Monday, December 05, 2011

True North

Well, I think I’m finally back among the living. Yesterday I forced myself to go to the NOBS meeting even though it was cold and windy and my sinus headache pounded messages like an African drum from the Gambian bush. There were a few moments when the wind almost sent me airborne as we crossed East 21st Street from the parking garage to the Cleveland State University library, but once we got in and got settled I miraculously revived. Maybe it was the chicken and string beans, but I think it was really the conversation with my book guru, Jim Best, who runs The Bookman of Kent, and Andrea Klein from The Bookseller in Akron.

Sadly, there was only a small turn-out this year, so the festivities ended up a bit more subdued than usual. I’m not sure if was the weather, or the uncharacteristic late date (it’s normally held in October), but only eighteen people showed up. In past years – at the Akron Art Museum, at Baldwin Wallace College, and at Akron’s Greystone Hall where last year we had a rollicking program about the dancing feet of Fred Astaire replete with movie clips, the bibliophiles poured forth in healthy numbers. I didn’t realize that Cleveland State only opened its doors in the mid-1960’s, so while interesting, their special collections were hardly a match for Baldwin Wallace’s Bach collection with notations by Bach. That may have been a factor in the size of the crowd, but my gaze fell on several mighty nice stacks of books about the Cleveland interurbans that I had never seen before and would sure like to find. They also have possession of the entire morgue of the old Cleveland Press and lots of great stuff on the building of Terminal Tower, the architectural drawings for which could be framed as art.

But the best part (aside from the fact that the annual meeting only took two minutes –yay!!!) was the lecture by professor Patrick Chura, author of Thoreau The Land Surveyor. Eric did some surveying when he worked for the Forest Service after his college graduation and before Uncle Sam sent him to Vietnam, so all that talk about 66 chains, true north, magnetic north, sounding holes, and bearings were to him the equivalent of suddenly realizing you still have a grasp of your high school French. Most of the technical stuff flew over my head, but I was nonetheless caught up in the metaphyiscs of mathematics which I found very poignant because Thoreau, too, recognized in his own calculations a kind of poetry. I can only thank my buddy Sunday Morning Joe who, if nothing else, has taught me to see numbers with softer eyes.

We bought the book of course and I am anxious to read it because it is actually accessible to unmathematical dummies like me. I have always been fascinated by the convergence of such amazing talent – Emerson, Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott, and Margaret Fuller, all of whom wound up at the same time in Concord, Massachusetts, a place so small it was a dust mote on the face of America. All were Transcendentalists and, though Bronson in his earlier years may have been a little loopy, they remain resounding voices in our collective literature. I once had an 1895 first edition of Margaret and Her Friends or Ten Conversations with Margaret Fuller Upon the Mythology of the Greeks and Its Expression in Art. The talk filled me with an enormous pang of regret for having sold it to a college in Texas for its special collections.

One thing that added greatly to the lecture was a slide program which showed Thoreau’s actual surveying instruments. In the course of his research, Chura, the son of a surveyor, actually borrowed antique equipment equivalent to Thoreau’s and re-surveyed Walden Pond. Not only did he find that the great naturalist was an excellent surveyor, but he also identified a bundle of metal rods lying idle in a museum as being Thoreau’s chaining pins . We also saw a picture of Thoreau’s yellow house as it stands today along a main street in Concord. Chura pointed out a stone post in front at the street and mentioned that there had been another one just like it, but it had recently been removed to build a storm drain. Both were ordinary hitching posts, but – get this – the one they took out was the one Thoreau used to site true north.

As interesting as all this is, two things will stay for certain with me long after the rest recedes. The first is the image of a downstairs window of the stately yellow house in Concord which Chura pointed to on the screen and mentioned almost as an aside that behind it lay the room where Thoreau died. The second is Thoreau’s moral struggle between the beauty of the land he so loved and surveying, the discipline that he also loved. Because his work caused him to parcel lots for woodcutting which resulted in a significant loss of woodland he wrote two essays near the end of his life exploring it. I need to reread, Walking, and read for the first time Life Without Principle in which shortly before his death he struggled on the page to find peace with the need to make money and the need to be true to ones self  In the end though he could finally say, “I am a surveyor” and be at rest.

As you know, I too, sold out my writing which I loved for financial gain and for ten years didn’t write because of it. Only now am I beginning to think of myself as a writer again. So for me Henry David feels like a kindred spirit. I think perhaps to revisit him from the vantage point of his surveyor's compass will help in the ongoing quest to find my own true north.


Saturday Evening Post said...

Tess, this one really struck home. I've done some surveying, and I camped and swam at Walden in the forties and fifties, and have long admired Thoreau. My wife refers to the time I spent in the Maine woods as "Thoreauing it". Now I discover that I am embarrassingly ignorant of the man and his works. So once again you send me back to the books, to learn what I should have learned long ago. Hanging around this blog is quite educational. And I'm delighted by your soft eyes.

tess said...

Thoureau is defintitely worth the effort. You are going to LOVE this -- no kidding. First of all, you should see read this book. If you've done surveying and camped at Walden you'll be able to relate to it as Eric did. Then move on to Thoreau's own writing. Walden would be the perfect place to start, as well as the most logical.
As for my soft eyes, they will be watching your progress!

Anonymous said...

My idea is that you did not sell out your writing with the writing you did for work. That too is writing, and it was important to those people who read it at the time. Like love, their are many types of writing, and having done several types myself, I understand. Your blog shows your heart and your best true style. It shares your spirit and love of paper and books and learning. I can only say, I love whatever you right. I have always wanted a trip to Walden Pond, and maybe after reading this book I will do that. I will look in the library if your copy is no longer available for sale. Hugs and keep up the great wrtiting Tess.

tess said...

Thank you. Thank you. There aren't words to say how much I appreciate your post. I'm pretty much past it now, but I do think I still need Thoreau.

Eric bought our copy and had it signed and inscribed to him, so he doesn't want to sell it. I think the library loan will be able to get it. I am dying to read it, but have to finish Flannery so I can give that to my friend Nancy on Sunday!

Saturday Evening Post said...

I did read Walden, but that was about 60 years ago, and I only retain an impression, albeit a strong one. I bet that I'll enjoy it more the second time. I remember people telling me at that time to read The Maine Woods, but I never did. I'll try that one,too.


tess said...

Sounds like a plan! I'm going to be doing some reading and rereading of him as well, so now I'll have company.