On April 16, when tragedy struck the Virginia Tech campus, I was reading about Thoreau and his retreat to Walden Pond in Susan Cheever’s book, American Bloomsbury (Simon & Schuster, 2006). I was also finishing up a memoir class. We had just come through a “dogwood winter” of record-breaking proportions that had stopped spring’s flowering just as surely as the hail of bullets had stopped so many young students (as well as teachers) in their early flowering.
Indeed, as I sat viewing the images on television, snowflakes swirled around the incongruously stately, impossibly immaculate gray-stone structures of the university, while figures with orange vests and guns swarmed over them, intruding—even as the buildings gave off an air of imperviousness like a medieval fortress, castle or monastery. And thoughts, like snowflakes, swirled in my head.
I thought about Thoreau, heartbroken and without direction after the death of his older brother John, finally deciding to go to Walden and write about the journey up the river the two of them had taken. “I want to go soon and live away by the pond, where I shall hear only the wind whispering among the reeds,” he wrote. “It will be a success if I shall have left myself behind.”
Thoreau did write about his brother (“Be thou my Muse, my Brother,” he implored), but the journal he kept during his two years at Walden Pond provided the material for Walden, the masterpiece that he published years later and which Cheever calls the first memoir. I remembered this famous sentence: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
My thoughts segued to the refrain of a familiar song: “Has anyone here seen my old friend John?” I thought of John Kennedy and of his younger brother, Bobby, who, after Jack’s assassination, found his muse in Jack and was himself struck down; and of yet another younger brother, Edward, whose voice had broken as he delivered Bobby’s eulogy. Then the lyric of the Irish folk song, “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye”—also the title of a remembrance of John Kennedy—popped into my head. I saw monuments and Camelot, castles and kings.
Dreamlike, I heard in my head the sonorous voice of another figure in the song “Abraham, Martin, and John”—Martin Luther King Jr.—who was also cut down in his prime and has served as muse to so many others who have come after him.
I flashed to the face of poet Nikki Giovanni, a VT professor, and the line from her chant-poem delivered at the convocation after the tragedy: “We will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears.” And the phrase “the fire next time” from James Baldwin’s memoir insinuated into my head.
My mind jumped to Johnny Cash and the recent fire that destroyed his iconic, seemingly impenetrable, stone-and-wood “nature home” on Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville, Tenn. Cash’s wife, June Carter, liked to call it “Camelot.” Marty Stuart, who lives next door, said: “It was a sanctuary and a fortress for him. There was a lot of writing that took place there.” Viewing the remains and the stone chimneys, and speaking as if in a daze, Johnny’s shaken younger brother, Tommy, said: “I can’t believe it’s gone. … So many memories.” Then he pointed incredulously to a tree with Johnny’s initials carved into it that had somehow survived, as if his muse lived on in that place.
It was there that Cash, in his last days and the dark night of his soul (his wife June having died a few months earlier), filmed portions of his masterpiece of pain—the raw video rendition of “Hurt” that became a memoir of his life in flashing images juxtaposed against Trent Reznor’s lyric: “Everyone I know goes away in the end.”
I thought: We all want to go back to Walden, or the promise of Camelot, or to whatever fortress or sanctuary we can escape to in the face of such incomprehensible tragedy—to quench the fire that is burning in our land and in our hearts.
For the next two weekends, my sister, a friend and I went back to our Walden: Our family farm in Dillingham, where, like Thoreau, we tilled the soil and planted our garden. I savored the smell of the newly turned earth and sank into its softness as we laid off the rows and planted potatoes, onions, cabbage, peas and beets, and sowed seed of old-fashioned hollyhock, zinnias, poppies, forget-me-nots, sage and thyme. I again contemplated Thoreau’s famous sentence: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life … .”
I lost myself in solitude and quietude against the fortress-like, protective shoulders of the blue mountains that surrounded us there in the Big Ivy valley.
Whenever a bird’s cry interrupted the silence, I thought about Thoreau’s declaration that a birdsong is as wise as philosophy.
I felt again the urgency that we all must feel, as Thoreau must have felt, in the face of unfathomable sadness and loss: that desire to retreat, to contemplate, to somehow leave ourselves and the present world behind, and, in doing so, discover who we truly are; to write our own memoirs and, with our dead sisters and brothers of Virginia Tech as our muses, perhaps, like Thoreau, create, collectively, our own masterpiece.
[Poet Nancy Dillingham is a sixth-generation Dillingham from Big Ivy.]