Category Archives: History

Visiting Walden; Reading Walden

A lovely day trip from Boston, Walden Pond is a large, crystalline lake, surrounded by tall trees and walking paths. Henry David Thoreau lived alone near its shores in the 1840s and was inspired to write his famous work, Walden. Today, many families visit to spend time outdoors and swim in the lake, and the Massachusetts park service runs a visitors’ center nearby with information about Thoreau’s life.  A replica of the tiny house Thoreau built for himself sits close to the center; a reminder of his call to live simply.

I visited in September with friends and was captivated by Thoreau’s house. It looked surprisingly like the tiny houses of recent social movements, aimed at either helping the homeless or getting stressed-out city dwellers to downsize and simplify. Suddenly I was envious of his project to live alone by the lake. I’d never read Walden; it was time to pick up the book. 

A reproduction of Henry David Thoreau’s house at Walden. 2018 Photo by Mark Holan

Walden is a first-person account that’s part nature study, part self-help, part political critique. Thoreau meanders for long passages but then makes a sharp point that seems right on target for 2018. Most pointedly, he talks about how quests for money, property and prestige tend to complicate our lives with pointless worry.

In passage after passage, he discusses the way we mindlessly accept society’s conventions and how poorly it serves us. He calls for truth in all things; even when others disagree:

“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board. The hospitality was as cold as the ices.”

He emphasizes the tremendous value of reading and thought and how it strengthens the mind:

“To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”

Even though he was alone in the woods, Thoreau did not hunt. Instead, he makes an explicit pitch for vegetarianism:

“Whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.”

He sees personal health as both holistic and spiritual, which moved me deeply:

Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones.”

Henry David Thoreau, 1856. Daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxim.

Almost eerily, he seems to forecast the dangers of climate change. Thoreau made detailed studies of the pond and its depth. In his day, workers would come each winter to harvest ice by cutting away the top layer of the pond and packing the ice in straw to send to the city. Thoreau saw how the pond itself seemed to react by melting faster as its top layer was cut away:

“Who would have suspected so large and cold and thick-skinned a thing to be so sensitive? Yet it has its law to which it thunders obedience when it should as surely as the buds expand in the spring. The earth is all alive and covered with papillae. The largest pond is as sensitive to atmospheric changes as the globule of mercury in its tube.”

Later, he notes the ultimate power that the natural environment has over human life:

“The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit — not a fossil earth, but a living earth; compared with whose great central life all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic.”

Thoreau is philosophical, but he alternates big thoughts with charming observations of the surrounding forest life.. Here he describes the foxes and wonders about  their motivations:

“Sometimes I heard the foxes as they ranged over the snow-crust, in moonlight nights, in search of a partridge or other game, barking raggedly and demoniacally like forest dogs, as if laboring with some anxiety, or seeking expression, struggling for light and to be dogs outright and run freely in the streets; for if we take the ages into our account, may there not be a civilization going on among brutes as well as men? They seemed to me to be rudimental, burrowing men, still standing on their defence, awaiting their transformation. Sometimes one came near to my window, attracted by my light, barked a vulpine curse at me, and then retreated.”

On the day of our visit to Walden, I spent a pleasant day on its shores with my friends and their children, eating a picnic. My partner, a serious swimmer, swam across Walden and back and wrote his own thoughts on it. Though Thoreau’s life in one way seems very long ago, in another way it’s quite immediate. Many things about Walden, both the book and the place, will stay with me.

10 things I like about George Washington

I made a new friend this summer: George Washington, the first president of the United States.

We got acquainted through Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow’s 900-plus page biography that  makes Washington seem so real, so human, and so appealing that I got excited about America’s democratic experiment all over again.

And obsessed with all things George Washington. I should note that I decided to read Chernow’s doorstopper of a book after reading and loving the much shorter (at 352 pages) Washington biography, His Excellency George Washington, by Joseph J. Ellis. Both are fantastic reads that I recommend, so you have both long and short options.

Here’s my list of 10 things I like about George Washington, in no particular order:

  1. He believed public service should be done for the public good, not to get rich. He often refused salary or other compensation he was due.
  2. He didn’t like being famous and tried to avoid pageants and public displays in his honor. Sometimes he would sneak out of town early to avoid a farewell parade.
  3. At a time when slavery was widely accepted in his home state of Virginia, he freed the people he held in bondage when he died, taking measures in his will to establish their care.
  4. He liked women a lot and had many female friends. Elizabeth Willing Powel, the wife of the mayor of Philadelphia, gave him political advice and was a close confidant.
  5. He was an emotional person, prone to outbursts, but he worked hard to restrain himself in words and deeds.
  6. He was athletic and liked to ride his horse and dance.
  7. He was a researcher, studying up on business and politics. He consulted widely before he made decisions and considered all sides.
  8. He didn’t have his own children, but he was generous and kind to his step-children, nieces, nephews and children of friends. He offered them good advice through his letters.
  9. He had high standards for his friends, advisers, and staff, and he was very loyal to those who met his expectations.
  10. He was charmingly self-conscious about his false teeth.

The fake news of George Washington’s era

I know some people don’t like the term “fake news,” but I still tend to use it to describe intentionally fabricated information masking as a legitimate news story. “Fake news” does not mean “any news I don’t like.” (See this story for more on that issue.)

My interest was piqued recently when I learned that President George Washington had to deal with phony reports claiming he had actually been sympathetic to the British during the Revolutionary War. It’s a conspiracy theory that actually doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it was a real thing in Washington’s day, and one of his final acts as president was to lodge a formal rebuttal — really a type of fact-check — with the secretary of state’s office. Here’s the story I wrote about the episode for PolitiFact:

Politics in 2018 can seem so relentlessly negative, it’s tempting to seek escape in reading stories of the Founding Fathers.

Take George Washington.

Far from the staid-looking fellow on the $1 bill, Washington was a tall and athletic man, a skilled soldier, an avid horseman and a graceful dancer. Known for his eloquent silence, he instinctively deflected attention from himself so as to emphasize the birth of a new country and government by the people.

Still, there were ways in which George Washington’s life is like today. Here’s one: He had to fight fake news.

Forged letters from before his presidency claimed to show in his own words that he privately sympathized with the British monarchy and thought the American cause was doomed. The letters also suggested that Washington thought Americans weren’t ready for democracy. MORE …

A fact-checker’s guide to Michael Wolff’s ‘Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House’

From time to time, I happily get to review books for PolitiFact. Here’s my latest, a review of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. (And here are links to more book reviews I’ve written.)

Even books about Donald Trump seem to break norms: Trump hasn’t been in office a year, and already there’s a gossipy insider account that claims to show the real goings-on of the Trump White House. Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House portrays an infighting senior team at each other’s throats, and a president too narcissistic and distracted to be capable of governing.

Is it accurate? Many details are simply wrong. Whether the larger narrative is true is a different question. …

A bigger problem with Fire and Fury, however, is that by any standard of sound journalism it has big problems with transparency and sourcing. MORE …

Poems for St. Patrick’s Day

Mark Holan and I celebrated St. Patrick’s Day by reading our favorite Irish poetry aloud. Here’s are selections from what we read:

Easter 1916, by William Butler Yeats

I write it out in a verse —
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Digging, by Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Whatever you say, say nothing, by Seamus Heaney

Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:
Manoeuvrings to find out name and school,
Subtle discrimination by addresses
With hardly an exception to the rule

That Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod
And Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape.
O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
Of open minds as open as a trap

On the First Day of June, by Paul Durcan

I was walking behind Junior Daly’s coffin
Up a narrow winding terraced street
In Cork city in the rain on the first day of June
When my mobile phone went off in my pocket

And of course, a poem from himself:

The Deer’s Cry, by St. Patrick

I arise today, through the strength of Heaven:
light of Sun,
brilliance of Moon,
splendour of Fire,
speed of Lightning,
swiftness of Wind,
depth of Sea,
stability of Earth,
firmness of Rock.

Glendalough

‘Get action, be sane …’

 

I loved getting to know Teddy Roosevelt through Ken Burns’ documentary, The Roosevelts. His advice for staving off depression by staving off boredom was this: “Get action, be sane … .” Another great TR quote is chiseled on the monument I viewed today at Theodore Roosevelt Island: “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”

Gallery

Washington by Instagram

This gallery contains 12 photos.

We’ve been exploring Washington D.C., mostly by bike, ever since we moved here earlier this year. I like to snap photos of the monuments on my iPhone and post them to Instagram; it’s an amateur endeavor and totally fun. Here … Continue reading

The 2014 Global Fact-checking Summit in London (photo gallery)

In June, I attended the Global Fact-Checking Summit in London. About 50 fact-checkers from Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America and Australia attended. The conference was  hosted by the Poynter Institute, organized by Duke University’s Bill Adair (PolitiFact’s founding editor), and funded by the Omidyar Network, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Ford Foundation, craigconnects, the Duke Reporters’ Lab and Full Fact.

The conference was fantastic, and seeing London for the first time was a real treat. Here are a few photos and comments from my trip. Click on the first photo to launch the gallery.

Visiting the Folger Shakespeare Library

Last weekend we made a charming visit to the Folger Shakespeare Library, just a stone’s throw from the U.S. Capitol. The library is renowned for having more than 70 First Folios of Shakespeare’s plays (and depending on how you count, as many as 82), including one on view under glass with a neat interactive display.

Founders Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily Jordan Folger were obsessed with collecting the folios in the early 1900s, and today the library focuses its collection on all materials related to Shakespeare, as well as materials from 1450 to the early 1700s.

We signed up for a tour of the Reading Room, which includes the marvelous stained glass window depicting scenes from the “seven ages of man” speech in As You Like It:

All the world ’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His Acts being seven ages. …

See Morgan Freeman deliver the full speech here (3 minutes).  My photo of the library window doesn’t really do it justice.

As You Like It

I was also fond of the statue of Puck; the base of the statue has an inscription from the character in A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” Here’s its context from the play:

Captain of our fairy band,
Helena is here at hand,
And the youth, mistook by me,
Pleading for a lover’s fee.
Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!

Puck

Finally, I include this marvelous bust of the Bard himself. I know there’s raging debate over which likenesses of Shakespeare are historically accurate. This one, I think, captures his artistic  spirit.

Will

Wilfred Owen speaks from the grave

When I was in school, World War I didn’t get much attention, and the poets of World War I even less. That was a real shame, because the poetry that came out of World War I has so much to recommend itself to everyday readers.

First of all, many of the poems rhyme, because the poets tended to stick to formal structure. Second, the poems were usually about the war, and things that were in the news and inherently political. The poems had a message to get across that most readers would be able to grasp quickly.

I’m reminded of all this because of the debate about Syria. I edited a report this week about chemical weapons, and then this weekend, I opened the New York Times to find an analytical report on Syria (by Steven Erlanger) that opens with a reference to the poet Wilfred Owen and his remarkable poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.”

Before the Latin puts you off, it means, “Sweet and right it is …”; the rest of the saying is “… to die for one’s country.” The poem, which you can read in its entirety here, uses the line to be ironic and biting, contrasting the motto with the effects of chemical weapons on soldiers at the front:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

I got a chill reading the poem again today, because it reminds me so much of what I love about literature: It’s a way for us to speak to each other, not only across divides of circumstance and birth, but also across space and time.