In This State: Living a simple life in Brattleboro

J. Parker Huber, a Thoreau expert, lives a simple life in Brattleboro. Photo by Tom Slayton

J. Parker Huber, a Thoreau expert, lives a simple life in Brattleboro. Photo by Tom Slayton

Editor’s note: Tom Slayton, a Montpelier freelance writer and editor, is editor emeritus of Vermont Life magazine. In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at www.maplecornermedia.com.

J. Parker Huber, writer, scholar and contemplative, lives a quiet life of Thoreau-like simplicity here in southeastern Vermont. And that seems perfectly appropriate, since Huber is one of the pre-eminent American authorities on Henry David Thoreau.

His book, “The Wildest Country,” first published in 1981 and republished in 2008 by the Appalachian Mountain Club, is considered the most authoritative source, outside of Thoreau’s own writings, on the great 19th century naturalist’s three trips to northern Maine. He has also written articles and edited a volume of Thoreau’s writings on mountains.

It seems highly likely that Thoreau would find Huber’s lifestyle familiar, since Huber, now 72, owns neither a computer nor a car, two items that so complicate most 21st century lives, and he strives daily to do what Thoreau counseled strongly – to simplify.

His life, though austere by most contemporary middle-class standards, is woven of several rich strands: his Quaker faith, his love of nature and literature, and his network of friends.

A year of that life is chronicled in Huber’s most recent book: “Living by Loving: Journal of a Solitude at Seventy.” It is a day-by-day account of his thoughts and activities, books he is reading, memories, and the progress of the seasons.

J. Parker Huber lives in a simple home, just outside downtown Brattleboro, on the Connecticut with views across the river of Mount Wantastiquet. Photo by Tom Slayton

J. Parker Huber lives in a simple home, just outside downtown Brattleboro, on the Connecticut with views across the river of Mount Wantastiquet. Photo by Tom Slayton

His days center around the elegantly simple home he had designed and built in the mid-1990s on a quiet street about a half-mile from busy downtown Brattleboro. The cube-like structure is nearly invisible from the street, thanks to a large, grass and tree-covered mound of earth that sits between it and the road. A wall of windows fills the house with light and offers a striking view of Huber’s constant companion — the steep, forested slopes of Mount Wantastiquet rising high above the far side of the Connecticut River.

There’s little furniture in the house, mostly mats and cushions. When Huber saw how winter light cast the patterns of nearby tree branches on the high north wall of his living room, he decided to leave the wall blank white. “It’s a way of leaving space so the unexpected can happen,” he says.

His days begin early. He usually rises at 4:30 a.m., eats a simple bowl of granola for breakfast, and spends the morning in yoga, meditation, reading and writing. Afternoons, he says, “I’m out and about.”

He may take a long walk with a friend or bicycle downtown to do errands. He skips lunch. “I decided I didn’t need it,” he says. “And it makes me more thankful for the food I get in the evening.” Since he is a strict vegetarian, supper is an unvarying menu – brown rice and vegetables. He usually retires by 8 p.m., unless a concert, poetry reading or other event calls him out.

One night, in what he describes as a “mini-epiphany,” Huber realized that what he loved most about a canoe camping trip was its “silence and stillness and utter simplicity.”

On Sundays he’s at the Putney Friends Meeting House. He refers to the visit as his “Putney Pilgrimage,” and winter or summer, it involves a bike ride of about an hour and 20 minutes. He sets up benches and chairs and does any other necessary chores, then greets arrivals for the first hour-long silent worship session at 8:30 a.m. Often, he stays for the second session at 10:30 a.m., and he serves on the Ministry and Council Committee, which oversees the spiritual life of the meeting.

Despite his relinquishment of many of the items deemed necessary to mainstream, middle-class “success,” his life is, in fact, rich in friendships and cultural activities. Brattleboro is a hub for music, dance, and other performing and literary arts, and Huber is often a participant. Many of his friends are artists, dancers, musicians or poets. His journal, “Living by Loving,” makes it clear that his interest in their lives enriches his own.

Yet he leaves plenty of time for silence and meditation.

And in his own quiet way, he is a social activist: each Saturday morning, he conducts a one-man silent witness for peace on the steps of the Brattleboro Post Office. There is also a later group, a more traditional protest group, but Huber said he “discovered that protest wasn’t my thing,” so he decided to conduct his own one-man witness earlier. He notes: “I love the peacefulness of the earlier hour.”

The ecological benefits of his lifestyle are important to him – Huber probably has the lowest carbon footprint in Windham County – and so are his personal relationships and his study of Thoreau. But other experiences have shaped him as well, especially canoeing.

Huber, a Philadelphia native, moved to Willimantic, Conn., in 1972, where he worked as an administrator at Eastern Connecticut State University. A friend at the school, Doug Marshall, suggested retracing Benedict Arnold’s 1775 trip north up the Kennebec River in Maine and into Canada, and four graduate students joined them for what quickly became a field history course. While camped alongside the Kennebec, one student, Frank Couvares, asked, “Didn’t Thoreau paddle in Maine somewhere around here?”

“It was one of the questions that changed my life,” Huber recalls.

He returned home, studied Thoreau’s accounts of his three Maine trips, and in 1974, offered a field seminar on Thoreau’s book, “The Maine Woods,” that involved paddling Thoreau’s route through Maine while reading sections of the book each day. He continued to offer the course for several summers, and fell in love both with northern Maine, and the elemental outdoor lifestyle of canoe camping.

One night, in what he describes as a “mini-epiphany,” Huber realized that what he loved most about a canoe camping trip was its “silence and stillness and utter simplicity.”

“I began to ask how I could bring that back into my own life,” he recalls.

And so he began scaling back – bicycling to work instead of driving a car, walking more, and eating and living more frugally.

His book “The Wildest Country,” was first published in 1981. It reprises Thoreau’s Maine journeys and offers the contemporary reader a paddling itinerary by which to follow Thoreau.

By then, his life had been transformed in several ways. He had moved to Keene, N.H., his 10-year marriage had ended in divorce, and he had become deeply interested in silence as a religious discipline.

And there was another connecting thread. Keene sits in the shadow of Mount Monadnock, a graceful, stone-capped mountain revered by the local populace. As Huber realized and later wrote, it was Henry David Thoreau’s favorite mountain.

And the beauty of the mountain and the mystery of how he arrived there got him thinking about the meaning of grace, which he defines as a subtle form of divine intervention in human affairs.

In “Living by Loving” he notes a belief that grace guided him to a boys’ camp in Ontario, where he learned canoeing and made the personal connections that eventually led him to explore Maine with Thoreau, brought him first to Keene and a job teaching canoeing in a summer camp, and then to Brattleboro.

His religion, deeply nature-related, is an integral part of that life:

“Thoreau found God culminating in the present moment,” he writes. “I prefer my God in the light, the wind, the white birch bark.”

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