April 17, 2021

1. Thoreau at Mt. Wachusett

In the last issue, I wrote about my trip to Mt. Wachusett. I recently learned that Thoreau made a trip to Wachusett in the summer of 1842, when he was 25, and then published a narrative of his trip in a Boston magazine. This was Thoreau’s first ascent of Wachusett. He was accompanied by Richard Fuller, who lived in Groton; Fuller was a Harvard student, the son of a Congressman, and the brother of the author and feminist Margaret Fuller.1

On the first day of their trip, Thoreau and Fuller walked 25 miles from Concord to Sterling (actually West Sterling, also known as Stillwater). It was a hot day. “We refreshed ourselves by bathing our feet in every rill that crossed the road.” They rested on a hill just east of Lancaster; from this hill they could see Wachusett to the west. “On the top of a hill, in the shade of some oaks, near to where a spring bubbled out from a leaden pipe, we rested during the heat of the day, reading Virgil and enjoying the scenery.”

The hill where they rested was part of a series of hills that stretched northeast. The valley behind them emptied to the Concord River, the valley ahead of them emptied to the Nashua River; both these rivers flowed north to the Merrimack River. “We could easily determine whither each brook was bound that crossed our path.”

Here’s a terrain map of the area that Thoreau and Fuller walked through:

Below is another map, with a red line showing the probable location of the “extensive range” of hills that Thoreau speaks of. To the southeast of this line is the Concord River watershed, to the northwest is the Nashua River watershed. I put an “H” on a hill that may be the one where Thoreau and Fuller rested.

Below is a third map, showing the route that Thoreau and Fuller may have walked on their first day (red line), and the route that Thoreau may have walked on his return trip (blue line). I put an “S” at Stillwater, the village where Thoreau and Fuller spent the night; Stillwater is near the Stillwater River.1B

The hungry travelers weren’t given a sumptuous meal in Stillwater. Thoreau is reminded of the Swedish inn that proclaimed, “You will find at Trolhate excellent bread, meat, and wine, provided you bring them with you.” In the morning, the two travelers climbed Wachusett.

Thoreau enjoyed the view from Wachusett’s summit: “Wachusett [is] the observatory of the State. There lay Massachusetts, spread out before us in its length and breadth, like a map.... There is something in the mountain air that feeds the spirit and inspires.”2 Raised above the surrounding land, Thoreau has a bird’s-eye view, and he feels like a bird:

We get a dim notion of the flight of birds, especially of such as fly high in the air, by having ascended a mountain. We can now see what landmarks mountains are to their migrations; how the Catskills and Highlands have hardly sunk to them, when Wachusett and Monadnock open a passage to the northeast; how they are guided, too, in their course by the rivers and valleys; and who knows but by the stars.... The bird whose eye takes in the Green Mountains on the one side, and the ocean on the other, need not be at a loss to find its way.

Thoreau and Fuller spent the night on the summit. They had a “frugal supper” of milk and wild blueberries, and read Virgil and Wordsworth.

It was the night but one before the full of the moon, so bright that we could see to read distinctly by moonlight, and in the evening strolled over the summit without danger. There was, by chance, a fire blazing on Monadnock that night, which lighted up the whole western horizon, and, by making us aware of a community of mountains, made our position seem less solitary. But at length the wind drove us to the shelter of our tent, and we closed its door for the night.

The next day, they descend Wachusett, and walk east. Thoreau thinks that Lancaster resembles Concord. In both towns, two rivers come together to form a larger river. Lancaster is where the Stillwater and Quinapoxet rivers join to form the Nashua; Concord is where the Assabet and Sudbury rivers join to form the Concord River. (Thoreau doesn’t mention the towns of Clinton or Boxborough, which weren’t incorporated yet. The Wachusett Reservoir wasn’t built until around 1900.)

Lancaster also reminds Thoreau of Mary Rowlandson, who was living in Lancaster when she was taken captive by the Indians in 1676. Lancaster was then the western frontier, the wild west. Thoreau probably read her popular narrative; Thoreau was well versed in NewEngland history.

Travelers often set out in a buoyant mood, and return weary in mind and body. Writing of the return trip, Thoreau says, “As we plodded along the dusty roads, our thoughts became as dusty as they; all thought indeed stopped, thinking broke down, or proceeded only passively in a sort of rhythmical cadence.” They spent the night in the town of Harvard, and in the morning, they separated, Fuller heading north to Groton, Thoreau heading east to Concord.

Along the way, Thoreau enjoyed a good meal — breakfast or brunch. He ends his essay by expressing his gratitude for

the brave hospitality of a farmer and his wife, who generously entertained him at their board.... Refreshed by this instance of generosity, no less than by the substantial viands set before him, he pushed forward with new vigor, and reached the banks of the Concord before the sun had climbed many degrees into the heavens.

* * * * *

When I search Thoreau’s voluminous writings at walden.org, I find no mention of Mt. Watatic, which is 17 miles north of Mt. Wachusett. Thoreau writes about several NewEngland mountains — including Katahdin, Monadnock, Wachusett, and Washington — but he never mentions Watatic, and probably never climbed it.

Watatic is almost as high as Wachusett, and the view from its summit is at least as good as the view from Wachusett. With the help of binoculars, I think a visitor to Watatic can see Mt. Washington, 130 miles away. For more on Watatic, click here.

Looking south from Watatic toward Wachusett
The white lines on Wachusett are ski trails

2. Biden

There’s a widespread feeling among Americans that the nation is declining, that we’re on the downhill path of the Roman Empire. We should focus on national survival, national issues, such as debt, defense, law-enforcement, infrastructure, environment. We no longer have the luxury of focusing on this group or that group, this race or that gender. Our focus should be on the nation — the nation as a whole. If the nation sinks, every group will suffer.

Biden isn’t serious about national survival. He’s living in the old days, when the nation stood firm, when the nation seemed eternal, when ethnic issues mattered. Today the future of the nation hangs in the balance, and ethnic issues don’t matter. If your house is on fire, you don’t worry that a faucet is dripping or paint is peeling, you try to save the house. If a President is serious about national survival, he’ll make every appointment on the basis of merit, but Biden makes every appointment on the basis of race and gender. Biden seems to think that politics isn’t about the future, it’s about righting past wrongs.

The health of the environment depends on the enforcement of environmental laws. If order breaks down, the environment will suffer. Land that’s designated “forever wild” is only wild as long as the government is functioning, as long as law-and-order is maintained.

Biden is thinking about packing the Supreme Court. Even liberals like Justice Ginsburg and Justice Breyer oppose court-packing. Biden’s policies aren’t liberal, they’re radical. Compared to Biden, Trump was a model of stability and moderation. Biden isn’t uniting the country, he’s dividing it, he’s dividing it as much as Trump did.

After the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush had the nation united behind him. He had a strong hand, but he overplayed it, he charged into Afghanistan and Iraq without an exit strategy, he brought the country into a “double quagmire,” a “double Vietnam.” Now Biden has a strong hand, he has the support of Congress, the media, and a majority of voters. Like Bush, Biden is overplaying his hand; Biden is pursuing the path of revolution, rather than the path of moderation.

3. Taiwan

About eight years ago, I published my book of aphorisms in China. The publisher was satisfied with the response, so he was willing to publish another book, Realms of Gold: A Sketch of Western Literature. The latest version of this book was translated into Chinese, but for the last five or six years, the publisher has dragged his feet. He said that the Chinese government asked him to publish a series of books.

Apparently the government doesn’t want publishers to publish miscellaneous books, it wants books that promote its political goals. It seems that the Chinese government is tightening its grip on various facets of Chinese society, and trying to direct all the energies of society to the achievement of its political goals. Clamping down on Uyghurs in the western province of Xinjiang is part of this broader pattern.

[Update November 2021: The book was finally published, in a hardcover edition.]

Borrowing George Kennan’s term “containment,” the Chinese government complains that the U.S. is trying to “contain” China — stunt its growth, keep it in a secondary position. Borrowing a term from Graham Allison, the Chinese government speaks of the “Thucydides Trap,” and compares the American fear of a rising China with the Spartan fear of a rising Athens.

Xi Jinping wants to harness all the energies of Chinese society to confront the U.S. as an equal or, if possible, more than equal. China’s cultural achievements, which are the real glory of Chinese civilization, are forgotten by China’s current government in its preoccupation with economic and military power. The pursuit of power, the pursuit of nationalist aims, is never satisfied, and doesn’t really make people’s lives better. On the other hand, cultural and spiritual goals can be satisfied, and can make people’s lives better.

Xi Jinping wants to prevent any reduction in China’s size, prevent the sort of territorial losses that occurred in the late 1800s. If possible, he wants to expand China. Above all, he’d like to bring Taiwan back under Chinese control. Niall Ferguson wrote recently,

Several years ago, I was told by one of Xi’s economic advisers that bringing Taiwan back under the mainland’s control was his president’s most cherished objective — and the reason he had secured an end to the informal rule that had confined previous Chinese presidents to two terms. It is for this reason, above all others, that Xi has presided over a huge expansion of China’s land, sea and air forces.

Should the U.S. commit itself to defending Taiwan? Should it strengthen its forces in the region, and help Taiwan strengthen its own forces? Or should it maintain the status quo, and hope that it can avoid an embarrassing defeat?

4. Substack

For many years, I sent out this newsletter by e-mail, as well as posting it to my website. I used Yahoo Groups to e-mail it, but Yahoo Groups closed down, and I didn’t have a chance to copy the addresses of my subscribers. So I no longer send out my newsletter by e-mail, I just post it to my website.

Substack allows writers to send out newsletters, and charge for a subscription. Substack has approached several NewYorkTimes writers, trying to persuade them to leave the Times, and publish through Substack. Substack even pays big advances to prominent writers. Some writers turn down the advance, and collect 90% of subscription revenues, while Substack keeps 10%. One NewYorkTimes writer said, “I turned down an offer of an advance well above my Times salary.”

So newspapers and magazines have competition from Substack. And Substack itself has competition from other platforms, some of which let writers keep more than 90% of revenue. One of Substack’s competitors is called Ghost.

Twitter and Facebook are developing newsletter platforms. Facebook hopes to provide a platform for local journalists. With the decline of local newspapers, there’s a need for local news; it has even been argued that the dearth of local news is a threat to democracy. People don’t vote in local elections because they don’t know anything about the issues or the candidates.

Will these new platforms satisfy the need for local news? Will traditional newspapers like the New York Times be able to compete with these new platforms? Will the most prominent journalists bypass traditional newspapers, and go directly to readers?

Dickens published his novels serially, in magazines. Will platforms like Substack be used by fiction writers? Will this allow fiction writers to reach readers directly, and bypass publishers, thus reducing the cost to readers, and increasing the profit to writers?

5. Quantum Physics

I saw a superb 50-minute documentary on quantum physics. It’s called Einstein’s Quantum Riddle, and it’s part of the PBS series “Nova.” It describes the origins of quantum physics in the early 1900s, and how Einstein was always uncomfortable with its occult, magical, mystical character. It describes the “EPR Paradox,” with which Einstein intended to overturn quantum physics, but instead demonstrated its occult character.

It describes how the mystical nature of quantum physics led to it being ostracized by the scientific establishment; scientific journals wouldn’t publish essays on the subject, so it was discussed in an informal, hand-typed, hand-xeroxed newsletter called Epistemological Letters. “The newsletter was created because mainstream academic journals were reluctant to publish articles about the philosophy of quantum mechanics, especially anything that implied support for ideas such as action at a distance.”

It describes how quantum physics, shunned by the establishment, was embraced by a group of young WestCoast hippies in the 1970s. The group called themselves The Fundamental Fysiks Group. Some discussions took place at the Esalen Institute. Out of this movement emerged two books that I discussed at length in Phlit, The Tao of Physics (written by Fritjof Capra and published in 1975), and The Dancing Wu Li Masters (written by Gary Zukav and published in 1979). Both these books discuss the occult, mystical character of quantum physics, and both were international bestsellers.

The documentary says that quantum physics has enjoyed a revival in recent years; the establishment has reluctantly accepted it. Though its mystical aspect is still viewed with suspicion, its practical aspect, its equations, have led to many technological advances, and may lead to quantum computing. The documentary draws on the work of MIT professor David Kaiser, author of How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival (2011).

The documentary focuses on “quantum entanglement,” also known as “the paired particles experiment.” It says that repeated experiments have proven that paired particles can influence each other through no apparent cause; paired particles can influence each other over a vast distance, through action-at-a-distance, through some sort of mysterious magic; paired particles can influence each other instantly, as if space didn’t exist, as if effects don’t follow causes.

Einstein and others were baffled, they wanted an explanation, a cause; they didn’t want to admit that their whole view of the universe, their view of space and time, needed to be modified. They didn’t want to admit that we live in a magical universe, and that we can only grasp the universe by magical thinking. We should have more respect for primitive man, who understood much that baffles us, who understood the universe without the help of telescopes or microscopes or super-colliders. We should have more respect for Kant’s theory that space, time, and causality are merely categories of the human mind, they don’t exist in the thing-in-itself.

The documentary quotes Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of the Institute for Advanced Study, where Einstein worked for many years. Dijkgraaf says, “The most puzzling element of entanglement — that somehow two points in space can communicate — becomes less of a problem, because space itself has disappeared.... There’s no space anymore.” The documentary also quotes Shohini Ghose: “We’re left with conclusions that make no sense whatsoever.... Everything is possible.... The cause and effect happen at the same time.”3

The magical character of quantum physics was deeply troubling to hard-headed scientists like Einstein. The documentary says, “Einstein argued it couldn’t possibly be real.” The documentary quotes Einstein: “Physics should represent a reality in time and space, free from spooky actions at a distance.” Hard-headed scientists want to adjust reality to human reason and scientific tradition, rather than adjusting their thinking to reality.

While the documentary has many strengths, it also has some weaknesses. It laughs at the notion that there are real connections between quantum physics and Eastern thought. It makes no attempt to link quantum physics to occult phenomena, such as telepathy. It fails to mention that quantum physics is strikingly similar to primitive man’s view of magic. It never mentions Jung or synchronicity. And while it focuses on the paired particles experiment, it ignores other quantum experiments, such as the Double-Slit Experiment.

* * * * *

I also saw a lecture on quantum physics by Sean M. Carroll. He begins by quoting Richard Feynman: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Carroll says that physicists use quantum physics to build things like transistors, but they don’t understand it. Quantum physics has many practical applications, but as a theory of the world, people can’t make sense of it.

Carroll says that scientists have stopped even trying to understand quantum physics. Carroll concludes by quoting the physicist David Deutsch: “Despite the unrivaled empirical success of quantum theory, the very suggestion that it may be literally true as a description of nature is still greeted with cynicism, incomprehension, and even anger.” Carroll tries to use quantum physics to understand the world, rather than to build gadgets.

Carroll discusses two interpretations of quantum physics, two attempts to make sense of it. The older interpretation is the Copenhagen Interpretation, the newer interpretation is the Many Worlds Interpretation developed by Hugh Everett. Carroll himself seems inclined toward the Many Worlds Interpretation. I find the Many Worlds Interpretation unconvincing and unappealing; it doesn’t seem relevant to life, or life-affirming. Carroll’s lecture is difficult for the layman to understand.

My approach is to say, Everything is Connected, the whole universe is “entangled.” I show how this thesis applies, not only to quantum physics, but to literature, psychology, daily life, etc. My approach has the advantage of simplicity, and simplicity is the sign of truth (Simplex sigillum veri).

© L. James Hammond 2021
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1. In an earlier issue, I mentioned that Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, hired Karl Marx as a foreign correspondent. Greeley also hired Margaret Fuller as a foreign correspondent. While covering the Risorgimento in Italy, Fuller met an Italian named Giovanni Ossoli; they lived together and had a child together.

In 1850, Fuller wrote, “I am absurdly fearful and various omens have combined to give me a dark feeling.... It seems to me that my future upon earth will soon close.” Shortly after writing this, Fuller set sail for New York with Ossoli and their child.

The ship hit a sandbar just 100 yards off Fire Island; it was night, and the seas were high. While others were abandoning the ship and making their way to shore, Fuller and Ossoli stayed aboard. “The first mate, Mr. Bangs, urged Fuller and Ossoli to try to save themselves and their child as he himself jumped overboard, later claiming he believed Fuller had wanted to be left behind to die.”

Fuller, Ossoli, and their child all died. The child’s body was found, the bodies of Fuller and Ossoli were never found. Thoreau went to Long Island to search for the bodies of Fuller and Ossoli — in vain.

This incident illustrates several ideas that I’ve discussed elsewhere:

  • We often anticipate our death
  • People who want to live often find a way to live, while people who want to die find a way to die
  • It’s often difficult to tell whether a person has anticipated their death, or willed their death
Wikipedia says that Thoreau searched for Fuller’s body “at the urging of Emerson.” Thoreau and Margaret Fuller weren’t close. Emerson wrote to Fuller, “I am sorry that you, and the world after you, do not like my brave Henry any better.” Thoreau had submitted three pieces to The Dial (an essay and two poems), and Fuller had rejected all three.(see Jeffrey Cramer’s Introduction to Thoreau’s Essays.) back
1B. The hill that I marked with an H is called Wattaquadock Hill. It’s a 4-acre parcel owned by Bolton Conservation Trust. There’s a good view to the east, but the view to the west is blocked by trees. If this is indeed the hill on which Thoreau and Fuller rested, then it has changed since Thoreau enjoyed a “fair and open prospect into the west.”

Thoreau’s geography is inexact, but he has large and interesting ideas, and some of his ideas deepen one’s understanding of the area. He speaks of the “Wachusett range,” and he says that Mt. Wachusett has “sister mountains,” but Wachusett is a monadnock, it stands alone.

Thoreau speaks of an “extensive range” of hills, and says that this range divides the Nashoba watershed from the Concord watershed. But Harvard has two ranges of hills, one in the west (along Still River Road and Prospect Hill Road), and one in the east (marked by a red line on my 2nd map). If Thoreau’s “extensive range” is the range in the west, then it doesn’t divide the Nashua and Concord watersheds, because the streams near Harvard Center flow to the Nashua; my red line divides the Nashua and Concord watersheds. If, on the other hand, Thoreau’s “extensive range” is along my red line, then why does he say that, on his return trip, when he enjoyed the view from Stillriver Village, he was on “the same range of hills” that he rested on, the same range that divides the Nashua and Concord watersheds?

So we can quibble with Thoreau’s geography, but it should be remembered that he didn’t have all the maps and apps that we have. He deserves credit for trying to understand the lay of the land, and for appreciating the beauty of the views.

When I heard that Thoreau and Fuller walked 25 miles on their first day, I thought that might be an exaggeration. But when I checked the distance from Concord Center to the Stillwater section of Sterling, I found that it is indeed 25 miles. Thoreau says elsewhere that he often walked 30 miles in a day. They started walking at 4:45 a.m., so by 9:30 they could have covered 50% of 25 miles.

Note: Stillriver Village in Harvard, and the nearby Still River, should not be confused with Stillwater River in Sterling, and the nearby village of Stillwater. back

2. The first part of this quote is from “A Walk to Wachusett,” the second part is from “Walking.”

Thoreau realized that, in the northeast, many mountain ranges and “hill ranges” are oriented northeast-to-southwest. “These lesser mountain ranges,” Thoreau writes, “as well as the Alleghanies, run from northeast to southwest... answering to the general direction of the coast, the bank of the great ocean stream itself.” Thoreau thought that rivers tend to flow parallel with the mountain range; perhaps he was thinking that the Concord and Nashua rivers flow southwest-to-northeast. back

3. Ghose’s Smithsonian talk, and her TED Talk, are concerned with the practical implications of quantum physics, such as encryption. She has little interest in the philosophical and psychological aspects of quantum physics. back