Illustrations from issues of The Coffee Public-House News (ca. 1878)
I have lived in southern New England for a while now, and it used to be that I could count on winter’s being, well, wintry. Snow fell and it stuck around. In recent years, however, the winter weather has tended to be at once monotonous and unsettled: alternately gloomy and blustery for days, wet, sometimes icy, and unseasonably warm. I’ve taken to calling it “Novembril,” this new super-season of six months’ duration that offers a tedious blend of winter and autumn. It will be followed by the yin to its yang, Maytober, which has its own dubious charms.
Anyway, I’ve been beguiling Novembril Sundays by visiting art museums. I do it to steady myself against the turn Mother Nature has taken — not to mention similar turns taken in world events and national affairs. I take great comfort in the simple fact that beautiful things were once made and people once delighted in them. And, if the crowds I’ve jostled with are any indication, I’m not the only one who does.
At some point, however, delight morphs into exhaustion. Hours of marveling at Grecian urns, admiring Dutch landscapes, and studying portraits by Sargent makes my head swim, my eyes smart, my legs ache. Art drunk, I jokingly call this enervated state. And the only thing that sobers me up is a trip to the museum coffee shop.
Let the amelioration in our laws of property proceed from the concession of the rich, not from the grasping of the poor … Let us understand that the equitable rule is, that no one should take more than his share, let him be ever so rich. –Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Man the Reformer” (1841)
Of those writers who flung themselves against Mt. Monadnock’s steep, rugged slopes, arguably the most famous and widely read, Walden author Henry David Thoreau, came not to pen soaring verse, as his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson enjoyed doing, nor solely to thrill at the view. Over the course of his relatively short life, Thoreau scaled Monadnock four or five times. Each time he’d train to Cheshire County, New Hampshire from his native Concord, Massachusetts wearing hobnailed boots and carrying plum cake and salt beef, his preferred camp rations. He detailed these expeditions in his journals. From them we know that Thoreau certainly admired Monadnock’s views. Yet what excited him even more than the summit were the summit’s berries: blueberries and huckleberries, and even the rare mountain cranberry. On Monadnock the sun-kissed treats thronged in easy abundance. “Nature heaps the table with berries for six weeks or more,” Thoreau wrote, a profusion “wholesome, bountiful, and free.” As they presented “real ambrosia” for anyone with enough energy to reap, Thoreau found it absurd that so few people stirred to the task.
The mariners stranded in the icy wastes of Antarctica, where, as an 1850 edition of Household Words reports, “crashing mountains of ice, heaped up together, have made a chaos round their ships”; the mariners icily bearded, enjoying no company besides animals and birds white as though “they too were born of the desolate snow and frost” – how did they observe the year-end holidays? With merriment and good cheer, as it turns out.
The 1841 South Pole expedition was the very picture of high spirits on the high seas. The crew celebrated Christmas in grand English style, unfriendly environs notwithstanding. Such animal life as existed there paid no heed to them. Seals basked sleepily on floating chunks of ice. The black curve of a whale’s back peeked through a fissure and disappeared again. Two ships, the “Terror” and the “Erebus,” occupied a small opening in ice pack seven hundred miles wide. Ice covered the decks; a dense, gray fog, the ships. Except for flocks of shrieking terns that sometimes passed by, all was still and silent.