Missing Tree

“This afternoon, being on Fair Haven Hill, I heard the sound of a saw, and soon after from the Cliff saw two men sawing down a noble pine beneath, about forty rods off. I resolved to watch it till it fell. … Before I had reached it the axeman had already half divested it of its branches. … And the space it occupied in upper air is vacant for the next two centuries. It is lumber. He has laid waste the air. … Why does not the village bell sound a knell? I hear no knell tolled. I see no procession of mourners in the streets, or the woodland aisles.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, December 30, 1851

Some fine, older trees stand among our 1950s suburban ranch houses. Four of the tallest and the oldest are in my own back yard. I’m lucky in this respect, except when it comes to having to rake leaves in the fall. But other nice trees also line my neighbors’ lawns along the street.

One of these neighbors – across the street and down one property – had a big sugar maple in the front yard. It had huge broad leaves and thick branches that hung over the street a bit. Sometimes you had to steer your car away from it so that the lowest limbs wouldn’t graze your roof. But it was hardly any hazard, if you only paid attention. At one point, I had thought of offering to trim off a few of the most sagging branches for these folks.

Alas, I never did.

Sugar maple graces the street.

On a recent Monday morning, two heavy duty trucks and a chipper arrived on our street. I groaned when I saw where they parked: right beside that full sugar maple with the big green leaves. I hoped against all hope that the neighbors were just getting the tree trimmed to the street. But no. The longer the chain saw whined and the more frequently came the cluttered stints of the chipper, I knew this visit could only mean a true death sentence. It was. In just under 90 minutes, the entire maple was gone. Only a smooth stump remained, in the midst of a very bleak space. What a loss!

Within minutes, the magnificent tree was cut down.


If I had only known, I would have gone over and hugged this tree before the workers arrived. I would have searched its branches for birds and squirrels and warned them of the impending danger. I would have made sure no nests were still in use. I saw old nests in this tree every winter: as knotted fists captured in the spidery silhouette of bare branches. I hoped there weren’t any animal homes up there now. Most critters were out and on their own by this time of season, but you never knew. I could have chained myself to the trunk and defended them in person, if I had seen little ones to protect.

I don’t know the couple who lives in this house. I don’t know their reasons for initiating this awful act. The tree had shaded their whole front yard and had beautiful yellow leaves in the fall. Its intake of carbon dioxide and transpiration of oxygen was no doubt enough to supply all of the breathing air those two people needed to survive. It probably blocked out so much afternoon sun that they didn’t have to run their air conditioner as much as they would have, otherwise. And now their electric bills will begin to escalate, for sure. I can’t imagine that any real problems the maple caused couldn’t have been solved in another way. Unfortunately, it is now obvious by the posted little yellow flags that the gas line to the house led right underneath it.

The tree reduced to wood ships.

Reduced to wood chips.

If I had only known, I would have taken pictures of the tree before those weapons of mass destruction arrived. As it is, a search of my stash of stills revealed only one really good photo of the tree, taken several winters ago. This is how I’ll remember this beautiful sugar maple. This was one of its good old days.

Now, after the fact, what can I do? Sometimes I feel as though I want to talk to the owners. I want to know the reasons; and yet at the same time, I don’t feel up to dwelling on the loss. I love big trees. I used to climb them, when I was young. I need them in my personal landscape. I’m still unsettled every time I pass this property or even look in its direction. There’s a void here. Thoreau described the scene aptly. They have “laid waste the air.” And just as on that Concord day 165 years ago, no village bells have tolled in remembrance of this life well lived. And they should have. They should have celebrated its existence loudly, before it was taken down. The tree should have heard something else in its last moments, instead of the whine and clutter of the machinery of its assassins. Am I the only one missing you, Tree? I hope not. I hope you had more friends than just me.

The tree decorated with snow.

Decorated with snow.


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Could rhubarb have made Henry’s tongue so tart?

The Roost editor Sandy Stott is on vacation. The following post was written by Deborah Bier, member of the Board of Trustees, Thoreau Farm Trust. Ms. Bier also volunteers her gardening talents to keeping Thoreau Farm’s Kitchen Garden looking and smelling beautiful.

Rhubarb grows wild at Thoreau Farm, the birth place of Henry David Thoreau. No one knows how long  rhubarb plants have been at the farm. Although one of our board members, Joe Wheeler, a man of a “certain age,” grew up on Thoreau Farm and remembers eating rhubarb his father grew on the farm.

Rhubarb might have been gown on Thoreau Farm, where Thoreau’s maternal grandmother owned a third, during Thoreau’s lifetime.  (While he was born on the farm, Thoreau’s family moved when he was eight months old.) We do know that Thoreau wrote about rhubarb.

From Henry David Thoreau’s Journal, December 22, 1837

About a year ago, having set aside a bowl which had contained some rhubarb grated in water, without wiping it, I was astonished to find a few days afterward, that the rhubarb had crystallized, covering the bottom of the bowl with perfect cubes, of the color and consistency of glue, and a tenth of an inch in diameter.

Rhubarb shrub, the house drink for Thoreau Farm.

Rhubarb shrub, the house drink for Thoreau Farm.

Rhubarb grows in the underbrush and in the woods found on the east side of the house. We’ve transplanted some of the wild rhubarb into one of  our Kitchen Garden beds. It thrives in the sunlight and from the attention of our visitors, and every year yields a bumper crop.  We enjoy growing – and occasionally sharing – this rhubarb with others to continue the plant’s tradition at this location.

For more information about rhubarb, including how to plant and use it, visit www.rhubarbinfo.com.

We at Thoreau Farm appreciate rhubarb so much, that we’ve established a “house drink” served at special occasions based upon its profuse presence here: Rhubarb Shrub.

The US Slow Food “Ark of Taste” includes shrub among 200 foods listed as endangered due to industrial standardization, the regulations of large-scale distribution and environmental damage. Here’s what they write about shrub:

Shrub is a colonial-day drink whose name is derived from the Arabic word sharab, to drink. It is a concentrated syrup made from fruit, vinegar, and sugar that is traditionally mixed with water to create a refreshing drink that is simultaneously tart and sweet. In the 19th century, the drink was often spiked with brandy or rum. Ubiquitous in colonial times, the use of shrubs as a flavoring for tonic and sodas subsided with increasing industrial production of foods.

Here’s our recipe:

Yield: 20 punch cups

4 c. water

2 lbs. rhubarb, cut up (about 7 c.), sliced

1 c. sugar

3/4 tsp cinnamon

3/4 tsp powdered ginger

1/4 c apple cider vinegar

1 (32 oz.) seltzer water, chilled

Put the sliced rhubarb into a pan with 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat; add the sugar, vinegar and spices, stirring well. Strain thru a sieve, saving juice and pulp separately*. Add remaining water. There will be about 4 1/2 cups rhubarb juice. Chill. When ready to serve, pour juice into punch bowl with ice and the seltzer.

(*Pulp may be served later as a dessert with a dab of whipped cream on top.)

We hope you enjoy this summer drink as much as we do. Let us know if you’ve tried our recipe and send us an email, info@thoreaufarm.org.

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Walden Pond for the First Time

Roost editor Sandy Stott is on vacation. The following post is by Ashton Nichols, Professor of English Language and Literature, Dickinson College.

So there I was, over half a century old, a professor of literature and environmental studies who has been teaching Henry David Thoreau for over thirty years, but I had never been to Concord or to Walden Pond. So, at the end of a recent trip to give an academic lecture and visit friends in Boston I decided to head west, to get out the map and not stop until I reached the pond itself. For those who may not know, Concord is roughly 20 miles northwest of Boston, and Walden Pond is just a short hop from Emerson’s house in Concord (Emerson was the man who owned the Walden property and offered it to his friend Thoreau as a spot to build a naturalist’s hut—without any specific thanks or acknowledgement from the great naturalist anywhere in his legendary book). I reached Walden Pond without any trouble, parked my car, and walked slowly to the lapping edge of the shore.

The pond was crystal clear at the shoreline when I arrived: every stone and waving water plant, all the tiny aquatic grubs visible amid the rocks, the occasional minnow swimming slowly by, and insects galore: midges and mosquitoes, dragonflies and Dobson flies, water striders, and tiny mites invisible to the human eye. Dobsonflies are those great centipede-like larvae that turn into thick-bodied hellgrammites, mighty underwater caterpillars that are among the best fresh-water fish bait in New England and all the way down the East Coast shoreline of the Middle Atlantic States:



I was sorely tempted to jump in for a swim, but instead I decided to watch the shore for a while, all the way along the southwestern edge to the stone posts that mark the sight of the great man’s original cabin. This is where he built his hut; this is where he lived for two years. Most importantly, perhaps, this experience inspired him to write Walden; or, Life in the Woods, the book that made him a legend and made this geographic location into a spot of secular American pilgrimage. Walden Pond is now like Plymouth Rock, or Jamestown Harbor, or Washington’s Mount Vernon, or Lincoln’s mighty marble memorial near the Potomac River in Washington, D.C.

Here was the exact spot where Thoreau sat for entire mornings, watching the day go by, watching the world unfold before him. Here is what he said: “Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and sumacs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been . . . Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune.“

There is surely something very special about this small 64.5 acre lake on a plot of land that has now been saved, thanks largely to the efforts of Don Henley and other caring musical stars, actors, and notables: Arlo Guthrie, Jimmy Buffett, and Bonnie Raitt among others; but this effort includes not only musicians. Other names involved in the effort to save this humble national landmark have included, over the years, Meryl Streep, Ted Kennedy, and Michal Douglas, and more. But, just as importantly, we can all now come. We can come by plane, train, bus, or automobile from wherever we live, and once we get here, we can all look long, and hard, and especially closely, the way Thoreau himself looked, with care and attention, with steady focus on the objects in front of us. They deserve our scrutiny; they deserve our concern. I have students who have swum in the pond, and others who have hiked almost every inch of the shoreline of this “sacred” spot. One brought me a small rock from the water’s edge that sits on my desk to this day. This is Henry David Thoreau’s pond, the one that has become a legendary spot of American literary geography, right up with Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow, near Tarrytown, New York, or Faulkner’s imaginary Yoknapatawpha near Oxford, Mississippi, or Hemingway’s Key West.


Ashton with Thoreau at Walden Pond

Here is how Thoreau put the central issue of his two-year stay at Walden Pond, in an essay that remains unpublished to the present day: ”What are the natural features which make a township handsome—and worth going far to dwell in? A river with its waterfalls—meadows, lakes, hills, cliffs or individual rocks, a forest and single ancient trees—such things are beautiful. They have a high use which dollars and cents never represent.” This is precisely what Thoreau thinks he had found at Walden, a wild spot that is not in any way linked to the world of money, or to the realm of dollars and cents. Here is the ultimate point for the father of American nature writing. “Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul,” he says toward the close of his masterwork. Nothing in Thoreau’s value system is about capitalism, about any system of exchange that requires money; instead, his world is about the organic exchange of foodstuffs and nutrients, the natural rhythms of day and night, warm and cold, the pumping of blood and the breathing of oxygen. In the end, the world of Walden Pond is the same world I see on this ordinary afternoon of my first visit to this special spot: light cutting across thick trunks and green leaves and branches, a cool breeze blowing from the water’s surface into the Massachusetts forest.

Ashton Nichols holds the Walter E. Beach ’56 Distinguished Chair in Sustainability Studies and is a Professor of English Language and Literature at Dickinson College. His most recent book is Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism: Toward Urbanatural Roosting, described by one reviewer this way: “There is no question that Nichols has written a wondrous book, innovative in its merging of genres, richly veined with intellectual history, literary criticism, and a passionate vision for the future of environmentalism.” – NBOL-19.




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