Wednesday, July 10, 2019
Sophia - born two hundred years ago (June 24, 1819) - was the person most responsible for making Henry David Thoreau posthumously famous. Henry was one of four children born to John and Cynthia (Dunbar) Thoreau, in birth order Helen, John Jr., HDT and Sophia. None of them married. All of them taught at one time in their lives. All died relatively young, even for that era: Helen at age 37, tuberculosis, John Jr. at age 26, tetanus, HDT at age 44. Sophia survived her famous brother by 14 years before dying at age 57, from tuberculosis.
|Daguerreotype of Sophia Thoreau, ~1855|
Sophia was two years younger than Henry David. While Helen was described as the quiet Thoreau, Sophia was known to be talkative and opinionated, with a dramatic wit. Their mother and their aunts were all active abolitionists and members of the Concord Ladies’ Antislavery Society. Sophia and her sister also belonged to the Middlesex County Antislavery Society. At an 1844 convention they signed a petition in favor of dissolving the country rather than being party to a country with states where slave ownership was legal. Prominent abolitionists visiting Concord - Parker Pillsbury, Loring Moody, and John Brown among them - made their way to the Thoreau home. The family provided lodging and aid to fugitive slaves. Henry’s antislavery activism rested on the long-time commitment of the women of his family.
After John Jr. died in 1842 and Helen in 1849, Sophia and Henry grew closer. They were both living in their parents’ house (Henry having done his stint at Walden Pond 1845-47). They would collect plant specimens together, make berry-picking excursions in season, and Sophia would occasionally accompany Henry on boat trips up the Concord, Sudbury and Assabet rivers. Both helped out in the family’s pencil and graphite businesses.
Henry David Thoreau died May 6, 1862, having attained only limited recognition in his own time. It was during Henry’s decline from tuberculosis and after his death that Sophia made the largest contributions to his literary legacy. She served as nurse and companion after an 1860 bout with bronchitis exacerbated his disease. She assisted in writing his letters and preparing his manuscripts for publication. In a lengthy 2016 article by Kathy Fedorko, titled “Henry’s brilliant sister”, a case is made that Sophia alone edited her brother’s essay collections for publication after his death as “Excursions”, “The Maine Woods”, “Cape Cod” and “A Yankee in Canada”. (Previously, more credit had been given to Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Ellery Channing, with little or no acknowledgement of Sophia’s contributions.)
After the death of her mother in 1872, Sophia spent the last three years of her life in Maine, with relatives, during the declining illness that finally took her life in 1876. Before dying she had entrusted her brother’s journals first to Bronson Alcott, who failed to follow her instructions about their care. She consequently deposited them in the Concord Free Public Library in 1874, along with many books and memorabilia that had been Henry’s. Sophia’s will dictated that the journals go to Harrison Gray Otis Blake, who saw to the publication of more content from the journals in the 1880s.
|Portion of Thoreau’s poem “Fair Haven”, copied|
onto leaves (1868). Click on photos to enlarge.
Sophia was an artist and musician. Her drawing of the cabin by the pond was chosen by Henry for the cover page of the first edition of “Walden; or, Life in the Woods”. Sophia left behind one odd piece of memorabilia - five shagbark hickory tree leaves on one twig bear sixteen lines of poetry from her famous brother. Created October 13, 1868 (six years after his death). The poem – “Fair Haven” refers to a widening of the Sudbury River, on the border between Concord and Lincoln, and also to the hill on the east side of the river. The last four lines of the poem are “And when I take my last long rest,/And quiet sleep my grave in,/What kindlier covering for my breast,/Than thy warm turf Fair Haven.” The leaves are in the Concord Library archives.
In passing, Thoreau’s given name was David Henry Thoreau, after his recently deceased paternal uncle, David Thoreau. But since everyone always called him Henry, he decided after finishing college that he would prefer to go by Henry David.
Sunday, June 23, 2019
Starting 1878, the Town of Maynard committed to shining a light (lights, actually) on the nighttime thoroughfares of this new town. Amory Maynard, 74 years old at the time, was on the committee, as were Joel Abbott and John K. Harriman (grocery owner, father to sons who later operated Harriman Bros. New Method Laundry). The result was twenty-five, six-foot tall street lamps installed on downtown streets,
Lighting streets expanded over time. The original effort,
under management of a superintendent of street lamps, expanded to 36 lamps, to
be lit 17 nights a month. By 1891, railing against darkness encompassed 74
lamps, lit 19 nights a month, sunset to midnight. (anyone out past midnight was
expected to have their own kerosene lamp). Records show Fred Taylor as the last
lamplighter, in 1901, paid 3.5 cents per lamp. The job was not easy. A horse-drawn
wagon went from lamp to lamp each evening. From a ladder, wicks were trimmed,
glass cleaned of soot, more kerosene added if needed, and lit. After midnight a
second visit was required to turn down the wicks, thus extinguishing the lamps.
A few businesses, but not the Town, supplemented street lights with their own far
more luminous gaslights.
|Example of a kerosene street lamp from another town|
(internet download). Click on photos to enlarge.
Night lighting via oil or kerosene lamps was not a novel concept. In cities, people out afoot at night could hire lantern-bearers to escort them from place to place. By the mid-1700s Paris had thousands of oil lamps. Kerosene, which burned cleaner than plant or animal (whale) oils, was originally made by heating coal in the absence of oxygen, liberating coal gas, coal tar and crude kerosene – then known as coal oil. Processes extracting and purifying kerosene were perfected and patented in the 1850s. In time, petroleum became the preferred raw material for extracting kerosene, as it is today. Kerosene (also known as paraffin oil) is used in heaters and for cooking in areas of the world without access to natural gas.
Kerosene road torches, also called smudge pots, pre-dated battery-powered
lights as a means of indicating road construction barriers. The most popular
model was THE TOLEDO TORCH (Internet download).
People of a certain age may remember driving through construction sites at night, the sides of the road sporting 55-gallon metal barrels as barriers, and instead of battery-powered lights, kerosene-burning road torches, which were black, rounded top, a bit smaller than a bowling ball, open-flame. The effect of this lurid, flickering light was to make one feel one was driving through hell, or if not hell, a road next door to hell.
September 1, 1902 saw a contact between the Town of Maynard and the American Woolen Company (AWC) to provide power for 92 electric lights. As with back in the kerosene days, the lights were not turned on during nights when moonlight sufficed, and were not lit all night. Over years, the extent of electric lighting expanded both for area and nights’ duration. News items in the September 1920 newspaper noted that a proposal was being considered to expand night lighting hours from eight hours to all night, at an estimated revised operating cost of $22 per light per year. At that time Maynard has approximately 250 street lights.
Circa 1931, the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Boston began supplying power, there having been contentious debate that the American Woolen Company charged more than market rates for its monopoly on electric power. An engineers’ trivia fact here is that AWC power was 40-cycle alternating current while the U.S. national standard had settled on 60-cycle (many countries use 50-cycle). A lower frequency had the advantage of less power loss during transmission, the downside being a noticeable flicker in incandescent light bulbs and arc-type street lamps that were common back then.
Today, Maynard’s several thousand street lights are all LEDs (light emitting diodes) with the exception of early 20th century style ‘historic’ fixtures in downtown locations. The conversion to LEDs was expensive, but power requirements are lower, and the lights are supposed to last 15-20 years, so maintenance costs are lower. Additional advantages over the replaced yellow-tinted sodium lamps and white-tinted metal halide lamps included reducing glare impact on night vision and less light pollution. One negative is that street-directed LEDs leave sidewalks relatively dark. This can be remedied by adding sidewalk-directed lights. Unknowns include the long-term effects of LED street light wavelengths (less yellow, more blue and green) on plants and nocturnal animals.
Sunday, June 16, 2019
|Maple Street, Maynard, 1910. Second tree on left appears to|
be same tree as in photo below. Click on photos to enlarge.
|Maple Street, Maynard, 2019. Sickly tree on left is one of the|
originals, most likely planted when houses were built in 1870s.
In addition to deliberate deforestation, our trees are at risk to species-specific diseases, invasive insect species, invasive plant species, uncompensated storm damage and deferred maintenance. Nationwide, chestnut blight took out three billion trees, elm disease another one hundred million. The larvae of Emerald Ash Borer have a fatal impact on ash trees, as does the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid on hemlocks. Oriental bittersweet vines grow into the tops of mature trees, overshadowing the trees’ leaves and breaking branches with weight, until the trees die.
Urban trees have value. A study conducted at Devens, MA, concluded that house prices in tree-rich neighborhoods are higher, energy costs needed to cool houses when trees provide share are lower, and asphalt streets have a longer lifespan before repaving is required due to a dampening of the daily heat/cool cycle. Trees capture rain, reducing the needs to channel and process stormwater runoff. Trees provide shade for outdoor activities, and muffle street noise. Plausible research suggests that patients in hospitals need less of pain relief meds and heal faster if their windows look out over gardens and trees versus a parking lot.
|Nason Street, Maynard: stump of|
removed urban tree. Eleven replace-
ment trees will be planted soon.
Counter to this, there is persistent lack of funding for urban forestry, consequence of tight budgets and an attitude that trees are “nice to have” but not necessary. Once a town or city has fallen behind maintaining an existing urban canopy, reversing the trend with an accelerated planting program is seen as too expensive. Only when a community recognizes that the commercial and personal health benefits of a trees sustainability program are real and important do annual budgets reflect the need. As of 2019, Nason and Main streets have lost most of their sidewalk trees.
|Norway spruce trees flanking house, |
The dearth of big trees rests on our history. To the colonists of the 1600s, every tree deserved an ax. Wood burning for household heat was so profligate that visitors from England wrote home that people were so extravagant as to having more than one fire burning at the same time! By 1850, more than half of New England was field or pasture, the remaining forests were second or third growth, good for firewood but not lumber. Locally, much of what had grown in abandoned farmland was leveled by the 1938 hurricane. A fair guess is that Maynard is home to no trees more than 200 years old, and that the majority is under 100 years old. What we have are adults with growing ongoing.
|European copper beech, Acton Street, Maynard, MA.|
Estimated 90' tall and 90' wide.
The Town was designated a Tree City USA in 1999 and 2000, and refiled the necessary documentation for re-certification in 2001. Allowed to lapse, but applied and approved in 2016. The DPW Highway Department is responsible for the maintenance of all public shade trees.
Tuesday, June 11, 2019
For the English colonists who started arriving on the American coast in large numbers during the 1600s, lobster was what you ate if you could not catch enough fish. In fact, lobster was used as bait for fish. Lobster developed a reputation as hardship food, and food for the poor. All along the coastal communities, it is bandied about that indentured servants were known to complain if they were fed lobster too often. What changed all this – what converted lobster from poor man’s to rich man’s food – was a combination of the canning industry and the restaurant industry.
Industrial canning and transportation by steamship and railroad developed in the mid-1800s. Inland, where a person would never in their lifetime see a live lobster, canned lobster was a reasonably priced commodity. The Burnham & Morrill Company was one of the early lobster canneries in existence in Maine, now better known for its B&M baked beans. Lobsters were still so plentiful that anything under three pounds was thrown back as not worth the labor needed to remove the meat for canning. Upper-class restaurants in Boston and New York began offering fresh-cooked lobster. The doings of the well-off were grist for gossipy newspapers, then trickled down to the upper middle classes.
Lobsters can exceed 25 pounds and be more than 50 years old.
Thorstein Veblen, a noted economist and sociologist best known for his 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, popularized the concept of “conspicuous consumption.” The term refers to spending money on luxury goods and services to publicly display economic power. While initially applied to the very wealthy, who might have large properties, yachts, etc., in this country it expanded in time to the fuzzy-edged definition of middle class, where discretionary income (or modest inherited wealth) allowed displays such as trading in for a new car every year or two, vacationing in Europe – and serving lobster (or caviar, or expensive wines) to one’s guests at celebratory events.
The economists’ term “Veblen goods” applies to types of luxury goods for which purchases increase as prices increase, thus running contrary to the normal laws of supply and demand, which dictate that purchases decrease as prices rise. For luxury goods, higher prices make products desirable as a status symbol. Manufacturers abet this trend by deliberately limiting supply, per prestige clothing, or else the supply may be naturally limited. Oddly, when the price of a luxury item decreases, its prestige may suffer and demand decline.
|Six Maine (Portland-bought) lobsters transported across state lines to|
Massachusetts, for a celebratory group dinner.
The current world market situation for live lobster is interesting. Last year, the abrupt imposition of a Chinese 25% tariff on lobster imports from the U.S., in response to the trade war started by the U.S. government, the market for shipping live lobsters to China, which was approaching $100 million per year, crashed to near zero (Canadian lobster filled the gap). The sudden surplus depressed market prices. A year later, the tariff is still in place, but the industry adapted. “Boat price” increased from $3.92 per pound in 2017 to $4.05 in 2019 despite a larger harvest, and more to the point, growth for demand for frozen lobster tails and trendy restaurant offerings such as lobster tacos absorbed the surplus. As of June 2019, local supermarket prices for live lobster are $10-12 per pound. Going forward, a new problem affecting lobster harvesting is a shortage of bait for the traps. Quotas are being set for herring catch, which will translate to higher lobster prices as substitute bait is purchased.
Returning to the premise of the column title, “Never Eat Lobster Alone,” as noted, today, lobster is strongly identified as a prestige food and a celebratory food, meant to be eaten in public restaurants, where people can be seen by the less fortunate. Even when purchased for consumption at home, the prevailing practice is for a couple (or family) to eat lobster together on special occasions. This shared consumption is a self-confirmation of worthiness and good fortune. For all these reasons, eating a lobster alone, whether at a restaurant or at home, is counter-productive to the very idea. The mouth may say “Yes,” but the brain will say “Sad.”