like is to be published by Houghton, Mifflin circa 1905, say, or even 1925.  But those days are done, and since I wrote my odd book to gain clarity within myself, I don't know if it would find any kind of wider readership, or if I would even want it to.  Besides, what I really want is to continue to devote myself to painting and reading, and move on to other things.  That doesn't mean I'm not celebrating, though!  Writing this book was the most difficult (creative or otherwise) project I've ever set my mind to, and I'm glad I completed it.

One of the new projects on my horizon is actually an old project:  returning to the manuscript I wrote when I still had my open shop.  I'm looking forward to revisiting it, and adding to it with the benefit of hindsight.  Meanwhile I'm preparing some work in my studio for painting shows for 2021, and reading a lot.  In Thoreau-news, Volume Four is nearly complete:  

Which means that thus far, I've read nearly two thousand pages of Thoreau's Journal.  The other two books pictured are invaluable companions:  The Plants of Acadia National Park by Glen H. Mittelhauser, Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney, and Jill E. Weber (University of Maine Press 2010), and A Field Guide to Coastal Wetland Plants of the Northeastern United States by Ralph W. Tiner, Jr. (University of Massachusetts Press 1987).  Because I feel as if I've enrolled in a literary version of a botany graduate program.  The amount of scientific attention Thoreau pays, and the level of detail he describes, are aspects of the Journal that I had no inkling of, when I first set out to read it.  It helps so much to be able to turn to the field guides and see images of the plants he mentions again and again.  They come to life and I recognize them from my own rambles.

Volume One was difficult to read.  Thoreau is in his twenties and the Journal isn't like a traditional diary (I did this, I do that), but more like a collection of intellectual and spiritual treatises, or the frameworks for such things.  Fragmented; high flights of spiritual or quasi-religious thought, with poetry alongside.  It seems as if he's attempting to come to terms with himself, but not yet succeeding.  I persevered, while hoping that the whole thing wouldn't be this way.  And it isn't.  When I fetched up on one of the first truly run-of-the-mill diary-like entries, in 1842, I just about shouted from joy (Volume One p.335):

"March 17. Thursday.  I have been making pencils all day..."

This plain statement of fact, after so many pages of otherwise, gave me good reason to continue.  Not that I'd planned to abandon ship, but.  In Volumes Two and Three he turns that corner for good.  In his early thirties, he seems to be solid in who he is, formed into the nature-lover and questioner of all things societal and political.  Some of my favorite moments in the Journal are his accounts of long walks at night (seriously, he gets up in the middle of the night, and walks out to the woods, or to a cliff overlook he often visits, and takes notes by starlight or moonlight), and his descriptions of nature close-up, when he's examining grass at eye-level, from flat on the ground, or similarly prone, bubbles of air trapped in the ice on a frozen pond, over several days.  The detail he engages in, regarding plants, trees, birds, mammals, waterways, and even sometimes his human neighbors, is more than a little stunning.  The text purls on and on like a freshet.

The set I have is fairly interruption-free.  Editor Bradford Torrey makes minimal comments in the footnotes.  I mean, there are hardly any, and what Torrey does add is for brief clarification, such as where a passage or paragraph turns up in one of Thoreau's published books.  I love seeing the raw footage, as it were, of what will become his great works.

The wealth of natural description is tempered by occasional inroads into other subjects.  One of his main recurring themes is the seeking of and being disappointed in human friendships.  His many entries regarding this are truly heartbreaking.  He looks around and sees himself alone as can be, while his compatriots and peers are, in his view, putting on an act, going along with the rules of society, to their own (and his, and humanity's) detriment.  Other more minor themes crop up from time to time:  his fascination with the hum of the local telegraph wires, to him a holy kind of music; his current reading, including Darwin and many other books of natural history; the signs of indigenous people in and around Concord; and a few others that make brief appearances, such as aiding an escaped enslaved man in his trip to Canada and freedom (Applause!), and the intellectual inferiority of women (Boo!).  The Journal is right up there, though, with the best of the great personal narratives I've ever read.

About Thoreau's writing style: it's romantic.  He is an adverb-proponent and a friend to the exclamation point.  But his effusion and tendency toward paeans are grounded by his minute careful observation, throughout.  And oh, Thoreau is so very quotable.  A selection, in the order I encounterd them and copied them into my own diary:

Volume One, the 1840s:

"Certain sounds more than others have found favor with the poets only as foils to silence." (p.66)

"We are constantly invited to be what we are; as to something worthy and noble." (p.191)

"Who hears the rippling of the rivers will not utterly despair of anything." (p.293)

"Books of natural history make the most cheerful winter reading." (p.305)

"I will sift the sunbeams for the public good." (p.350)

Volume Two, 1850-1851:

"It is as sweet a mystery to me as ever, what this world is." (p.9)

"If you know of any risk to run, run it.  If you don't know of any, enjoy confidence." (p.44)

"My greatest skill has been to want but little." (p.319)

"Cultivate reverence." (p.463)

Volume Three, 1851-1852:

"I feel blessed.  I love my life.  I warm toward all nature." (p.86)

"'Says I to myself' should be the motto of my journal." (p.107)

"Nothing stands up more free from blame in this world than a pine tree." (p.145)

"There is a low mist in the woods.  It is a good day to study lichens." (p.166)

"Fate will go all lengths to aid her protégés." (p.315)

"If anybody thinks a thought, how sure we are to hear of it!" (p.328)

Volume Four, 1852-1853:

"It is a good day to saunter." (p.62)

"It would be pleasant to write the history of one hillside for one year." (p.127)

"A journal, a book that shall contain a record of all your joy, your ecstasy." (p.223)

Whew.  And these are just the shortest passages!  I copied out many much longer ones too.  I had to order some new blank diaries, since I'm filling up my current one so fast.  I've also purchased a lovely copy of Walden, and when it comes in the mail, I'll take a break from the Journal to read that instead.  The book's arrival will roughly coincide with the date of publication of the first edition of Walden in the Journal, so that will be a perfect time to read a stand-alone book as Thoreau intended.  Is it hard to believe I've never read Walden?  Well, I haven't.  This seems like a fine time to remedy that situation.  Onward.  Happy New Year!

*An added caveat:  In a rare mood of hope and optimism for the future, I wrote the above and posted it before becoming aware of what was unfolding in Washington, D.C.  I won't go back and change anything, but want to acknowledge that I'm no longer feeling hopeful or optimistic.  Thoreau's words seem unbearable in their idealism and innocence, even while they embody the world in which I wish we lived.  Peace, friends.*    

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