By Odell Shepard, with introduction by Rick Sowash
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Summer 2008
Odell Shepard (1884-1967) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning Connecticut author, the James J. Goodwin Professor of English Literature at Trinity College (1917-1946), one-term lieutenant governor of the State of Connecticut (1940), and something of a latter-day Transcendentalist, in the mold of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, whose journals he edited. He won his Pulitzer for a biography of Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott (Pedlar’s Progress: The Life of Bronson Alcott, 1937).
During the Depression, he bought a plot of 25 forested acres outside Riverton, Connecticut and constructed a cabin. Inspired by Thoreau, he passed his summer break from teaching at Trinity there in the early 1930s, writing The Cabin Down the Glen, a summary of his thoughts and feelings about life, nature, and his arrival at age 50. For Shepard this required a reconciliation of opposites, arrived at, in his own time and way, through a re-connection with nature on a particular patch of northwestern Connecticut.
Treating universal themes, the book is nevertheless dedicated “to the people of Connecticut.” The unpublished manuscript was rediscovered among Shepard’s papers at Trinity’s Watkinson Library and published in 2006.
The Cabin Down the Glen by Odell Shepard is available on-line.
My land—for I delight in using that humorous phrase as often as it can be made to seem appropriate!—lies in the midst of one of the earth’s oldest mountain chains, in comparison with which the Alps and Himalayas and Andes are yesterday’s upstarts. A glacier worked hard at it for a long geologic age, and to good and manifest purpose, melting down two huge drumlins to defend me from the north wind. It gouged me a glen where the voice of living water sings beside my cabin, dropping mighty boulders about to nurse the ferns and to stand as isles of blue among the green. Earthquakes have pushed and heaved and shaken themselves so that my many springs of water might gush between the snapped and tilted granite. The frost, that doughty smiter, has labored here through more seasons than there are leaves on all the trees. And when I think of those leaves themselves, of the endless labor of leaves going back to the age of the coal levels, I bow my head with a sense of utter unworthiness. There come times when I feel overwhelmed, like a guest for whom too much has been done. There are times when I say: “Let me only look on, my brothers! Help me not to feel an intruder even here! Let me rest my hand for a moment on the boulder and feel its slow strong pulse—this hand that yesterday was only a blowing dust, and that will be whirled away tomorrow on another wind. Lend me for an instant the illusion of permanence in a world where nothing lingers. Give me a heartbeat of time in which to learn the secret of your patience, of your confidence, of your sober joy—and all the childish humble babble of ‘ownership’ shall be a jest between us.”
Neither can I too heartily admire the huge dome that has been arched over my little plot of Connecticut—its colors and distances and lighting arrangements. Two great lamps are burning there, and smaller ones innumerable. I can lie out from dawn to midnight on one of my hills among the fern, watching hues grow and change and fade above me, without wishing for any other entertainment, without thinking one clear thought, without remembering the past or probing the future, wholly absorbed in the wonder of drawing down those incalculable miles of space, with all their shining inhabitants, through the tiny gateway of the eye.
And then there is the infinite silence, made vocal by the hermit thrush, breathing in the hemlocks, and spreading the peace of afternoon round the song of the white-throat. A good many silences I have heard here and there, some terrible and some kindly, but none like this that sings and broods all year about me. There are eight thousand miles of quiet beneath my land, and infinite reaches of quietness above it. There is, in fact, God’s plenty of this good thing which I had come to suppose was growing rare, and for which I have perhaps an unusual liking.
As for guests, not one ugly thing shall I entertain and not one raucous noise. My acres lie open to all the birds of all the sky, and I judge that most of them have found it out. They are entirely free to every tattered and weatherbeaten wandering man such as I used to be, providing only that he does not carry a gun. Furthermore, I intend to gather me a company of thoughts and moods which I have never been able to spend enough time with—my own thoughts, for better or worse, and moods so shy and vanishing that only in a quiet place like this will they ever return. And finally, odd as it may sound in the telling, I expect to continue certain interrupted conversations with an elm tree and to learn what hemlocks have to say. Also, I hope to revive the little knowledge I once had of the ancient lingo spoken by brooks.
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