Backlit Harbor

Sampling Thoreau

Part 1Economy

Inspired by rereading Thoreau’s Walden for the first time in 30 years, I am writing a series of essays—an attempt to sample Thoreau, and swing the rhythm. I want to honor the young idealist with echoes of his aphoristic style and, at the same time, challenge his lofty ideals with the experience of an older woman. Click here to read part 2.


When I turned 50, my mother gave me $200 for my birthday. I bid it all on a black leather doctor’s bag I found on e-bay and very quickly received an email saying I’d “won” it. My husband Andy and I still refer to the bag as the German seller listed it: “doktorattache.” At the time, I imagined myself using it as what my mother would call a day bag to carry on the train to New York. Now, every Friday night we load the car with my doktorattache, and Andy’s shopping bags full of clothes and tools, and head southeast toward the New Bedford Harbor.  When the road splits south of Boston, we stay right and are soon up to speed. I feel an intimacy with those on the road with us, as I do with strangers speeding down the track with me on the last outbound subway until morning—the anonymity; the neither here-nor thereness; the strange desire to overshoot my stop and keep traveling—not quiet desperation, just a sense of direction. When we finally turn on the harbor bridge, we have been on the road just over an hour.


When Melville sailed out of the New Bedford Harbor on the whaleship Acushnet in December 1840, whale oil from New Bedford was lighting lamps around the world. It was probably the richest city in the country. As Ishmael, the narrator in Moby Dick, put it: “Nowhere in all America will you find more patrician houses, than in New Bedford… one and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither.” Fifteen years later, petroleum was discovered on a farm in Northwestern Pennsylvania, and the whaling business started its decline. Now you can buy a four-family property in New Bedford for less than we paid for our half of a two-family house in Cambridge. I discovered this one Sunday looking through the real estate classifieds in The Boston Globe where I found an ad for a condominium in a converted building, recently an infamous bar in downtown New Bedford. It promised a harbor view. We decided to take a Sunday drive.

We drove through blocks of housing projects, storefront churches, manicure shops, drug stores, empty buildings and empty streets before we found our way downtown. We intended just to drive by the place and then find some dinner, but there was a man—struggling to hold onto his grocery bag while unlocking the front door—who asked us if we would like to see the inside. He took us up to a roof deck where we looked down on the Seaman’s Bethel (the “Whalemans’ Chapel” in Moby Dick) and, closer to the docks, the stone buildings where the spermaceti used to be boiled down into candle wax. The sun was setting on the fishing fleet, the barges, cranes and pile drivers. I had a Spanish professor in college who was from Barcelona but had spent most of his career teaching in Switzerland. It was an awful country, he told us, too clean, like “una aldea de juguete,” a toy village.  I thought of him, and I thought I’d never seen anything as beautiful as this very real working harbor.

Three years later, we used the small inheritances from our parents to buy a condo in a building just on the other side of the New Bedford Harbor in the town of Fairhaven. Since then, we’ve spent most weekends there and vacation weeks whenever we can get them. It’s an old brick building, built at the beginning of the 20th century to house the teachers from the high school just across the street, the only waterfront property we could afford. Behind the parking lot is a patch of mud and sand, our “beach” on the Acushnet River. I brag to friends that we could launch a dingy there, though I know we never will.


In Cambridge we live above my sister Joan in a two family home. The apartment is ideal for one person and, after 17 years, we’ve accumulated drifts of possessions and created a model of that “unwieldy space” that Thoreau warned would come to imprison rather than house us. We have cupboards full of pots and pans we never use, teacups we never drink from and mugs from a company where Andy worked years ago that has since gone out of business. And there is the electronic equipment, Andy’s hobby. Yards of cord hang down the wall and coil on the ends of bookcases. We have a TV, Tivo, DVD, CD player and three generations of computers. What started as thrift has brought us a long way down that road paved with good intentions. Much to my relief, we at least finally buried the ashes of Andy’s stepfather that had been stashed in the coat closet for years.

My own closet is filled with what my mother would call “classic” clothes. That is, they never go out of style, because they’ve never been in style. When I was younger and poorer and reading Thoreau for the first time, I felt some moral superiority in my simple uniform of khakis, fitted skirts with simple lines, button-up blouses, dark stockings, though I would have been more than willing to undertake an enterprise that required new clothes as long as it lined my pockets. Over the years I have cultivated my own “dowdy chic,” as my friend calls it. I don’t go out without makeup, and I don’t go out without irony: red shoes, a blouse in a different plaid than the skirt, earrings made of dice, a funky handbag—Doktorattache. Once we bought our place on the South Coast, I filled the closet there with the old clothes I saved for laundry day at home: pants a size too big, a pair of jeans made of hemp, the flannel shirts and cashmere sweaters that I took from my father’s closet after he died. There I am simply dowdy.

The year we moved into our house in Cambridge, I came to understand Aristotle’s distinction between Art and Prudence: the mistakes of the prudent are random, as the philosopher frames it.  My sister Joan and I cleared some ground for a vegetable garden in the backyard: tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, cucumbers, pumpkins, eggplant. We had romantic ideas of living off the land, at least our 72 square feet of land. Overwhelmed by pests and blights and determined to keep it organic, we spent hours outside picking aphids and worms from the tomatoes and washing each squash leaf individually. At the end of the summer, we had so many zucchini and eggplant we couldn’t give them away and decided that if we wanted to simplify our lives, we should buy our vegetables at one of the farm stands in Lexington or Concord. Now we’ve planted a flower garden—a maze of raised beds—in the front of the house, and people walking down the sidewalk stop and point at the ordered disorder of the artist.


The year we discovered Fairhaven, I gave up driving. As a young feminist I had believed I could make a political statement by learning to fix my car—actually my mother’s car. My mother suggested my sister and I go with her for an evening program called “Women on Wheels” offered by the dealership where she’d bought the car. We snacked on coffee and donuts and watched the guys show us how to check the oil, start the car when the carburetor had flooded and fix a flat—all the while drumming up business, recommending we sign up for roadside service, warning us that if the lugs were not tightened, the tire could fall off; if the jack failed, the car could fall and crush us. In the end, I was never brave enough to actually try my hand at car repair. In fact, in ceasing to drive, I have let go of any illusion of self-reliance. Timid and easily distracted, I worry about the unwitting mistakes and want to leave this life without taking anyone with me.

Every candidate for governor in the last 12 years has promised to extend the commuter rail from Boston down to New Bedford, a project still just blueprints because of the cost and because of the resistance of some of the quiet towns along the way that don’t want strangers passing through. The bus from South Station doesn’t stop where it’s not welcome. In Cambridge I depend on public transportation. In Fairhaven, where I live without deadlines, I walk or ride my bike. Some years after my Women-on-Wheels adventure, I took a class in basic bicycle repair. I was the dunce of the class. In fact, I had trouble remembering which way a screw was threaded, and the instructor had to stand over me repeating “lefty loosey, righty tightey,” a mantra I still recite every time I turn on the garden hose. The final class we took apart the whole drive train to clean and grease it. That night I had to ride home in a wet snow and, somewhere on the Charles River bridge between Boston and Cambridge, I had a moment of panic when I realized I was balanced on my own work. That was my takeaway and worth the price of the class.


One of the graces of getting older, now dying faster than I’m living, has been coming to understand there is no such thing as “free time. ” In the economy of hours, I buy time for my own work with others’ expertise. I’ve given up attempts to be well-rounded. I don’t have to paint my own walls or fix the toilet. I no longer frustrate myself trying to blow a clear note on the pennywhistle. I’ll leave it to the next owner to refinish the desk.

In the Fairhaven condominium we don’t have to worry about lawns, roofs, and pipes by ourselves. But it is an old building in chronic need of repair, and the condo fee is high. We reckon our monthly expenses this way:

+  $365/month: condo fee, including heat and hot water.

–   $40/month: savings on heat and hot water in Cambridge

–   $50/month: rent received for second parking place

+  $165/month: property taxes

+  $25/month: electricity

–   $25/month: savings on electricity in Cambridge

+  $100/month: food eating out (fresh fish) and in (bread, peanut butter, jam, fruit, coffee, cocoa, cinnamon for the toast, cayenne pepper to heat up the coco)

–   $100 savings on food in Cambridge

+  $40/month: cable and Internet

Total: $480/month

We have moments of panic worrying about how our money will hold out. Trying to forget about the costs of maintaining two places, we congratulate ourselves that our expenses in Fairhaven are so much lower than they would be if we bought a larger place in Cambridge. When my mother used to brag about getting something at half price, my father would laugh and ask her what she had done with the other half.

Thoreau scorns both those who give to the poor only to brag of giving, and the poor who accept charity only to use it to buy more rags. True charity was the example of the well-lived life, though he himself squanders the practical lessons offered by his poorer neighbors at Walden Pond.When an ice cutter comes to his door after falling into the pond on a bitterly cold day and strips off three layers of grimy pants and two of socks, Thoreau comments that the man had been in need of the ducking. He forgets his own comparison of a house to the outermost layer of clothing. He forgets that he had built his own shelter on another man’s land.

Monthly rent for a studio apartment in Cambridge today is more than our monthly mortgage payment for the house we bought 20 years ago, and the average income of residents has risen to $65,000/year.In fact, most of those who were born and grew up in Cambridge can no longer afford a home there. In New Bedford where the average income is $33,451 and unemployment high, there are still many boarding houses and single rooms for rent. These have disappeared from Cambridge and most of the Boston area, forcing many into homeless shelters.

Perhaps the decline in New Bedford’s population will level off once the commuter rail finally reaches the city, and folks can travel to Boston for jobs that will support their families. Perhaps Bostonians will be attracted to a commuter town with water views. For now, it’s a place where people born here leave of their own volition, a place where strangers like us can find a home, and claim the other half.


Anne Welch lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts but is at home on the South Coast of the state in Fairhaven/New Bedford. She credits studying the descriptive language in Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and Huxley’s The Crayfish for teaching her to write with precision and consider her essays as experiments. Her essay “Lady Undressing” received special mention in The Pushcart Prize XXIV and was listed as a “Notable Essay” in The Best American Essays 2009.

Backlit Harbor

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