Dr. Bronner’s and Henry David Thoreau: a Great Soap, a Great Connection

I deliberately wore my Henry David Thoreau t-shirt today. That conscious decision was the end result of a thought process and memory cascade that began in the shower after my morning workout.

Early last year, I decided to return to using Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile Soap (Peppermint). I was tired of the heavy, perfumed odor of most body washes, thought more about the questionable additives in those products, and decided that this concentrated soap would also be a more economical choice. Overall, I’ve been happy with the outcomes–feeling better about what I’ve been putting on my body and the money I’ve been saving. Each 32-ounce bottle lasts approximately five months.

This morning, I noticed that five months was up–and actually had to add a little water to the bottle to coax out the last of the soap and complete my shower. While finishing up, began thinking about the soap–not just the somewhat bizarre, All-One-God-Faith or Moral ABCs label that used to disintegrate before the bottle was empty–but the first time I ever saw that iconic bottle.

I plumbed my mind and settled on an approximate time and very specific place that I first encountered the soap. I had always loved the outdoors–growing up family tent camping–and by eighth grade had started doing some weeklong backpacking trips through New Jersey’s United Methodist Camps and Conferences. The first trip had been to Shenandoah National Park–the second to the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. I fell in love with the White Mountains and my third trip brought me back–I think during the summer between tenth and eleventh grades.

The trip leader had changed for this hike and there was a new route planned that took us on some different trails and huts. One of the new spots we stayed was the Zealand Falls Hut. I remember arriving early in the day, getting restless and a small group of us deciding to make the short hike over to the supposedly scenic Thoreau Falls. The hike was a no-brainer for me–as I’d already read Walden and a number of essays by Thoreau. I couldn’t pass up the chance to hike to a cascade named for the writer who seemed to so well capture my love of nature, the tonic of outdoor exploration and unrestrained individualism.

I was not disappointed when we arrived at the top of Thoreau Falls–the rocky cascade dropped below in chunky, boulder-strewn steps and revealed an amazing view through the trees and across the wilderness. After hiking down to explore, we returned to the top to relax on the rocks in the afternoon sun and feast on beef stick, cheese and crackers.

It was there that I encountered an older girl/young woman near the creek at the top of the falls. I was a shy teen and here was a girl outside and hiking and being friendly to me. Honestly, I don’t remember whether she was washing herself, some lunch dishes or both. And I’m not sure if that’s because it was so long ago or because I was smitten–either way, I know I don’t recall that detail. The detail I do remember is that she was using soap from a bottle with a text-covered, blue and white bottle.

Noticing my quizzical looks, she handed me the bottle. My eyes didn’t know where to focus–there was so much text. There were snippets about Thomas Paine, tent, sandal and soap-maker Hillel, instructions for good living and a list of uses for the soap. Though written in an a somewhat eccentric style, I couldn’t help but agree with many of the expressed sentiments.

That’s all I recall of the encounter. And through it all, I honestly remember the soap more than the girl. It made enough of an impression on me to seek it out to use on my own future backpacking trips–and, when I stopped backpacking for a time, to use it in real life. Yet, like my backpacking excursions, my use of Dr. Bronner’s also eventually stopped–until I brought it back into my shower and my life last year.

Even before I was done drying off after today’s shower, I knew I had to wear my Thoreau t-shirt–the memory was that strong–made me feel that good. As I stood there, towel in hand, I also realized that prior to getting in the shower, my wife had let me know that we were going to the local Whole Foods to return something to Amazon. At that moment, everything seemed to come together in my mind–I would most definitely wear my shirt to the store to purchase my Dr. Bronner’s soap.

This is a t-shirt I wear every other week or so at least, so my wife thought nothing of me wearing it today. Maybe she thought I was trying to be a little extra intellectual because later that day we were going to see the Oscar-nominated short live-action films at the movie theater. But she didn’t ask or comment, so I kept the decision and the memories to myself–until now.

~ by kipwkoelsch on April 4, 2021.

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