Thoreau’s June

We’ve already heard from Claude McKay and Thomas Wentworth Higginson on the month of June, and now it’s time to turn to one of the foremost spirits of the mid-19th century American Transcendentalist movement, Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau is well-known for being in the activist, live-the-ideals, wing of Transcendentalism, though readers here have been introduced to Thoreau’s contemporary Thomas Wentworth Higginson—more than a footnote in the Emily Dickinson story—who also spent considerable time living those ideals.

Henry David Thoreau

Collect the series: Unfortunate Hair Stylings of Important Personages

 

Thoreau and Transcendentalism’s major domo Ralph Waldo Emerson lived in the same town in Massachusetts, and one of the most striking things for me when I first visited that town, Concord, was to think that in a matter of a few blocks there lived Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott—all in this place not that much larger than the small farming community I grew up in. What a town that must have been in those years!

Transcendentalism is a little hard to put a finger on exactly as a movement because it was interested in and had change-convictions about so many things. Higginson in his 1899 collection of memoir pieces Cheerful Yesterdays  calls it “The Period of the Newness” and speaks of “The Sisterhood of Reforms.”

My current working-definition of Transcendentalism is it is the belief that there is a primary knowledge to be obtained from the deep study and meditation on the structures and methods of nature, as opposed to the accumulation of received and conventional truths about it. Thoreau the Transcendental activist helped to pioneer this, often writing about his direct experience of nature. His thought process also caused him to develop political ideals, including Civil Disobedience to unjust and violent government actions, famously inspiring Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Thoreau didn’t just inspire Gandhi and King with his writing. The first story I ever heard of Thoreau recounted the tale of Ralph Waldo Emerson visiting Thoreau who had been jailed for refusing to pay taxes as a protest against the Mexican-American war and its support of slavery.

Henry, what are you doing in there?” Emerson asked across the jail door bars.

“Waldo, the question is, what are you doing out there?” Thoreau replied.

But here’s one lesser known thing about Thoreau, the deep naturalist, writer and political activist: he was also something of an engineer. Between writing and other activities, he was active in his father’s business, a small factory that made pencils. A chief problem at the time was the formulation of the graphite used in the “lead” for these indispensable writing instruments. Thoreau’s father’s pencils, like other American pencils at the time, used a too soft binder that led to a crumbling point and blurry line. Through study of European pencils (and one suspects a little lab time on his part) Henry David Thoreau, Transcendentalist writer, philosopher, and activist figured out a clay formulation to mix with the powdery graphite to produce a much better American pencil. Profits from the sale of these pencils and the underlying technology* were largely what supported Thoreau’s writing career.

Not to make too fine a point of it—and King and Gandhi might have found other inspiration, and Thoreau other funding—but the 20th century Afro-American civil rights movement and the independence of the Indian sub-continent owe something to a thing as prosaic as a better pencil design—monumental things that literally come from a feet of clay.

Today’s piece is a short meditation taken from an entry in Thoreau’s Journals for June 6th 1857. Adding to the above connection, when Thoreau was writing his nature observations in the field, he most likely was doing so using a pencil of his own design. Note too that at one point engineer-Thoreau talks of the revolution of thought connected to the revolution of the natural cycle of seasons as if they are the meshing of a gear train.

Thoreau June 6 1857

Handwriting as bad as mine! The page from Thoreau’s journal containing today’s text.

 

Written as prose, it has a flow that I could find to recite and accompany it with music. The piece’s chordal part I played on an electric 12-string guitar recorded in the manner Roger McGuinn and the engineers on The Byrds recordings devised in the Sixties. Instead of the John Coltrane-inspired lead 12-string melodic line of something like “Eight Miles High”  I played an acoustic guitar with an E-Bow, a magnetic invention that drives a guitar string to vibrate and produce a flute-like sound. As I read a little about Thoreau this week, I came upon the information that he was also an avid flute player, so it seems appropriate.

The player gadget is below. My apologies for being away from this blog and blog activities so far in June—you know, life and things.

 

 

 

 

*Here’s more about Thoreau and his pencils. I first heard the story on the radio series “Engines of our Ingenuity”.

Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

One way to get experience is to seek it through the directed travel of a pilgrimage. Many religious traditions include the idea of a such journeys, and one side-effect of a shared destination is the mingling of travelers from diverse setting-off points along the trail.

In the Middle Ages, in England, one pilgrimage had the greatest potential to bring a diverse group together, the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Canterbury where the sainted Thomas Becket had been assassinated. A series of stories ostensibly told by various tellers together for this trip became the great early work of English literature: Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.”

April is National Poetry Month in the US, and though this celebration’s founders give no exact reason for April being chosen, two widely known poems explicitly start in April, and whether it’s cause or effect, I think of these poems when I think of April and National Poetry Month. The oldest of these, is today’s post “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”  which begins:

“Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote”

Now I know I’ve let slip too many typos in these notes before today, but that’s not a particularly bad day at the keyboard—instead, it’s Chaucer’s version of English as spoken in the 15th Century. It’s a challenge to read this in the original pronunciation, though I once was delighted when a skilled classical music DJ mic checked at 5:45 AM one morning with a perfect rendition of this Prologue in Middle English. I’m not going to attempt the same; today’s episode uses a modern English version for clarity, and in consideration of my thicker tongue.

Musically I’m not in the Middle Ages or in Canterbury for this piece either. I’m going to use the 12-string guitar once more. There is no shrine here in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, but for some reason three of best players of this troublesome priest of an instrument came to prominence here: “Spider John” Koerner, Leo Kottke, and Steve Tibbetts. For this episode, the 12 String’s musical tale is told in the character of Steve Tibbetts—or rather a modest imitation on my part using Tibbetts’ distinct stringing of the 12 string, which uses octave strings only on the two lowest courses of the 12 string with unison string pairs on the rest.

Cortez 12 string Tibbetts Stringing Closeup

More thick strings, fewer skinny ones, setting up a 12-string Tibbetts-style

 

To hear the 12 string strung that way, and to hear about the English April in Chaucer’s report, use the player that appears below.

Spring View

I’m often attracted to Chinese poetry, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s the deceptive simplicity to the images, that hardly seem like images at all if one expects the showy metaphors used by many western poets. The concision of many of the most admired Chinese poems can be shocking. And to me there seems to be a radically flat broadness to the way some of the poets consider society and politics. Like a lot of my favorite UK folk songs, the tales of royalty and servants, peasants and generals, saints and drunkards seem to treat them all with the same even diction and consideration.

From what I read, Du Fu is highly regarded as poet in Chinese culture. He wrote in the 8th Century, about the time someone in Europe was compiling Beowulf  between long drinks of mead out of cups made from skulls. Du Fu’s time was a chaotic one, with the Chinese kingdom falling into rebellion and civil war. “Spring View”  is his response after his side had lost the battle and he was in disgrace.

Du Fu

Du Fu:  the red trucker cap or the pink pussy hat?

 

In translating Du Fu’s “Spring View,”  I thought of our own times, particularly here in the United States, three months now into some kind of change. Alas for Du Fu, I became so enamored of seeing our own current events in his lament that halfway through I started to get more “free” with my translation, until by the time I reached the final line, I chose to conclude on a different thought altogether from the original. Consider it a theme and variation composition.

I do not read Chinese, but here is Du Fu’s “Spring View”  as written:

春望

国破山河在
城春草木深
感时花溅泪
恨别鸟惊心
烽火连三月
家书抵万金
白头搔更短
浑欲不胜簪

Musically this piece uses 12 string acoustic guitar, an instrument I love to struggle with. The overtones and extra harmonics of the 12 strings are the attraction, and the danger too, as they can clash a bit. Some musicians work very hard to try to even out the intonation of those notes to minimize this, leading to one of my favorite music jokes. Question: how long does it take to tune a 12 string guitar? Answer: Nobody knows.

JF30-12

“Every politician should be issued a 12 string, because you never really tune it, you just negotiate with it.”

 

My approximate ear has come to embrace the somewhat woozy sound of the 12 string for much the same reason that loud electric musicians may choose to welcome feedback or that electronic musicians select the detuned effects of things like ring modulators.

To hear Spring View (after Du Fu)  use the player below.