Thoughts on Finding Solitude

Janet Beyer looks at ways to clear one's head in Concord and beyond.


A month ago I wrote in the column Thoughts on the Neighborhood Pub about the need for a third place, a place that is not home or work, a place where we can retreat without the obligations of family, dishes, dinner, phone, or expectations. 

The closing of my favorite third place, Walden Grille, prompted that column. Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place articulates these opinions in convincing detail.   We need an escape place. 

Other countries accommodate this need in their town squares, cafes, parks, coffee shops and pubs.  We in the U.S. are spread out and have to look for and establish our Other Place.   In that column I stressed my personal Third Place standard: a neighborhood pub.   But there is another type of third place. It is the solitary place; a place to clear the mind without the obligation of conversation.  This other place could be called wilderness.

In Concord, Henry David Thoreau is the embodiment of this move to solitary reflection.   Walden Pond is crowded with people seeking what he wrote he went there to find.  But these Thoreauvians won’t find solitude among so many other Thoreau worshipers, they have to find their own solitary place.  With its woods, fields, meadows and trails Concord has ample places to seek solitude.

Concord’s Great Meadows is rarely busy and allows the walker to spot herons, ducks, and assorted birds.

A GPS and sense of direction will take you across the open spaces of Lincoln’s trails, including a bridge over quicksand, and through the uncharted woods of Concord.    

If you want total solitude, take Peter Stark’s The Last Empty Place to heart and head to northern Maine, central Pennsylvania, the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico, or southeast Oregon, where you are not likely to see anyone else.    Stark gives some history of these places as he puts himself in them, and in northern Maine he includes the fate of the French settlers in Acadia.   

I am not a fan of Thoreau, though I try to restrain from expressing this opinion in Concord.  I find Walden dense and self-righteous.  In preparation for this column I gave it another try, and once more was underwhelmed.   Too much detail, too much of himself in it, too much lecturing.    

Maybe because I am an ocean person and not a woods person, my favorite book of the solitary type is The Outermost House by Henry Beston.   In 1926, Beston was 38 years old when he went to live in the small cottage he had built on the dunes of Nauset. He did not plan to spend a year in it, but found himself drawn to the beauty of the dunes and ocean.  In the introduction to the book Robert Finch wrote: Thoreau’s visits …“three-quarters of a century earlier had been undertaken with a typically Yankee sense of purpose.”   Thoreau wrote:  “Wishing to get a better view than I had yet had of the ocean, which, we are told, covers more than two-thirds of the globe….”

Beston on the other hand, Finch writes, was drawn there by the force of an attraction he only slowly came to understand.”  

Beston was not a loner.  He wrote:  “It is not good to be too much alone, even as it is unwise to be always with and in a crowd…”.  He sometimes walked into town for dinner or to the coast guard station. The coast guard men stopped by for coffee when walking the shore.  Those people became his friends and watched over him.  But he spent his days observing the shifts in the dunes, the birds, the flora and fauna of the shore, the sights and sounds that surrounded him.  And he kept a journal.  A poet at heart, an observer by nature, the book reads like a single long poem, and is a tribute to humanity and its relationship to nature.

“The seas,” he writes, “are the heart’s blood of the earth.  Plucked up and kneaded by the sun and the moon, the tides are systole and diastole of earth’s veins.”

Beston's home was eventually destroyed by the Blizzard of '78 after being declared a National Literary Landmark in 1964. Check out more about Beston on the website, maintained by fans, www.henrybeston.com.   And pick up a copy of Outermost House at the Concord Bookshop. You won’t be sorry.

“Touch the earth, love the earth, her plains, her valleys, her hills, and her seas; rest your spirit in her solitary places. For the gifts of life are the earth’s and they are given to all, and they are the songs of birds at daybreak, Orion and the Bear, and the dawn seen over the ocean from the beach.



Enough of the Bambi syndrome.

I like Bambi as much as the next person; I like deer in the wild.  I love their grace, their long legs, their agile lope.  I do not like them in front of my car. I do not like the damage they do to automobiles as they obliviously lope across Route 2.   

After I posted on Facebook my encounter with a now-deceased deer, I heard from many people who had hit a deer and had done serious damage to deer and car.   Enough already!    I don’t know how many drivers have been killed by deer, but if I had been driving a lower car the outcome of my encounter could have been different.  It set my insurance company back $3000, but the deer did not come over the hood.    

I think it is time to rethink our protection of this now-overpopulated lovely animal.  For the sake of the deer and the population. 

x February 17, 2012 at 10:16 PM
Sister Janet, I enjoyed your thoughtful and far-reaching column. To your reading list I would add 'Solitude: A Return to Self' by Anthony Storr - an excellent study of the subject. Your comment on Thoreau brought to mind a past conversation with a local old timer. Apparently Henry David had a reputation as a vagrant and misfit. He was accused of stealing food from neighbor's gardens. Of course this is considered hate speech now that Thoreau sits on the throne, surrounded by lesser Concordian gods and goddesses. Regarding the deer population, they suffer from a sad disease - an epidemic of acute lead deficiency. There is no cure within town limits as rifles are not permitted. In rural areas high velocity lead poisoning can be an issue. Your humble servant, Reverend E. Raleigh Pimperton III
Craig della Penna February 20, 2012 at 04:47 AM
Janet First, let me second your favorable view of The Outermost House. I stumbled upon that book a few years back and it was truly captivating. Second, if memory serves, deer kill 100-200 people per year and cause $1-1.5 BILLION dollars of property damage from auto accidents. This does not include costs to replace all of the shrubs etc. that they eat, nor does it include medical costs associated with Lyme disease and so forth. Whether a lead deficiency (bullets) or steel deficiency (arrows), we need to open up our conservation land in Concord to safe, ethical hunting. Without it, get used to the wolf-hybrid coyotes that are coming down from Vermont. Like Chatham with the seal overpopulation leading to more sharks, the coyotes are figuring out that there is a lot of food around here. Let's hope they stick to the deer, eh?
Janet Beyer February 20, 2012 at 01:53 PM
Thanks, Craig, for both comments. I had wondered how many people were killed by deer/year. What area is that? Massachusetts? It would be worth checking out. If it is Mass. or New England, it is a lot. If it is U.S. (or worldwide) minimal. I will check it out with Fish and Wildlife and see if there is an answer: Anyone out there have the statistics?
Gail Kearns February 27, 2012 at 05:53 PM
I loved your article about the "Outermost House" author! Spent MUCH too long the other day browsing on that website and tucked a note into my pocketbook to find that book next time I'm in the library. You're a good writer, Janet! Hope to see many more of your articles in the Patch!


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