Book Review: Henry David Thoreau for Kids: His Life and Ideas with 21 Activities by Corinne Hosfeld Smith

Henry David Thoreau for Kids is geared towards children ages nine and up but I am going to review this book as one for adults as well.

thoreau for kids

Abridged version of Thoreau

Cutting right to the chase—I loved this book. As a perpetual student of Louisa May Alcott and as someone who appreciates nature, I have been fascinated with Henry David Thoreau since childhood. I do find his writing however to be difficult to plough through at times as it is very dense; Thoreau’s works demand complete attention from the reader and this can be hard to sustain at times. Therefore I look upon Corinne Hosfeld Smith’s book to be a welcomed abridged version of Thoreau.

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Tapping into my inner Thoreau; play-acting as Sylvia Yule

It’s vacation time again with more opportunities to visit Concord. The more times I visit, the more I want to see.

A trip down the Sudbury River to Great Meadows

Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge

I enjoy kayaking very much and so took a trip down the Sudbury River, launching from the bridge off of Lowell Road, just off of Concord center. My plan was to paddle to the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, a prime place to go birdwatching. I used to go there as a child with my parents to watch birds, and in later years, traveled with the bird group from our parish, led by our parish priest! He was a true birder, visiting Plum Island on the North Shore of Massachusetts in March – great time to see ducks and shore birds, but the weather can be most inhospitable! Only the serious birder goes there. 🙂

Introducing the “Sylvia Yule”

The “Sylvia Yule” begins its trip on the Sudbury River in Concord

I bought my own kayak this summer so that I could get out more and decided to christen it the “Sylvia Yule.” The chapters in Moods that Louisa May Alcott devoted to the boat/camping trip of Sylvia, Adam, Geoffrey and her brother Max (and where Adam and Geoffrey both fell in love with Sylvia) described to perfection what it is like to paddle a boat on a river like the Sudbury. The kayak appeals to me because it places you so close to the water. I feel like I am one with the water.

Practicing Thoreau’s methods

Needless to say, Thoreau too was very much on my mind. His discourse in his “Walking” essay, about becoming one with nature and allowing it to penetrate your inner being certainly was a reality during this trip.

Sites of interest along the way

About to pass under the Old North Bridge, site of the first battle of the American Revolution

As an extra treat, I was able to travel under the Old North Bridge, the place where the first battle of the American Revolution took place. I was also able to dock and take a tour of Minuteman National Park. The Old Manse was conveniently next door and I got to see it too. Nathaniel Hawthorne and his new bride Sophia Peabody lived there for a time and legend has it they proclaimed their love for each other by carving their initials into the glass of a window with her diamond ring.

I hope you enjoy the slide show I’ve assembled of my tour of the Sudbury in beautiful Concord.

p.s. if any of you know flowers, I’d love if you could identify the flowers I photographed at Great Meadows. I’m sure they’re quite common but my knowledge of flowers is pitiful. 🙂

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Thoreau and mysticism – Nature as a highway to the Divine

I’ve just started reading a thick volume on contemplative prayer (Fire Within by Thomas Dubay, SM), based upon the writings of two giants in this area, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Both were Carmelites,  and both hailed from Spain.

Many Spanish scholars believe that St. John is the greatest poet and writer of prose in the Spanish language (Fire Within, Thomas Dubay, SM, pg. 34). When I started reading about this saint and his intense interest in nature, I immediately thought about Henry David Thoreau.

I had mentioned in a previous post that Thoreau seemed like a contemplative. In reading about St. John of the Cross, I saw a lot of similarities, at least on the surface, between Thoreau and St. John:

St. John:

“He loved going outdoors and praying immediately from the book of creation lying before his eyes. It is said of him that he would be found in his cell with elbows on the windowsill, gazing, in absorbed prayer, upon the flowers during the day or the stars at night. ” (Fire Within, page. 33)

” ‘Oh woods and thickets,
Planted by the hand of my Beloved!
O green meadow
Coated, bright, with flowers,
Tell me, has He pass by you?’
[poetry by St. John]
Because creation shouts the Creator to the attentive heart, the man of woman who sets out on a serious pursuit of God uses the finite order as a stepping-stone to the infinite.” (Ibid, pg. 50)

Thoreau (from “Walking”):

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absoutely free from all wordly engagements. ”

“We would fain take that walk, never yet taken by us through this actual world, which is perfectly symbolical of the path which we love to travel in the interior and ideal world . . .”

“For I believe that climate does thus react on man — as there is something in the mountain air that feeds the spirit and inspires. Will not man grow to greater perfection intellectually as well as physically under these influences? Or is it unimportant how many foggy days there are in his life? I trust that we shall be more imaginative; that our thoughts will be clearer, fresher and more ethereal, as our sky — our understanding more comprehensive and broader, like our plains — our intellect generally on a grander scale, like our thunder and lightning, our rivers and mountains and forests, — and our hearts shall even correspond in breadth and depth and grandeur to our inland seas.”

I wonder, did Thoreau ever read anything by St. John of the Cross? Is there any record of him reading such things? And if anyone can recommend an essay or portion of a book where Thoreau talks about the interior revelations he received from spending time in Nature, I’d love to know.

Was Thoreau a romantic? Final thoughts on “Walking”

Much has been said about how unconventional Henry David Thoreau was. Although brilliant he was solitary, decidedly different, very blunt, not especially attractive physically, and he was prone to “queer” habits such as climbing trees, imitating bird calls and the like.

Yet women did find Thoreau attractive. Louisa May Alcott had a schoolgirl crush on him, and based characters in her books on him, most especially Adam Warwick, her doomed lover in Moods, and David Sterling in Work: A Story of Experience.

Sophia Foord, a naturalist and boarder at Hillside, the Alcott family home during Louisa’s teenage (and happiest) years, actually proposed marriage to a horrified Thoreau who brushed her aside.

Except for a failed attempt at love with Ellen Sewall (where he competed with his brother John for her affections), and a possible romantic interest in Lidian Emerson, Thoreau was not a ladies’ man. But I do maintain that he was a romantic.

Thoreau wrote passionately in his essay,  “Walking,” about traveling west, commenting that he usually positioned his feet west to south-west because “The future lies that way to me, and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side.” He adds, “We go eastward to realize history, and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race, — we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure.” While Thoreau protested the idea of Manifest Destiny (the 19th century American belief that the United States was destined to expand across the North American continent, from the Atlantic Seaboard to the Pacific Ocean – Wikipedia) especially because of the Mexican-American War (which annexed Texas and permitted another slave state), it does seem that at least philosophically, he embraced the idea of heading west. And here’s where the romantic in him showed its face:

Every sunset which I witness inspires me with the desire to go to a west as distant and as fair as that into which the Sun goes down. He appears to migrate westward daily and tempt us to follow him. He is the Great Western Pioneer whom the nations follow. We dream all night of those mountain ridges in the horizon, though they may be of vapor only, which were last gilded by his rays. The island of Atlantis,and the islands and gardens of the Hesperides, a sort of terrestrial paradise, appear to have been the Great West of the ancients, enveloped in mystery and poetry. Who has not seen in imagination, when looking into the sunset sky, the gardens of the Hesperides, and the foundation of all those fables?

Not to be a killjoy, but what about all the hardships pioneers faced going out west? Many many thousands of people died from disease, starvation and battles with Native Americans. It was a tremendous struggle just to survive. I was surprised  in the romanticism and naivety that Thoreau seemed to exhibit but I was glad to see that he had such an optimistic spirit. He cites Sir Francis Head, an English traveler:

 “The heavens of America appear infinitely higher — the sky is bluer — the air is fresher — the cold is intenser — the moon looks larger — the stars are brighter — the thunder is louder — the lightning is vivider — the wind is stronger — the rain is heavier — the mountains are higher — the rivers larger — the forests bigger — the plains broader.”

This line made me laugh:

” . . .  the traveller can lie down in the woods at night almost anywhere in North America without fear of wild beasts.”

Um, ever hear of black bears?? Or bobcats??

It got me to thinking about the experiment at Walden. I still think it was a noble experiment but isn’t it true that he brought his laundry to his mother at the family homestead in Concord? 🙂

I know that going west for Thoreau was as much about allegory as it was about actually traveling there. The east represented the Old World and Old World (e.g. old ideas and narrow-minded and conventional) thinking whereas the west represented a broadening of one’s horizon and the possibility of reconnecting again with Nature – Sir Francis said it perfectly.

What’s the point of all this? Just that Thoreau was many things: brilliant thinker and writer, transcendentalist, abolitionist and government protester (and willing to go to jail over it), surveyor, pencil maker, innovator, naturalist – a man who said much and truly walked the walk. I would just like to add that he was also a romantic. Bombastic at times, but definitely a romantic.

Continuing “Walking” with Henry David Thoreau

Listening to “Walking” while I walked (see previous post) only whetted my appetite to dig deeper into this amazing essay. The more I read, the more the text opened up like a flower early in the morning, each truth displaying itself in the light of a new understanding. I feel akin to Thoreau and I attribute it to my recent exploration into the contemplative life. I daresay that Thoreau thinks much like religious contemplatives and monks that I’ve read about, but without the overt mention of religion. Still, to me anyway, the suggestion is very much there. What makes Thoreau so amazing is that he lays out the map of where you should go but allows you to choose how you will get there. It makes his thinking universal, applicable to anyone who wants it, in any time and place.

Learning to understand Thoreau:
Nature

Ken Kifer wrote that “Thoreau based his philosophy on ageless truths from the past and looked into the future.” In describing Walden, he wrote that “its logic is based on a different understanding of life, quite contrary to what most people would call common sense.” I felt like he was describing my life. I have always walked to the beat of a different drummer.

So I already knew that “Walking” was far more than a description and appreciation of nature. There is no doubt that Thoreau had a deep connection with the out-of-doors and contributed greatly to the study of the natural world with his observations and insights. I think specifically of a section near the end of “Walking” where he describes climbing a pine tree only to discover “on the ends of the topmost branches only, a few minute and delicate red cone-like blossoms, the fertile flower of the white pine looking heavenward.” He was so taken with this discovery that he actually cut off the top of the tree and took it into town to show anyone who would look at it!

Many people love Thoreau because he was a naturalist and he certainly lifted the experience to a higher plain. But Nature (note the capital N which he always used) was far more than what was seen. I believe he used it as an allegory to challenge people to think beyond their narrow, conventional lives of commerce and work. He felt it essential to move beyond conventional and shallow thought, and to dig much deeper into the meaning of life. No doubt his thinking was influenced by the dehumanizing influence of the new industrial age. It’s amazing that he could see it even then, with industrialization in its infancy. I can only imagine how he would see our world today..

Learning to understand Thoreau:
Silence

Thoreau valued walking greatly, making it a rather spiritual experience. He called it sauntering (“which word is beautifully derived ‘from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainte terre” — to the holy land . . .) and declared that he couldn’t preserve his health and spirits unless he spent at least 4 hours per day sauntering through Nature, free from worldly entanglements. Someone who is able to spend that much time alone and walking obviously understood the value of silence. I have a feeling Thoreau was an expert at quieting himself, ridding himself of those useless thoughts that race through the mind, and allowing higher thought to rise to the surface. This is something I am learning how to do with contemplative prayer. It’s like entering the innermost chamber of yourself and meeting someone you love there. I’ve only succeeded once or twice to get there but once you’ve been there, you hunger to go back and stay. Thoreau knew how to enter that chamber and silence is the way. It wasn’t always easy for him (“I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit”) but he knew the way.

Digging deeper

Thoreau uses much of the essay to challenge us to dig deeper, broadening our horizon, and opening our hearts and minds to other realities. I feel like his writing is practically shouting at me because I see so much narrow-mindedness, such a lack of creativity in the way people think, and a general blindness to what makes life truly worth living. Although I feel I have a gift for insight, I also sense a barrier inside of me preventing me from digging deeper myself, and then learning how to express it in words. I think that with Thoreau’s help (and further time inside my chamber with my Beloved) I can break down this barrier, stone by stone.

There is so much more to say about “Walking”; I will continue in future posts.

 

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Some people have studied for an
online
PhD
in order to fully understand Thoreau.
His words about nature are beautiful.

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Louisa creates the perfect man for Jo (and herself?)


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