Thoreauvian Pursuits

Inspiration Found on the Writing Road

Inspiration Found on the Writing Road

Four days a week, I drive thirty rural miles to my job as an editor. My route takes me past farms, forests, blueberry barrens, saltwater coves and salt pond inlets as well as the Northern Bay Market, C & G Growers and Bim Snow’s garage, though Bim has closed up shop. The trip is never the same two days in a row, as some feature of the landscape has always been altered overnight or some new feature has emerged for scrutiny: A pothole has been filled, a tree felled, or an osprey comes winging over the road with an alewife at the exact moment I round the corner.

But there is one landmark I eagerly anticipate for the fact that it looks the same every day, and has for many years. It’s the 40 acre saltwater farm on Allen Cove on Blue Hill Bay to which E.B. White, having “evacuated the city house” in New York, led his family “like a daft piper.”

Here they lived with Fred, the dachshund with a “dainty grimace,” and Joel their boat-struck son. White, an aspiring farmer, kept chickens, geese, pigs, a cow; parented baby robins and, presumably, became acquainted with the large gray spider who came to be known as Charlotte. White had an aunt named Charlotte who once told him: “Remembrance is sufficient of the beauty we have seen.” I’d like to think that I have shared the rural view behind those words.

As I rumble by the White place from the north, the cedar hedge, like a crenellation fortifying the front yard, allows me a few glimpses of the orchard, the flower and vegetable gardens, and the central structures: the white, 11 room federal farmhouse and surrounding sheds and barns. They are in perfect trim, looking exactly as they did in the photos that show Mr. White conversing with his geese or crossing to the chicken coop on a sunny day in mid-winter, as he goes about the day’s chores. To use one of White’s own phrases to describe revisiting an old haunt, it seems to me as if “there had been no years.”

Allen Cove is where White moored his beloved sloop, Martha, built in the boatyard Joel would establish nearby, a boat without amenities, not even a depth finder—”I plan to find my depth by listening to the sound the centerboard makes as it glides over the ledges,” he wrote. Some years he hemmed and hawed about whether to put Martha in the water at all, but he seemed to feel that, regardless of his growing tentativeness about sailing single-handedly, the boat needed to be launched as a sign of hope or aspiration, if not concrete intention.

It takes but seconds to drive past the Whites farm, but it allows enough of an observation to serve as my daily editorial fillip. Arriving at my writing desk a few miles south of the farm, ready to check my email and go to work with my powerbook (just imagine the fun White would have had with the term ‘powerbook!’), I feel catechized with his first commandment of usage in The Elements of Style: ‘form the possessive singular by adding ‘s.” I have come to hear a spare, downeast beauty in the phrase, like a whiff of salt air or an accent behind the counter at the general store.

Here among the farm buildings is the shed in which Mr. White sat and thought and pecked out squibs and essays for The New Yorker and Harper’s magazine. Photographer Jill Krementz captured him in this shed. In her black and white portrait, he sits at a bare wooden table, backed by rough boards, framed by a view to the cove beyond—one man and his typewriter, facing down the blank page, composing sentences that, no doubt, “omit needless words.”

The image reminds me of the only essential tools of the trade: the urge to say something true, solitude, lack of distraction and the means to record words, no doubt working “from a suitable design.” He said: “The whole problem is to establish communications with oneself,” which hints at the contemplative coves he sailed, above and beyond fussing with comma splices tangling the halyard of the sentence.

In his writing shed, White felt he was a “wilder” and “healthier man.” The shed is about the size of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin, the New England naturalist being White’s greatest writerly muse and intellectual mentor. “What seemed so wrong to Thoreau,” White wrote, “was man’s puny spirit and man’s strained relationship with nature.” He urged the Thoreauvian tactic of taking time to “observe and feel.” On the Maine farm, White found himself “suddenly seeing, feeling, and listening as a child sees, feels, and listens. . . a time of enchantment.”

And so I check in on the White homestead much as White checked in on Thoreau, and I am reminded of the comments White wrote to introduce a new edition of Walden, with photographs by the naturalist Edwin Way Teale. In the book, he said, readers can “hear one naturalist speaking to another across a hundred years.” It’s a pretty good dose of inspiration from a modest bend in the road. The remembrance is indeed sufficient to make me see, feel, and listen with new-old senses.

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