June 9, 2004: Features
Writer and professor John McPhee ’53 is at home on the water. He was just eight years old when he began canoeing at Keewaydin, a summer camp in Vermont run by John “Speedy” Rush, Class of 1898. As McPhee paddled on the streams of northern New England, he became a student of his surroundings, identifying trees and examining rock formations. He learned to respect and preserve nature. By the time he came to Princeton as a freshman, McPhee was leading trips at Keewaydin, teaching youngsters the lessons that had helped to shape his own childhood. “We were learning ecology before that word came into general use,” he says.
McPhee’s work has reflected his formative years on the water, from The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975) to The Founding Fish (2002). But it was not until he finished college that he read much of the work of another essayist and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau. And when the Princeton University Press asked him to write an introduction for Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers – one of five Thoreau works the Press just released in paperback to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Walden – the idea failed to strike a chord. “I was about to write a note and say, ‘Sorry, I can’t do it,’” McPhee says, “but then I thought, ‘I could make this trip!’ The spine of the book is a river journey made by the two Thoreau brothers more than 150 years ago. How would the rivers look today? How would they seem? I thought that would be interesting.” He agreed to write the introduction, excerpted on the next page, about his experience re-creating the Thoreaus’ journey.
Navigating upstream on the Merrimack, with its steep banks, swift current, and sporadic bulges of rock, posed challenges for McPhee, who prefers traveling downstream on the rapids in the upper Delaware River or paddling on more placid streams in New Hampshire. When Henry and John Thoreau made their trip in 1839, they had the advantage of locks and canals to work around the Merrimack’s rapids. By the time McPhee surveyed the river in July 2003, the impressive blocks of granite that walled the locks remained, but practical mechanisms for lifting boats had been removed or reduced to rubble long ago.
McPhee, who owns four canoes, chose for this journey a 16-foot Old Town Penobscot – stable, durable, responsive, and tough enough to deal with the river’s countless rocks. He took the canoe on a test run on the upper Delaware with son-in-law Mark Svenvold, his traveling partner for most of the trip. Then McPhee turned his focus to the course. He abandoned the idea of camping, since the path of the journey now runs through three cities, each with 85,000 or more people, but he did his best to duplicate the Thoreaus’ daily stopping points, reading Concord and Merrimack three times and plotting an itinerary that mirrored the days that the Thoreaus made their trip, August 31 through September 4.
Richard Kazmaier ’52 helped guide the canoe down the Concord on the first day. Kazmaier, one of McPhee’s college roommates, has lived in Concord, Massachusetts, for more than 30 years, on the banks of the Assabet, one of two rivers that join to form the Concord. “To be with [McPhee] for that day was a very special experience,” Kazmaier recalled in April. For the four-day Merrimack stretch of the trip, Svenvold took Kazmaier’s paddle. Heading north into New Hampshire, McPhee was surprised at the river’s isolation, given the amount of industry and community surrounding it. “It’s really astonishing how a river can get itself walled away by a row of trees,” he says. “The trees are 100 feet deep. There’s chaos going on out there, and yet you don’t see or hear it.”
On September 3, the third day on the Merrimack, the river had its own version of chaos, with rushing rapids splashing through a series of boulders. After pulling their canoe safely through the boulders near Manchester, McPhee and Svenvold climbed back in and powered the boat to a sandy landing near the Amoskeag Dam, completing the journey’s most difficult stretch. “That was actually lots of fun,” says the 73-year-old McPhee. “I didn’t think we’d be able to paddle all the way to the dam, and it made me feel a lot younger.”
McPhee’s reward was a night of rest at a Ramada, a light day of canoeing for the final leg from Manchester to Hooksett, and an approaching writing deadline. He had a considerable advantage over Thoreau, who began writing Concord and Merrimack at Walden Pond nearly six years after his trip, relying on his memory and a few pages of notes in his journal. McPhee’s introduction captures some of what he admires most about Thoreau – the author’s clever sense of humor – but does not attempt to emulate Thoreau’s writing style, which veered into digressions about everything from ichthyology to poetry. It’s a style that “is not a good way to earn a living today,” McPhee says with a chuckle. Apparently it was not a good way to make a living in the mid-1800s either. Concord and Merrimack, Thoreau’s first book, was a commercial failure, and the publisher sent 706 unsold copies to the author. “I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes,” Thoreau wrote in his journal, “over 700 of which I wrote myself.”
Months after the canoe trip, Thoreau remains a part of McPhee’s life. McPhee listened to an audio recording of Walden as he traveled to the shad run on the Delaware. “When I read Thoreau now, it echoes,” he says. “You get so soaked in it that it’s hard to climb out.”
Seeing life from the river, as Thoreau did
By John McPhee ’53
On the 31st of August, 1839, John and Henry Thoreau – brothers, aged 25 and 22 – set out from their home in Concord, Massachusetts, in a small skiff on the Sudbury River. They were bound for Hooksett, New Hampshire, about 55 water miles north. The boat was 15 feet long, styled like a dory, and new. They had made it in a week. They carried two sets of oars and a sail. On the 31st of August, 2003, with a college roommate who has long lived in Concord, I set out in a 16-foot Old Town canoe at a put-in site on the Sudbury that is Thoreau scholars’ best guess as the place where the Thoreaus took off. It is now the backyard of a couple named Kate Stout and Pete Funkhouser, who live at the intersection of Thoreau and Main. Across Main is the house where Henry David Thoreau died. He and John grew up in a now-long-gone dwelling thought to have been very nearby. John was his brother’s best friend, perhaps his only close one. After nicking himself with a razor, John died of tetanus at the age of 27. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Henry’s first book, rehearses their journey as a species of memorial, the fact not-withstanding that Thoreau never mentions his brother’s name.
On August 31, 1839, as the brothers prepare to launch, “a warm drizzling rain” rains all morning, so the Thoreaus delay their departure until the “mild afternoon.” On August 31, 2003, a cool and sunlit day, we were on the Sudbury soon after breakfast. In addition to houses with sloping lawns, Concord Academy was off to our right. Henry Thoreau founded an earlier Concord Academy in 1838. John taught there. Across a swamp on the left was Nashawtuc Hill, but in 2003 we could see neither school nor hill from the tree-screened Sudbury. The water was slow and smooth. In half a mile we came to Egg Rock, an outcrop of diorite, as impressive in its size as in words inscribed in the rock: “On the hill at the meeting of these rivers and along the banks lived the owners of Musketaquid before the white men came.” The rivers Sudbury and Assabet join at Egg Rock to form – as Thoreau tells us in the first words of his book – “the Musketaquid, or Grass-ground River.” It had been renamed Concord River, but “it will be Grass-ground River as long as grass grows and water runs here,” he says, suggesting a viewpoint not widespread in his time. Far into his text, he recalls boatmen, in low water, mowing the grass of the Concord River as if it were a hayfield, the better to deliver their freight.
Under light, steady current, the bent river grass pointed us downstream, and through the oaken pilings of the Old North Bridge. On the right bank – the British side of the bridge as the redcoats faced the Colonial militia – was an obelisk dated 1836. Off the other end, in bronze, was the Minuteman sculpture by Daniel Chester French, whose sitting Lincoln sits in the Lincoln Memorial. Inscribed below the Minuteman was the least obscure stanza of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn,” which Thoreau quotes and then follows with a couple of pages of his own verse. The “Concord Hymn” was first performed in 1837, when the obelisk was dedicated. Henry Thoreau was in the choir, singing. He was a senior at Harvard, days away from his graduation. John was in all likelihood present as well. The choir sang:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.
The Thoreaus carried guns and fired them to signal their departure from town. In his book, Thoreau refers to Emerson – his mentor, his model, his benefactor, his employer – only as “a Concord poet.” In Thoreau’s wanderings north of the Moosehead – which resulted in “The Allegash and East Branch,” the first recreational American canoe trip reported to the future – Edward Hoar, a Concord neighbor, was with him all the way, and in nearly 10,000 words was mentioned only as “my companion” or “my friend.” This was, of course, not churlishness on the author’s part but a diffident custom practiced in his time, as if it were ordered by “The Concord Manual of Style,” or, for that matter, in the way that the modern New York Times seems to insist that the first-person pronoun be swaddled as “a visitor.” In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, John Thoreau is immortalized as “the other,” although it is not always clear who “the other” is. At dusk on the day they reach Hooksett, “one of us” goes up the bank to look for a farmhouse “where we might replenish our stores” while “the other remained cruising about the stream, and exploring the opposite shores” for a place to stay the night. It’s always “one” or “the other,” never “me” and “my brother.” But this time Henry is trapped in his own terminology, as, in the past tense and from the author’s perspective in the rowboat, “the other voyageur returned from his inland expedition,” and we know that it was John who replenished the stores, getting precious little credit for it.
Not being as mannerly as Henry David Thoreau or the New York Times, I don’t mind telling you that my companion on the Concord River was Dick Kazmaier ’52, who, after that first day, bid me farewell, yielding his place to my son-in-law Mark Svenvold, who went up the Merrimack with me to Hooksett. The Thoreau brothers reached Hooksett on September 4, as did we, but along the way we stayed in different places than they did. Their first campsite was on an island in Billerica seven miles from Concord. At the end of the second day, they pitched their tent in Tyngsborough, on the Merrimack, a short distance below the ferry there. A short distance below Tyngsborough Bridge, where the ferry was, we slept higher up the bank, in a resort hotel called Stonehedge. On September 2, they rowed upstream into New Hampshire and on to the mouth of Penichook Brook, a little north of Nashua, where we arrived a full day ahead of them, taking out at Nashua’s Greeley Park on September 1. The difference was caused by an altered structure of the journey. The Thoreaus were traveling not only on two rivers but also on two commercial waterways. At the falls of Billerica, 11 miles below their home, they intersected the Middlesex Canal, which ran from salt water in Boston to the Merrimack at Middlesex (now part of the city of Lowell), “and as we did not care to loiter in this part of our voyage, while one ran along the towpath drawing the boat by a cord, the other kept it off the shore with a pole, so that we accomplished the whole distance in little more than an hour.” The whole distance was six miles, and by 2003 it included, among other things, the multipetaled cloverleaf where I-495 crosses U.S. 3 and also connects with an interstate spur. On the Billerica side of that cloverleaf, east and west of Brick Kiln Road, you can walk nearly two miles through deep woods along the old canal, which has aged there for a century and a half untouched and unrestored, 30 feet wide, water still in it, but low under green algal scum. White pines are there, tall enough to be the masts of ships. Honeysuckle, huckleberries, birches, oaks. In the low and distant hum of internal combustion, the quiet path is precisely the one the brothers used with their cord and their pole.
In Lowell, nearing the Merrimack, the canal emerges from woods and, conjoining Black Brook, becomes the water hazard that divides the second and third fairways of Mount Pleasant Golf Club, John and Henry all but visible hauling their skiff from the second tee and the third green to the second green and the third tee among the putting golfers, the swinging golfers, the riding golfers in their rolling carts.
Mark Svenvold and I – on September 1 – started out early in the day on the Merrimack in Lowell, directly opposite the place where three stair-step locks, in the afternoon of the same date, lowered the Thoreaus into the river. If we had it easier than they did, skipping over by necessity the Middlesex Canal, they had a softer time of it in New Hampshire. In 1826, a dam was built at Pawtucket Falls, in the heart of Lowell, Massachusetts, and, as Thoreau reports, “the influence of the Pawtucket Dam is felt as far up as Cromwell’s Falls,” in New Hampshire, five miles above Nashua. (The word “falls,” then as now, was applied not only to free-falling water but also to rapids.) The Thoreaus bypassed Cromwell’s Falls by means of a canal-and-lock system on the west side of the river. In the 11 miles between Cromwell’s Falls and Amoskeag Falls, Manchester, the Merrimack ran (and still runs) on its post-Pleistocene gradient, white in its bouldered rapids. Above Cromwell’s and below Amoskeag, the heavier falls were circumvented by seven lock systems collectively known as the Union Canal. The Thoreaus, of course, whisked their boat upstream through the whole of the Union Canal, rowing, yes, against the currents of the pools, but everywhere relieved of the rigors of the rapids. Things would not be so for us. The Union Canal is rubble. Scouting our trip by car in midsummer, I felt discouragement looking down into the massive boulderfields laced with white water in all those miles approaching Manchester. I doubted that we could make much progress there.
Scarcely a quarter of a mile below the Old North Bridge, the Concord River enters the Great Meadows, which, in Thoreau’s words, “like a broad moccasin print, have levelled a fertile and juicy place in nature.” Part floodplain, part swamp, now on one side of the river, now on both, the moccasin print is six miles long, looks essentially as it must have in 1839, and is now Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. Kazmaier, paddling in the bow, noting plants on the banks, said, “You can tell that fall is coming when you spot the purple loosestrife.” Kaz is less well known as a naturalist than as a businessman whose Kazmaier Associates has seemed to have a tentacle in every aspect of most known sports, from the international licensing of basketball broadcasts to the manufacture and sale of baseball uniforms and football helmets. There was a time when the coming of fall would have been signaled to him by a little more than loosestrife. In the decades since 1945, he is one of four recipients of the Heisman Memorial Trophy who did not go into professional football. Instead, he earned an M.B.A. at Harvard Business School. The stiff-arm trophy is on a bookshelf in Concord, looking underattended in an acreage devoted to dogs, hens, roosters, goats, dressage rings, stables, and horses of his youngest daughter, Kristen, a professional equestrian, who lives next door. Routinely, he does “night barn” for Kristen – goes out in the late evening, fills buckets with water, and flips leaves of hay to the horses.
In a couple of administrations, Kazmaier had been chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, but he didn’t have to work hard on this placid river. Thoreau compares its “scarcely perceptible” current to the character of people in 19th-century Concord. He also says the river’s “wild and noble sights” are “such as they who sit in parlors never dream of.”
We passed two fishermen in a boat, and asked how they were doing. “One 14-inch pickerel. Last week, I caught a 30-inch northern.”
Drawing away, we heard the man who had responded to our question explaining to the other fisherman that a pickerel is crafty and “lies in ambush.”
In this same reach between Ball’s Hill and Carlisle, the Thoreaus pass a bank fisherman with a silver-birch pole, and that sets Henry off into his classic and digressive set piece – 4,000 words if it’s a syllable – on fish and fishing: the passage in which the pickerel, “motionless as a jewel,” waits to swallow “at a gulp . . . a brother pickerel half as large as itself,” and “sometimes a striped snake, bound to greener meadows across the stream, ends its undulatory progress in the same receptacle”; the passage in which he tells us that he lovingly massages fish with his hands in the water; the passage in which he tells us that “he who has not hooked the red chivin is not yet a complete angler”; the passage in which he counsels the American shad, blocked in its runs by ever more dams, to “keep a stiff fin” and hope for a better world.
Another mile, and we watched a young guy on a granite outcrop pull a young pike from the water. It was two feet long. Where Thoreau heard “a faint tinkling music” of distant bells, we heard the tinkling of a motorcycle, but it was the only such sound to come over the river on this day before Labor Day. Hearing it, too, were a man and a woman rowing on the river in a four-oared shell. The Thoreaus’ first overnight was on the west side of the island seven miles below Concord, four miles above the falls at Billerica, and we stopped there for lunch. This was probably the same island. Thoreau mentions two, close together, and only one distinctly remains. We drank sweet bottled tea, and voluminously ate oatmeal cookies, fruit, potato chips, and ham and turkey sandwiches. For dinner in that first campsite, the Thoreaus had – make of it what you will – “bread and sugar, and cocoa boiled in river water.” Obscured by the trees on the west side of the river was a Billerica subdivision called Rio Vista – its houses, bungalows, and cottages dating from the 1920s, its entrances flanked by concrete pillars raisined with spherical stones. I had wandered around in Rio Vista two months before, ingesting information. Billerica is pronounced as if he were one of three brothers named Ricka. John Ricka. Henry David Ricka. Bill Ricka. Rio Vista has a street named Thoreau, and I wondered how the residents pronounce that. Thoreau scholars generally accent the first syllable of his name. Elizabeth Witherell, editor-in-chief of The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, had told me that people around Concord seem to say therr-oh, as in “I gave it a thorough cleaning.” I knocked on the door at No. 22 Thoreau. Two slats of a Venetian blind came slowly apart. A woman of upper middle years informed me that she was not about to open the door. I shouted back through the glass, asking about an island in the river behind her house. “I never heard of one!” she shouted back. Would she mind telling me how she pronounces the name of her street? “Thor-OH!” she shouted, with a bold stroke on the “OH.”
“A name pronounced is the recognition of the individual to whom it belongs,” Henry Thoreau says, near the end of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. “He who can pronounce my name aright . . . is entitled to my love and service.” His name is everywhere in Thoreau country. At the foot of Lock Street in Nashua, you approach the Merrimack through Thoreau’s Landing, a spread of nature-colored condos – handsome, homogenous, extensive.
Sunday morning and “the air was so elastic and crystalline that it had the same effect on the landscape that a glass has on a picture,” he writes. “We were uncertain whether the water floated the land, or the land held the water.” In 2003, the Concord was similar for us that Sunday afternoon. Blue herons lined it like gargoyles. Who knows what pious thoughts they were thinking. Thoreau says that on this day “the fishes swam more staid and soberly, as maidens go to church,” and “the frogs sat meditating, all Sabbath thoughts, summing up their week.” Like the Thoreaus’ dory, our canoe moved through flat-calm water that reflected the surrounding world. Thoreau says, “It required some rudeness to disturb with our boat the mirror-like surface of the water . . . for only nature may exaggerate herself.” The water we rudely broke with our paddles was as clear as the air and the reflection. Moreover, in 11 miles on the Concord we saw one beer can (afloat), one orange-and-white plastic barrel (in the alders), and no other flotsam or jetsam. The Clean Water Act of 1972 was among the highest legislative accomplishments of the 20th century. It owed more than a little to thought set in motion by Henry David Thoreau.
Just as he describes it, the Concord narrows dramatically and shallows out over a “yellow pebbly bottom” as it approaches the falls in Billerica, where the Thoreaus went off on the Middlesex Canal and where Kaz and I were to rendezvous with my wife, Yolanda Whitman, in her Odyssey. To let her know that we were in Billerica and when we would be landing, Kaz produced a cell phone, waved it in the air, and said, “Henry David couldn’t do this!”
John McPhee ’53 is a writer and lecturer in the Council of the Humanities. This excerpt is taken from his introduction to Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which was published this month by Princeton University Press. The introduction was first published in the New Yorker magazine on December 15, 2003.