Left in Andover: Walden ideal of enough as plenty

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Each of my siblings was named after a special hero of my dad. These included Rosa Luxembourg, the Polish socialist, the brothers Gracchi, who were agrarian land reformers of ancient Rome, and the Irish patriot Robert Emmett.

I was the exception to this rule. My parents’ lame excuse was, “Oh, we named you the same as your sister.”

My own private theory is that, arriving two years after the stillbirth of my older brother Gracchus, my being female took my parents by surprise. Otherwise, they might have named me Henry, after the bard of Walden Pond.

Walden, the ideal cabin in the woods.

Dad, who was born on July 12, 1917, 100 years to the day after Thoreau, felt a special affinity with this 19th century prophet of civil disobedience, environmentalism and simple living.

A staunch abolitionist as well, in July 1846, Thoreau was arrested and thrown into Concord jail for non-payment of six years poll tax, his protest against the Mexican-American War. Resulting in the United States’ annexation of Texas as a slave holding territory, this now obscure war emboldened the South, setting the stage for the American Civil War.

From just that one overnight behind bars (an aunt quickly bailed him out, aborting his youthful protest) came Thoreau’s enduring essay “Resistance to Civil Government,” calling out the complicity of taxpayers in perpetuating the institution of slavery. As a tax resister and proponent of simple living, Thoreau reckoned that the less he had, the less he had to lose: “My greatest skill is to want but little.”

One hundred and three years later, my father also crusaded against the poll tax, firing off this note to U.S. Rep. Bill Meyer, dated July 14, 1959:

Susan Leader, far left, with her mother and other close female relatives in door to her cabin.

“Now, on my 42nd birthday, I have had my driving license suspended due to non-payment of poll tax. I will not pay the tax and will continue to drive until arrested, when I plan to begin an attack upon the poll tax requirement itself, which I am hardly alone in believing medieval and undemocratic. I am trying to think how I can fend off the Vermont state’s attorney’s claim that the issue is simply driving without a license. At worst it means a month or so at the Woodstock jail (according to a pacifist friend, very tolerable) and it is possible a lot of good could come of it.”

Thoreau, unlike Dad’s other heroes, was not martyred, though he did die young, at age 44, after having settled into a conventional lifestyle as heir to his family’s pencil manufacturing company.

Paradoxically, the pursuit of money contributed to the premature death of this brilliant non-conformist who listened to the beat of a “different drummer.” Breathing in the fine particles of plumbago — or graphite — used in the pencil business weakened his lungs, leaving him susceptible to the tuberculosis that killed him.

But Thoreau’s eponymous ideal of taking to the woods to live simply in semi-isolation in a tiny cabin acquired a life of its own, even, most especially, unto the present day.

Susan in her own Andover Walden in 1975.

In the culture of my own family, access to a cabin in the woods has always been the ultimate fallback position. It’s where we’d want to be if the world were to fall apart and we had to fall back upon our own resources of self-sufficiency. My husband, an urban expat, had this in mind when he moved onto the land here in 1978.

Thoreau’s social distancing manifesto, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion” resonated no less for the illustrious 20th century anthropologist Helen Codere, who created her own Walden-inspired hideaway in Andover in the 1960s.

Codere Road and her 260-acre gift to the Vermont Land Trust pay permanent tribute to her conservationist ideals, and those of her idol, who wrote: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

Andover cemetery markers for Helen Codere and her life partner.

As a top academician, Dr. Codere made her mark with Franz Boas documenting the Pacific Northwest Kwakiutl system of potlatch. This tribal gifting away, even destruction, of wealth in order to gain prestige, turns capitalist logic on its head. Ongoing redistribution of resources ensures group survival.

Although no potlatch, a tradition of mutual aid has always been key to rural survival. Fundamental is a neighborly trust that people, at heart, are not greedy, and that we need each other to keep honest.

Long ago, Andover coined its own unique aphorism for this, recorded in HH Gutterson’s 1886 “The Local History of Andover, Vt.” It helps in controlling my instinct to binge-buy at the grocery store:

A reminder at Lisai’s to ‘save some for your neighbors.’

“In the days of which we write, hotel-keeping was in a very primitive condition. Nearly every settler, however, kept a sort of travelers home, furnishing the best accommodations they could for man and beast. Such arrangements had Aaron Towns, at whose house a traveler stopped one day and called for dinner. A meal of fish and potatoes was provided. Towns, who had an eye for profit, watched the stranger as he commenced to eat, and, observing he helped himself liberally to fish, said to him: ‘Seems to me, stranger, you have got fish enough for two potatoes,’ and it became a byword ever after in town, if anyone helped themselves liberally to anything, ‘You have got enough fish for two potatoes.’ “

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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