The Peripatetic Reviewer
HAVE any people on earth ever changed the face of their country as fast as we Americans? The Egyptians who made up in slave labor what we possess in bulldozers and power saws had nothing like our speed, and it took them more than a millennium to arrive at the desert which is theirs today. The English seem to lack our rapacity for tearing down, for “modernizing” what is old.
We do our engulfing in the name of progress: nothing must impede “the wheels of progress,” and nothing does. Today those wheels which have the light touch of a tank are being accelerated by the pressure of numbers, by our current mania for bigger and faster roads, and by the incredible growth of a hard-top, ranch-house suburbia. Like lava from Etna, this pressure of numbers overflows the countryside, filling in meadows and marshes, felling the woodlands, forcing the brooks underground. Nothing is impregnable. If the cathedral pines of Essex stand in the way of a new road, down they come; if the new Colby College campus is an obstruction to the plans of a new throughway, the campus must give; if larger bathing facilities are needed in Middlesex County, why not Walden Pond?
Next to Boston, the village of Concord is the most visited, most revered shrine in New England. Concord is a self-respecting community, conscious that it has a dual responsibility in tending to the past and planning for the future. It is proud of its schools; it takes care of its trees (grieving as we all do about the ravage of the elms); it keeps the Concord River from being defiled; and through private guardianship and public interest, it has preserved as much as it could of its famous heritage — such landmarks as Wright’s Tavern, the Old Manse, the Emerson‚ Alcott, and Hawthorne houses, and “the rude bridge that arched the flood.” But a pond is harder to preserve.
Walden Pond is a little cup of blue water set in the woods within easy walking distance of Concord center; it is spring-fed and has no outlet, so that the level of the lake rises unpredictably. It is not large, half a mile long by three eighths of a mile wide; and it is very deep, 107 feet by Thoreau’s measurement in certain places. The Emersons owned a large part of the shore, and Ralph Waldo in 1845 gave Thoreau permission to build a hut of the native white pine and to cultivate a two-acre bean plot. Henry Thoreau was then twenty-eight, rebellious, a nonconformist, with no job; the job he set himself was to live for two years beside this “forest mirror” until he knew its every mood. The record of Walden and himself which he left in his great book has made the spot a shrine for all Americans and has brought back to it year after year pilgrims who take the shore path thinking to see what Thoreau saw a hundred and ten years ago.
Thoreau was never to know what his sense of privacy had done to this sylvan spot. Walden has its vulnerable points, being bounded at one end by the railroad and at the other by a highway. For a time the railroad ran regular excursions, but these ceased when Ford made it easier to go by car. In 1922 Emerson’s grandsons gave the pond and land into the protection of the Commonwealth with the sole purpose of “preserving the Walden of Emerson and Thoreau, its shores and woodlands, for the public who wish to enjoy the pond, the woods and nature, including bathing, boating, fishing and picnicking.” It is significant that the word “preserving” comes ahead of “enjoy.”
But in the decades since the gift, the town and the state have treated Walden as a recreation area. The accommodations were gradual, but they added up to a casualness for which both are to blame. A dock and refreshment stand were natural enough for the modest bathing beach. But it didn’t stay modest long. A trailer colony moved in, with the town fathers’ acquiescence — not, of course, on the shore line, but across the road. And after that came hot-dog stands and filling stations. This spring the county decided to widen the bathing beach by another three hundred feet, and to make the shelving shore shallow enough for a lifesaving course for children. And on May 14 the Massachusetts Legislature voted $50,000 to “improve” Walden. Bulldozers moved in and an area of an acre and a half was denuded; eiglity-six trees of varying ages came down, and the gravel thus exposed was bulldozed into the lake to fill in the potholes that might be dangerous to the children. This is perfectly reasonable, if all one thinks about is recreation.
The donors, W. Cameron Forbes, Edward W. Forbes, and Alexander Forbes, are still alive. They knew what they were doing in their deed of gift when they stressed the word “preserving,” and they detest the present invasion, as their letter to the New York Times of August 27 made clear. The men in charge of the “improvement,” who know what they are doing but not what they are ruining, are the county commissioners of Middlesex. and their original plans called for a hot-top parking area and a hundred-foot concrete bathhouse.
It should be clear to anyone that there is now a deep conflict of interests between those who wish to enlarge Walden’s facilities for recreation and those who wish to preserve the reservation as you would preserve a stand of giant redwoods or Valley Forge. In this predicament there must be a moderator, and the historic site should be taken out of the hands of the county officials and placed either under the protection of the state park department or the nation. If the present process of accommodation is continued, the next step will be outboard motors, water skis, and a Thoreau Sextet in bathing suits. Seriously, better precautions must be taken. The litter which Edwin Way Teale itemized so caustically in his book‚ North with the Spring, is already too much for the present custodian to handle. There should be a limit to the number of bathers in a pond of this size with no outlet. ( Several mothers I know will no longer permit their children to swim there in the crowded season.) Finally, people should be encouraged to visit Walden for the privacy and secret beauty which is so rare as to be almost nonexistent in suburbia.
This has been a battle between the short view and the long view, and when I vote for the long view, I do so remembering Thoreau’s words: “Walden is a perfect forest mirror, set round with stones as precious to my eye as if fewer or rarer. . . . Sky water. It needs no fence. Nations come and go without defiling it. It is a mirror which no stone can crack, whose quicksilver will never wear off, whose gilding Nature continually repairs.” So keep it.
THE LADY AND THE MONK
THE RETURN OF LADY BRACE (Random House, $3.75) is the story of a family reunion on Long Island. Fox Meadows, which held the curios, the trophies, and the family skeletons of three generations, is up for sale. The heirs can no longer afford to run it, and Lady Brace — “Lady B,” as Lhe family call her, whose second marriage took her to England and who is by now a widow and grandmother with all passions spent — has decided to come back a week earlier than she was expected, partly because of the fun of the surprise, partly in the hope of having a few private moments in the house where she had been brought up as a girl, before she became engulfed in her daughters’ problems. But the first person she encounters is her brother Stephen, who she thought was living in Ceylon and who, to her horror, is visibly and painfully recovering from a stroke. Her carefully prepared defenses go down at the sight, and she is held up only by the presence of Stephen’s attendant, a Buddhist monk who, as she is soon to perceive, was responsible for Stephen’s recovery. In this swift and telling scene NANCY WILSON ROSS introduces us to the three leading characters of her story, people whose diversity and attachments I followed with rising interest to the final period.
Lady Brace, the heroine, is intuitive and attractive. Her upbringing and her money have sheltered her from hard decisions and much that is disagreeable, as she is candid to admit. Yet she has known experiences which swept her away from all conventions — her passion for Ralph Parton, her violent first husband, and her grief for her only son, Rupert, who was killed in the war. Her marriage in England was of pensive contentment, and now after Humphrey’s death she has come back to judge her own country with a different standard and to seek to atone for her failures with her daughters.
Stephen is as rebellious as Lady B is contained; all his life he has suffered from overcompetition. “I can never remember being free from a feeling of subtle competition,” he tells her. “With you for father’s attention and love; with father for your attention and love. How inferior I always felt!” Because of his suffering, Stephen had lashed out at life, deliberately courting evil, and there is irony in the catastrophe which brought him down in Ceylon. Now in his tutelage under Venerable Sir, the yellow-clad monk, he is learning wisdom and forgiveness. The most touching scenes in the book are those in which brother and sister reopen their love.
Lady Brace’s daughters — Rosemary, the overburdened housewife, and Lydia, the neurotic divorcée — are types, all too familiar in their predicament, and Lydia’s latest acquisition, Frederick Hollis, is indeed a horror. “Oh, the dreadful old goat!” Lady Brace calls him to herself in their final sharp-edged exchange. There are moments when the satire is too transparent, as in the newspaper article about Stephen’s escapades or Lady Brace’s encounter with the household of abandoned children, but the story is always brought back to earth by the reality of her candor, distress, and compassion.
CHARLES P. CURTIS has the gift of writing with the naturalness and pertinence with which he talks. He has an inquiring mind and a scholar’s grasp of the classics, and he keeps coming back to his favorites to reread and test passages he was not sure of at first sight. He has the lawyer’s love for contention and definition, and to him terseness is an art. These habits of mind are delightfully expressed in A COMMONPLACE BOOK (Simon & Schuster, S3.95), in which he holds up to the light certain aphorisms or descriptions; he examines them quizzically in terms of his own experiences and starts you doing the same.
The entries seldom run to more than three pages, and some are as brief as a paragraph, but they are packed with suggestion. Thus Mr. Curtis will tell you about the Society of Jobbists, which was founded by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and of which, says Mr. Curtis facetiously, the Justice was president. This reminds him of Learned Hand’s account of the society, spoken at Holmes’s ninetieth birthday, and this in turn leads to a little-known but apposite poem by Frances Cornford. He quotes Walt Whitman’s awesome description of Lincoln’s arrival at the Hotel Astor on his way to the first inauguration, the most remarkable demonstration of one man against the mob I have ever heard. Again he recalls exAmbassador Frank’s evaluation of President Truman’s power of decision and suddenly fires at you General Marshall’s superb directive: “Gentlemen, don’t fight the question. Decide it.” He quotes and then comments on Robert Frost’s commencement address at Sarah Lawrence, or disputes the thought that there is any sense of sin in the Gospels.
Mr. Curtis’ favorite agitators are Plato, Lucretius, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Emerson, John Jay Chapman, Holmes, Hand, and Whitehead. Many of these friends of his figured in The Practical Cogitator, which Mr. Curtis and Ferris Greenslet edited. And there is an unseen aid — Mrs. Curtis, whose quotations, according to her husband, “are usually better than their source.” Here is one of them: “Life is peculiar,” said Jeremy. “As compared with what?” asked the Spider.