Thoreau Back

I spend twenty minutes wandering around a paved path that loops up over several short grassy hills trying to find “Author’s Ridge,” the plateau where Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau are buried. There is big nineteenth-century nerd energy here in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord Massachusetts.

Designed in 1855, the landscape architects chose the “garden design” approach, a popular new trend in cemeteries at the time. When I read about this, I pictured a group of white, male landscape architects sipping brandy and smoking cigars in a tavern talking about the “next hot thing” in the cemetery game:  

Water, boys! Its all about the ornamental ponds and the like. Makes people feel less sad about their dearly departed Abigail whilst standing on a footbridge, feeding the ducks and the like. If only the Internet existed, we could tweet the crap out of this stuff and the like.  

What this actually means is that Sleepy Hollow unfolds as a rambling, meandering space. Gently sloping rises give way to gravestones set in among thick strands of trees and lush, flowering shrubs. The layout invites strolling, exploring, visiting, and generally spending time in a place where time is glacial on the surface and irrelevant underneath. It’s easy to lose yourself—literally.

I double back to where I started and stand in front of a site map that is unhelpful, mostly because I can’t read maps unless they are of the children’s placemat menu variety. On my right I hear two women approaching down from another hilltop path. I hear one of them say something about “the Winona Ryder version” and I know they are talking about one of the film adaptations of Alcott’s Little Women. Out of the corner of my eye I see one woman make the universal “just over that way” arm gesture. A lucky break! I give them a decent lead and start to quite conspicuously tail them. I am struck with the certainty that I would have easily died in the first five minutes of any war regardless of domestic or foreign soil.

As I come closer to the bottom of the ridge, I note a modest outcropping where one might even park a car and a large, freshly painted sign reading “Author’s Ridge” with a bold arrow pointing up a steep incline. Helpful now that I’ve arrived. Sure.

The two women have long outpaced me and are already drifting from site to site when I get to the top. The ridge sits toward the back of the cemetery. A line of trees forms a natural barrier along the back slope and further beyond that sits a huge expanse of what appears to be wetland and woods. If you’re going to submit to the belief of an eternal, physical resting place, you might as well splurge a bit on the drapes.

I feel a little dopey being up here, a little touristy on home turf. But these are my people. Language lovers, word warriors, creative weirdos—they used their gifts and skills to, as Georgia O’keefe said, make their “unknown known.” And the world was changed forever because of it. No pressure. A highlight reel of these American literary all-stars:

Louisa May Alcott wrote WOMEN’S FICTION (all those emotions, gross); her enduring work was the eventual classic Little Women. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote several novels, including The Slut Shaming Handbook, known by its more popular title, The Scarlet Letter. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a writer and philosopher considered the father of transcendentalism (we don’t know who the mother was because PATRIARCHY). This was a set of philosophical ideas about the inherent purity of man and nature. His essays, speeches, and lectures took on big ideas about things such as self-reliance, individualism, and the relationship between nature and spirituality (that last one made the Catholic clergy very grumpy; they were absolutely not having this nonsense about Jesus being a tree. Hard pass). Henry David Thoreau was a gentle, somewhat introverted naturalist who wrote about the environment and pressing issues of the day such as abolition and the importance of civil disobedience. Most consider Thoreau’s master work his book, Walden. In it, he chronicled that time he lived in a one-room dwelling, which he built himself, on the shores of Walden Pond (about a mile outside of his hometown of Concord) while not Instagramming it.

The writers are clustered together with their families. Spouses, children, siblings. The Emerson family plot feels like a VIP lounge. Cordoned off with chains, the site contained several generations of Emersons. In the middle, front and center, sits Ralph Waldo’s headstone. Strike that: head boulder. He rests beneath a large, tall slab of jagged granite. It rises up over everything like a harvest moon. It’s quite beautiful. In the light, the white granite assumes a purplish hue. It’s all rugged and misshapen and if you squint and fantasize just a little bit, you can almost see the gouges left by the picks of the quarrymen who excavated the hunk for old R.W. (Side note: That’s what I would have called him back in the day: “Nice starched collar, R.W. Turn your head in that thing much?” This would have been considered a very sick nineteenth-century burn, I assure you). Big man on campus, Emerson. Message received.

I lingered a little in front of Alcott’s grave, which consists of a small rectangular stone, not much longer than an envelope, just wide enough to contain her name. That day there was a bouquet of dried flowers left to one side. Someone had also stuck pencils around her stone to form a border. It reminded me of a kind of summoning circle, a protective enchantment around the writer whose words endure, whose works continue to fuel the dreams of others. The pencils were new. Unblemished yellow and smart pink hats, stilts for walking across the centuries.

I breezed past Hawthorne (sorry Nate) and came to a stop in front of the person I was really here for: Thoreau. I am team Henry David. A high school English teacher taught on the transcendentalists and it wasn’t too long after that I read Walden in its entirety. In later years I picked through his other writings—essays and books—along with his journals. Thoreau’s genuine and unapologetic love, curiosity, and reverence for the natural world in its entirety from the ice crystals forming on the pond in October to the birds nesting in the trees around his property is inspiring. He exercises this extreme care and attention to whatever it is he’s immersed in—land surveying, plant collection, a canoe paddle up the Concord River—that feels increasingly rare in our twenty-first century sound bite-skim-centric-plagued lives and also like the antidote.

Thoreau does not want to disappear into the hills and live in a hut (no Wifi? We are not barbarians, Henry David!). Rather, it’s how he found his way to things that he truly cared about and then proceeded to forge a life committed to honoring those interests with authenticity and integrity that makes me fan girl for Thoreau. That takes more bravery and grit than hanging out in a cabin in the woods.  

Thoreau’s grave is toward the back of his family plot. His marker is marble, about the size of a lunchbox, engraved with his name. A simple headstone for a man who was anything but. There were no offerings at Thoreau’s grave that day. It’s a common practice to leave a stone or rock on someone’s gravesite as a sign of respect and remembrance. Others believe that a stone placed on someone’s grave keeps their soul tethered to this plane. I believe we can’t have too much Thoreau in the world. I hunted around in the dirt nearby and found a small flat stone, worn into a slight oval shape, perfect for skimming over sparkling waters on a summer day. I placed it gently on the top of Thoreau’s grave and set off back on the path leading me down from the ridge.

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