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IN OLD CONCORD
The Unspoiled Haunts of Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau
One may seek in vain in Concord the reason for Concord. "It is an odd jealousy," says Emerson, "but the poet finds himself not near enough to his object. The pine tree, the river, the bank of flowers before him, does not seem to be nature. Nature is still elsewhere. This or this is but outskirt and far-off reflection and echo of the triumph that has passed by, and is now in its glancing splendor and heyday, perchance in the neighboring fields, or if you stand in the field, then in the adjacent wood."
With this same odd jealousy one may tramp the fields and woods, the pleasant highways and the village green to-day and not quite find Concord, for the Concord that one's mind presaged has passed on. This is but far-off reflection and echo of the triumph. Fuit Ilium. Yet here is all that first gave the name to the town, and more. Here are peaceful rivers meeting in rich meadows from which spring with the rising ground fruitful fields. Here men dwell in amity and keep singularly intact the beauty and thrift of a New England village of a century ago, though even here one can see wealth taking the place of prosperity and the pretentious ugliness of the modern attempt at Queen Anne architecture shouldering the quiet dignity of the old Colonial residences off the street. Here and there a little of the husk of the Concord of the Revolution remains, though somewhat sadly hemmed in. A simulacrum of the Concord Bridge still spans the flood, done in resonant cement, but here the poet finds himself not near enough to his object. Nor is his jealousy an odd one, for the rude bridge that arched the flood led somewhere. This echo of the triumph that has passed by drops him who would tread in the footsteps of heroes within the narrow bounds of an iron picket fence beyond which keep-off-the-grass signs doubly defend the way. In the presence of these the Minute Man seems superfluous.
The British never would have got by this. Fortunately it is easy to believe that the Minute Man has never seen the barricade or the signs. In him at least Concord, the Concord of the Revolution, holding in its calm heart sons born of the soil and sturdy with its grit, is personified for all men for all time. To turn one's back upon the fence as he does and look across the grassy Musketaquid vigilantly at those swaying lines of British bayonets is to dwell for a little in the Concord which, with a streak of yellow flame and a whizzing bullet, first leapt skyrocket-like into the world's eye. Many things have made the beautiful village a Mecca whither journey pilgrims from all over the world. All come eager to look upon the spot where the farmers marched deliberately upon the king's troops and dared fling back into their faces the red gauntlet of murder. It is not to be believed that curiosity merely is the spirit which informs these pilgrims. One can but feel that they come to the bridge in reverence for the principles involved in the fray, and in looking upon the very spot hope to learn what went into the making of the men who so boldly hazarded life and worldly comfort and prosperity in the defense of these principles. For, after all, it was the men behind the principles that counted. Here in a volley was the summing up of the nature of the heroes that had grown up, quite literally, in the Concord soil. Did they come of the fertility within it? One must say yes, in part. Down stream a little, not far below the bridge, I found an old-time path of their day, now long since disused, along which in the rich bottom land the meadow thistles grew ten feet tall. Such virility the Concord soil no doubt gave to the heroes who ceased delving in it only to grasp their muskets for the fray. The Minute Man holds to his plow still, the sculptor justly thus carving him. Out of the good brown earth one can easily know that courage and self-reliance thrilled through share and beam and handle into the bone of the man himself. Till the earth is fluid such men do not run. Like it they stand firm. Yet here is but the bony structure of the man in the Concord fight. Something more must go in to the making of a hero. It has been justly said that at the narrow bridge stood men born in direct descent from heroes of a stubborn stand, a stricken field, of seven hundred years before, and I dare say it is true. Planted among the Concord meadows and fertile uplands, grown lusty upon the richness of her soil, were men of Kent, that sturdiest county in all England; men whose very forbears had stood with Harold behind the wattled fence at Hastings, and died there with Norman arrows in their necks. Afore than all else in the building of men blood counts.
Yet, tramping the highways and fields of the old town, dreaming within her woodlands and by her ponds and streams, it pleases me to think there is more to it even than this. In Plymouth woods grows the mayflower, as we love to call it, the trailing arbutus, filling the spaces with rich scent in late April and early May, and though it is eagerly sought by thousands and is sold in bunches on all city streets in spring, yet it is not rooted out but retains its hold on the soil there. In certain other eastern Massachusetts towns the trailing arbutus never grew, and though I know of many attempts to transplant it to these none have succeeded beyond a slight growth that is hardly lusty or likely long to survive. yet among the Maine and New Hampshire hills again the mayflower grows luxuriantly. So it is with the hepatica and the maidenhair fern. Some cool northern hillsides are beautiful with these, others with equal shade, cool springs, moss and gravel have never known these plants. No. More is necessary than that the blood of men should fall and take root in fertile soil. There must be fluid, where seed and fertility meet, some of that ichor which flows in the veins of the immortals, and it must enter into the growth. Only thus does Hodge become hero. Without it he holds both hands on the plow and lets the British pass the bridge and go on. How many nations have thus been stillborn and buried in the furrow no history can tell us.
Little by little nature gives us the secrets of these things, as when after a time she taught the Australian planters why clover would not produce seed there. It grew well in fertile soil when seed was brought from England; it blossomed and made good fodder for cattle, but never a seed. Then they imported bumblebees from the English meadows with probosces long enough to reach the nectar in the bottom of the clover blooms and thus be pollen carriers from plant to plant. Here was the solution of the problem, the ichor of immortality that the clover needed. So with alfalfa and most leguminous plants. Scientific investigation has shown that if seeds of these are to grow well and thrive in new regions distant from that of their cultivation more is needed than the right soil and climate. Certain mysterious bacteria are present on the roots of all plants of this genus, and in some obscure way take from the soil and give to the plants the elements of vigor and success. Now the scientific horticulturist steeps his seeds of alfalfa or other leguminous plants in a culture of these bacteria, and knows that if his planting is in fertile ground and the sun and rain do their work well his harvest will be bountiful. Here again is the ichor of the gods, Vishnu become fluid and incarnating himself in obscure bacteria for the building of the plant world.
So, I can but fancy, has it been with Concord and her men. The seed of the Kentish heroes of Harold's time has grown since in many soils. In Concord when time was ripe it found fluid there some of the ichor of the immortals coursing through farming tools to the making of fire for heroic deeds. The Concord fight did not happen; it had to be. It was not that every Concord farmer's barn was full of munitions of war. Every Concord farmer's blood was full of powder. The shot had to be fired there.
For nearly three-quarters of a century this mysterious essence of greatness that one feels must always be present in places where great deeds have taken place seems to have flashed no spark to the outer world. Grass waved on Concord farms and fell before the scythe, and new generations of farmers grew up to take the places of those which passed unmarked outside their community. For that space of time Concord was, very much as Troy was, the scene of a memorable fight. Then came Emerson to bring back to the place something of the nobility of spirit and independence of thought and action that must have come to it with his ancestor the Rev. Peter Bulkeley. Here was the scholar and the preacher instead of the farmer, but born of the same old sturdy stock and come back to set roots in Concord soil. Here he walked daily in the fields and woods with his veins open to that same ichor of the gods which had not made patriots and heroes indeed, but had given them tongues, which seems to have given power of expression to him who was already poet and seer. Here with him, grown up out of the same town, was Thoreau. Hither came Alcott to paint the bubbles of his inchoate dreams in rainbow conversation. Hither too came Hawthorne, to tramp the woods as did the others and feel as did they the divine afflatus drumming in their veins and the impulse to sturdy independence coming up to them out of the Concord soil as it thrilled tip to the Minute Man through his plow handle. It was not so much that these men had within them the poetic fire, but that it burned there on the hearth of freedom, independence, and intense individuality.
With them Concord came again into the eye of the world, and because they preached as well as wrought, the world's eye is still upon it. And, as after the Minute Allan and his times passed the little village slumbered, seeming to wait placidly for the next troubling of the waters, so now Sleepy Hollow, where these four dreamers lie, seems to be the real center of the town. The mystic dreams of Hawthorne, the golden serenity of Emerson, the primal wisdom of Thoreau, and the roseate fog of Alcott's transcendentalism all flow serenely forth over its rim and flood the green hills and shadowy valleys of the region with peace and sweet content. Here, almost side by side, rest the four, and such blood of the gods as flowed in them is piped to all the world by way of what each wrote. No wonder Concord is a place of pilgrimage and people come by thousands to these graves as devout Mohammedans go to that of the prophet. Red oaks set their roots deep in the knoll where these lie, and white pines tower above them as if forming the first and most fitting round in their ladder to the stars. Out of the tops of these pines the harper wind should pluck harmonies beyond those common to groves.
Hither come the pilgrims that have hastily viewed the Minute Man and the bridge, puffing in rows lip the hillside and standing, breathless but voluble, before the stone they have sought. Reverence in their hearts they have without doubt, vet little of it gets to the surface as they, panting, recite one to another the legend of the stone and pass on. It is a wonderful piece of white quartz that marks Emerson's grave. There is dignity in its roughness, and something of the pure opacity of Emerson's thought seems to dwell in its white crystals, fittingly touched here and there with a color which might be the matrix of all gems. One thinks from what he sees of those who pass that Emerson is best known, Hawthorne most loved, while Thoreau and the Alcotts have each their own special worshipers. Now and then one sees much reverence based upon a rather slender knowledge, as when a young man balancing a year-old baby on his arm said to his wife, "This, my dear, is the grave of Thorough, David Thorough, the man who wrote 'Zounds.'" One can fancy David, who was Henry to most of us, being willing to be called thorough, yet hesitating to acknowledge "Zounds," except perhaps as an exclamation of astonishment. As an offset for this I might cite the small boy who, having been shown the stone which marks the grave of Louisa Alcott, gave it shyly a little loving hug and a pat before he went away. In the highest group of Concord immortals it is not customary to include the talented daughter of the transcendentalist, yet of the worshipers who pass not a few lay their fondest offering on the turf that covers her.
For a few hours out of the twenty-four, visitors to Sleepy Hollow come and go. Except for that the hollow indeed sleeps, steeped in the gentle peace of all nature which seems to well up out of it and encompass all the region round about in its golden haze. Surely the lotos grows where the Assabet and the Sudbury join to make the Concord, that sleeps on so gently that one may hardly know that it is on its way. The lotos grows there and the land has eaten of it, for the bustle of the world passes over it but does not change nor wake it. The very farms of Revolutionary time linger on, and if they are tilled now as they were then I do not know, but the cattle graze on the hills in herds as great now as then, and as broad cornfields toss their golden plumes toward the sky. The houses where dwelt Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts, still stand, and into the fields round about them few others have crowded. The fertile soil still yields crops to the husbandman, in whose breast slumbers mayhap the same sturdy courage which made the Minute Men and would make others should the need arise. Manufacturing, summer hotel keeping, these things do not seem to have touched the town much. I fancy it as lying fallow, waiting the flow of that ichor of the immortals that shall some day again waken it to great things.
Thus we find Concord to-day an historical and literary Mecca, a fine example of what has always been best in a New England town, holding firmly to the old, choosing, one believes, the best in the new, brooding the past in dreamy persistency, biding its time for the good that the future is to bring. Some day out of its lush meadows and the rich mold of its hillsides will flow again into the veins of men that subtle fluid of flame that makes heroes and poets. It is for this the fine old town lies fallow, and in this shall be the justification for its patience.
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