Looking for Tomorrow’s Thoreau
SB Stephen Morris
My wife and I recently spent a holiday weekend in the environs of Concord, MA. We’re amateur history buffs, and neither of us had been to “the rude bridge that arched the flood.” It’s now part of a National Historic Park administered by the Department of the Interior. The key feature of this park is the Battle Road, a country path that follows the route of the Redcoat retreat as they limped back to Lexington while the ragtag local force of Minutemen picked them off. Today the road is a quiet path that makes it easy to conjure life in colonial America.
The second appeal of Concord is that it was the epicenter for the best and most progressive writers of the mid-1800s, an illustrious group that includes Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau. We toured the homes of Emerson and Alcott, we walked around Walden pond, and we visited their graves, located within feet of each other in what is known as Author’s Ridge in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. It was awe-inspiring to learn of the far-ranging impact of these individuals. In her time, Alcott was better known (and better paid) than Mark Twain. Thoreau is often cited today as one of the original pillars of modern ecology, a field that includes our own mission of green living.
Along the way we learned about Fruitlands.
Fruitlands, Wikipedia tells us, was a Utopian agrarian commune established in Harvard, Massachusetts, by Amos Bronson Alcott (Louisa May’s father) and Charles Lane in the 1840s, based on Transcendentalist principles, developed primarily by Emerson.
Lane purchased what was known as the Wyman farm and its 90 acres (36 ha), which also included a dilapidated house and barn. Residents of Fruitlands ate no animal substances, drank only water, bathed in unheated water and “no artificial light would prolong dark hours or cost them the brightness of morning.” Additionally, property was held communally, and no animal labor was used.
The community was short-lived, lasting only seven months. It was dependent on farming, which turned out to be too difficult. The original farmhouse, along with other historic buildings from the area, are now a part of an attractive event and destination center featuring museums, art galleries, walking trails, a cafe.
The Fruitlanders were inspired by the beliefs of transcendentalism, championed by Emerson, that trusts in the inherent goodness of people and nature. Adherents believe that society and its institutions have corrupted the purity of the individual, and they have faith that people are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. Transcendentalism was also an influential factor in Thoreau’s decision to take to the solitude of the woods.
It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see the overlap of transcendentalism and green living—same ideas, but expressed in very different ways. In the case of the Fruitlanders you can also see that extremism, in whatever form it takes, is unsustainable. The more enduring lifestyle model was that provide by Henry David Thoreau, who built a modest 10’ x 14’ cabin on a piece of land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson and withdrew from the rat race of men leading lives of “quiet desperation” into the embrace of Mother Nature. His reflections of two years of solitude still provide gentle guidance to this day.
An account of the failed Fruitlands experience, albeit fictionalized, was published by Bronson’s famous daughter Louisa May Alcott under the title Transcendental Wild Oats. I don’t recommend it, however. Read Little Women, instead. Or, stay tuned for the new filmed adaptation due out late in 2018, the seventh (!!) time that Hollywood has told the story of irrepressible, strong women. Some stories never grow old; they just need to be told in new and refreshing ways.