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Reflections on Thoreau’s Bicentennial

“At first it comes on murmuring to itself by the base of stately and retired mountains, through moist primitive woods whose juices it receives, where the bear still drinks it, and the cabins of settlers are far between, and there are few to cross its stream; enjoying in solitude its cascades still unknown to fame … flowing long and full of meaning, but untranslatable as its name. … There are earth, air, fire, and water,—very well, this is water, and down it comes.”

Thus Henry David Thoreau describes the Merrimack River in his first book, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.” Inspired by an 1839 trip Thoreau took with his brother John, the book was written during his stay at Walden Pond and published in 1849. It sold few copies during his lifetime.

Thoreau, at times intensely interested in politics, was also a keen admirer of quiet and solitude. “A Week” contains some of his most meditative and introspective writing. In the book’s final pages, he notes, “As the truest society approaches always nearer to solitude, so the most excellent speech finally falls into Silence. Silence is audible to all men, at all times, and in all places.”

While many worldwide activities are planned this year, perhaps the best way to celebrate Thoreau’s birthday on July 12 would be to stand silently along the banks and listen as the Merrimack burbles and twists its long course to Plum Island and the Atlantic beyond.

Thoreau River

Illustration by Sophy Tuttle.




Bicentennial Highlights

From Lincoln to Lowell, our region will be a magnet for Thoreau admirers and scholars from all over the world. Boating trips, lectures and even Thoreau-related photography classes are on the calendar. Here, we present the highlights:

Laura Dassow Walls: “Our True Paradise: Thoreau’s Concord and the Ecstasy of the Commons”
Concord Library Rotunda, Concord, Mass.
July 14
Walls has written an excellent book on Thoreau and natural science. Her recent biography, “Henry David Thoreau: A Life,” garnered praise from UMass Lowell professor John Kaag in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The lecture celebrates the opening of the Thoreau bicentennial exhibition: “Concord, which is my Rome: Henry Thoreau and His Home Town.”

Pollard Library Non-Fiction Book Club — A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
Pollard Memorial Library, Lowell, Mass.
Aug. 3
The Pollard Library Non-Fiction Book Club Meets on the first Thursday of every month, and the meetings are free and open to the public. At the August meeting, the club will discuss “A Week” — copies may be borrowed from the information desk or reserved by calling (978) 674-4121. Have your library card ready.

Presence + Place: A Photography Workshop
deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, Mass.
Aug. 5
This workshop was inspired by the photography of Abelardo Morell, whose work “Walden: Four Views,” is on exhibit at the Concord Museum. The workshop is aimed at photographers of all levels who wish to see nature “through new lenses.” Participants bring their own cameras — film, digital or even smartphone.

Philosophy on the River
Penobscot River, Maine
Aug. 6-12
In what is surely this year’s most unusual event, philosopher and UMass Lowell professor John Kaag and author/musician Doug Anderson lead a weeklong canoe trip along the route Thoreau traveled in his book “The Maine Woods.” Paddlers will spend three days on the Penobscot River before traveling the length of Chesuncook Lake, while resting in tents at night. Go forth and discover if the combination of sore arms, friendly debate and crackling campfires yields deep insights.

Thoreau’s Wild Places and Cultivated Lands
Minute Man National Historical Park, Concord, Mass.
Sept. 10
As autumn approaches, historian Jayne Gordon leads a hike over Thoreau’s old wandering grounds. Bring water and walking shoes.



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