Monday, January 21, 2013

Listening Hard for Walt Whitman's Footfalls

We all, as we get older, tend to ask that cliched "where-does-the-time-go" question. I'll tell you where it goes; it goes past us while we toil over necessities and then try to fill our free time with "meaningful" activities. As I once said, paraphrasing Whitman: we fail to loaf and invite our souls.

Walt Whitman
A testament to this -- and one of whoppingly ironic proportions -- is the fact that I have lived within walking distance of Walt Whitman's summer home (the place where he reputedly wrote a good deal of Leaves of Grass) for more than a decade and have never, once, visited it. Granted, it is open by appointment, only, but -- you'd think a guy like me, who spent quite a few hours studying the man's work and who went to school in the city of Camden, New Jersey, where the poet spent a large portion of his life, would have made the effort.


Well, today, I'm going -- not into the house, because it is Sunday, but, I will visit the outside of it and I will also venture into the nearby environs of Crystal Spring, where the poet once loafed, invited his soul and penned many of the pieces of his seminal collection of poems.

I'm off to loaf, and to invite Whitman's soul to pay me a visit. I'll be right back...with pictures.

(Video montage of clocks ticking...)

Well, I'm back. Quite an interesting adventure. As I knew, the house was closed, but I lingered on the grounds for  little.

He probably would take the train in from his home in Camden to this station, which I drive past each day on the way to and from work:

I like the carefree Whitmanian diction of the sign.

The house itself -- which is on a residential road. (Some girls were playing basketball in the next driveway; trash was out for collection.)

After quite a search, considering how small the town is, I found the entrance to Crystal Spring, where Whitman is said to have penned parts of Leaves of Grass. His words about the spot:

"Hovering over the clear brook-water, I am sooth'd by its soft gurgle in one place, and the horser murmur of its three-foot fall in another. Come, ye disconsonlate, in whom any latent eligibility is left--come get the sure virtues of creek-shore, and wood and field." 

And, so, I had come.

Turning the soft curve of the dirt trail, I found the tiny spring. Yeah, this is it. I suppose it hadn't been enshrined in stone in Whitman's day. The area is very small. Behind me, where I shot this picture, was a little creek that runs into Laurel Lake. The view in the other direction is of the backs of houses, on the other side of the weakly-flowing creek. The whole area was pretty muddy -- which makes sense. Whitman claimed that bathing in the mud in this spot helped him in his recovery from his stroke and with his arthritis. 

Here is the spring. I have to admit, it was a bit of a letdown. I knew it was supposed to be small, but when I arrived it was nearly invisible. I cleared away the leaves under which it was completely buried (feeling pretty sad that someone didn't take better care of the site). Small, though it was, I was still walking in the footsteps of the great American poet, though...

...which would have been nice, if it hadn't been for the fact that a young middle-school couple were yammering and smooching amid the trees not fifteen feet away from me, unfazed and undaunted from their bouts of tonsil-hockey by my presence. I tried, but it was hard to feel connected to the poet with her repeated "omigod" exclamations and his emphatic "Dude! No way!" barks polluting the solitude. In short, I tried to loaf, I tried to invite my soul, but I got slowly angry -- feeling my usual disdain for a life lived in an overpopulated part of the world; in an overpopulated time.

I thought about how beautiful the place must have been in Whitman's day; of the solitude he must have felt there, drinking from the delicately babbling spring, and then I compared his Romantic state to mine as I sat and was forced to endure the chattering of the young couple who were unconcerned that we were  in a place that was an inspiration for one of the greatest works of poetry of all time. 

After a few minutes, I couldn't take it any more. I got back into the car and went off in quest of Laurel Lake -- a lake that Whitman once called "the prettiest lake in either America or Europe." No kidding. (The whole area, I understand, sort of became Whitman's Walden Pond during this late period of his life.)

So, I drove to Laurel Lake. It was hemmed in by houses. No access to the lake that I could see. And it looked -- drab, especially through the screen of tool sheds, trash cans, rusty bikes and parked cars. Things must have changed a lot since Whitman's time, for sure. 

Granted, I need to visit the place again in the springtime in order to be fair. Still, it hurt to see the lake and the site of the Good Gray Poet's retreat bullied by houses; the dirt around it glittering with insultingly green, broken beer bottle glass.

I have to tell you, I left feeling a little low. I had hoped to find a tiny poetic oasis in my area; something I could make regular visits to; a place in which I could commune with the memory of one of my favorite literary figures. Instead, I had found trash and the claustrophobic press of suburban life. 

I turned back for home, ready to be gloomy. But when I got back, my son and I went down into the woods behind my house to practice our new hobby: target archery. And you know what? -- it cheered me up. I realized I have my own little oasis just down the hill from my back yard. 

As I watched my son shoot his first few shots, I fancied that old Walt might have really liked my stretch of the woods, too. In fact, he might just have actually walked through here in his jaunts. It is almost silly that I actually have to say it:  I nearly missed the beauty in "my own back yard." 

This stretch of woods goes on for miles, though it is narrow -- a few hundred yards at the widest. (If I understand my local geography correctly, it would eventually bring the steadfast walker to Crystal Springs and to Whitman's beloved Laurel Lake.) And though there are houses on each side of these woods, the ground is low, leading down to the creek, so that they are most often out of sight. The little valley also makes things pretty quiet. One could even forget civilization, if not for the occasional overhead jet.

The creek can run pretty high and it  can be heard chuckling to its own private jokes from our back deck, when there has been enough rain.

A view from our little archery nook.

Sure, these days one can't be alone enough to strip and mud bathe in the woods (one winds up in jail if one tries), but I suppose I will have to be happy with the fact that I have my own little illusion of seclusion right behind the house. It is a place into which I can go to pretend that Nature has not lost its capital "N." Maybe the great one once walked by our little archery spot on an excursion on a fine day in summer. Maybe I can still hear his footsteps crunching the leaves if I just sit still enough and if I am granted a reprieve from chuntering pre-teens and the buzz of engines and power edgers...


  1. Thanks for taking us on this little day-trip, Chris.

    As my blog attests, I visit lots of similar literary and historical sites, and most of them leave me ambivalent at best--yet I'm always convinced the next one will be inspirational or epiphanic. At some point, I'll be right, but you've nicely shown that sometimes the lesson of such a visit doesn't come where or when we think it will.

    1. In a way, Jeff, I guess it makes total sense when this kind of thing happens and I should be thankful for it. Just as a good story or poem can surprise us into understanding in delightfully unexpected ways, so can a disappointing ,mini-pilgrimage. What would have been the fun in the ghost of Whitman popping out of the spring and telling me to never give up my dreams? (Actually, that would have been cool...but you know what I mean.)