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Pages from Tracey's Journal

"Thoreau’s Village of Concordor Was It Shepherdstown?"

“What fire could ever equal the sunshine of a winter’s day, when the meadow mice come out by the wall sides and the chickadee lisps in the depths of the wood?”

“With so little effort does nature reassert her rule and blot out all trace of men.”

I wrote these two quotes from Thoreau’s "Winter Walk" as some of my favorites but alas I can’t relate them to my nights walking the streets of Shepherd campus and surrounding homes of Shepherdstown. BUT—I can relate my walk tonight to Thoreau’s Walden when he walked to the village of Concord and entered homes and establishments. Often he would stay late and have only the moon and stars to guide him home. 

So I imagined I was Thoreau visiting my friends in their homes and walking the streets of Concord. I pictured Concord to have similar houses of wood, front porches, ornate trim in the front and right close to the street—just like the houses I walked past tonight. I saw lights inside and imagined people gathering to talk or read by their lamps—a luxury for Thoreau for he had no oil lamps to read by at night. He had only the bare essentials in his home—one bed, three chairs, one table that served as a desk and eating table. 

I wonder if Thoreau while taking the hospitality of his guests if he ever criticized them about their luxuries to their faces, or if he kept silent. I wonder if he ever wanted to stay the night and sleep on a softer bed and not have to worry about feeding the fire in his stove throughout the night.

I wonder if he ever indulged even a little bit and ate animal meat, or sweets, or drank a cup of coffee—things he swore off doing. I wonder if he ever wanted a woman companion to talk to and share ideas with and love? I wonder if he was ever jealous or envious of his neighbors and all the while convincing himself he had it better?


March 11, 2006
Visiting Emily Dickinson’s house, Amherst, Massachusetts

Walked through Emily Dickinson’s parents home—The Homestead—and her brother Austin’s and Susan’s home—The Evergreen.  There is a big, deciduous tree with multiple branches growing in right front yard.  Emily’s room had big windows that faced Main Street--the road from Amherst to Boston--and the side view was of her brother’s house.  From this window she lowered baskets of goodies to the children.

I think I understand Emily Dickinson better now.  The tour guide said she was taken care of by her father.  She had one year in college which was unheard of for women at the time (although her mother did go one year in college too).  Emily never had to work for a living.  She was able to stay in the house she grew up in except for a 15-year period between the ages of nine to twenty-four when they moved five blocks away.  From Emily’s writings, these 15 years were the happiest in her growing up time and she (via a letter) did not want to return to the house she was born in.

I can see Emily becoming more of a homebody since she tended to manage the house while her mother was sick and younger sister Vinnie did the town shopping.  Once you develop a pattern with your life and get comfortable in it, you can find it quite accepting to be your life’s pattern. Most obvious she found time to write letters and compose poems for several years and that must have filled her with great purpose.

The tour guide mentioned she wrote a lot of letters and these letters were Emily’s way of staying in touch with the outside of her home world.  I definitely can see this pattern becoming her lifestyle and more particularly her comfort zone when several close family members were dying.  Emily’s way of coping was to mourn perhaps in the sanctuary of her own home.

Death affects people in different ways and Emily might have died off in pieces slowly as her friends and family were dying around her.  Maybe that part of her she connected with the dead person she allowed to die off in herself—that piece, that memory—whatever.  Then her mind dwelt on it through her poetry.

A mental dysfunction comes from a lot of openings:  people dwelling too much on things that happen naturally but beyond their control—like death—or people supposing too much—reading too much in something—that another mind would dismiss quicker perhaps?

Emily is quite a complex person yet quite simple in her lifestyle of living in one town and being around familiar sights and surrounded with family.  Maybe this life of being in one place makes one mind expands (or go crazy with unfulfilled desire) and want to write all thoughts down on paper—I think that’s it.  Plus the time period of people play acting, melodramatic, putting on another’s persona.  Emily was thought to engage in all that!

I sometimes wish I could engage in another persona and think myself a creative writer-type person.  To write thoughts that would seem to be universal, all culture-relating but at the same time be personal and specific and significant to all readers.


March 14, 2006
Walden Pond

"Henry David Thoreau’s 2 years, 2 months, 2 days experience"

What a wondrous day at Walden Pond.  Got here at 10 a.m. and met Steve the state park ranger who gave us an elementary lecture. I say elementary because I immediately thought his conversation skills were perfect for engaging elementary-age kids. He asked questions like “Why do you think Henry David Thoreau wanted to stay out at Walden Pond?” “What do you think Thoreau’s bed is like?” Questions to engage the audience…

We walked across the road, down the gravel ramp to the sandy shoreline of Walden Pond, went to the right of the pond following a path along the shoreline, then veered off to walk up a little hill to the cabin spot. There on a brown sign was written Henry David Thoreau’s words: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

What a wonderful statement that everyone should learn from—deal with only the important issues—meaning learn from life—the life around you in nature.

Bronson Alcott started a cairn of rocks as a tribute to Henry on the spot of the cabin—now there is a BIG pile of rocks!

At the lunch break time I walked around Walden Pond on the shoreline path. Stopped at the open railroad track section and remembered this section in the book that Thoreau observed thawing sand and clay that to Thoreau’s mind embodied the creation of man. The leaves branching out to signify blood vessels; the thawing mass of sand resembles fingers. “What is man but a mass of thawing clay?” Thoreau asked. This section in the book has so many metaphors to observe nature that every time you reread a section or chapter you discover a new revelation and something else speaks to you.

In the morning walk to Thoreau’s cabin the pond had a surreal feel to it—mist coming up from the water’s surface and could see only 100 feet across the pond in any direction. It was the very contained, small world of Thoreau’s existence at Walden Pond and evoked this morning a quiet, church-like atmosphere.

But in my lunch time hike around the pond, the sun came out. You could see the trees on the other sides across the pond—no more “other worldly” feeling to the setting. The feeling I got now was one of “let’s explore” not one of “don’t disturb this quite sanctuary.” Now the woods seem inviting. There was a kayaker in the middle of the pond. There were two fishermen now instead of the solitary figure we encountered this morning and two family groups on the trail.

The sun opened up all hidden areas in the woods so I was able to see the veins in the leaves on the ground. I was able to see the patterns of the different tree barks. I was able to see the canopy of trees overhead still leafless but see their height and shape and see how much undergrowth the sun permitted. Wow!! The afternoon became an entirely different place.

I remember from my Environmental History class reading an essay by William Cronon how he said you can observe nature right in your own backyard. I agreed with him at the time even though the consensus from the professor and students was that Cronon was way off—that you can’t equate your backyard to the beauty you can see in the wilderness—that your backyard is a “created natural world” and can never be connected to the wildness of nature. 

Cronon said your tree in your backyard could have sprung from the same seed as the tree in the forest and both trees are worthy of our wonder and respect. I agree with this. Thoreau escaped to a simple life at Walden Pond on the outskirts of town to contemplate nature, its environs, life, and mourn his brother’s death. Coming to Walden Pond 161 years later, still remains therapeutic to present day visitors when Walden Pond is literally in a backyard.

This same spot is now not considered wild or wilderness but a small section of 411 acres preserved by the Massachusetts State Forests and Parks system. To me this proves that if you have a special place in the natural world, no matter how far from a town, city, or civilization, and if it is preserved by keeping the natural aspect of the environment—that this place is just as special to you as visiting Yellowstone, Yosemite, or the Grand Canyon with all their natural wonders.

Someone had the foresight to protect Thoreau’s special place so future generations could experience what he experienced. It is no less meaningful for us to preserve our special places—maybe even our own backyards—so we can continually make a connection to the natural world. We will respect the natural world both in our city limits, outside of city limits, and in faraway lands that take time to arrive to.


"Aldo Leopold’s Distorted Conservation Efforts"

I went on a nature hike to Sky Meadows State Park in Virginia Sunday, April 9, 2006. Great sunny day. I stepped over cow “pies” to reach the Appalachian Trail at the mountain ridge. The shrubs were still almost leafless—just budding a bit—you could see the tree line where the new growth just stopped midway up and then no new growth at all up to the ridgeline. I’m sure this time next week it will be quite a different sight. I will have to revisit.

It was nice to get out of doors and meander uphill. I should have been working on my second essay though. I wonder how people in the 19th century managed their time. I figure they were far more disciplined at it that I’ll ever be. I know they didn’t have the distractions that we have in the 20th and 21st centuries, i.e., television, movies, etc., but that’s no excuse.

I often thought that the writers, states people, artists, etc., must have all come from “wealthy” families that they didn’t need to go to work every day and had the time to reflect and contemplate. I figured they had servants to do the everyday meals, cleaning, washing, shopping, and all that they needed to do. But that thought was a cop out. Some had servants—others didn’t. It was an individual discipline; a discipline to educate oneself and a discipline to practice an occupation or hobby earnestly and to write about the experience.

These literature classes have introduced subject matter I would never been interested in. For example, Aldo Leopold. He got the conservation bug a little late in his lifetime. I know about culling out a deer herd to preserve the group to keep out denuding the hillside like I am on today. But the sport of trophy hunting that Leopold took part of and the wasting of animals just to get a legal one or a bigger trophy, turns me off. He also talks about sportsmen using “modern machinery” to hunt their game—gadgets—he calls them. Leopold still clung to his old ways of hunting and trashes the newer methods of modern machinery hunting. I say trash both of them!!

Leopold does say wildlife research is the way to go—I agree. Plus education. I remember years ago we would fight every fire that broke out in the wild because we didn’t want to see a scorched landscape—a wasted landscape we thought. But then research found that a much richer life would evolve in the forest if we would just let the wildfires burn. The scorched earth took on better nutrients, got rid of the underbrush that was stifling a tree’s growth and a healthier forest emerges.

I say continue doing research on wildlife management like Leopold did but be careful what school of hunting if any is needed. See what needs to be protected to preserve an ecological balance and then—if even then—allow hunting only to cull out the pack or herd.

Duck hunting is another matter—all those duck decoys and blinds. That is truly modern mechanized hunting.  I remember James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo making fun of this in one of his Leatherstocking Tales.


April 14, 2006
"New York City Life—Reminiscent of Walt Whitman’s Time"

I’m on a bus tour of downtown New York City. Just passed the Brooklyn Bridge and immediately thought about Walt Whitman and how happy he was to be alive in New York City!

Well, it surely is crowded with people; mostly tourists and visitors to the city. You see the worker’s going to their jobs in the subway underground and above ground. All the behind-the-scenes people who service the workers and tourists alike in the transportation, restaurant, and hotel businesses are out too. But mostly you see the tourists gawking and scanning their necks to see everything—I’m talking about myself here!

Walt Whitman was a master of people description:  the mothers, the lovers, the workers. Walt Whitman, a kosmos of Manhattan the son. I’ll attempt to describe what I see. I see swarms of teenagers going up and down the streets, darting in and out of open door ways. They are talking on cell phones and talking to the person(s) next to them. Store owners are standing in front of their shops, smiling when you smile at them, opening up in conversation when you stop to look at their wares. It is a wonderful city when you can remember a conversation with a native New Yorker that rings with pride in their voice when they talk about what they do and their city. They are a multi-racial, multi-cultural people with diverse backgrounds but all appear to be one nationality because they are all part of New York City.

The firemen I talked to, the waiter, the usher, the hotel clerk, all seemed to be one nationality but you know that they are not. You see the facial differences and know that they live in different parts of the city but all parts make one big. You can walk down a block in SoHo, Lower East Side, Greenwich, Chinatown, and see a community of people working together.

I see artists on the streets creating wondrous images of night scenes of New York City while walking at night but the neon signs and building and street lights make it look like daytime. I take side streets off Times Square in Broadway and it becomes a quiet neighborhood away from the noisy taxis, horns, and people’s voices. That’s when you can focus on the buildings and architecture and really see the hodgepodge of construction over the centuries.

You see the guy in rags sleeping on the sidewalk—a friend bringing him food—he in rags too. You feel the wind rushing through the canyon walls of the streets, trash blowing up in the air. But you love it because it is life…!!           

  Tracey Rissler is an RBA student at Shepherd University (Spring 2006).

"American Transcendentalism: An Online Travel Guide" was produced by students in ENGL 446, American Transcendentalism, and ENGL 447, American Literature and the Prominence of Place: A Travel Practicum. These courses were team-taught in the Department of English at Shepherd University (formerly Shepherd College), Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in Spring 2002 by Dr. Patricia Dwyer and Dr. Linda Tate. The courses were taught again in Spring 2006 by Dr. Linda Tate. For more information on the course and the web project, visit "About This Site." © 2003 and 2006 Linda Tate.