From the Raven to the Muskrat

A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting at a desk in the back of my classroom. My students sat quietly, each working to complete the test before them, and it was one of those rare moments where I could just relax, observing everything around me. I took a deep breath. I’m a high school English teacher. This is my classroom. It’s a Tuesday.

And as I looked around, I noticed all the birds. It’s been organic, I might say, but I’ve collected quite a few over the years. My oldest is a large drawing of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the book cover with a ball of string and the tree’s knot hole. I also have a smaller mockingbird picture, more recently given to me. There’s a scarlet ibis, often mistaken for a flamingo, that one of my students painted for me after reading the story by James Hurst. Of course, I have a few ravens. One is a cardboard prop I made long ago, and every year while teaching “The Raven,” I run across the floor, jump as high as I can, and slap it to the wall above my door. Sometimes it stays there all year. A couple years ago a student painted me a portrait of Edgar Allan Poe with a raven superimposed on his face, so that’s up there on my front wall too. That’s a total of five birds, but there’s more. This year, I finally learned how to string the origami cranes that I make with my students as part of their study of Hiroshima by John Hersey, and some of those hang from the ceiling.

All this gets me thinking about animals in literature. In addition to those already mentioned, we read Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and “To Build a Fire” almost every year. Sometimes we read The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, which uses lots of bird symbolism. There’s Of Mice and Men, too, where Steinbeck describes the death of Candy’s old dog at the hands of Carlson. And of course, when I think about epic stories and animals, Moby Dick rises to the surface.

The raven, however, might be the most recognizable of these literary creatures. After all, only one sports team, the Baltimore Ravens, is named for a poem about a fictional animal. I find this very satisfying, and I think Poe would be honored. That bird, most indeed, refused to fly away, and never-nevermore did Poe find a better symbol for despair that just doesn’t quit.

Henry B. Kane's woodcut image of a muskrat

But there’s another favorite of mine, Henry David Thoreau’s muskrat.

In recent years, this muskrat has become more sentimental to me than ever. It’s found a home with me alongside the other animals. And whereas my last post about Thoreau focused on a passage from the beginning of Walden, the relevant passage here comes from the last few paragraphs of the book. Thoreau writes, “The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands; even this may be the eventful year, which will drown out all our muskrats.” I just love this passage, especially for its stark contrast to the raven.

Whereas Poe’s raven is all about hopelessness, the narrator’s failed attempt to recover from the despair caused by a dead lover, Thoreau’s muskrat is a symbol of hope. He says “the life in us is like water in the river,” trying to make us understand there’s always more, always greater possibilities within the confines of our lives. And those pesky habits, those troubles we’ve come to live alongside like varmints in our house, those “muskrats” so to speak—well, Thoreau says, yes, we can get rid of those. To me, that’s so hopeful. Perhaps that’s the most powerful lesson in all of Thoreau, one which Poe’s biography, to the best of my understanding, suggests he never seemed to learn. We can change our lives. We can drown our muskrats.

The picture included with this week’s post is located at the end of a 1951 edition of Walden published by W. W. Norton & Company, which was illustrated by Henry B. Kane. He is known for his nature drawings. The muskrat seems to be afloat, at least for the moment, while the flood waters rise.

I Would Fish Deeper

It’s almost that time again when I teach Thoreau’s Walden.  For me, it’s become a perennial favorite, and as we all grow more and more connected to our phones and other digital devices, reading some Henry David Thoreau may serve as an antidote. At least that’s what I hope for my students. I suffer no illusions, however, for at best, it’s barely a scratch in the surface of their worlds.

Nevertheless, Thoreau comforts me.  At its heart, Walden is about recognizing the superficial lives we all too often accept.  Yet it’s easy to misinterpret his words about living “deliberately” in the woods, as my students often do, as a call to live life to the fullest. I try to set them straight. Thoreau didn’t want us to gorge ourselves on experience, to drink in everything without measure, but rather to slow down, to simplify, and to live a deeper life.

Walden is filled with metaphors for this deeper life, and every year I find more. One of these has both challenged and plagued me so much that I’d like to spend a few minutes discussing it.  Many readers will probably recognize the familiar line. “Time is but a stream I go a-fishing in.” It’s just perfect—ready to be ripped from the page and plastered on a shirt or a hat.  My father-in-law, in fact, has a decorative metal sign with those words neatly set against the backdrop of a man fishing in a stream.

Fishing on the Meshoppen Creek in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania

But here’s the rub, for as I understand it, Thoreau draws this metaphor to describe our shallow and superficial lives.  I admit—I was taken in by the turn of phrase, too, and it took me a long time, years really, to understand that what comes after that line is ever more important. He actually writes, “Time is but a stream I go a fishing-in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is.  Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.  I cannot count one.”  There’s still more to that paragraph, but this should suffice my purpose here.

With greater context, the true meaning of these words takes shape.  The first sentence is really just a prelude, and a contrasting metaphor, for the imagery of the second half, which contains the point of his message.  Indeed, Thoreau proposes something more from life than just a stream.  He uses the familiar metaphor of time passing like a river but changes the direction.  He turns it vertical, reflecting upon the shallow nature of the water before him. The march of time seems weak, too, as Thoreau reduces the river to merely a “stream” and a “thin current” for the fisherman.

“I would drink deeper,” Thoreau says.  And that’s the important part.

Thoreau wanted a deeper understanding of life. He wanted to strip away superfluity to better explore what lies at the core of our experience. He wants to “fish in the sky,” because in contrast to the stream, there is no bottom, but rather an infinite deepness. And for him that’s exciting. The stars in the sky are so far away, so very deep, that they become foreign and unaccountable. The deepness actually confounds him, which as I have said, Thoreau finds thrilling.

And in the end, it’s all quite beautiful.  It gets the job done, so to speak, but only when the reader realizes the first line is only scratching the surface of the message. I think it’s interesting, too, that the structure of the passage even mimics Thoreau’s theme. That sentence that starts the paragraph with a familiar metaphor seems to suggest the way we lead our lives, looking for meaning at the top of our paragraphs rather than taking time to read through the whole thing.  We skim along the surface, taking the easy way, avoiding complexity, because it takes time and patience to understand the world. Once in a while, we get lucky. We catch the meaning, but most of time we need to fish deeper.

Thanks to Bill Kern from the Countryside Conservancy for providing the picture of Meshoppen Creek in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania.

John Jacob Astor

The weekend before Christmas my family and I went to NYC to see a college basketball game at Madison Square Garden.  The trip was sponsored by the basketball booster club at my son’s high school, and besides watching the game, we had a few hours to explore the city on our own.  I knew it would be crowded, but I didn’t realize the horde of tourists who descended upon the sidewalks at this time of year.  And of course, we were part of that mass pushing our way toward the tree at Rockefeller Center like pilgrims on their way to Mecca.

Besides the people, the basketball game, and the gifts still needing to be purchased, I had Bartleby on my mind.  My juniors were reading Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, The Scrivener” at the culmination of our unit on Dark Romanticism.  It was their first encounter with Melville.

As for me, I’d been reading about Bartleby since college.  I’d shared the story with some of my high school classes over the years; other times, I preferred  just moving on to something a little more palatable to their tastes such as Emerson and Thoreau.  Maybe just as difficult, but certainly less enigmatic.

This time around, instead of reading the story, I decided to listen on my Echo while I graded papers, figuring why not get two things done at the same time.  What stood out, at the beginning of the story, was the narrator’s esteem for John Jacob Astor.  You sense that this man was someone influential, someone well-respected by the narrator, and who obviously becomes a sort of foil to poor old Bartleby and his preference for doing nothing.

As I began to fall under Bartleby’s spell, my daughter, who might be a bit precocious for a sixth grader, wandered into the kitchen and quickly began interrogating me.  As I tried to explain, she said, “And you’re making your class read this?  Your poor students.”  I chuckled.  She may have been right.  “Well I prefer not to listen,” she said, leaving me alone once more.

Call me weird, but contrary to my daughter’s opinion, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Melville’s story, and now, with it fresh in mind, I was pushing and pulling my family through the swarm at Bryant Park.  Eventually, we found some breathing room in front of the New York Public Library, and after some quick photos on the steps, I spotted something special in the building’s facade.  There, at the top of the building, was inscribed a dedication to John Jacob Astor. 

john-jacob-astor-inscription

He wasn’t fiction. He was real.  John Jacob Astor!  I shouted his name, letting the sound roll off my tongue as Melville writes in his story.  John Jacob Astor!  He was real.  I shouted his name again, risking that I might be disowned at that very moment by my family. 

I should have known, perhaps.  But no one ever told me, there wasn’t a footnote or anything to suggest the reality of John Jacob Astor, and I had never been to the New York Public Library until that day in December.  Now, of course, I know that Astor, at the time of his death in 1848, was the richest man in America, and in his will, he left the equivalent of 11.6 million dollars to build the city’s library.  Now I know.  And yet I wouldn’t have it any other way.  There is something so beautiful about chasing the truth, especially when it’s serendipitous.  It was definitely better, and I prefer it that way.