A lecture for the Thoreau Society 2018 Annual Gathering by Rev. Dr. Jim Sherblom adapted from his soon to be released book (September 2018) SPIRITUAL PILGRIM: Awakening Journeys of a Twenty-First century Transcendentalist.
What is a transcendentalist? Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1842 lecture describing The Transcendentalist said: “As thinkers, [humankind] has been divided into two sects, Materialists and Idealists; the first class beginning to think from the data of the senses, the second class perceive the senses are not final, and say, the senses give us representations of things, but what are the things themselves they cannot tell.” The actual data of our senses represents just a small part of our experiences in life. So, how do we experience the underlying reality beyond what our senses perceive? What transcends our senses?
Whether you approach Concord from the north, east, south or west, all directions pivot around this place. Walking, driving, cycling or paddling in Concord as a transcendentalist can be a journey across space and time. If you come on foot from the north, through Estabrook Woods, you can experience wildness like Thoreau did. If you approach Concord from the east, perhaps through the Great Meadows National Wildlife sanctuary, you will experience a profusion of life in all of its fecundity.
If you approach Concord from the south, perhaps paddling a canoe or kayak, the view from the river gives you a radically different perspective then from the land. If you approach from the west, you pass through the village into the wilds of Walden country. Wherever you begin, and however you proceed, shapes your experience of place, and your ability to encounter it transcendentally, being transcendentalist beings.
Nowhere is this more apparent than entering Concord from its northern boundary with Carlisle, along the Old Carlisle road, now in Estabrook Woods. This land is maintained much as it was two hundred years ago through a remarkable series of conservation trusts binding together properties of Harvard University, the town of Concord, the town of Carlisle, and multiple private land trusts. It covers over three thousand acres of land permanently protected from development.
Beginning in Carlisle swamp, making our way south upon the hard-packed dirt and mud of this ancient cart path, brings transcendence. It is a shady country lane traversing along the higher ground between swampy bogs, crisscrossing occasional brooks and small streams. The ancient stone walls around old fields and homesteads gradually giving way to a more forested environment. This old road is one horse drawn wagon wide and made of mud, and rocks, and ancient tree roots. It has been essentially this way for hundreds of years. The dappled morning light falling upon the mostly new growth forest casts a narrow rainbow of color entirely within various hues of green and brown.
The silence of the woods is interrupted by the chatter of birds, perhaps a runner, or horse rider, or dog walker, and an occasional plane flying overhead. Approaching Botrycrim swamp we remember Thoreau reported indigenous people living here because of its natural spring. A little further ahead on the trail is the automobile sized boulder Thoreau called “Indian Rock”, a glacial remnant of the last ice age. At this point the trail crosses a little brook flowing into the swamp. A little further along a larger stream requires walking across wet stones to remain on this road through the swamps. These wet, boggy, New England woods won the moniker Swamp Yankees for those who thrived in such places.
Nearly four-hundred-year-old stone walls, some already ancient in Thoreau’s time, border and delimit this old country road, reminding us that in colonial times much of this land was farmed or at least kept for wood lots. The interplay of wood, mud, and water creates a spiritual aura in this small forest preserve, one Thoreau noticed in his walks here. It is a deeply spiritual place, it evokes spiritual audacity.
A stone marker on the Estabrook Road informs us that we are two miles directly north of the Old North Bridge which separates this swampy woodland from Concord proper. The old limestone quarries here are in ruins, mostly settling back into the bog, as has the ancient lime kiln used to bake and extract the lime for local use as mortar and wall plaster. As the wind ripples through the trees it dislodges flurries of raindrops from last night’s storm. One could follow this old road another mile to where it leads out of the woods at Brooks Clark farm, where parts of Thoreau’s Walden Pond cabin saw its final usage for grain storage, and eventually parts of a pig pen, and a mile further south from there cross over the North Bridge into Concord village.