Fri October 5, 2012
Henry David Thoreau's death 150 years ago has inspired memorial events in Concord - the Massachusetts Concord - but Thoreau passed through our Concord on a trip by boat and foot that led to his first book.
He made the trip as a 22-year-old with his brother John. In a flat-bottomed skiff they built themselves, they paddled down their hometown Concord River to the Merrimack. Heading upstream on the Merrimack to New Hampshire, their paddle was eased by a canal and lock system that bypassed rapids and falls and made river transport possible from Concord to Boston. Reaching Hooksett, they took off by foot to the iconic river headwaters: the summit of Mount Washington.
"Thus, in fair days as well as foul, we had traced up the river to which our native stream is a tributary, until from Merrimack it became the Pemigewasset that leaped by our side, and when we had passed its fountain-head, the Wild Amonoosuck, whose puny channel was crossed at a stride, guiding us toward its distant source among the mountains."
Thoreau's first book - "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers" - is a dense philosophical work with rivers as allegory for life's journey. With many digressions, it's a true stream of consciousness. Poignantly, his brother and closest friend John died a few years after the trip. Thoreau wrote the book as one way - his way - to bear that loss.
John isn't named in the book. He's called, simply, "the other," as the author's sole companion, but the book's first lines identify the other as brother and muse:
Where'er thou sail'st who sailed with me,
Though now thou climbest loftier mounts,
And fairer rivers dost ascend,
Be thou my Muse, my Brother--.