September Morn at Walden

By Corinne H. Smith

patricewalden1

 

 

I come to Walden twice a year
To saunter ‘round the pond.
We gather at the replica
And set off after dawn.

It’s crisp and quiet on this day
When we begin our walk.
I tell my fellow colleagues
Just to listen and not talk.

We tiptoe as the clock would,
With the water to our right,
And share the place with fisherfolk
And swimmers glistening bright.

The Sun may be a morning star;
But its pale brother Moon
Still hangs above the railroad tracks:
It fades away too soon.

The air is chilly, that’s for sure.
I keep my hands tucked in.
A mist swirls on the water;
I can feel it nip my skin.

A few bold blue jays cackle
From the trees above our heads.
Then nuthatches and chickadees
Dart in and chirp instead.

But something’s missing from the scene:
A motion and a sound.
No chipmunks squeal across our path:
They’ve all stayed underground.

When I lead walks, they often
Chase each other near my feet.
The trail has fallen silent now;
The hike seems incomplete.

We make it to the house site
And we think of friend Thoreau.
If he were here, he’d no doubt
Tell us what we need to know.

And then we keep on going
With the sun strong in our eyes.
The bathers are just showing up
With blankets and supplies.

Companions tell me that they spied
Some chipmunks later on.
But they were few; and quick enough,
They scurried and were gone.

Are they driven by the cool air?
Do they sense the morning mist?
Will they have enough for winter?
Will they chatter and persist?

I wonder what you do, chips.
Are you snuggled, safe and dry?
Enjoy your hibernation, then.
I’ll see you next July.

patricewalden2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photographs are courtesy of Patrice Todisco, Executive Director, Freedom’s Way National Heritage Area.

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Trees for the Forest

I’ve spent much of my summer nearly past amid the trees; I became more mindful of this during a recent paddle on wide open waters near Maine’s Isle au Haut (pronounced locally, Isle a Ho). Most of the islands in this area are dense with forest, mostly spruce, birch and few white pines, and, when I pulled in for a rest stop on Wreck Island, I stepped from under a wide ocean sky into a close, lichen-papered room of dark woods. Pale green bearded-moss filtering the light hung from the trees; my eyes had to jump open a number of f-stops to see. A thin trail wound off to the right, and, for a minute, I watched it expectantly. Wreck Island is, however, now inhabited only by deer and assorted smaller animals, and so I was really peering down a trail and waiting for the past to arrive.

Spruce-capped Islands

Spruce-capped Islands

That past, in the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s, saw very different islands, first claimed and then inhabited by a mix of farmers and fishermen and soon shorn of their trees, which went for fields, buildings, boats, heat and, as the 1800s wore on, pulp. Photos from the 1880s are recognizable only in the shapes of the islands. Such shearing of woodlands was, of course, familiar to Henry Thoreau in Concord also – that long-farmed landscape was cut close, which undoubtedly helped Thoreau treasure those patches of swamp and woodland left untouched. But to find deep woods, Thoreau had to travel to interior Maine.

As I paddled amid the islands, I thought about the microcosm of regeneration each represents. All but a few have full heads of forest-hair, and the interiors of those forested islands have reverted to the timeless suggestion and mystery of woodlands. On one tiny island (Potato), the heart-shaped hoof prints of deer pointed to who lived there now. The regreening of New England has been much noted (over 80% of our region is now forested), and, as the trees and forest thicken annually, woody anomalies keep reappearing too – a mountain lion in Connecticut (DNA sampling said he’d migrated from the Dakotas), a moose on Rte 128, bears in backyard trees. Now, ironically, the most shorn of landscapes can be found in the vast clear cuts of Maine’s interior, where only narrow “beauty strips” of trees separate those who paddle the rivers from the dazed, cut-over square miles of former woods.

New Trees above the cove at Wreck Island

New Trees above the cove at Wreck Island

Thoreau liked to count the rings of trees and learn the outlines of their stories during the good years and the hard. Counting the trees of this summer outlines a story of regeneration that Henry Thoreau would have nodded at and liked.

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Grab Those Number Twos!

By Corinne H. Smith

Last month I gave a talk about Henry Thoreau at a public library. More than a dozen people were in the room. I opened the gathering as I always do: by asking the audience members what they remember about the man. Whatever they come up with helps to drive the rest of the presentation. Typical responses are these:

“Didn’t he live at Walden Pond?” (Yes.)

“He followed The Road Less Traveled.” (Well, no, that was Robert Frost. But Henry probably would have liked that poem.)

“Civil Disobedience!” (Yes! What is it? “Uh …”)

“He was friends with Emerson.” (Yes.)

“Didn’t he spend a night in jail for not paying his taxes?” (Yes. That’s where Civil Disobedience comes in.)

“He went home for dinner every night and took his laundry home to his mother.” (What 19th-century man would have done differently?)

Actually, most people know at least something true and authentic about Thoreau. And I can tell when I meet someone who knows more details than the others do. This was the case at this particular talk. The first person who raised her hand asked, “Didn’t he make pencils?”

Yes!

I try to remember to bring up the Thoreau pencils later, if no one mentions it earlier. Sometimes I forget and am distracted by other Thoreau stories. I’m always grateful when someone prompts me for it. Perhaps the topic of pencils came up this time because we all had back-to-school days on our minds.

The Thoreau family came into the pencil-making business through Charles Dunbar, Henry’s uncle on his mother’s side. Eventually Henry’s father took over the firm, and it became John Thoreau & Co. Henry himself figured out a way to get the right clay that would bind well with graphite and produce a better pencil. He then labeled them with numbers 1-4, according to their hardness. The number 2 pencil was about average when it came to hardness and darkness. It didn’t smear as much as heavier pencils did.

pencils

The connection between Henry Thoreau and the pencil-making business is a fun one to think about and to talk about. Maybe this is because it’s something that’s slightly unexpected. We connect Henry Thoreau so closely with nature, philosophy, and social justice that such a small and practical matter like the act of making or using a pencil gets overlooked.

The next time you’re holding a number 2 pencil in your hand – even if it’s just to shade in a few tiny circles on a standardized form — you can thank Henry David Thoreau for the opportunity to do so.

Class dismissed!

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