When did I first experience the writing of Henry David Thoreau? I can't be precise with date or even year for it must have been nearly eighty years ago, as was my first experience with poetry — poetry beyond the not to be depreciated nursery rhymes. Both experiences occurred in the one-room school where I had the luck, the blessing, to spend seven years with the guidance of that most remarkable teacher, Miss Pitts, Miss Ruth Pitts. So a book of poems and prose celebrating the influence of Thoreau's writings, I now realize, should begin with this one-room school and Miss Pitts. You should have some sense of what that school was like. This poem may help although it was not written for this specific purpose,.
One room, eight rows of desks, a wood stove.
Boy and Girl entry-cloakrooms right and left.
Boy and girl shovel-out back-houses right
and left rear: Naples school number seven
in the old county atlas. When I went there,
age four and a half and a bit more, green
as a summer grape, it was The Lord School.
Named for the family that had settled there.
From the window by the sub-primary row,
a short row behind the wood stove, I could see
the Lord place across a frost glazed pasture.
We were pretty much on our own there, Miss Pitts
and maybe twenty kids. There was electricity
but no running water, no telephone. If someone
fell or was sick Miss Pitts dealt with it.
I was alone in the sub-primary row. We lived
a mile away but I didn't know anyone there.
Where I sat is all I remember of my first day
of seven years with Miss Pits at that school —
except that I wet my pants. Too shy, I suppose,
to raise one finger, walk past those strange faces
all the way to the back-house door, past
all seven rows. It must have been a long day.
The poem, as a piece, fits, and that's how this book will be built. Put together with mostly existing pieces, poems, blended with bits of bridging prose, not wholly planned and constructed. I do not claim, nor do I desire, to be a Thoreau scholar. There will be no pretense of an adequate biography of Thoreau. Those who know Thoreau's work and life will realize I have failed to mention many aspects which they may feel are significant. I hope they will accept my word that this is not due to error or ignorance, I am only including what I feel has a specific and memorable effect on my work. It is a record, as memory serves, of my personal response to Thoreau's work with such biographical notes I thought interesting or relevant. Just my responses with only my word to serve as validity — which you may find not always dependable — as no memory is.
It was in one of Miss Pitts classes that I first remember meeting Thoreau. Was it 5th or 6th grade? I'm not sure but we were assigned a section of Walden, the section in the chapter titled Brute Neighbors generally referred to as "the battle of the ants". A good choice to engage country kids in reading.
The Pitts farm was about a mile north of The Lord School on the same road which, a mile south, passed my home. Miss Pitts's brother, Loton, was a Bowdin graduate, a rare item in our town at that time, and was the postmaster. And, it was said, he wrote poetry. He did, for I have on the shelf his book, Wild Mad Acres, which he presented to my mother when it was published in 1939. A critic, I assume, would say it shows the influence of Robert Frost. The poems must have been written, and others as well, while I was a student in his sister's classes. Which may explain why, in addition to Longfellow, Whittier, and Poe, we met Robert Frost at the Lord School. In, probably 5th or 6th grade, a girl class-mate and I were assigned an oral presentation of the dialogue from Frost's Death of the Hired Man. I must have been terrified. All my life I have avoided, denied opportunities to take part in a play. Even as being just the voice of a puppet in one of John Tagliabue's plays, even though completely out of sight, I suffered serious stage fright.
I visited Miss Pitts, then a retired school principle, when she was in her eighties, about the age I am now I suppose. "I remember you, Robert," she said sharply. "When you finished you work early I'd give you a jar and you'd go down to Wiley's swamp behind the school and collect things."
So the outline of my future life appears in those seven years in that one-room school with a wonderful teacher: poetry, biology, an interest in and feeling for Thoreau. Perhaps even my freedom from alleges also, those years in school with no running water, eating off my desk, in the yard, the embracing woods with an mix of equally unwashed class mates. Ants or course, through not necessarily battling, show up in my work from time, as in this poem, slightly modified from my book, Reading Nature, published in 2006.
These desert ants didn't have the wealth
of neurons homing pigeons draw on,
yet they knew where they had been and
came home again by different ways
from the ways they went (if you'll
forgive the awkward phraseology).
Each ant apparently retained a map
of the rocky, rough terrain where any pebble
blocked their view. Following their map
and not their nose (or more properly,
their antennae or their tarsi) used
their little heads to find their way home.
Those tiny ganglia we're so reluctant
to call brains can read the maps and then
tell six legs which way to go, and when.
To leave us wondering how many transistors
could dance upon brains smaller than
the heads of those proverbial pins.