Thursday, December 30, 2010

Concord at Christmas

A bit of a travelogue post here, maybe of interest to Unitarians who haven't had the opportunity to visit some of our historic sites...

Taking advantage of the sabbatical over Christmas, I inserted a week of vacation into December so that we might go to my husband's home of Rhode Island for Christmas.  While we were there, Peter (the aforementioned husband) really wanted to go to Concord with our daughter, and we hadn't had time over last summer's visit.  Our daughter really enjoys the Henry books by D. B. Johnson, which tell stories from the life of Henry David Thoreau through portraying Henry as a bear.  We have a complete set of the books, as does our church. 
Henry Climbs a MountainHenry Builds a CabinHenry's NightHenry Hikes to FitchburgHenry Works
Peter and I lived in Gardner, MA for two years (just beyond Fitchburg, where Henry hikes to in one of those books, which is how we got introduced to the books) and visited Concord several times during that period.  However, this was our daughter's first visit to Concord, and the first visit of Peter's mother, as well, although she's a Rhode Island native.  It's not as big a tourist spot for the Catholics as it is the Unitarians, it seems.  As the home of Unitarians Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott, among others, it's a big spot for Unitarian Universalists to visit.  In fact, Peter had given some tours for UU youth groups during our time there.

It was a snowy day when we stopped by the woods by Walden Pond.  The state park was open to visitors without an entrance fee, so we drove in a little, but then drove back out to go first to the visitor's center.  The clerk there was impressed that our six-year-old recognized Henry David Thoreau, and gave her a free button.  I got a new blue water bottle with "Walden Pond" written on it to use at church, since my old one is showing some wear after I left it at a wedding and they didn't discover it for a few days, although I still love that it's insulated.  Peter got a pencil.  And we had a nice conversation with the clerk, who informed us that he had been to Jackson many times for the Civil War Muster.  He also plays Henry in their dramatic productions and has a picture of himself as Henry the Bear drawn by D.B. Johnson of the Henry books.  We were suitably impressed with this information.  We then went over to the reproduction of Thoreau's cabin and peered in its windows.  I hadn't seen it before, or hadn't remembered it if I had seen it.  The cabin is impressively small.  It's smaller than the sheds many people have just to house their outdoor tools.  The woodshed for the house was almost as large.  But, as Thoreau explains in the Henry books, the house it just for when it rains, the world outside is his real house.  Deeming it too cold to hike down to the pond, although it looked beautiful with the snow falling on the trees, we proceeded on to downtown Concord.

Every other time I've been in Concord I think I've run into other colleagues there, but this time was the exception, probably because it was so close to Christmas.  I expected Concord to be a bit more decked out of the holidays, but it had enough wreaths and greenery to make us feel holiday cheer.  I don't know what I was expected--I think I had some ridiculous unconscious expectation of carolers in top hats and bonnets and sleighs going down the street.  We parked near the Unitarian Church and had lunch after walking over to look at the monuments and find the small plaque amidst the large war monuments which marks where Henry David Thoreau spent his night in jail.  Since the jail period is the subject of one of the Henry books, it was of particular interest.

From there we hopped back in the car and drove up to the Old Manse, where Emerson and Hawthorne both lived.  Nathaniel Hawthorne etched some words in the windows we had learned on a previous visit, but we didn't opt for the tour this time, as it was less likely to hold a six-year-old's interest.  We did take a detour from Unitarianism into Revolutionary War history to walk across the Old North Bridge next to the Old Manse to see the statue of the Minute Man, and see the site of which Ralph Waldo Emerson would later pen in his "Concord Hymn":
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.
My daughter deemed it too spooky to go to the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery where Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, and Bronson and Louisa May Alcott are all buried, as well as other Unitarian figures (Emerson with an amusingly large huge raw chunk of marble and Alcott and Thoreau with small markers), and as we drove by it appeared closed.  Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing wrote the poem "Sleepy Hollow" for the cemetery's founding:
No abbey's gloom, nor dark cathedral stoops,
No winding torches paint the midnight air;
Here the green pines delight, the aspen droops
Along the modest pathways, and those fair
Pale asters of the season spread their plumes
Around this field, fit garden for our tombs.
It was not the season for pale asters, anyway, and it would've been cold, even though the road goes right up to Author's Ridge.  Last time I was there I saw Alcott's, Emerson's and Thoreau's grave.  I'll have to look next time for William Ellery Channing's marker and some others.

We then proceeded on to Orchard House, where the Alcott family lived and Bronson Alcott founded the Concord School of Philosophy.  I've been reading Alcott's Little Women to my daughter, in preparation for this Concord trip, although it's a bit old for her.  Here we learned that Louisa's sister May Alcott (who is most like Amy March in Little Women) was an artist who taught Daniel Chester French to sculpt.  French was also a Unitarian and he sculpted the Minute Man statue at the Old North Bridge and, more famously, Abraham Lincoln in DC's Lincoln Memorial.  French also sculpted Thomas Starr King, our famous Unitarian for whom Starr King School for the Ministry is named.  The statue of Thomas Starr King is the one that California removed from the National Statuary Hall in order to put in the statue of Ronald Regan, to the great dismay of Unitarians everywhere.  (French is also buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.)

Peter pointed out that of all the abolitionist transcendentalists we had visited this day, Louisa May Alcott was the only one who served in the Civil War.  The tour guide told us that Emerson had kissed the bride at one of Louisa's sisters' weddings, and that Louisa had been a bit jealous of that, saying something to the effect of although she was determined to never marry, apparently a kiss from Emerson would've been a tempting reason to do so.  Upon leaving, we picked up an abridged chapter book of Little Women more suitable for early readers in the gift shop.  Our local bookstore had not had such a thing before we left. 

Full of Unitarian history, we called it a day from there, driving out on the road Orchard House was on to wherever it went.  Where it went was Lexington, where we passed their Minuteman statue and their Unitarian church, but did not stop and tarry there, for it was snowy and we had miles to go.

1 comment:

Susan Bailey said...

What a wonderful trip! I only live 45 minutes from Concord so I've been many times but hope to go many times more. I love the Concord authors, especially Louisa May Alcott. If you're interested in learning more about Louisa, come on over to my blog at http://louisamayalcottismypassion.wordpress.com/

I am not Unitarian but my mom was. The Unitarian Church will always have a special place in my heart because of the most beautiful funeral that they helped us put together for my mom last spring. The minister was caring and helpful during a difficult time.