~ News, announcements, events, and ruminations about my books, including Slant of Light, This Old World, The Language of Trees, and Scattered Lights, and about creativity, fiction, Missouri, the Ozarks, and anything else that strikes my fancy
Merry Christmas, everyone. I’ve been thinking about storylines lately. The writers of the Gospels were determined to cast Jesus into a particular story structure, one that meant a lot to them but which today, in all likelihood, doesn’t resonate nearly as much. That’s the story of the Messiah, a rather enigmatic character who shows up now and again in the Hebrew Bible. The idea of the Messiah (Greek translation: Christos) for first-century Jews is that he was a future king, who would be sent by God to set things right and restore the lost Jewish kingdom. For a nation that had endured oppression, periodic religious persecution, and mass relocation, the Messiah was a significant figure. The arrival of the Messiah would be a sign that despite considerable evidence to the contrary, the Jews had not been abandoned by their God.
So the Gospel writers went to great lengths to make the case that Jesus was in fact the Messiah. They retrofitted an elaborate genealogy to claim that he was a descendant of King David. They borrowed tidbits from other religious traditions to heighten the mythological significance of Jesus’ birth story: a big star that suddenly appears. Celestial beings – angels – showing up and making announcements. Religious leaders from far away who come to pay homage. In other words, it was very important to them to show that Christmas – the birth of Jesus – was the fulfillment of an ancient promise.
Nowadays, we don’t think much about the concept of a Messiah. Apart from Christmas, the most frequent use of the word is in the phrase “Messiah complex,” describing somebody who is under the delusion that they are specially called to solve everyone’s problems and who think they have all the answers. Frankly, we don’t need any more Messiahs these days. We have plenty.
But we do need something at this moment of the calendar. Many people feel deep sadness at this time of year. I think of one of the great nineteenth-century Christmas songs, with words from the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” It starts out with the sweet sound of the bells, but by the third verse of the song (sixth verse of the poem) the speaker has reached the realization that “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on Earth, goodwill to men.” Only at the very end does the speaker achieve a measure of hope that “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.” The message of the poem is essentially this: Things are a mess but they will get better. The poem’s origin in the heart of the Civil War, made clear in the verses that are omitted from the Christmas song, helps to explain why its message of comfort is so muted.
Many of the modern Christmas classics have that same theme. Things are a mess but they will get better. The older songs celebrate the triumphant arrival of the King of Kings, Lord of Lords. But nowadays we have a more modest aim. As the Merle Haggard song puts it, “If we make it through December, everything’s gonna be all right.” Think of the beautiful but melancholy 1943 song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”: “Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” Believe it or not, this version of the song was actually lightened up from the original version the songwriter presented to Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland for Meet Me in St. Louis. They found it too depressing, with lines like “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last. Next year we may all be living in the past.” How’s that for some good tidings?
At this time of year, we bring lights into our houses and out on our lawns. There was a news story on television recently about a homeowner in my town who had lit her house so brilliantly that it was showing up in satellite images. We search for gifts for our loved ones, just the right thing that will show them how much we love them. We find the people and organizations that are doing good, and we help them out. The Food Bank, the homeless shelter, the refugee center. All of this comes from a place of longing and of hope. In the absence of a messiah sent by God and foretold by prophets, we step in. We are not here to restore the Kingdom of Israel. We are not here to fulfill a promise. We are here to make a promise. And that promise is: I will look out for you. I will care for you. We will bind ourselves together in large ways and small ways. Things are a mess right now, but I will work to make them better. The promise is not from a distant and historic God to us, but from ourselves to ourselves, and we make it now and looking into the future.
But my favorite venue is a library. Whenever I speak at a library, I always come away having learned something new myself. Library-goers are a varied and curious bunch, knowledgeable about many things, and eager to share that knowledge.
So I’m excited to rejoin the Missouri Humanities Council and State Historical Society of Missouri’s joint project, the Missouri Speakers Bureau. This project provide a wide range of speakers to libraries and other nonprofit organizations around the state: civic groups, historical societies, you name it. And if your organization is located in a rural area (defined as any county outside Jackson, Greene, Boone, or St. Louis City/County), the speakers are totally free! As a kid who grew up in small-town libraries myself, I love the experience of visiting a library and meeting new people who have a love of learning and history similar to mine.
The link to my page on the Speakers Bureau website is here. I’ve put together a presentation on Missouri utopian communities that should be interesting, and am adding new material to the presentation all the time. If you have a group that needs a speaker, get in touch!
The Missouri Library Association is the umbrella organization of all the libraries in Missouri – public, private, academic, and otherwise. They’re a great organization, and they speak out strongly in favor of information access and freedom of expression.
They also give out two Missouri Author Awards each year, one for fiction and one for nonfiction. This year, I was honored to have Scattered Lights win the fiction award.
Receiving this award from the MLA is extra special for me. For one thing, the books that have won it before are really terrific, and I’m honored to be in their company.
But additionally, libraries have always been special places to me, even sacred. My mom worked in the Fredericktown library, and when we moved to Annapolis, she was instrumental in establishing the Annapolis branch library, which today is named in her honor. At the dedication of the newest building that houses the Annapolis branch, my brother and sister-in-law had buttons made celebrating Mom’s commitment, and that button is what you see on my lapel. Here’s a closeup.
What she saw in libraries was their immense potential for improving people’s lives, without regard to wealth or background. When you walk into a library, you are equal to everyone else there, and the knowledge of all the planet is available to you. She loved to cultivate that curiosity. Whenever a kid came into the library, she made careful note of what that kid was interested in. And the next time that kid came in, there would be a new book pulled from the revolving collection, just waiting, to satisfy that curiosity and perhaps nudge it along a little.
A library represents the potential in us all. The existence of free public libraries is one of the great advancements of civilization. So receiving an award from the state library association is, well, pretty much the best thing I can imagine.
I’d like to comment particularly on my co-winner this year, The Last Children of Mill Creek by Vivian Gibson. I’ve been reading it over the past few days, and it’s a marvelous book. It’s a memoir of growing up in the Mill Creek Valley of St. Louis, a large Black district that was demolished and emptied out in the name of “urban renewal.” The story of Mill Creek is one of the tragic chapters of Missouri history, and it’s not well enough known. This memoir is beautiful and heartbreaking, and you should get a copy. Or tell your library to buy one!
The Animals were never among my favorites of the British Invasion bands, although you had to give them credit. In their short initial incarnation, they produced a string of unforgettable hits and had a distinctive sound. Their version of the folk standard “House of the Rising Sun” is the one that most people remember today.
But “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” has a curious history. It was originally recorded by Nina Simone, in a slow, somewhat jazzy version that focuses on the subtle lyrics. You can hear the ache of the lyricist in her version, the apology and the explanation for foolish behavior, the longing to improve. The memorable guitar hook that the Animals led with is hidden in a violin section, partial and barely noticeable.
When the Animals recorded it, they turned it pretty much into straight-ahead blues rock, capitalizing on Eric Burdon’s gritty voice to make it a perfect anthem for the moment, echoed by teenagers throughout the decades who are dealing with complicated emotions and a sense of disaffection.
But the version that has stuck in my mind the most is the one by Santa Esmeralda, and I remember the first time I heard it. I was in the basement of Douglas Pokorny, a friend I have written about before, and he put the album on. Keep in mind, this was the late ’70s in the eastern Ozarks, where musical variety was hard to come by. How he came to possess the Santa Esmeralda album I’ll never know. But when I heard the flamenco-influenced Latin rhythms of the song, overlaid on the clearly recognizable template of the Animals version, I knew I was hearing something memorable. And the song just went on and on for more than sixteen minutes, filling up the whole second side of the album, the phrases repeating and building into some kind of pop-music ecstasy. In later years I learned that it was a disco favorite, which makes sense, given its propulsive beat and infinite energy.
Three different artists, the same material, three entirely different versions. Whose is the best? Don’t ask me. Each song fits its performer and its moment. The later versions are influenced by the earlier ones, but it would be wrong to say that they were unoriginal.
I’ve been asked several times lately about who my favorite writers are, or who the writers are that have influenced me. I can’t honestly say. I think the best answer is all of them, and none of them. I pick up things from many writers, but I don’t think that I’ve ever consciously copied or been directly influenced by one in particular. I’ve read that there are only [x-number, take your pick: 3, 5, 7, whatever] plots in narrative, the Journey, the Revenge, and so forth. So of course stories will bear resemblance. I think my essential plot is People Who Are Trying to Make Some Sense of Their Lives, but They Keep Getting Thwarted and It’s Usually by Their Own Damn Selves. Not sure if that’s one of the 3.
As usual, I quickly lost track of time. One of the great pleasures of walking in the woods is the sense of being freed from ordinary time, of entering a different kind of clock, one in which things are not measured by hours or minutes. Instead, I think of tasks to be accomplished, distances to travel. The answer to the question “How much longer do I have?” is not necessarily a half hour or forty-five minutes, but “Up a little rise, along the ridge for a half mile, and then up the last steep slope.” Float trips are similar. Time becomes, if not irrelevant, at least a secondary thing to think about.
I remember reading a book a few years ago that noted the shift that took place in the Ozarks when the economy moved from subsistence farming to manufacturing and larger farm operations. Instead of the rhythm of the seasons governing people’s lives, the clock took precedence. Many people had difficulty adjusting to the change in how life was ordered, employing various strategies of resistance against the tyranny of the clock.
Even though I’m officially “retired” from my day job, I still live a pretty ordered existence, as if an invisible timekeeper somewhere is punching me in and clocking me out. But I do love those occasions when I can stop counting time and simply live in the eternal moment.
When I was a kid, our parents would occasionally take my brother and me to what we called the “Castor River swimming hole” or alternatively, the “Castor River Shut-Ins.” Mom, as usual, fretted about our safety, while we boys just enjoyed the sweep of water through the tight passages of rock, bouncing downstream to where Dad waited to catch us.
There are a couple of swimming holes on the upper Castor, a river that receives much less attention than its more famous cousins to the west, and I honestly can’t remember which one we visited in my childhood. But one of the most unexpectedly beautiful places in the Ozarks is what is now the Amidon Memorial Conservation Area in northeast Madison County.
If you’ve visited Elephant Rocks, you know the remarkable pink granite that crops up in places across Iron, St. Francois, and Madison counties. At Amidon, that pink is lighter than at other places, far more sculpted, and shaped by the flow of water into a remarkable display.
Why doesn’t the Castor get more attention? It’s shorter, for one thing, and it quickly traverses from dramatic shut-ins to a relatively uninteresting, muddy stream, with lots of debris and agricultural runoff. But for several stretches, it’s as beautiful as anywhere in the Ozarks. Its lack of fame means that you’ll probably have the place almost to yourself, although do note that most of the ownership along the Castor is private. So you have to look for access points. The pink granite is unearthly in its strange beauty, and the flooding and debris has created a rich alluvium that lends to the growth of wildflowers in abundance.
I don’t think I’d let my kids bounce down through the shut-ins, though, unless the water was pretty low.
Great ballads always have surprises, and this one is full of them. It opens like this:
The king has been a prisoner, and a prisoner long in Spain,
And Willie of the Winsbury has lain long with his daughter Jane.
Talk about narrative economy! Openings don’t get much faster than that. As is always the case in old ballads, the sexual misbehavior has led to its inevitable result. Although Jane denies it, her father resorts to an extraordinarily cruel method of getting to the truth:
Take off, take off, your robe and gown, stand naked on the stone,
That I might see you by your shape if you be a maiden or none.
He forces the identity of her lover from her and calls to his serving men, for Willie of the Winsbury is no duke, gentleman, or man of wealth. So hanged he must be.
But when Willie is brought before the king, surprise number one. He’s gorgeous! The king is ravished by his beauty, and declares that if he were a woman, he would have taken Willie to bed too. In an over-the-top fit of forgiveness, he asks Willie to marry Jane and promises that he will be the heir to his lands.
Surprise number two: Willie agrees to marry Jane, but says,
But I’ll not be the lord of any man, I’ll not be the heir to your lands.
And in a surprise ending to the song,
He’s lifted her up on a milk-white steed, and himself on a dappled gray,
He has made her the lady of as much land as she can ride in a long summer’s day.
Who is this Willie of Winsbury, this mystery man who barely escapes hanging but then rejects the king’s offer because he’s apparently even greater? Some scholars think the song is a fictionalized version of the courtship of James V of Scotland and Madeline of Valois, the daughter of the king of France. James had traveled to France in 1536 in order to marry the king’s other daughter, Mary, but ended up taking Madeline home instead. As for myself, though, I’m perfectly happy with Willie being a mysterious figure who captivates everyone he meets, and who never does what one expects him to do.
But 1857 was a dark year for the abolitionist movement. The Fugitive Slave Law, passed by Congress in 1850, had survived court challenges and had made escape from slavery extremely difficult. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed in 1854, had legalized the expansion of slavery into the Western territories and led directly to the “Bleeding Kansas” conflict. And the Dred Scott decision had been handed down earlier that year, depriving enslaved persons of any Constitutional protection. So the United States appeared to be heading in the opposite direction from Great Britain, toward the permanent establishment of slavery and few legal means of combatting it.
So when Frederick Douglass stood up to speak at a ceremony celebrating slavery’s abolition in a different country than his own, you can imagine that such a celebration might feel rather hollow. And perhaps you can see why he felt the need to speak in unsparing terms.
About halfway through his remarks, Douglass says:
“Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
“This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.”
The radicalism of Douglass’ thoughts here is pretty apparent, but in case we missed his point, he goes on in the speech to do a remarkable thing. He cites a number of people whom he identifies as heroes in the fight against slavery, and they are not the usual list. First up is Margaret Garner, who in his words, “plunge[d] a knife into the bosom of her infant to save it from the hell of our Christian slavery.” The incident, which caused a great stir in the 1850s as Garner was put on trial for murder, served as the inspiration for Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, currently the subject of censorship attempts at various schools around the country. Also on Douglass’ list is Joseph Cinqué, the leader of the rebellion aboard the slave ship Amistad, and the early rebellion leader Nat Turner. Douglass’ enumeration includes a number of other enslaved people who either killed or were killed in their pursuit of freedom. Not a peaceful protestor among them.
His point couldn’t be clearer. Progress is accomplished, he is telling us, by people who are confrontational, who are difficult, who are even kind of scary. Power concedes nothing without a demand. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. Martin Luther King deliberately echoed Douglass’ words in his famous ”Letter from Birmingham Jail,” when he wrote, “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” although King took the path of nonviolence rather than Douglass’ approach, which I suppose we could call the any-means-necessary view. This is not a message I think most of us want to hear. It’s a call to make trouble, to be trouble. And if there’s anything in this world I dislike and try to avoid, it’s making trouble.
I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this tension. I believe deeply in the goals of social justice, equality, and progress. But by upbringing and temperament I try to get along with people. I avoid conflict, and I put a premium on being amiable and accommodating. So I find myself wondering if there’s any way to reconcile these two conflicting tendencies.
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
It seems to me that the relevant principle to consider here is the second one, the call for justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. If that’s the goal, the question is how to reach that goal. Because it’s all too clear that justice, equity, and compassion in human relations are in short supply nowadays. They always have been, and it’s not my place to say whether the “arc of history,” as King called it, is bending upward or downward at the moment. I’d like to imagine that it’s bending toward justice, but I don’t have that degree of confidence. But what I can say is that if you want to increase justice, equity, and compassion, you need to be able to exert power.
The seven principles are reticent on how power should be attained and used, other than that we are supposed to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and presumably that includes people we consider distasteful or wrong. Even oppressors have inherent worth and dignity, I suppose. And the exercise of power should be done democratically, according to Principle 5. In an ideal political world, these general guidelines would work just fine. But in the world as it is, they seem to put us at a disadvantage in the effort to gain power, treating people respectfully and reasonably even if they are neither reasonable nor respectful. King gets around that dilemma by relying on patience and numbers. Present setbacks can always be seen in the arc of history as temporary things. And our own setbacks and victories fade when we see them as part of a larger movement. I may not be able to make a difference in the world, but perhaps hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people acting like me might.
But these are big, abstract thoughts, and big abstract thoughts don’t help a person much in moments of decision or daily challenge. What I need at such moments is a reliable sense of how to act, how to behave when I want to influence people. How to gain and maintain power, in short, without violating my UU principles.
Anyone thinking about power has to consider Machiavelli. We don’t like to think that Machiavelli, with his famous statement that “the end justifies the means,” would be a proper model for our behavior. But we do have things to learn from Machiavelli. Remember that he began that passage by observing that if everyone was good, then it would be reasonable and logical to act in good faith at all times and to rely on mutual respect and goodness. But, Machiavelli says, people are not good. In fact, people cannot be trusted to do the right thing. So to act as if they will is to invite destruction.
Some of the statements attributed to Jesus appear to do just that. Love your enemies. Do good to them that hate you. When I hear these words, I have to admit, my first reaction is, “Is he kidding?” How could a person hope to accomplish anything in the world with that approach? I don’t want to get into the theological swamps here, so I’ll just say that I am not saintly enough to live up to those admonitions. On a good day, I can be respectful and decent to my enemies, but that’s as far as I can go.
So to circle around to the original question again. How to gain and use power ethically, within the framework of freedom and responsibility. I pondered this question for a couple of days until I realized I was making a fundamental error.
If you’re from my generation, you probably remember the Unitarian minister Robert Fulghum, whose book Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten was a huge cultural phenomenon in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. If I were ever to write a version of that book, it would probably be titled, “Everything I Need to Know I Taught in Freshman Speech Class.” For a good 30 years at various colleges, I taught some version of freshman speech, a class that typically includes some basic elements of interpersonal communication and group communication as well as public speaking. And I remembered that in our group communication unit, we always did a section on power.
Power, simply defined, is your ability to get other people to do what you want. When you put it in those simple terms, you realize fairly quickly that there are a lot of different kinds of power. What Frederick Douglass was talking about is coercive power, the ability to make people follow your desires through fear of the consequences if they don’t. When the state trooper asks to see your driver’s license, you produce it, not because you share common goals, but because refusing could put you in a world of trouble. But in daily life, we don’t respond to, or use, coercive power that often. More often, we use other forms of power.
How do you get somebody to do what you want? I recall that when I worked at Columbia College, I had a co-worker who always got people to do things her way. What was her secret? Well, if you didn’t agree to do things her way, she would bite your head off, question your integrity, bombard you with scathing e-mails, and complain to the higher-ups. And I don’t even want to tell you how she treated her students. She was someone who took to heart Machiavelli’s precept that it is better to be feared than loved. I suspect many of you have similar stories of workplace ill behavior. People who exert power, not respectfully or responsibly, but through intimidation and bullying, or manipulation and emotional plays.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history Through corridors of light where the hours are suns Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition Was that their lips, still touched with fire, Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
By “truly great,” Spender means people who are true to themselves, who act with imagination and integrity. These are the people he thinks of continually and tries to emulate. Each of us has our own personal library of those who were truly great in our lives, people whose example we try to live up to. That’s another kind of power, the power to affect people’s behavior by presenting them with a model to shape their decisions on.
And finally, if you want people to act in a particular way, the highest and best form of power is to get them to agree with you. Nowadays we use the word “rhetoric” pejoratively, as if there’s something suspicious about it, but rhetoric has traditionally been seen through the centuries as the art of persuasion. A skilled rhetorician is someone who uses the power of persuasion to get people to see things their way, and thus exerts influence by creating common consent.
We may despair of such a concept nowadays, in what has been called the age of disinformation, in which falsehoods and manipulations seem to proliferate faster than our ability to stamp them out. But I am not giving up hope on that form of power. I think it’s ultimately the answer to our dilemma, no matter how unsatisfying it may be in the short term. If we educate our fellow citizens, our neighbors, our co-workers, and especially our children, in the ways of recognizing faulty logic and manipulative argument, we inoculate them against the misuses of power that we see all around. If we provide them with an example of how to behave in our dealings with others, we give them support when they have to make those kinds of decisions. And if we rely on reason and moral persuasion when we argue, we can follow our UU principles while at the same time making the kind of demands on power that are necessary for change.
“What just happened?” is a response that I think many millions of people can identify with. Over the past half-decade, I’ve greeted the evening news with variations on that phrase day after day, as events, statements, mob scenes, and bizarre behavior seemed to tumble out daily, each one more insane than the last.
What Just Happened is also the title of a book I’ve been reading lately, an interesting effort to capture that craziness in real time, a book in the form of journal entries from the beginning of the COVID pandemic to early 2021.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to relive 2020, a year that undoubtedly marked one of the low points of American history. A deadly virus came to the country and millions of people both in the government and in private life tried to pretend it wasn’t a threat. Video recordings of police officers killing black people in a variety of sketchy circumstances became an almost weekly occurrence. A presidential election was held, in which the person who lost by nearly eight million votes declared without evidence that the election had been stolen and (shortly after the new year) urged a mob to storm the Capitol during the certification of the outcome.
But I found myself drawn in to this book. Its raw accounts of the panic and anxiety he felt as the disease swept ashore in the early part of the year reminded me of my own. His horrified description of watching the George Floyd killing on TV, over and over again, brought back my own reactions. Even the parts I couldn’t personally connect to had interest. Charles Finch, the author, lives in Los Angeles, a city I’ve never felt particularly involved with. But his depictions of people’s pandemic responses, which like everyone’s were both highly individual and yet predictably patterned, had a universal feel.
Not that the book is objective, or tries to be. It’s a personal record, with all the personal obsessions, concerns, anxieties (lots of anxieties), and moments of victory that such a record demands. But as long as you read it with that understanding — that it’s not trying to be a comprehensive account, but rather a single individual’s record of a year that revealed much that is dark and troubling about America — it’s a compelling document.
Even after finishing the book, I still don’t get what he hears in Taylor Swift’s music that’s so great, but whatever. I’ll take his word for it.
I read Walden about once a year, or at least dip into it for refreshment. Lately I’ve been reading the “winter” chapters: “Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors,” “Winter Animals,” and “The Pond in Winter.” These are much quieter chapters than the showy, occasionally verbally extravagant flourishes of “Economy” and “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” and they tend to get overlooked, I think. But I’m appreciating them anew this time around.
The “former inhabitants” section is a quiet catalogue of the abandoned houses and waste places Thoreau encounters as he walks around his Concord neighborhood, and a recollection of what he knows about the families who once lived there – which in some cases is very little. One might wonder what he’s up to with this melancholy inventory. I wondered, too, until I noticed, this time around, that the people he memorializes are almost all Black, poor, or both. All that is left of their life’s labor is an overgrown hummock, a portion of a cellar wall, a vague tale of their occupation.
This section of the book is a meditation on disappearance and loss, and it’s especially telling that this meditation focuses on the poor. Thoreau approaches their stories with his usual wry humor. In one instance he tells of a comical adventure with the volunteer fire department, when they respond to an alarm and mistakenly think the fire is some distance away, when it actually turns out to be an abandoned hut just down the road. But that scene is followed by the poignant description of the sole remaining member of that hut’s last family, who returns to the home of his childhood and pokes through the ashes for any remnant of his family’s existence, turning up only the hook from which the well-dipper was fastened. “I felt it,” Thoreau writes, “and still remark it almost daily in my walks, for by it hangs the history of a family.”
Disappearance, withdrawal, diminishment. These chapters are full of such things. The visitors are few; the animals go into hiding; even the pond itself, frozen over, is sawn into blocks and carried away, ice to cool the beverages of the privileged in distant cities. But this condition also yields new perspectives. Thoreau takes advantage of the winter to go out on the ice of the pond and observe, to take measurements and to peer to the bottom, activities that would be impossible during warmer times.
Winter brings clarity as the essential parts are revealed. There is melancholy in this, of course, but also opportunity for a deepened understanding. And of course, the chapter that follows “The Pond in Winter” is “Spring.”