Posts Tagged ‘Henry David Thoreau’

Old friends, new friends, and more from the Monterey Coast

Saturday, July 14th, 2012
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When he wasn't starting forest fires, he was here.

Old friends, new friends:  Thursday’s post about reconnoitering with an old friend James Bryant, thanks to an Islamic prayerbook, fell into grateful and unfamiliar hands.

I received a pleasant note from Dwight Green, who was on his way to Monterey about the time he ran across my jottings.  He was already planning to visit the Robert Louis Stevenson house, where the author chilled while  awaiting the divorce of his wife-to-be. (“Yeah. It was complicated,” says Dwight.) I was pleased to discover that Dwight is a kindred spirit in the blogosphere: he runs the excellent blog, “A Common Reader“  – so you can read about his whole visit here.  He also points out that there’s some fascinating background about Stevenson’s stay in California here, But thanks to my heads-up, he also stopped into Carpe Diem and, given its excellent selection on California and the American West, resolved to save his pennies for the next visit.  (He also stopped into another Book Haven – no relation.)

The crowded shelves of Carpe Diem

And do yourself a favor and make a visit to this rugged stretch of the Pacific coast yourself: “The waves which lap so quietly about the jetties of Monterey grow louder and larger in the distance; you can see the breakers leaping high and white by day; at night, the outline of the shore is traced in transparent silver by the moonlight and the flying foam; and from all round, even in quiet weather, the distant, thrilling roar of the Pacific hangs over the coast and the adjacent country like smoke above a battle.”

Meanwhile, what is it about famous authors and forest fires?  Are they just more careless than other people?  I wrote about Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, and burnt acres on the Fourth of July here – now this from the Robert Louis Stevenson website:

While in Monterey, RLS also started a forest fire. He was fascinated by the many fires that spring up in the Californian forests and wondered whether it was the moss growing on the trees that first caught fire. The moss did catch fire – and quickly spread. RLS later described the incident in “The Old Pacific Capital” (1880).

Otherwise, I’m having a quite day, transcribing notes and revising a draft. Hope you are enjoying Bastille Day in a livelier way.

They started more than literary firestorms: Twain, Thoreau meet Smokey the Bear

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012
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Fire and the 4th go hand in hand

Traditional 4th of July celebrations involve fireworks, campfires, sparklers, gunfire and cannons, and all sorts of other incendiary tomfoolery.  What better way to celebrate than with the tale of two inadvertent literary firebugs?

Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin apparently agrees, according to her new post on the Library of America’s “Reader’s Almanac” blog.

Here’s the story:  Through their own naïveté and carelessness, Mark Twain burned 200 acres of forest around Lake Tahoe. He failed to break Henry David Thoreau‘s earlier record of setting 300 acres of his beloved Concord woods aflame.

“Yet each man kills the thing he loves,” wrote Oscar Wilde.  He might have had Twain in mind, for Twain loved Tahoe with a passion that all later lakes failed to arouse.  Italy’s famous Lake Como was as nothing.  The renowned Sea of Galilee was a downright disappointment.  (I understood this completely when I saw the mud puddle called the Jordan River.  Where was the mighty, rolling river of the spirituals?  It occurred to me as I gazed at the sluggish, fetid waters that the slaves had the Mississippi in mind.)

“Three months of camp life on Lake Tahoe,” wrote the dazzled Twain in Roughing It, “would restore an Egyptian mummy to his pristine vigor, and give him an appetite like an alligator. I do not mean the oldest and driest mummies, of course, but the fresher ones.”

America's answer to Como, Galilee

Yet he built a campfire on the shore one autumn day in 1861 and left it unattended while he returned to his boat.  A gust of wind did the rest.

Seventeen years earlier, a stray spark from Thoreau’s campfire started a conflagration.  According to Shelley:

Both writers were struck by the “glorious spectacle” (Thoreau’s words) of the fires they had started; Twain found the “mighty roaring of the conflagration” to be “very impressive.” Neither Thoreau nor Twain showed much remorse for the destruction he had caused. “I have set fire to the forest,” Thoreau wrote in his journal six years later, “but I have done no wrong therein, and now it is as if the lightning had done it.”

Twain, at least, has not been forgiven.

Said Shelley:  ”Last week I asked a firefighter at Fallen Leaf Lake, in the Tahoe Basin just south of Lake Tahoe, whether Mark Twain was still persona non grata in the area. He nodded grimly.”

Having fled my own home with suitcases and pets during two wildfires in that part of the world and stayed at home for a third close call, I can understand the firefighter’s umbrage.

Read the whole cautionary tale here.