Tag Archives: Louisa May Alcott

Three unrelated conversations

The drive up from New Bedford north towards Boston took me through the flat south coastal plain of Massachusetts. Along the highway through the plain, red maples seem to be the dominant trees where the ground is a little lower than the surrounding terrain; white and red oaks, and white and red pines, where the ground is a little higher. The red maples were bright with reds and yellows and oranges; in the lowest ground where I could see there was a swamp many of the trees were already bare. The oaks were still mostly green, although here and there a branch with brilliant red leaves stuck out of the dark green of the oak and pine woods; and here and there I saw a white oak fringed with brownish gold leaves.

I had lunch with dad, and we talked mostly about photography. Dad, who is an avid photographer, has been using digital cameras for the past three or four years. But recently, he said, he’s turned back to using his old single lens reflex film camera, a classic Pentax K-1000. He stood in the window of his condo in West Concord and used four different cameras to shoot the same picture of a sugar maple in full autumn color: three different digital cameras, and the K-1000. He got the film processed commerically, and he printed the shots from the digital camera using the same paper and printer. Then he compared the images all four sources. His conclusion: the images from the film camera had better color saturation and richer reds than any of the digital images.

Photo buffs would probably say that images from a professional-quality digital camera printed on a top-notch printer could surpass the images from commercially-processed film. But that’s not the point; dad was comparing images from cameras he had access to and that he could afford. Forget the photography buffs; dad and I agreed that film cameras are superior. We got into a satisfying discussion of which color film is best, and how both of us would kind of like to get back into a darkroom to print black-and-white film.

Dad had to go off to teach a computer class, so I went birding at Great Meadows. I worked my way down the central dike, stopping now and then to scan the water for ducks. Another birder, a man carrying a high-end telescope, was making his way down the dike at roughly the same pace as I. Somewhere in the middle of the dike, I said to him that I had got some sparrows, and he came down to see. We wound up talking while we waited for sparrows to break cover and come out where we could see them.

He asked where I lived, and I said New Bedford, and he told me about a house that his grandparents had had on Hawthorne Street in New Bedford. I said I hadn’t seen any ducks yet this year on New Bedford harbor, and he said that the wintering ducks had already started moving in to the Barnstable area. He lived down on the Cape during the warm months, and had just moved back up to his house in Weston on Tuesday. He asked how it happened that I was in Concord that day, and I said I grew up in town, and it turned out that his daughter had married a man who was best friends with Steve S—- who had lived down the street from us when I was young.

We finally saw Swamp Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows (and I was pretty sure I had also seen an immature White Throated Sparrow). But most of the ducks we saw were Mallards. “It’s so quiet out here,” he said. “Listen to those geese. I can even hear that tika-tika-tika sound they make when they’re feeding.” He scanned the ducks with his binoculars. “Twenty years ago, you’d see ninety percent Black Ducks and only a few Mallards. Now it’s the other way around. I used to shoot ducks,” he continued. “What I liked was using the calls to bring the ducks, and working with dogs, and being outdoors. I ate everything I shot. But I stopped in 1982, and haven’t been duck-hunting since.” He put his binoculars up to his eyes for one last scan of the lower pool, hoping to see the Pintails he had thought he had seen earlier; and then he headed back to Weston.

I spent another two hours at Great Meadows. I walked way around to the other end of the lower pool, where I did see eight or a dozen Pintails half obscured in the middle of some wild rice. An hour later, up at the sewage treatment plant, I did see a flock of White-Throated Sparrows, along with a Palm Warbler bobbing its tail, and some other sparrows that I couldn’t be sure of because it was getting dark by then.

It was still too early to brave the traffic on the drive into Cambridge. I decided to stop at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. They had moved Sophia Peabody Hawthorne’s body back to Concord, to rest beside her husband Nathaniel Hawthorne, from where she had been buried in England, and I wanted to visit the new grave. Across the path, a man was crouched down, taking a picture of Henry David Thoreau’s grave in the dim light; a woman stood next to him watching. I asked if he was a fan of Thoreau, and he allowed that he was. I told them why I was there. The man asked where Louisa May Alcott’s grave was, and I pointed it out.

They said they had driven ten hours to get here today, and I asked where they were from. “London, Ontario,” said the man. And now as I listened for it I could hear the faint accent of central and prairie Canada: the slight differences in the vowels, especially “o” sounds, and the more precise consonants. “We already have snow on the ground up there,” said the woman. “What’s the climate like here?” I said that we used to have snow on the ground for most of three months, but it was definitely getting warmer. “What with global climate change, you’re probably living in the right place,” I said. “Soon your climate will be temperate.”

As we walked back towards town, we wound up talking about North American politics, particularly the way that both Steven Harper and George Bush have strong ties to the religious right. “But it’s a minority government,” said the man. “Canada is still pretty much liberal,” he continued in his soft Canadian accent. “Harper’s going to have to moderate his views or he could wind up facing an election.” The woman added, in what was not quite a non sequitur: “After all, Elton John came to Canada to get married.” I told them I was counting on the Canadians to hold out against the influence from the south. What I didn’t say was that as a religious liberal, I actually do worry about the United States turning into a theocracy of the religious right, and it would be nice to have a place to flee to.

Day hike: Louisa May Alcott and walking to Boston

When we were children, someone told us about the time Louisa May Alcott walked from her family’s house in Concord all the way to Boston. I no longer remember the details of the story, but it always seemed to me that walking from Concord all the way to Boston was something I would like to do. So today I did. I walked over to Porter Square to catch the 8:45 train out to Concord. When the pleasant young conductor got to me, I said I was going to Concord. “Round trip?” he asked. “No, one way,” I said.

I walked from the train station though Concord center to get to Louisa May Alcott’s house out on Lexington Road. I stopped to talk with Pam, the owner of the Barrow Bookstore. She was just opening her store. “How’s business?” I asked. “Not as good as last year,” she said, “not as many foreign travelers this year.” We laughed together at some of the more ridiculous airline security precautions we had heard about.

Lexington Road was originally called the Bay Road, because it led to Massachusetts Bay. The first English settlers followed the course of the Bay Road when they first went out to Concord in 1635; no doubt parts of that road are older still, and were once paths trod by the Massasoit Indians. Not that you need to know this history; my walk wasn’t a historical re-enactment, it was more of a literary pilgrimage.

It was another perfect summer day, maybe seventy degrees, sunny, a nice breeze. Lots of cars passed me on the roads, but I saw very few people. Many of the houses I passed were perfectly painted, their yards perfectly landscaped — Concord is a very wealthy town now — but many of the houses and yards hardly looked lived in. I wondered how many people you would have seen out and about in Louisa Alcott’s time.

The Alcott family moved frequently, and lived in several houses in Concord. Two of them are right next to each other: Orchard House, the current site of a house museum devoted to Louisa Alcott and her family, and the Wayside which is now more famous as the house where Nathaniel Hawthorne lived. I don’t remember where Louisa Alcott was living when she walked to Boston, but I figured those two houses would be my official starting point.

Soon I got to the Battleroad Unit of Minuteman National Historical Park. The Battleroad Trail winds for five miles through the woods and fields of the park, connecting the towns of Concord and Lexington. At times I was walking along an unpaved road between two old stone walls, with grass growing between the road and the stone walls with open fields beyond. This, I thought to myself, must have been a little bit like what Louisa Alcott saw on her walk to Boston. But not really, for the fields were just rough grass and weeds and not planted with crops, there were no cows or horses or sheep grazing anywhere, no kitchen gardens thriving near the few houses I passed. Nor did Louisa Alcott see any bicyclists in spandex shorts, tourists with cameras around their necks, and park rangers dressed up in tricorn hats, breeches, and waiscoats.

At the end of the Battleroad Trail, I walked on the sidewalk along Massachusetts Avenue, up over Concord Hill in Lexington, through a neighborhood where the old 1950’s ranch houses are gradually being torn down so that McMansions can sprout up.

In Lexington Center, I crossed the Battle Green and passed Buckman Tavern, a historic museum where a man dressed up in 18th C. garb played a tune on a fife. Maybe, I thought to myself, I should have planned to follow in the footsteps of the Minutemen as they chased the Redcoats to Charlestown on April 19, 1775. But I was committed to my Louisa Alcott walk. I bought a sandwich to carry with me, and stopped to talk with Marianne, whom I knew when I worked at the Lexington church.

From Lexington Center, I followed the Minuteman Bike Path all the way to Somerville. The bike path follows an abandoned railroad right of way that roughly parallels Massachusetts Avenue, which is the modern name for that same old Bay Road that goes all the way to Concord. About two miles from Lexington Center, the bike path passes next to Arlington’s Great Meadows. I followed a little path in and found a knoll with a picnic table. I sat down to eat my lunch, gazing out at an expanse of marshland covered with Cattails, and Purple Loosestrife in full bloom. Away on the far side of the marsh, I thought I saw a few red leaves just starting to show on some Red Maples.

As I approached Arlington Center, two men passed me, one riding a bicycle and one on rollerblades. “Downsizing you car saves a lot of money,” said one. “Yeah,” said the other. “…Gas, insurance,” said the first. “Yeah,” said the other. Two women followed them, one woman on a bicycle and one on rollerblades, and they too were deep in conversation.

I stopped to rest in Arlington center. I wasn’t in a hurry, I wasn’t trying to set any speed records, and I had a cramp behind one knee. I sipped some iced coffee and read a newspaper.

On the other side of Arlington center, I came around a corner and there was Spy Pond. The pond was so beautiful — trees and house lining its shores, a small sailboat lazily moving along near the far shore, glints of sunlight on its surface — that I caught my breath. I left the bike path to walk along the pond’s shore. Children and dogs splashed in the water, a large extended family gathered around a picnic table, a woman typed on her laptop, a man sat reading. Regretfully, I rejoined the bike path.

After a while, when you’re walking for a long time, you tend to reach a state of mind where you don’t think about much. When I got to the Alewife subway station in Cambridge, where the bike path officially ends, I had to think because it wasn’t obvious how to get to the extension of the bike path that gets you to Davis Square. That’s all the thinking I did from Spy Pond to Davis Square.

I walked a couple of blocks over from Davis Square to Mass. Ave. and then followed Mass. Ave. to Harvard Square, and then I walked over a couple of blocks to the path that leads along the Charles River. I still wasn’t thinking about much, except that one knee hurt. I crossed over to the path along the Boston side of the Charles. Lots of people out sailing on the Charles. I watched one person sailing a Laser, a small fast sailboat, pushing the boat to its limit, coming about at the end of each tack with losing headway, heeling over until the lee gunwale was covered in foam.

Then I headed up Beacon Hill to Louisburg Square, and stopped for a moment in front of number 10, the house that Alcott bought with the money she got from her writing, and the house where she died when she was just 55 years old. Maybe I didn’t follow the exact route that she did when she walked from Concord to Boston, but that felt like a good ending to a good walk.

About 25 miles in nine hours of leisurely walking.


Cambridge, Mass.

A sort of pilgrimage to Concord, Massachusetts, today. I met my dad (who still lives in Concord) in the late morning to take a walk. It was hot, so we decided to go to Sleepy Hollow, the cemetery where a number of famous Transcendentalists are buried. We just wanted a cool place to walk on a hot day, but I did make a point of visiting Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s grave. She was a contemporary of Emerson’s, a Transcendentalist who ran the West Street bookstore where she sold Transcendentalist books, published “The Dial” for a few issues, and hosted some of Margaret Fuller’s “conversations” for women (sort of early consciousness-raising sessions). Elizabeth Peabody never married, always claimed she was too busy, and had an incredible career as a teacher, reformer, and intellectual. She is perhaps best known today for introducing kindergarten to the United States — in her conception, a way to give children of all scoi-economic groups a head start before they started school. An amazing woman, and my favorite of all the Transcendentalists.

Her grave stone is down the hill from “Author’s Ridge,” where Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Lousia May Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne (her brother-in-law) are buried. She’s buried in a beautiful little hollow dappled with sun and shade. And her legacy lives on in some interesting ways. Late in her career, Elizabeth Peabody mentored a young educator named Lucy Wheelock, who later went on to found Wheelock College, where my mother got her bachelor’s degree. Lucy Wheelock was still a presence when my mother was studying there, and my mother went on to teach for a dozen years. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if my mother chose to pursue her career and not get married as Lucy Wheelock and Elizabeth Peabody did. Mom was an excellent teacher, and who knows where her career would have gone? We’ll never know, but it’s fun to speculate.

After I had lunch with dad and my two sisters, I went for another long walk on the Battle Road Trail in Minuteman National Historical Park in Concord. It’s blackberry season, and I ate some really good blackberries. It must be a good year for blackberries, because they were large and plump and tasty, and worth every scratch I got picking them.