A Latter-day Bluestocking

For the love of reading

Tag: Maine

In Which Henry David Thoreau confirms a place-name

There is a wonderful place in Maine where the loons call and the water laps against the shore, and the smell of earth, pine and cedar permeate the air.  It is a place absent of electricity and plumbing and it is, to me, the best place on earth.  It is the absolute best place to read; whether indoors sitting in front of the large fireplace with the wood crackling, sending up sparks or outside on the back porch with Borestone solemnly rising in the distance, a gentle breeze rippling across the lake, and the promise of a breathtaking sunset.

It is here a few summers ago I decided to undertake the reading of Henry David Thoreau’s The Maine Woods, an interesting read if at times a difficult one.  It is a slow-moving book and took me a good deal of time to complete.  Thoreau’s writing is devoid of poetry and is very matter-of-fact and dry.  Despite this, his descriptions left an indelible hold on me and like those places he describes the book forces one to slow down, to stop and smell the flowers.

One of the things I liked most was Thoreau’s care and attention to detail, painstakingly describing the places, documenting the flora and fauna, and the Native American words for things.  I was delighted to find one of these terms, pokelogan.  There is a spot here that the family have always called pokelogan, a marshy, damp spot awash in lily pads, and occasionally covered in coarse grass where moose have been occasionally spotted.  The origins of the name were sufficiently lost in recent memory (at least to me); that’s what the place was called and I never thought to question why.  As a kid, trying to get the canoe around “Poky Logan”, when the water was low, was near impossible and the word “poky” apt because of the sluggish struggle to paddle through.  I always assumed this was the origin of the name and never wondered who or what “Logan” was.

The words of Thoreau  brought enlightenment, given the following passage:

“They [the moose] were particularly numerous where there was a small bay, or pokelogan, as it is called, bordered by a strip of meadow, or separated by from the river by a low peninsula covered with coarse grass, wool-grass, etc., wherein they had waded back and forth and eaten the pads.”

Of course, I probably could have asked the older generation of aunts and uncles and cousins to find the origin of the place-name but that would not have given me the pleasure of discovering it for myself.  The realization that my great-great-grandfather most likely read the posthumously published (1864) Thoreau tome, and may have chosen to use the native term to describe our “pokelogan” is a powerful one and doubly so because “my discovery” resulted in  feelings of closeness to him despite the span of generations.

The Curious Case of Artemus Ward

Artemus Ward, from book Wit and Humor of the A...

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“The village from which I write to you is small.  It does not contain over forty houses, all told; but they are milk-white, with the greenest of blinds, and for the most part are shaded with beautiful elms and willows.  To the right of us is a mountain to the left a lake.  The village nestles between.  Of course it does, I never read a novel in my life in which the villages didn’t nestle.  Villages invariably nestle.  It is a kind of way they have.”  (Affairs Around the Village Green)

Waterford, Maine

I have returned to the village, Waterford, Maine, in which my grandmother was born and where I lived when I was born.  Albeit, the elms are now gone, a victim of Dutch Elm Disease, but it is still a “small and nestling” place.  I climb the mountain and swim in the lake.  It is a village my family have returned to practically every summer.  My grandmother lived there year-round as does my sister now.  I am drawn to it as a migratory bird is drawn back to its nesting grounds.  It is a place that renews my soul and the one place I truly feel is home.

Birthplace of Artemus Ward (Charles Farrar Browne)

Ever since I could remember, there has been a sign on the common which mentions the founding of the village, when it was incorporated, and the fact that it was the birthplace of Artemus Ward (April 26, 1834–March 6, 1867).  As a snot-nosed kid, this fact did not mean much to me but one day I discovered a book, Works by Charles Farrar Brown, amongst the shelves at my grandparents’ home.  As I was flipping through it I found that the author of the stories wrote under the pen-name of Artemus Ward.  That large house across the common was where this once anonymous person was born.  Funny, who knew?  I hadn’t.

Charles Farrar Browne or Artemus Ward was a humor writer and a very popular one, apparently.  He was widely read in the United States as well as Great Britain and was in England, on a reading tour, when he became very ill and died at the age of 32.  He was one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorite writers and it is alleged that he read to his cabinet one of Ward’s articles before getting down to the business of presenting his Emancipation Proclamation.  Artemus Ward was also said to have inspired his contemporary, Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.

One of the stories in that book I stumbled upon, “Affairs Around the Village Green”, was particularly interesting because Artemus Ward perfectly describes the place that has meant so much to me.  That the little hamlet of Waterford had changed so little since his time, my grandmother’s time, and my father’s time gave me a sense of continuity and connection, one I could never have in New York.  And one day I will return there for good…it is a wonderful thing!

“Why stay in New York when I had a village green?  I gave it up, the same as I would an intricate conundrum and, in short, I am here.”

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