The cultivation of grapes

You ask when I’m going to get around to writing about my visit to Concord.

You would think, when I finally did get around to it, that I’d write about visiting the graves of Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne and Louisa May and all the other Alcotts, all of whom sleep their endless sleep within the green lawns and wooded paths of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, a few blocks from the village green.

The Thoreau family's plot at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord
The Thoreau family's plot at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord

Or maybe I’d write about staying at the venerable Colonial Inn, part of which was occupied for several years by his transcendental eminence Henry David and members of the Thoreau clan.

Concord's Colonial Inn
Concord's Colonial Inn

Perhaps I’d dwell a little on the pivotal events at Concord and Lexington which spawned a revolution.

You’d think I’d write about the delicate white flowers you photographed along the shore and the celestial light I saw shimmering on the holy waters of Walden.

Blossoms at Walden Pond
Blossoms at Walden Pond
Or, speaking of transcendence, maybe I’d write about thoughts that arose as I sat on a bench in downtown Concord and watched as transcendental tourists floated past like wispy wistful ghosts who whispered  of glowing and translucent love.
Downtown Concord
Downtown Concord

But I choose to speak of Concord and its grapes, which were first cultivated by Ephraim Wales Bull,  and whose grave at Sleepy Hollow gripes to the very end and beyond that he realized no gain from his carefully cultivated breed of grape – the real fortune was made by a man from New Jersey, name of Welch,  who took those grapes and turned them into jam and jelly.

And so on Bull’s headstone are etched these words:  “He sowed, others reaped.”

Ephraim Wales Bull and his Concord grapes
Ephraim Wales Bull and his Concord grapes

I did not know when I came home from kindergarten to the Mulford Garden projects in Yonkers, and waiting for me were a glass of milk and a peanut butter-and-jelly on Wonder Bread made for me every day by my mother, that my mother and I were connecting to and becoming as one with the transcendentalists as I sat and ate my sandwich.

As I sat on that park bench I was thinking about many things, including old Bull and his grapes, and how his hard work yielded fruit that did not bear fruit for himself, about the careful nurturing and pruning and guidance and patience – call it the labor of love – required to allow something to take root and spread its vines and provide sweetness and beauty.

As I sat on that park bench, I thought of an arbor I have in my own back yard. The grapes are, in fact, Concord grapes. Sometimes I’ve cut back the vines or cleared away weeds but mostly now I leave the vines to their own devices.

Some years, when the weather is not conducive to the growth of grapes, they shrivel into raisins on the vine. Other years, when the warmth and light are dealt in proper doses , the vines cascade down the arbor, and thousands of grapes threaten to pull down the old wooden posts with their weight, and birds built nests amid the vines on the top of the arbor, and the birds eat the sweet grapes, and deer come at night, and they reach to the higher realms of that arbor, and there’s plenty of grapes on the arbor for everyone.

As grapes grow so, too, can love grow, when storm clouds pass and the sun warms the vines right down to their roots, and sitting on that park bench,  I thought of Concord and Mr. Bull’s grapes, and I decided I just didn’t agree with that bitter viticulturist – I believe that those who take time to sow seeds, and let them take root, then nurture the vines, then wait patiently for the weather to freshen, these sowers will reap the sweetest fruits from the labors of their love.

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The depth of our own natures

A friend who lives in the wilds of transcendentalism, in the land of Thoreau and Emerson, told me not too long ago that his daily run sometimes took him on the path that circles Walden Pond. This same friend and his older brother were with me when I visited that pond for the very first time.

Here’s what I remember. I was disappointed to find a public beach at Walden Pond. I enjoyed the stroll around the pond. I saw the marker at the site where Thoreau’s hut once stood. I think I even remember seeing the railroad tracks mentioned by Thoreau, and being surprised that they were so close to the pond and to Thoreau’s retreat — come to think of it, I remember being surprised that this symbol of blessed solitude was so close to the town of Concord itself.

But what I remember most of all was when my friend’s brother took off his shirt and shoes, then leaped with a great splash into the pond, which great splash was followed by a great scream as his foot landed on a broken beer bottle.

A broken bottle — trash — tossed into the last place in the world where trash should be tossed — tossed into the holy waters of Walden Pond.

Flash forward a few decades — plenty of time for my friend’s brother’s foot to have healed — but also plenty of time for man to do even more permanent damage to Walden and the woods around it. According to a Harvard University research team,  climate change is the likely culprit in the disappearance of more than 25 percent of the flowers and plants documented by Thoreau in the mid-1800s; another 36 percent “exist there in such small numbers that their disappearance may be imminent.” According to the study, the mean temperature in Thoreau’s old neighborhood has risen more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century.

Here’s the bathing beach at Walden Pond:

Here’s what the pond and its surroundings looked like around 1900:

Thoreau declared: “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” But Thoreau, if he still “traveled extensively” in Concord and its environs, would now have to look long and hard to find the violets, wild orchids, lilies, buttercups, anemones and wild roses once so prolific around Walden, into which waters the great philosopher and naturalist gazed long and hard in order to measure “the depth of his own nature.”