At length we stopped for the night at Higgins's tavern, in Orleans, feeling very much as if we were on a sand-bar in the ocean, and not knowing whether we should see land or water ahead when the mist cleared away.
– from “Cape Cod” by Henry David Thoreau
ORLEANS — Townspeople are invited to walk in the tracks of Henry David Thoreau this summer by reading his “Cape Cod” as part of Snow Library's One Book, One Town program.
Selectman Alan McClennen will have a head start.
“Twenty years ago a lifelong friend and I decided to follow Thoreau's footsteps along the beach from Nauset Inlet to Ptown...” McClennen wrote in reply to an email from The Chronicle. “As the day approached I kept looking at the weather forecast. I remember calling my friend the day before and told him the weather was going to be awful. His response was quick: 'Meet me at the Coast Guard Station in Eastham. It rained for Thoreau's trip so we will be reliving his experience.'
“We experienced the weather, the rain, the dunes and clay and the tide rip in Wellfleet. That natural part of the Cape, now protected, was as described by Thoreau – a very special place!”
Thoreau, of course, was a very special man. The antithesis of Woody's Allen self-description (“I am at two with nature”), the author of “Walden” walked the fields and woods of Concord with a sense of stewardship that had nothing to do with property rights. He was a lifelong student, observing and commenting wryly – sometimes sadly – on the human condition.
Citing a recent magazine article, assistant library director Kaimi Rose Lum said Thoreau has been portrayed as “a callous, cold-hearted, brooding, anti-social person, but that's not what comes through in 'Cape Cod'...He has such a keen eye and such an intense interest in things. He dove right in, researched and described them...He sat down at one point with a piece of kelp. He wanted to know what it tasted like. (With a) knife and fork, he started eating it.”
The treats for the One Book, One Town kickoff event yesterday (July 12) were much more appetizing, including a Cottage Street Bakery 200th birthday cake for Thoreau and cupcakes from Shaw's and Stop and Shop. Free copies of “Cape Cod” were handed out. Library Director Tavi Prugno promised to mix up a “Transcendental cocktail” (non-alcoholic, of course).
Mary Beth Fincke, vice president of the Snow Library Board of Trustees, joined Lum, Prugno, Sandi Rhodes, and Elizabeth Merritt to form the selection committee for One Book, One Town. She admitted she needed some convincing.
“I must say I reluctantly agreed to this book choice because Thoreau and the Transcendentalists are not on my 'Top Five' list of favorite reads,” she wrote in an email. “However, this has turned out to be an excellent choice for me because it made me stretch my mind and challenged my preconceptions. Just as Henry Beston and Gladys Taber capture the essence of this special part of the world, so too does Thoreau.”
And he does it congenially, according to Prugno. “As we're reading,” he said, “it's not really a dry diary but rather he uses a lot of humor and dry wit. He brings the characters to life.”
Thoreau and his book have plenty of fans in Orleans. Here's a sampling of replies to emails from The Chronicle:
“I have not read it in many years. My memory is that it gives a vivid portrait of the Cape as it was in those times; much different than we see it today. It will be interesting to read it again.” - Carolyn Kennedy
“For various reasons, we Cape Codders seem to be losing our sense of place. Finding ways to restore our emotional bonds with this special home can only be a good thing.” - Meff Runyon
“Documents the Cape's cultural significance and its amazing natural beauty, but also allows us to realize what has already been lost, and reminds us why we need to try to protect what is still here for future generations.” - Judy Scanlon
“I believe that Thoreau's idea of getting back to nature and removing oneself from the hustle and bustle of everyday life resonates today. With the information age and constant connectivity, the ability to leave it all behind by unplugging and experiencing nature on the outer beaches of Cape Cod is a vital shared resource we all should continue to treasure and protect.” - Sassy Richardson
Prugno, who noted that One Book, One Town is sponsored by the Leslie B. Pike Trust, a legacy of the executive board member of the Friends of the Snow Library, will join Lum to lead a free book discussion and trivia game at the library July 29 at 1 p.m. She said many local businesses have donated gift certificates as prizes.
On Aug. 9 at 6 p.m., Thoreau himself, borrowing the form of Thoreau Society historian Richard Smith, will spend an evening at the library reading passages from “Cape Cod” and conversing. On Aug. 16 at 6 p.m., historian Don Wilding will speak on “Shipwrecks of Cape Cod.” Author Adam Gamble will talk about his walking guide, “In the Footsteps of Thoreau,” Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. All events are free.
In emulation of Thoreau, there will be a journal-making workshop on Sept. 22. Fincke said the library has reached out to Nauset Regional Middle School “to invite their students and teachers to participate...This project can be incorporated into so many disciplines from the obvious ones, like English and science, to the arts and technology.”
Fincke summed up the thinking behind the selection of “Cape Cod” succinctly:
“When a community joins together in reading the same book the discussions and related activities open minds and spark imaginations. This shared experience brings a sense of community that spans ages, incomes and life experiences. We are Cape Cod – this book speaks directly to our community's history.”