Celebrating 200 Years of Thoreau

The celebration of the year of the 200th birthday of great American writer (and Massachusetts native) Henry David Thoreau falls on turbulent times in the United States. As people all over gather to commemorate this bicentennial anniversary, many have found the return to Thoreau’s writings as an appropriate way to not only revisit the works of a master of American literature, but also to find solace and solutions to the contemporary American’s inner and outer conflicts with which we currently struggle.

The Mattapoisett Library and the Mattapoisett Land Trust on Saturday, August 19, hosted a small, intimate, yet casual event by the harbor at Munro Park to observe the 200th birthday of Thoreau, with each attendee reading excerpts from various Thoreau books and essays that personally resonated with them.

When the Thoreau Society contacted Mattapoisett Library Director Susan Pizzolato and asked the library to honor Thoreau’s 200th birthday by hosting an event that would promote the life, work, and legacy of Henry David Thoreau, Pizzolato went to the Land Trust to coordinate holding a reading of the works of Thoreau at a MLT property. There was a reason for selecting Munro Park specifically for this event, Pizzolato said.

“It was time to do things that Ruth Munro would enjoy,” said Pizzolato, describing the character of Ruth Munro, the woman who lived in the big yellow house across the street that donated the oceanside land to the Town. “It’s one of the reasons we thought we’d do something in a literary fashion.”

Commenting on the civil unrest in America this past week and referencing Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience, Pizzolato asked, “What better American writer and thinker to celebrate right now?”

“It’s a good time to go back and read some Henry David Thoreau,” Pizzolato said.

Thoreau held liberal religious views, subscribing to the Kantian-based Transcendentalism philosophy that holds the spiritual above the material, the instinct over logic, nature above institution. Vehemently opposed to slavery, he was a conductor of the Underground Railroad and devoted many months to the exploration of transcendental pursuits – his most famous being his two year stay in a small cabin at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts from 1845 to 1847.

Aside from a brief stint in jail in 1846 for refusing to pay his poll tax to support the war with Mexico – a war he considered to be immoral – he spent those two years in solitude, taking walks, writing in his personal journal, and writing essays.

Ellen Flynn, member of both the MLT and the Friends of the Mattapoisett Library, handed out copies of excerpts from Thoreau’s essays Civil Disobedience and Walking for attendees to read aloud.

MLT President Mike Huegenin read a passage from Walking that resonated with him: “I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks – who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering…. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.”

“And with ten miles of Land Trust trails [in Mattapoisett],” said Huegenin, in his own words, “there’s plenty of good sauntering out there.”

As the bees buzzed, stirring the fragrance of the rosa rugosa they were instinctively drawn to, the group took turns sharing the Thoreau quote they too were instinctively drawn to. The opalescent surface of the water swirled in the subtle waves, keeping time like a primordial metronome until the hour arrived to pack up the modest arrangement of chairs and the serving table with berries, fruits, and coffee.

Pizzolato left an impression of the essence of Thoreau upon the guests, reading from friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words on Thoreau at his funeral: “Wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.”

The Mattapoisett Library has arranged a Thoreau display at the library for anyone wishing to check out a book. The library and the Mattapoisett Land Trust will host another Thoreau reading on October 28 at 10:00 am at the Dunseith Gardens at the corner of Route 6 and North Street.

By Jean Perry

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