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Paddling Musketaquid

Approaching Concord’s wildness from the south or west is best done paddling on the rivers.  The Algonquin indigenous people called this ancient river system Musketaquid.  It is a land defined by its sandy esker ridges, left from the melting of the last ice age, and its plentiful waters.  My house is a half mile from egg rock, on a street that ends at the Assabet river.  I often paddle my kayak as a form of transcendental meditation there.   Once I’m on the river, with only bird sounds to distract me, my heart rate slows, and I paddle gently with the current.

As we circumnavigate rocky shoals and fallen limbs, the edge of Barrett’s Mill Farm, the final destination of the British troops on April 19, 1775 appears on the river’s northern shore.  I am already drifting between Concord’s two revolutions, the eighteenth century civic fight for freedom and the nineteenth century transcendentalist reimagining of the role of reason and our senses in spirituality.  This tranquil final mile of the Assabet River is mentioned often in Thoreau’s journals, as if he was paddling off into paradise, free of mundane toil and strife.

Nathaniel Hawthorne loved this section of the Assabet River.  He wrote, “A more lovely stream than this, for a mile above its junction with the Concord, has never flowed on earth, — nowhere, indeed, except to the interior regions of a poet’s imagination.”  This is why this area is still home, or at least a pilgrim’s destination, for many transcendentalists today.  On the far side of Barrett’s Mill Farm the Spencer brook empties into the Assabet from Anglers’ Pond providing a widening of the river to create a swimming hole.  As a twenty first century transcendentalist this is my primary spiritual playground and meditation practice.

Coming up on the southwestern shore we pass what had been the site of the leaning hemlocks, a favorite nineteenth century walking and picnicking site along the river, much celebrated in the writings of the transcendentalist authors.    Hawthorne wistfully wrote: “At one spot there is a lofty bank, on the slope of which grow some hemlocks, declining across the stream with outstretched arms, as if resolute to take the plunge.  In other places the banks are almost on a level with the water; so that the quiet congregation of trees set their feet in the flood and are fringed with foliage down to the surface.”  This is a transcendentalist deeply experiencing life beyond his mere senses.

The river turns east again through marshland and swamp, past the farm of the fur trapper Simon Willard, as Nashawtuc Hill rises above us.  Nashawtuc, which in Algonquin means hill between rivers, is a glacial drumlin rising 250 feet above the Sudbury and Assabet rivers at their confluence to form the Concord.  Many indigenous people lived summers along the Atlantic coast, where they began interacting with European fishermen and explorers early in the sixteenth century, and they would travel back up the Merrimack and Concord rivers to spend the rest of the year within easy walking distance of Nashawtuc Hill.

Members of indigenous tribes in this area in the fifteenth century numbered in the tens of thousands.  However, after European contact, a plague broke out among the indigenous people, decimating their numbers, and over the following years outbreaks of small-pox continued to kill off even those who had survived the earlier plagues or death in various outbreaks of war with white settlers.  By the 1630’s European warfare, plagues and diseases had reduced their numbers over ninety percent to just a few hundreds of indigenous people.

William Wood was an English explorer, adventurer, and propagandist, who in 1632 published a pamphlet in London encouraging white Anglo-Saxon Protestant emigration to this new land of Massachusetts, and he included a map showing the confluence of these three rivers which he, like the indigenous people, called the Musketaquid watershed.

He described empty meadows and fields for the taking standing ready to be easily cultivated.  Simon Willard was an English beaver fur trapper who in the 1630’s was living here among the indigenous people.  In 1635 he co-led with Rev. Peter Bulkeley a group of English colonists to become founders of Concord.   While the other colonists initially settled on the east side of the Sudbury and Concord rivers, he chose to make his home on the west side of Nashawtuc Hill, near the 17th century primary village site of the few remaining indigenous peoples.

Many Concordians befriended the indigenous people.  But by the end of the 17th century the last fifty-eight survivors were rounded up by colonial soldiers, imprisoned in Boston Harbor, and those who did not die were sold into slavery.  This is perhaps Concord’s original sin.  We often tell the story differently, but White Anglo-Saxon colonists coming to this land led to the indigenous peoples’ deaths and destruction.

Walking Walden Transcendentally

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.

A Twenty-First Century Transcendentalist

A transcendentalist seeks to transcend the normal experience of life.  With a sense of ultimate reality, the infinitude of our soul is made real through transcendent experiences.  In Concord, nature’s wildness is usually where that happens, but this transcending of ordinary life can occur in all times and all places.  The indigenous people who lived here for millennia also seemed to have a transcendental consciousness.  So how do we seek, and how do we find, this transcendental consciousness?

In his lecture “The Transcendentalist” Emerson said, “what is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is Idealism.  Idealism as it appears in 1842.  As thinkers, [human]kind 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 that the senses are not final, but what are the things themselves, they cannot tell.”  So how do we transcend materialism to become mindful idealists?  What is the consciousness we seek?  For Emerson spiritual idealism was simply part of the perennial philosophy, honored in all places and times.

I had my first transcendentalist experience in nature at age 13 in 1969, but had no language to describe it, until my high school English teacher introduced me to Emerson and Thoreau.  I was hooked when he showed me Emerson’s description of his first transcendental experience.  “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration…  Standing on bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes, I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and particle of God.”

Emerson read incredibly widely, with frequent references to Hindu and Buddhist texts, Sufi poetry, and Christian mystics.  In his lecture on “The Oversoul” Emerson drew freely from Spinoza, Kant and Coleridge to explicate his beyond personal ecstatic experience of the inexplicable divine mystery.  My wife Loretta and I moved to Concord in 1986, shortly after my thirtieth birthday, and I immersed myself in the writings of the transcendentalists and in exploring the wildness of Concord’s many walking trails.

Like Thoreau, in wildness I found the preservation of my world.  He observed, “We do not commonly live our life out and full; we do not fill all our pores with blood; we do not inspire and expire fully and entirely enough…  We live but a fraction of our life.  Why do we not let on the flood, raise the gates, and set all our wheels in motion?  He that has ears to hear, let him hear.  Employ your senses.”  Like Thoreau I wished to embrace the vital facts of life, and if it is mean to know its meanness fully, but if sublime to open myself up to ecstasy.  This is how I began my own journey towards becoming a transcendentalist.

I wanted to live my life out and full, so I began to explore transcendental experiences as described by Islamic Sufis, Chinese Taoists, Shamanic mystics, as well as Christian and Buddhist wisdom teachers.  Over the next thirty years I would travel on mystic pilgrimages with practitioners from each of these traditions, and more, to discover the secret longings of my mystic soul.  Each mystic’s Way was different, yet they were each willing to teach me their spiritual practices so that I might find my own unique Way of the Spirit.  After three decades of seeking, I found, and awakened to ultimate reality. Now I walk Walden country with peace and equanimity, happy to say with Thoreau, “Oh, what splendid serendipity, that I have lived in the best possible place, and indeed in the nick of transcendental time.”

Rev. Dr. Jim Sherblom is a transcendentalist author, Concord guide, and longtime resident of Concord.  He is the author of SPIRITUAL AUDACITY: Six Disciplines of Human Flourishing.  His new book, SPIRITUAL PILGRIM: Awakening Journeys of a Twenty-First Century Transcendentalist is coming September 2018.

Phebe Bliss Emerson Ripley

 Why do we still not hear the stories of our women ancestors, or ancestors of color, as we do our White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) male ancestors?  Their stories should be told.

Concord’s sixth minister, Daniel Bliss (1739 – 1764), was its last Calvinist, Loyalist, and Puritan minister. The times were rapidly changing.  Bliss was, like Jonathon Edwards and George Whitefield, a product of the American Great Awakening.  He preached hellfire and damnation to his often-frightened congregation.  The previous minister, John Whiting (1712 – 1737) was far more liberal, but had apparently been fired for public drunkenness, so he offered alternative worship services at the Black Horse Tavern.

His oldest daughter, Phebe Bliss, lived through Concord’s greatest time of transformations.  Born in 1741, she grew up in a British colonial town, loyal to God, King and Country.  She was only 23 when her father died young (age 49) leaving she and her mother and two younger sisters scrambling to make ends meet.  Concord turned to William Emerson, age 22 and a direct descendent of Concord’s founding minister Peter Bulkeley, for their next minister.  He initially boarded with the Blisses to help them meet their expenses.

Phebe and William fell in love, marrying the following year, and would have five children over the next ten years, creating the Emerson family line in Concord.  William built a large home for his growing family near Concord’s North Bridge, now called the Old Manse.  He was a revolutionary, actively involved in the illegal and rebellious First (1774) and Second (1775) Provincial Congresses.  When war broke out on April 19, 1775, William gave a mighty patriotic sermon and joined the revolutionary army as a chaplain at Fort Ticonderoga.  Unfortunately, he became desperately ill and was sent home, but died along the way home.

Phebe (age 37), a minister’s widow like her mother before her, took in Concord’s next minister as a boarder to help make ends meet.  Ezra Ripley (age 27), Concord’s eighth and longest serving minister (1778 – 1841), fell in love with Phebe and they married the following year.  Together they navigated creation of the United States of America, a new federal constitution (1789), the Unitarian controversy in religion (1805), industrialization coming to Concord (1808), and the war of 1812.  During this period Concord emerged as a county seat, with a larger diverse population and a much wider income distribution.

The American Unitarian Association was founded in 1825, the year of Phebe’s death, standing against the Puritan Standing Order of Churches, and six years later Massachusetts voted to disestablish religion.  This led to the creation of new Concord churches, the Trinitarian Congregational Church in 1826 and the Universalist Society (1838 – 1857).  Their building on the common was converted to Concord’s first Roman Catholic congregation (1863).  Later congregations were added as the town grew and prospered.  Phebe’s grandson Ralph Waldo Emerson would return to Concord and the Old Manse to write his first book Nature.

Phebe lived during Concord’s transition from a small English colonial town, governed by a Puritan theocracy, to the prosperous county seat of a religiously diverse town in the new United States of America.  She died at age 84 before the full flowering, led by her grandson Waldo, of the philosophical and spiritual movement which came to be called American Transcendentalism.  The daughter of one of the town’s ministers, and wife of two more, Phebe is said to have had remarkable insights into the changing times.  However, because of the cultural priorities of her time, none of her perspectives or writings have survived.  We only glimpse her through the writings of men who loved her.  Otherwise, the tales she might tell us!

Rev. Dr. Jim Sherblom is a transcendentalist author, Concord guide, and longtime resident of Concord.  He is the author of SPIRITUAL AUDACITY: Six Disciplines of Human Flourishing.

Blacks in Concord


It is hard to know many of the details of the lives of early enslaved African Americans in Concord, Massachusetts because they were, like white women and children, treated as property rather than as citizens of early Concord.  In the seventeenth century Concord was a subsistence farming community, so college educated intellectuals, such as ministers, lawyers, or doctors, appear to have often relied upon enslaved workers to maintain their households and farms.  But they didn’t tend to leave posterity their names or life details.

Concord’s founding minister, the Rev. Peter Bulkeley, and some subsequent First Parish in Concord ministers prior to the American Revolution, appear to have kept slaves at least some of the time.  The church record books include occasional references to enslaved members, but like white women and children, they were seated separately, and were not counted as full or paying members at the time.

The first previously enslaved African American to buy land in Concord was John Jack, born 1712, who built his homestead on swampland near the edge of Great Meadows.  Most of his life he was an enslaved farmhand for Benjamin Barron.  After Barron died in 1754, Jack worked for wages earning his freedom in 1761 and purchasing four acres of plowable land at the margins of Concord society.

George Tolman says: “Later he bought a lot of two and a half acres in the Great Meadow, upon which he built a house, and the spot has been occupied by [African American] families ever since, until a few years ago.”  A succession of often-related African American families lived around Great Meadows throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, on land few others found worthwhile to build upon.  I’m told that until very recently some multigenerational Black Concordians still lived near “Asparagus Farm.”

Caesar Robbins, an enslaved African American, probably fought with the Concord militiamen on Punkatasset Hill on April 19, 1775.  In 1823, two of his children Susan and Peter, built a substantial two-family house near John Jacks’ former house site.  It is known to this day as the Robbins House and has been recently relocated to the Old North Bridge parking lot to be Concord’s first Black history museum.

On April 19, 1775 Rev. William Emerson seems to have had two enslaved persons, a male farmhand and a female housekeeper, living in the attic of the Old Manse and serving his growing family’s domestic needs.  A friend recently gave me a behind the scenes tour of the restored Old Manse, including a tour of the garret attic where visiting clergy, the household slaves, and the older children all slept.

In 1837, Susan Robbins Garrison became a founding member of the Concord Female Antislavery Society.  At their first meeting they voted to ask First Parish to remove restrictions of blacks to certain sections or pews of the Meeting House.  In 1862 the Women’s Anti-Slavery Society organized three hundred Concord school children to sign a petition to President Abraham Lincoln asking him to free all enslaved children.

After the American Civil War slavery was no longer practiced in Concord.  Susan’s daughter, Ellen Garrison, went on to be Concord’s leading African-American scholar, teacher, and activist.  Peter Hutchinson, a distant relative by marriage, lived in the Robbins house in Henry Thoreau’s time, serving local farmers as a day laborer and by slaughtering their pigs, a sort of work few others would willingly seek to do.

In Walden Thoreau describes his Walden Woods neighbors as being largely formerly enslaved African Americans, poor Irish immigrants, or the occasional transient indigenous person.  He writes of Freeman Brister and his apple orchard just northwest of Walden Pond.  Or “Cato Ingraham, slave of Duncan Ingraham, Esquire, gentleman of Concord village, who built his slave a house, and gave him permission to live in Walden woods.”  And also, “Here, by the very corner of my [bean] field, still nearer town, Zilpha, a colored woman, had her little house, where she spun linen for the townsfolk.”

There is much to be honored in Concord’s history.  We have been neither better nor worse than most Americans of our time and place.  Yet it is important that we acknowledge our past in helping to educate our children and ourselves about the future we envision.  For only by acknowledging our past can we hope to transcend it.  That is the ultimate message of the Concord transcendentalists for our time.

Rev. Dr. Jim Sherblom is a transcendentalist author, Concord guide, and longtime resident of Concord.  He is the author of SPIRITUAL AUDACITY: Six Disciplines of Human Flourishing.


A New England Colonial town

My family heritage is about fifty percent White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) New Englanders with most of the rest being descended from Swedish immigrants who moved to Worcester in the late nineteenth century to work in the precision tool industry.

I am descended from the pilgrim John Alden, who helped to pacify and destroy the indigenous people of Cape Cod.  But I am also descended from the Marlboro farmer Abner Goodale who fought with the rebels at Concord’s Old North Bridge on April 19, 1775.  And also, the WASP loyalist Peter Collicutt, who defending king and country fled to Canada during the American revolution.  It is important we know the histories and heritage of our place in this world.

In the late 1620’s the Musketaquid river valley, where Concord would be founded, were open and idyllic pastures and farmlands previously cultivated by a tribe of the Massachusetts indigenous people.  It was twenty miles through the deep dark forest to the nearest settled WASP town, but there were remnants of the indigenous people living in this area and the occasional English hunter or beaver fur trapper.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was established in 1630 under a grant from the king as a Puritan theocracy.   The intention of Concord’s first settlers were to create a WASP heaven on earth, free from the religious and ethnic diversity and disputes of old England, free of the corruptions of non-Puritan religious beliefs.

When in September 1635, the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony sold the fur trapper Simon Willard, and a group of Puritan land investors, a six-square-mile parcel of indigenous land to form Concord at Musketaquid, they founded the First Parish Church in Concord to ensure orthodoxy among the WASP settlers.  In town meetings they divided up the land grant according to each family’s needs, paying careful attention to each having adequate land for housing, farming, haying, and woodlots.  This was a reformed model democracy in which only WASP male landowners were taxed or allowed to vote.

Of the six square miles the founders of Concord laid out for the village, less than two square miles at the center were given over to houses, shops, the common, and village activities.  Initially only WASP’s could be buried in the burying grounds.  Houses and shops ran along Main street.  The colonists dammed the Mill Brook at the site of an indigenous people’s fish weir to create a millpond with enough water pressure to mill wheat and corn.  This central village was surrounded by fields, which the farmers drained and ditched to grow all the food the town consumed in a year.  Enormous quantities of marsh grass were grown for livestock and domestic needs.  This was a tidy little Puritan English village in the midst of the dark and wild wilderness.

Concord didn’t stay that way for long.  Times were changing.  Within a generation, educated men living the life of the mind needed reliable farm hands to work their farms, and wealthy farmers without sufficient sons to work needed to hire men on a daily or permanent basis.  So small numbers of black slaves became part of Concord’s economy as early as the late seventeenth century.  Then during the eighteenth century growing numbers of non-WASP Europeans immigrated first to the growing industrial center of Boston, and eventually making their ways to the mills, factories, and farms of greater Concord.

By the nineteenth century freed African American slaves were living alongside Irish immigrants in the town’s non-settled wastelands in Estabrook Woods, Great Meadows, and around Walden Pond.  A large and growing colony of working class Irish Catholics settled Concord Junction, what would become West Concord, and became a reliable source of cheap labor for the factories, farms, and domestic labor needs of those living in Concord village.  Ralph and Lidian Emerson kept an Irish cook and housekeeper.

Loretta and I were among the earliest mixed-race couples settling in Concord in the 1980’s.  The demarcation between the WASP’s of Concord village and the Irish Catholics of West Concord, were still quite apparent, though the lines were beginning to blur.  Especially after the development of Conantum, bringing a much more ethically and racially diverse highly educated group to Concord, the town’s demographics began to shift.

According to the 2010 US census, while Concord is still 87% white, that includes 24% of English descent, 21% Irish, 11% Italian, 9% German, 5% French, 4% Scottish, and 26% mixed descent.  Plus 4% Asian, 4% Black, 4% Hispanic, and 1% indigenous or other descent.  And 11% of Concord residents are now foreign born.  While wealth and power in Concord is still disproportionately held in the hands of the old WASP families, we are gradually becoming a model American town.

Rev. Dr. Jim Sherblom is a transcendentalist author, Concord guide, and longtime resident in Concord.  He is the author of SPIRITUAL AUDACITY: Six Disciplines of Human Flourishing.