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July 2008

A WEEK ON THE

CONCORD AND MERRIMACK RIVERS

 

("Thoreau's Cove" courtesy of the Library of Congress)


By HENRY D. THOREAU,
AUTHOR OF "WALDEN," ETC.


WEDNESDAY.

~*~

Early this morning, as we were rolling up our buffaloes and
loading our boat amid the dew, while our embers were still
smoking, the masons who worked at the locks, and whom we had seen
crossing the river in their boat the evening before while we were
examining the rock, came upon us as they were going to their
work, and we found that we had pitched our tent directly in the
path to their boat. This was the only time that we were observed
on our camping-ground. Thus, far from the beaten highways and
the dust and din of travel, we beheld the country privately, yet
freely, and at our leisure. Other roads do some violence to
Nature, and bring the traveler to stare at her, but the river
steals into the scenery it traverses without intrusion, silently
creating and adorning it, and is as free to come and go as the
zephyr.

As we shoved away from this rocky coast, before sunrise, the
smaller bittern, the genius of the shore, was moping along its
edge, or stood probing the mud for its food, with ever an eye on
us, though so demurely at work, or else he ran along over the wet
stones like a wrecker in his storm-coat, looking out for wrecks
of snails and cockles. Now away he goes, with a limping flight,
uncertain where he will alight, until a rod of clear sand amid
the alders invites his feet; and now our steady approach compels
him to seek a new retreat. It is a bird of the oldest Thalesian
school, and no doubt believes in the priority of water to the
other elements; the relic of a twilight antediluvian age which
yet inhabits these bright American rivers with us Yankees. There
is something venerable in this melancholy and contemplative race
of birds, which may have trodden the earth while it was yet in a
slimy and imperfect state. Perchance their tracks too are still
visible on the stones. It still lingers into our glaring
summers, bravely supporting its fate without sympathy from man,
as if it looked forward to some second advent of which _he_ has
no assurance. One wonders if, by its patient study by rocks and
sandy capes, it has wrested the whole of her secret from Nature
yet. What a rich experience it must have gained, standing on one
leg and looking out from its dull eye so long on sunshine and
rain, moon and stars! What could it tell of stagnant pools and
reeds and dank night-fogs! It would be worth the while to look
closely into the eye which has been open and seeing at such
hours, and in such solitudes, its dull, yellowish, greenish eye.
Methinks my own soul must be a bright invisible green. I have
seen these birds stand by the half-dozen together in the
shallower water along the shore, with their bills thrust into the
mud at the bottom, probing for food, the whole head being
concealed, while the neck and body formed an arch above the
water.

Cohass Brook, the outlet of Massabesic Pond,--which last is five
or six miles distant, and contains fifteen hundred acres, being
the largest body of fresh water in Rockingham County,--comes in
near here from the east. Rowing between Manchester and Bedford,
we passed, at an early hour, a ferry and some falls, called
Goff's Falls, the Indian Cohasset, where there is a small
village, and a handsome green islet in the middle of the stream.
From Bedford and Merrimack have been boated the bricks of which
Lowell is made. About twenty years before, as they told us, one
Moore, of Bedford, having clay on his farm, contracted to furnish
eight millions of bricks to the founders of that city within two
years. He fulfilled his contract in one year, and since then
bricks have been the principal export from these towns. The
farmers found thus a market for their wood, and when they had
brought a load to the kilns, they could cart a load of bricks to
the shore, and so make a profitable day's work of it. Thus all
parties were benefited. It was worth the while to see the place
where Lowell was "dug out." So likewise Manchester is being
built of bricks made still higher up the river at Hooksett.

There might be seen here on the bank of the Merrimack, near
Goff's Falls, in what is now the town of Bedford, famous "for
hops and for its fine domestic manufactures," some graves of the
aborigines. The land still bears this scar here, and time is
slowly crumbling the bones of a race. Yet, without fail, every
spring, since they first fished and hunted here, the brown
thrasher has heralded the morning from a birch or alder spray,
and the undying race of reed-birds still rustles through the
withering grass. But these bones rustle not. These mouldering
elements are slowly preparing for another metamorphosis, to serve
new masters, and what was the Indian's will erelong be the white
man's sinew.

We learned that Bedford was not so famous for hops as formerly,
since the price is fluctuating, and poles are now scarce. Yet if
the traveller goes back a few miles from the river, the hop-kilns
will still excite his curiosity.

There were few incidents in our voyage this forenoon, though the
river was now more rocky and the falls more frequent than before.
It was a pleasant change, after rowing incessantly for many
hours, to lock ourselves through in some retired place,--for
commonly there was no lock-man at hand,--one sitting in the boat,
while the other, sometimes with no little labor and heave-yo-ing,
opened and shut the gates, waiting patiently to see the locks
fill. We did not once use the wheels which we had provided.
Taking advantage of the eddy, we were sometimes floated up to the
locks almost in the face of the falls; and, by the same cause,
any floating timber was carried round in a circle and repeatedly
drawn into the rapids before it finally went down the stream.
These old gray structures, with their quiet arms stretched over
the river in the sun, appeared like natural objects in the
scenery, and the kingfisher and sandpiper alighted on them as
readily as on stakes or rocks.

We rowed leisurely up the stream for several hours, until the sun
had got high in the sky, our thoughts monotonously beating time
to our oars. For outward variety there was only the river and
the receding shores, a vista continually opening behind and
closing before us, as we sat with our backs up-stream; and, for
inward, such thoughts as the muses grudgingly lent us. We were
always passing some low, inviting shore, or some overhanging
bank, on which, however, we never landed.

Such near aspects had we

Of our life's scenery.


It might be seen by what tenure men held the earth. The smallest
stream is _mediterranean_ sea, a smaller ocean creek within the
land, where men may steer by their farm-bounds and cottage-lights.
For my own part, but for the geographers, I should hardly have
known how large a portion of our globe is water, my life has
chiefly passed within so deep a cove. Yet I have sometimes
ventured as far as to the mouth of my Snug Harbor. From an old
ruined fort on Staten Island, I have loved to watch all day some
vessel whose name I had read in the morning through the
telegraph-glass, when she first came upon the coast, and her hull
heaved up and glistened in the sun, from the moment when the
pilot and most adventurous news-boats met her, past the Hook, and
up the narrow channel of the wide outer bay, till she was boarded
by the health-officer, and took her station at Quarantine, or
held on her unquestioned course to the wharves of New York. It
was interesting, too, to watch the less adventurous newsman, who
made his assault as the vessel swept through the Narrows, defying
plague and quarantine law, and, fastening his little cockboat to
her huge side, clambered up and disappeared in the cabin. And
then I could imagine what momentous news was being imparted by
the captain, which no American ear had ever heard, that Asia,
Africa, Europe--were all sunk; for which at length he pays the
price, and is seen descending the ship's side with his bundle of
newspapers, but not where he first got up, for these arrivers do
not stand still to gossip; and he hastes away with steady sweeps
to dispose of his wares to the highest bidder, and we shall
erelong read something startling,--"By the latest arrival,"--"by
the good ship----." On Sunday I beheld, from some interior hill,
the long procession of vessels getting to sea, reaching from the
city wharves through the Narrows, and past the Hook, quite to the
ocean stream, far as the eye could reach, with stately march and
silken sails, all counting on lucky voyages, but each time some
of the number, no doubt, destined to go to Davy's locker, and
never come on this coast again. And, again, in the evening of a
pleasant day, it was my amusement to count the sails in sight.
But as the setting sun continually brought more and more to
light, still farther in the horizon, the last count always had
the advantage, till, by the time the last rays streamed over the
sea, I had doubled and trebled my first number; though I could no
longer class them all under the several heads of ships, barks,
brigs, schooners, and sloops, but most were faint generic
_vessels_ only. And then the temperate twilight light, perchance,
revealed the floating home of some sailor whose thoughts were
already alienated from this American coast, and directed towards
the Europe of our dreams. I have stood upon the same hill-top
when a thunder-shower, rolling down from the Catskills and
Highlands, passed over the island, deluging the land; and, when
it had suddenly left us in sunshine, have seen it overtake
successively, with its huge shadow and dark, descending wall of
rain, the vessels in the bay. Their bright sails were suddenly
drooping and dark, like the sides of barns, and they seemed to
shrink before the storm; while still far beyond them on the sea,
through this dark veil, gleamed the sunny sails of those vessels
which the storm had not yet reached. And at midnight, when all
around and overhead was darkness, I have seen a field of
trembling, silvery light far out on the sea, the reflection of
the moonlight from the ocean, as if beyond the precincts of our
night, where the moon traversed a cloudless heaven,--and
sometimes a dark speck in its midst, where some fortunate vessel
was pursuing its happy voyage by night.