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Up a Lazy River: “Deep Travel: In Thoreau’s Wake on the Concord and Merrimack”


Reviewed by Richard West 


    In late summer, 1839, 22-year-old  Henry David Thoreau and his older brother John spent a week canoeing the Concord and  Merrimack  rivers in northeast Massachusetts. Six years later Thoreau moved to Walden Pond outside Concord  where he wrote most of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, published  to very faint acclaim in 1849. Soon after he moved 706 copies out of 1,000 of "A Week" into his parent's house, thus prompting  his wry quote: "I now  have a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of  which I  wrote myself."
    In the summer of 2004, 165 years later, David Leff, the former deputy commissioner of Connecticut's Department of Environmental Protection, with  three companions  retraced the Thoreau brother's canoe trip.  His account of canoeadling the rivers is the new Deep Travel: In Thoreau's Wake on the Concord and Merrimack. No doubt he hopes it will sell a bit more than that of the famous prophet of environmentalism.

    Deep travel?

     "It is careful looking…not so much a matter of seeing sights as it is sight-seeking…Deep travelers look not so much for scenery or enchanting objects as for a tapestry of comprehension woven from stone walls, retail establishments, street and topographical names…building styles, plant and animal assemblages, advertising signs, and other artifacts," writes Leff.
    That explains Leff's numerous rhetorical guideposts, the riverine riffs and lectures we experience floating along through terra not a bit incognita: on  purple loosestrife and other invasive plants, passenger pigeons, Levi's, Billerica, interstate highway history, canal boats, textile mills, Disneyfied or dignified Concord. Are these deep traveler's insights or a passing smoregesboredom? As the fly said crossing  the mirror, there's more than one way to look at it.
    Robert Sullivan, in his new book The Thoreau You Don't Know, writes about Thoreau's canoe trip, "Essentially, though, the book doesn't  work. It's got too much contemplation and not enough action; he doesn't manage to synthesize his Transcendentalism  with a journey…"   Ditto Leff's "Deep Travel"(sans Transcendentalism), although you sometimes learn interesting factoids. Who knew three of the four first Civil War casualties are buried in Lowell, Mass.? Or as potential camp fire birch is "all show and little glow"? 


    Time to meet Leff's traveling mates who joined  him on consecutive journeys: his 11-year-old son Josh; his sweetheart  Pam; and old friend, neighbor, and decades-long land-use planner, Alan. Josh joined his dad on the first segment down the 15-mile river Concord (above) before it becomes absorbed in the Merrimack, and is, by far, the most interesting companion. Leff beautifully limns a kid becoming aware of history, especially  when they happen  upon a Revolutionary War enactment near Concord's Manse, and discovering  the natural world.
    "Josh is an indispensable companion… Without ever hearing the term, Josh grasped the very essence of deep travel: asking questions about the obvious."
    Alan then joined Leff to search for traces of the Middlesex Canal, canoed by the Thoreau brothers; he comes across as a rather grumpy contrarian with the romantic imagination of a, well, bureaucrat. Here's how Leff records a few of Alan's replies to his comments as they tramp through North Billerica and other stops: "demanded" and "brusquely" (pg.85); "sarcastically" and "caustically" (pg. 97); "sardonically" (pg. 108); "with annoyance" (pg. 225). Later in Lowell when Leff mentions hometown lad Jack Kerouac's signing copies of his  first novel in 1950, Alan's response is "I wonder what one of the books he signed that day would fetch on ebay."
    Alan does have insights on deep travel topics like concrete bridge piers, canal walls of cut stone, the strip centers and franchise outlets of Generica, anywhere America, but, no surprise, they read like a land-use planning manual. The eyes glaze over like Dunkin' donuts.
    Sweetheart Pam seems a good soul, a modestly-paid, low-key living  home health-care aide, but often she comes across irritable as a woman turning 30 (she's older), contradicting Leff time and again, bafflegabbing about country clubs, private golf courses, conspicuous consumption, yuppies. My sentiments exactly but why waste energy (and paper) on such toothless paper tigers? Her portrayal's complicated by their personal life: one chapter she's "the love of my life," writes Leff, the next, they're at each others throats as the engagement ring deep-travels back and forth.  
    I've reviewed several writer-canoeist accounts and you can take this to the bank: as the river flows, so flows the prose. Leff's book brings to mind Tom Robbins' describing  an Asian river in his novel, "Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates": the river brown as cigar soup… sleepy as pupils in ninth-grade algebra."

Deep Travel: In Thoreau's Wake on the Concord and Merrimack, David K. Leff, University of Iowa Press, $32.

Continued canoeing:
…The classic in the field is Goodbye To A River: A Narrative by John Graves, a beautifully-written elegiac account of floating the Brazos River through central Texas before a large dam changed it forever.
…National Public Radio's Noah Adams canoed (and white-water rafted) the New River from its headwaters in North Carolina north through Virginia and West Virginia in Far Appalachia: Following the New River North.
,,,William Least Heat-Moon, the acknowledged deep travel master whose 624-page "PrairyErth (a deep map)" covers one county in Kansas, traveled 5,000 miles, from New York harbor to the Pacific Ocean, not in a canoe but a 22-foot C-Dory and wrote about it in River-Horse: A Voyage Across America.

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