I am reading a book (well, actually I’m reading three at the same time, but let’s just focus on this one) right now called Walking Toward Walden, by John Hanson Mitchell, in which he and two friends spend one October day making a trek through the woods and fields of Westford, Acton, Carlisle, and Concord. They are vaguely retracing the route taken by the Westford minutemen on the morning of April 16, 1776, staying as far from contemporary roads and housing as they can. They talk, exploring the history of the place in intimate detail, and are constantly looking around at the birds, plants, and landscape. With Concord as their final destination, Mitchell writes frequently about Thoreau, and his walks and forays out onto the land. Their journey is very much in the same spirit as his, and Mitchell is a keen observer. It is interesting to read a book that is set in a landscape I know, some of it quite well. He walked within a mile of my old house, while I was living there no less. In one of the last parts of the book, he and his friends hike through the Estabrook woods in Concord, conservation land that I have been on many times with my family. When he talks about the old Carlisle road with stone walls on either side, I knew exactly what he was takling about. I had seen the lime quarry, the crack in the earth that they sit by for a while, resting up for their last push. In so many books, I am making up my own picture of what the setting looks like, based on the author’s cues but the picture is mostly an amalgamation of places I have been. With this book, which is so focused on his description of the place, I can have a clear picture of where he is, as if I am right there with them. At one point, he says a sweaty man runs by them with a little white dog. Was that my dad?
In my efforts to stay busy and do interesting things with all this time I have on my hands in these days of unemployment, I am trying to go to new places. Earlier this week, I got it in my head that I should hike up Mount Monadnock in southern New Hampshire. So today, I did.
Monadnock is a thumb of granite sticking up above a sea of low, wooded hills. On a clear day, you can see the White Mountains to the north, the Green Mountains in Vermot to the west, the bump of Mount Wachusett poking up in an otherwise flat Massachusetts, and the skyscrapers of Boston on the horizon. It is said to be the second most visited mountain in the world, following only Mount Fuji in Japan. It has its share of pilgrims, from the bible fellowships at its base to our own philosopher and wanderer Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau visited many times, camping for several days at a time and taking the train home to Concord after he was done. There is no more train, and the place has changed significantly since the mid 1800′s, just as the entire landscape of New England has. The fields and animal pastures that filled the region have been abandoned, taken over again by the forest. I have heard estimates that Vermont, for instance, was 70% cleared, 30% forested in the 19th century and is today 30% cleared, 70% forest. The farmers mostly moved west, and industrial production took its place. Reading some of Thoreau’s diary entries about visiting Monadnock, he walked up to the peak through fields, with horses and cows following him, smelling the salt he had with him. Families came blueberry picking on Sundays. Now, there is nothing but trees, in every direction.
When I was three-quarters of the way to the top, just coming up above the tree line, I stopped for a moment. Looking out, further on up the mountain, I saw what I thought were a number of birds, perched on a rock outcropping some distance away. They were making a lot of noise, but looked a little odd. Then I realized that they were people, a large group on the summit. And they were all yelling and screaming. Occasionally, some of them would chant something incomprehensible. They were coming down as I continued up. It was a school group, probably fifth or sixth graders. Not birds, just people.
At the summit, there was a lot of graffitti, names and dates and initials carved into the rock. A lot of it was pretty well done, no sloppily carved letters here. One couple that got to the top just after I did said, "Wow, look at all this graffitti up here! Darn those old-timers."
Exactly. Darn those old-timers.