Lauren R. Stevens Thoreau’s glimpse of heaven
One hundred-seventy years ago this month, Henry David Thoreau climbed Mount Greylock, as reenacted for the 20th time (plus or minus) last Saturday. Thoreau did it the hard way, starting on foot from Concord, climbing Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, walking across Massachusetts, spending a night in Charlemont and coming up and over the Hoosacs before summiting Greylock in the afternoon and evening.
Henry was 27-years-old. People walked more in those days -- especially Thoreau, who referred to it as "sauntering," derived linguistically from visiting holy lands. His approach did not rule out accepting a ride in a farmer’s wagon from time to time, not that he would mention it.
He called his pilgrimage to Greylock a "digression" in "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers," a book mostly about a trip he and his brother took five years earlier, in a boat they had built, down the Concord and up the Merrimack rivers to Mount Washington, which they climbed before returning the way they came. Was his description of his foray to western Massachusetts a detour?
It turns out the Greylock climb is the turning point, the climax of "A Week," which treats the brothers’ ascent up Washington, twice the size and far wilder than Greylock, in one sentence. What was it about the visit to Mount Greylock?
Of the Bellows Pipe Trail he wrote, "It seemed a road for the pilgrim to enter upon who would climb to the gates of heaven." He encountered a couple of human residents on the way up, finished his route on a compass course, made camp inside a meteorological tower a Williams College professor had erected, covered himself with wood as though in a coffin to keep off the cold and woke in the morning to a spectacular sunrise above the clouds.
He found himself, briefly, in perfection, a "pure world," as a "dweller in the dazzling halls of Aurora, into which the poets have had but a partial glance over the eastern hills." ... Then the clouds rose and blotted out the sun.
The pilgrim climbs the mountain, dies and comes to heaven. To 21st century, secular readers, that’s "just a metaphor" about finding reality beyond this world, a transcendental mo ment, a glimpse into the way things could be. We call it poetry, noting that Thoreau in cludes quotations from poets and references to eastern religions as he describes the scene.
Although Thoreau saw it as metaphor, too, a way of saying one thing in terms of another, as Robert Frost was to put it, it is metaphor on a deeper level than we are used to. He may not have literally died and "the new world into which [he] had risen in the night, the new terra firma perchance of [his] future life," turned out to be a fleeting, precarious land, but he was a pilgrim open to answers. We have to be open to understand his variety of metaphor.
The vision he had was as real, as solid, as Prof. Hopkins’ tower. Thoreau was not a conventional Christian but he was a believer. Heaven, to him, was or would be a real place -- a place of which he caught a glimpse on Greylock. He took religion -- and for that matter poetry -- more seriously than we tend to.
Did the view change his life? Immediately after his trip west he returned to Concord, August 1, to ring the church bell inviting people to an antislavery lecture. The next year, 1845, he made his decidedly unconventional move to Walden Pond, where he wrote the book in which the Greylock trip appears and he collected the notes that became "Walden," the book for which he is known throughout the world 170 years later.
At least, that’s how it looks from the White Oaks.
A writer and environmentalist,
Lauren R. Stevens is a regular