Riverdave's Journal
November 2006

      “What a place it must be to bring up children!”  exclaimed Henry Thoreau to himself after passing through Prescot Gate in the old walled city of Quebec in 1850.  These words echoed my own thoughts that I spoke to myself as I walked through the Damascus Gate in the old cIty of Jerusalem in 1974.

      Thoreau stated that the walls of Quebec “carry us back to the Middle Ages, the siege of Jerusalem and St. Jean d’Acre”, (p.72, see below*) but there remained one basic difference between his experience and mine.  Thoreau was a single man with no children whereas I was married and carrying a ten month old baby girl in my arms. Although Jerusalem was far from being a secure city in 1974, as a foreigner entering that walled microcosm of habitation,  commerce, and pilgrimage, I felt a sense of comfort and community embrace me.  Later I returned to Jerusalem with my family of three children to live within those walls for a period of five formative years.

      Three years after reading Thoreau’s travelogue, A Yankee in Canada, I entered St. Louis’s Gate of old Quebec for the first time in November 2006.  I came to try to understand the reasoning behind Thoreau’s remarkable entry way comment about a place to raise children.  I felt that for a Concord bachelor, naturalist and lover of wild places to give an old walled city such high praise was quite extraordinary.

      During my extended stay within the walled city of old Jerusalem and for many years afterwards, I  both struggled with and carefully examined my own reasons for wanting to raise my children there. Dream analysis was particularly helpful in this endeavor. I came to the conclusion that a desire to be nurtured by old medieval walls sprang from a subconscious personal need to heal myself from deeply embedded psychological birth trauma.  The labyrinth of tight cobblestone streets, arches and tunnels leading the pilgrim to the vortex of the ancient temple site, which was encircled by yet another set of inner walls, evoked for me a return to the safety of a mother’s womb.  After reading his narrative A Yankee in Canada,  I sensed that Thoreau may also have been drawn to a medieval walled city by similar subconscious yearnings.  From my study of Thoreau’s text, I have found five feminine birth metaphors and one masculine metaphor that I believe reveal his attempt to heal himself from some kind of birth trauma.

      In November 2006 I had reservations to stay at Chateau de Lery, in front of the Parc des Gouverneurs in old Quebec.  The building, which once was a dwelling for government officials in the nineteenth century when Thoreau made his visit, is now a modest hotel. From my second story window I commanded a fine view of the park and beyond the old city walls to the St. Lawrence River.

      The setting felt familiar.  Dwellings in the old city of Jerusalem are usually second story flats as the lower floors of buildings are often reserved for street front businesses. The weather that day in quebec was cold, rainy and windy, actually not unlike a winter day in Jerusalem.  I bundled up with a jacket and scarf and headed out for what would be three days of exploring Quebec’s labyrinth of cobblestone streets and alleys, seeking to confirm what I suspected to be Thoreau’s six birth metaphors. 

#1 - Conch

      Thoreau provides a particularly apropos feminine metaphor to describe the walled city of Quebec. He notes that “Quebec is chiefly famous for the thickness of its parietal bones. The technical terms of its conchology may stagger a beginner at first, such as banlieue, esplanade, glacis, ravelin, cavalier”.  (p.69)  He likened the old city’s founding hospitals and convents to “pearls, and the wall the only mother of pearl for me.” (p.69) By extension, those children fortunate enough to be “brought up” in such a place might be thought of as pearIs nourished and mothered by the hermaphroditic shellfish.  Although this is the only incidence where Thoreau actually uses the word “mother” in his narrative,  it comes at a central point in his actuaI description of the old city walls.  I therefore see the conch as the chief and overriding of Thoreau’s five feminine metaphors and establishes the theme of “conchology” for his entire journey to Canada.

#2 - Waterfall

      A second metaphor that expresses a perinatal concern was Thoreau’s fascination with the abundance of waterfalls that tumbled into the St. Lawrence River.  Around Quebec City he visited at least four, the closest and largest one being the Montmorenci Falls just seven miles east and downstream from the city.  He claims that the St. Lawrence River “must be the most remarkable for its falls of any in the world.” (p. 55}  The breaking of the amniotic waters of birth just downstream from the city could well have been another subconcious notion that drove Thoreau to explore the falls so carefully. Waterfalls were the goal of all his walks outside the old city and he summarized his experiences with the statement  “Falls there are a drug; and we became quite dissipated in respect to them.”

      Thoreau’s description of his descent into the “chasm” surrounding the falls of St. Ann de Beaupre further downstream leaves little room for the reader to doubt his feminine focus.  After making his way to the bottom of the falls, looking up he describes “the most wild and rugged and stupendous chasm”, “a winding gorge”, “a cleft in this precipice ... perfectly straight up and down from top to bottom”, “cracked into vast cubical masses of gray rock shining with moisture”, masses of birch and arborvitae trees “overhung this chasm on the very verge of the cliff and in the crevices”. (p.51)

#3 - River

      “Here we are, in the harbor of Quebec, still three hundred and sixty miles from the mouth of the St. Lawrence, in a basin two miles across, where the greatest depth is twenty-eight fathoms, and though the water is fresh, the tide rises seventeen to twenty-four feet”. (p.20) My pilgrimage to old Quebec also impressed me with this geographical layout of the city.  Being inland, next to a river that stretches down to the sea, provides a remarkable third perinatal metaphor of a birth canal extending from the womb. Its ebbing tides emulated the cycles of a mother and further filled out Thoreau’s conchological theme. Thoreau added to his admiration of the riparian layout stating “The most interesting object in Canada to me was the River St. Lawrence. (p. 82)

#4 - Wilderness

      Thoreau frequently mentions in his travel narrative how there exists to the north of Quebec and the St. Lawrence an unparalleled and vast wild area.  “We had only to go a quarter of a mile from the road to the top of the bank to find ourselves on the verge of the uninhabited, and, for the most part, unexplored wilderness stretching toward Hudson’s Bay.” (p.39) I find this to be yet a fourth birth metaphor, confirmed elsewhere in Thoreau’s writings in his essayWalking, where he describes nature as a “vast, savage, howling Mother of  ours” but that “we are so early weaned from her breasts to society.”  The uncharted, untamed and creative energy represented by the Canadian wilderness extended northwards and seems to appear in this narrative as the very body and context for the city of old Quebec and the St. Lawrence River.

#5 - French Vortex

      On the train ride up to Quebec, Thoreau’s thoughts quickly orient the reader to his conchological theme. “The number of French Canadian gentlemen and ladies among the passengers and the sound of the French language, advertised us by this time that we were being whirled towards some foreign vortex.” (p. 8)  Although he does not explicitly mention a need to experience his French roots as a reason for his journey to Canada, it is hard not to conclude that there is a strong hint in this passage and when he later stated that Canada “appeared as old as Normandy itself and realized much that I had heard of Europe”. (p.53)  Normany was the region from which his grandfather immigrated. The fact that he describes this French connection as a vortex adds yet a fifth perinatal metaphor possibly revealing his drive to explore the mystery of his own French origins. In addition, Thoreau aligns the history of old Quebec with a French heroine.  He stated that its walls “carry us back to the Middle Ages, the siege of Jerusalem and St. Jean d’Acre,” (p.72), avoiding what one would expect to be a credit to the Ottoman caliph Sulayman the Magnificent, the builder of the present walls of old Jerusalem. 

#6 - Sapper

      After first walking around the outside of Quebec’s walls and then around their inner side, Thoreau concludes with “I think that I deserve to be made a member of the Royal Sappers and Miners.” (p. 71)  A sapper was an engineer in the British Army that specialized in tunneling to undermine an enemy fortification.  As he takes upon himself this personal masculine metaphor of a sapper, Thoreau candidly reveals his own nature as a tunneler on a psychological level.  His fascination with medieval walls, waterfalls, rivers, wilderness,  and vortex, all of which are in a French context, indeed propels Thoreau into the ranks of the royal sappers.  And like myself, perhaps Thoreau, by virtue of his methodical exploratory survey of a medieval walled city and its surroundings,  has even made himself a candidate for an honorary Ch.D. - Doctor of Conchology.

* unless otherwise stated, quotations form Henry D. Thoreau, A Yankee in Canada with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers: Gordon Press NY, NY 1972.
Photo: from travel guide to old City of Quebec