Author Archives: Corinne H. Smith

Eclipsing

“We can never have enough of nature.” — Thoreau, “Spring,” Walden

When the hoopla began to swirl around the arrival of the solar eclipse, my inner nonconformist rose to the occasion. If everybody was going to watch this show, then I decidedly would not. I would not get special glasses. I would not make a cereal box viewer. I would not travel miles upon miles to get closer to the line of totality. No, no, no. I was determined instead to have as average a day as possible.

And yet, I wanted to be outside for the duration of the eclipse. I wanted to be in a natural space. I knew the rules about looking at the sun with unprotected eyes. I wouldn’t look up. Instead, I would look down and around at the effects of the changing light on the earth. I would listen to the world to discover if it was temporarily different. I would focus on the setting and on the supporting actors, and not on the event headliners. I would find my own way to have a unique experience.

So I chose to spend two hours doing some long-overdue maintenance in my own yard. I pulled a few weeds and I trimmed a few bushes and trees, even as the sun and the moon fell into alignment behind my back. I cocked my ears and thought I heard a special quietness. Very few birds sang, and only the occasional crow called. Then again, I didn’t know what their normal routines were for a typical sunny afternoon in August. Maybe the landscape was always this quiet. I clipped a few more errant branches as the minutes passed.

When the yard got shady and the air felt cooler, I marveled at the change. But it was too early in the process, and it was only because a cloud had passed overhead. The sunlight came back even stronger, afterward. I dragged my weeds and cut branches to a back corner of the yard.

Gradually I heard the voices of folks in the neighborhood who were standing outside, taking in the view. They talked amongst themselves and ooohed and aaahed at the proper moment, when we finally got 75% coverage of the sun. There was a little more shade in my yard then, but not much more, and not for long. And I was slightly disappointed when the sunnier spots under my trees didn’t turn into wispy crescents like they were supposed to. Ah, well. I’ve already made many wonderful natural connections in my lifetime. This moment didn’t have to be one of them.

And I did find some small treasures anyway, while I tidied up the place. An abandoned shell of a cicada was attached to a branch in the Japanese maple. The spiky seed balls are beginning to grow underneath the sweet gum leaves. And two lantern plants have suddenly decided to sprout in the needle-duff under the pine tree. “Heaven is under our feet, as well as over our heads,” as Henry would say. It’s true. And these kinds of miracles happen all the time. “Everyday” doesn’t necessarily mean “ordinary.”

cicada

sweetgum

lantern plants

I think it’s terrific that a natural phenomenon fascinated more people than any championship athletic event ever could. This show did involve two round objects. But these we cannot throw, hit, or kick. We can catch them, though. In fact, we can catch their unique light performances nearly every single day. They deserve to be watched more often than for a few minutes at a certain time, once every seven years. And they always offer their best magic for free.

So I ask: What are you eclipse-watchers doing today? You can keep the momentum going, you know. You can watch sunrises and sunsets. You can check out the phases of the moon, in daytime and at night. You can turn your eyes to the earth and see all the marvelous stuff that we’ve got down here. You don’t have to travel to dynamic landscapes or wait for dramatic special events to connect with nature. It is all around us, all the time. Pay attention to it deliberately, and it will reveal its wonders to you.

Yes, you should savor your own recent experience. And I also urge you to continue your own personal nature study every day from now on, in your own neighborhood. Marvels await. You may be able to touch them. And what you find here may eclipse even the eclipse.

“We must go out and re-ally ourselves to Nature every day.” — Thoreau, Journal, December 29, 1856

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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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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Nature

Henry’s Striped Squirrels

Corinne H. Smith serves as a weekend docent at the Thoreau
Farm Birthplace and is the author of “Westward I Go Free: Tracing
Thoreau’s Last Journey.” For more info, visit www.corinnehsmith.com
or www.thoreausjourneywest.com.

In mid-September, something changed in the air. Night-time temperatures dipped into the 40s. People were coerced – with some resignation — into closing their bedroom windows and switching cotton sheets for flannels. A week before the equinox, we could feel Fall coming on.

We weren’t the only ones. The chipmunks who live in the stone walls around the Thoreau Farm took the change to heart, too. They were spurred to action. These creatures have only two major concerns in life: having a big enough food supply for winter, and making sure they don’t become food for somebody else. A quick inventory of their storage chambers must have proven that they needed acorns ASAP, because they spent the weekend of September 15-16 in a blur of harvesting in the red oak in the front yard of the birth house. I had a ringside seat for the frenzy.

We’ve already come to an agreement, these chipmunks and I. I don’t make any sudden moves or noises, and they in turn try to ignore the fact that I like to sit on a chair dragged into the middle of their path, two days a week. While I wait for visitors, I catch occasional glimpses of a small tawny body or two, zipping through our kitchen gardens. More than once we’ve arrived in the same spot at the same time, and have both squealed with surprise. What can I say? It’s Nature’s entertainment.

But there was no funny business about the chipmunks that weekend. Three of them repeatedly ran the perimeter of the house, grabbed as many acorns as their mouth pouches could hold, and hurried back to their tunnels under the walls. Only a short time passed. Then they were out and running again, around the building, under and even up into the tree. It took about two minutes for each one to load up and to return to headquarters. Over and over. Again and again. They used the same route each time, always circling clockwise around the house, with a midpoint stop at the oak. But what would a chipmunk know of the hands on a clock? Still, they followed the pattern. If a shadow happened to cross from overhead, they paused and hid under our beans or Swiss chard. As soon as the blue jay or mockingbird moved on, so did the chippies. This otherwise nonstop action continued for hours.

Henry Thoreau observed the autumnal habits of these little ones, though he called them by a different name. “What a busy and important season to the striped squirrel!” he wrote on August 29, 1858. “[He] is already laying up his winter store.” The air must have changed earlier that year. Three days later, Thoreau ruminated on the fact that since hazelnuts grew along stone walls, the chipmunks had “not far to go to their harvesting. … As we say, ‘The tools to those who can use them,’ so we may say, ‘The nuts to those who can get them.’”

The Thoreau Farm chipmunks left a wake of non-nutritious acorn caps in the lawn. I watched one guy as he nibbled enough of the nut so that the cap could slip off, intact. Certainly the cap’s sole purpose was to attach onto a branch. It was waste that would take up too much room in both mouth and house, and thus it was discarded.

As an avid lover of metaphor, Thoreau once saw in the chipmunk’s stripes “a punctuation mark, the character to indicate where a new paragraph commences in the revolution of the seasons. Double lines.” For me, on one September weekend, they indeed marked the division between Summer and Fall.

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