“A Thoreau Thing,” by June Forte

Jan 10th, 2018 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

My brother Jim called to tell me he was about to bid on a 50-acre island in the middle of the Illinois River.

“We want to scale down,” he said. “Do the Thoreau thing. You know—Walden Pond.”

If any couple deserved the “Thoreau thing,” it was Jim and my sister-in-law Barbara. They had nurtured nine children to maturity on the south side of Chicago in an old and uncommonly small Victorian house with the atmosphere of an airline terminal. With the kids grown, they were now empty nesters on the lookout for that dreamed-about retirement get-away. They apparently found their piece of paradise—or so Jim was telling me on the phone.

“The auction’s on Wednesday. With the river flooding, I figure the price just went down,” he said. “Just in case, Barbara’s going to sit on the other side of the room, and at the opportune moment, just before the bidding starts, innocently ask ‘Isn’t that the island that’s under water’?”

As he told it, the two of them had set off with high hopes of looking over property in the center of the state. This particular piece of property just happened to be under water when they arrived. “A minor problem,” according to Jim.

The local sheriff, however, thought otherwise. He took one look at the pair and warned them not to even think about going out on the river. Debris and trees had been careening down the flood-swollen Illinois for days. With the sheriff watching, they decided instead to climb a steep cliff that overlooked the river.

“If you leaned way out and craned your neck a certain way, you could see one of the two cabins on the island. The water was just below the ground-floor window ledge,” he said.

Not people to be put off, the daring duo were determined to get to the island that day. “Heck,” Jim said, “the property’s below the dam. There may be flood waters and a few uprooted trees running over it, but I bet houses and campers aren’t. So we rented a boat.”

Someone let you have boat?”

“We were able to scope out the land from the middle of the river. Besides, we know there’s a hill on the property, and that for sure wasn’t under water. That where we think the burial ground sits.”

“The burial ground?”

“Yeah, it says here in the brochure there’s a Native American burial ground on the island. We’ll check the location in the registry. If it’s not up on the hill, I should be able to put a storage shed up there.”

“A storage shed? On the hilltop?”

“For the furniture. We can cart it up there if we get enough warning that a flood’s coming—maybe get one of those pulley systems to take the stuff up the hill. Did I tell you there’s a herd of deer on the property?”

My mind took a right turn from ropes and furniture to an article I had read years ago about a herd of deer trapped on an island in Michigan. As the herd grew, it overpopulated the island, and the deer started acting crazy. In the heat of the moment, I couldn’t quite remember what the whole gist of that story was. Thoughts of deer going berserk like the birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller came to mind.

“Can the deer get off the island?” I asked calmly.

“They can swim back and forth to the State Park. Maybe we can rent the cabins out to hunters and make some money.”

“Certainly not a Thoreau thing,” I said, and tried to steer him away from the hunter idea. “Maybe you could put the cabins on stilts, like they do on the Outer Banks.”

Jim ignored the diversion. “There’s a couple of wells on the property. Barbara’s going to get one of the old washers with the hand crank that Mom used to have. I can’t remember what you call them. You don’t need any electricity.”


“Yeah, wringer. We’ll get one of those pontoon boats and put the washer on it, so if the river floods, it won’t be lost. You don’t need a dryer. Barbara can put up a clothesline. Say, did I tell you, it’s called Plum Island. There are a lot of those wild plums all over, the ones you use to make gin fizzes. If we get the island, we’re going to call ourselves the Plummites or the Sloes.”

“I’ll bet there’s a lot of mosquitoes and ticks,” I said, mentally adding ground water and deer to wild plum thickets.

“Barb can wrap the boat with screening or plastic to keep them out.”

“While Barbara’s pulling the furniture up the hill and washing the clothes and fighting insects, what are you going to be doing?”

“Me? I just found a real bargain in the Keys. I saw an ad yesterday for a house on Cudjo Key. It’s a two-story fixer upper. There’s some termite damage—doesn’t seem like much of a problem. It should scare off some buyers—that and the lawsuit over fresh-water rights. Sounds like one of those vintage houses from the twenties. You know—a ‘Hemmingway thing.’”


June Forte is a writer whose reservoir of excuses for not writing has run dry. She was a staff reporter on daily, weekly and monthly newspapers and taught communication courses at Northern Virginia Community College. She has been jumped in Gibraltar by a Barbary ape and has kissed a stranger on the top of the Eiffel Tower. Having grown up in Chicago, this longtime transplant’s goal is to be acknowledged as a local by a native Virginian.

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