Author Archives: Sandy Stott

Henry’s Children

By Corinne H. Smith

The silent Memorial Walk around Walden Pond is a tradition during The Thoreau Society’s Annual Gathering. We meet at the house replica near the parking lot at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning. When we introduce ourselves, we also share the names of people we are dedicating the walk to. The whole group walks in memory of Henry David Thoreau and scholars Walter Harding and Bradley P. Dean. Individuals may choose also to walk for family members, friends, and mentors who have gone on before. I always dedicate my participation to two of my mentors, Thoreau scholar Edmund Schofield and singer-songwriter and environmentalist John Denver. I wear Ed’s tan corduroy hat during the walk, as he often did whenever he spent time exploring Walden Woods.

On this July 12th, about a dozen people stand in our circle. We sing a verse of Happy Birthday in Henry’s honor. Then, when the introductions come around to Jeff Hinich of Ontario, he stretches out his arms as if to embrace the group and says, “I dedicate this walk to all of Henry’s children!” We laugh. We know that Henry and his siblings never married and that no direct descendants of their family exist. And yet: isn’t Jeff right? Aren’t we all Henry’s children? Didn’t he father good books and essays and opinions that in turn brought together followers like us?

I think on this satisfying idea as we walk single file across the road and down to the level of the pond. We edge past a handful of long-distance swimmers preparing to work on their pond-laps. A few are already in the water. Now we turn left in order to round the pond clockwise. As the first one in the line, I often get to see a few things the others don’t. Chipmunks squeak and scurry in front of me, almost underfoot. Robins are in abundance today, too. I play a game of tag with one bird for more than ten yards. It bobs ahead of me, stops to let me catch up, then bobs ahead some more. Finally it realizes that I am not going to stray from the path that we’ve both been using. It flies up into a small tree and watches our group pass from this vantage point. I try not to laugh out loud.

Otherwise, it’s a pretty calm scene at Walden Pond. Some fishermen quietly cast lines from boats or from the shore. Even the train tracks lie idle. The MBTA continues to make improvements and repairs on this section and has suspended weekend service for most of the rest of 2014. So we wait for the train that doesn’t come, then continue on to the site where Henry’s house once stood. Here we fan out and take our time, thinking about Henry and our loved ones, too. Some take a few seconds to stand in his doorway and look down to the cove.

For most of the fourteen Memorial Walks that I’ve been on, I’ve seen white Indian pipes growing in select spots around the cairn and outside of the house markers. This time, there are none. I tiptoe to all of the places where I’ve seen them in the past, and no white shoots are beginning to lift the leaf litter. The weather conditions must have been different this year. Maybe the heat or moisture levels haven’t been right. Maybe the unique curved heads will pop up later in the season, when they can amaze other visitors. Or maybe they were quite early, and I missed them. I feel disappointment at their absence.

What I notice instead is all of the small pine trees rising here. Many aren’t even as big as the one Charlie Brown places a single red ornament on each Christmas. One is certainly less than four inches tall. Yes, I’ve seen seedlings before. But either there are more of them today, or I’m somehow extra aware of them now. Then it dawns on me. These little guys are Henry’s children, too! He once planted hundreds of white pines in this area. Granted, we have no easy way of proving that these specific saplings came from his specific plantings. But in the grand and symbolic scheme of the Walden Woods ecosystem, we can call them descendants. More of Henry’s children. And at this thought, I smile again.

Faith in a Seedling

Faith in a Seedling

We saunter back to the parking lot. Now, families loaded down with beach paraphernalia hurry toward us, eager to stake out some sand and sun for the rest of the day. Some of them may be Henry’s children, too: if not now, then perhaps at some future moment. How many children does Henry David Thoreau have? It’s an innocent enough question that’s hard to answer. But on this particular morning, and only at Walden Pond, I count at least a dozen people and hundreds of seedling pines. Many more are sure to surface in the years to come.

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Uplands of Time

It’s been nearly a year since I stepped out the door, turned left at the driveway’s end and walked off into these New Hampshire hills. But even as the town road bears right uphill and I go straight along this spur’s tire-flattened gravel, the images arrive: in them I (or we) are setting out, often with the Oregon Ridge in mind. It could be blueberries on the ledges; it could be relief from the heat; it could be hope of another moose antler; it could be solitude. Any of these pretexts will do.

Fifty years seems a long stretch, unless, as I have, you have been reading a book set in geological time; then, fifty years seems a mere intake of breath, a shallow one at that. I have a mind habituated to the ephemeral, the thought equivalent of a day moth, whose 24-hour life cycle seems hurried, but usual. But on this return to the ridges I first walked 55 years ago, I keep making a conscious effort to see the slowest motion of long time and its events. The tilted planes of rock remind of a time when they were not aslant. And the pluton of Cardigan itself, a resistant dome of weathered rock, reminds of all the companion rock and soil washed away over millennia to reveal this mountain.

On my way up the aptly named Skyland Ridge, I drop into a small drainage, where a clear brook burbles its little July song. The climb up the bank on the east side is reach-out-and-touch-the-ground-before-your-face sharp, and, as a I look back down some 50 nearly sheer feet to the brook, I take in the cutting it has done… is doing, even as I watch its little summer flow, taking down this mountain a few molecules at a time.

Usually the shift to this sort of deep time meditation is too great a leap, and I return soon to looking at leaves, musing about mosses and listening to birds sing their territories. The nearby drumming of a pileated woodpecker reminds of time’s more immediate beat, as do the fist-sized holes in a trailside tree. But on this day a recurring perception keeps nudging me back to longer spans of time, and, after a while, I realize that I am also looking at changes in the land over the 55 years. In particular, I keep seeing the slow crawl of trees as they recolonize and reclaim the bare rock.

Cardigan’s brother peak is named, arrestingly, Firescrew. As a boy, I simply noted that it topped out just above 3000 feet and hurried toward it summit, repeatedly. Later, I began to wonder about its odd name, and I found it derived from a massive forest fire in 1855; its heat was so intense that it burned with a swirl (or screw) of flame and smoke visible for many miles. Then the charred, sterile soil washed off both mountains, leaving them as domes of rock, with views worthy of their higher northern neighbors, the White Mountains.

Firescrew's Ridge and Its Returning Forest (note Mt. Washington in the Farground)

Firescrew’s Ridge and Its Returning Forest (note Mt. Washington in the Farground)

As a boy I reveled in the Cardigan’s exposed mountain feel; it played much bigger than its 3100 feet; so too did Firescrew. The absence of trees and brush created this feel; it was all elemental rock pressed up into the sky. Over these decades, soil and seeds have blown into creases in the stone, and generations of grasses have lived and died. Gradually enough soil has accumulated to host bushes, in spots the much-loved blueberry. And on: more growth, more decay, deeper or taller brush, with trees following. It takes only a little imaginative effort to see both peaks reforested some hundreds of years in the future.

And with this little effort and this day’s walking, the door to the room of deep time opens. In this room the rocks live and move; we are kindred, I think, as I sit here looking out.

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A Good Walden Is Hard To Find

By Corinne H. Smith

On a Friday, my day-job boss told us that our workplace wouldn’t have electrical power on the following Monday until 2 p.m. Our computer-based jobs would be suspended until the electricity came back on. If we wanted to, we could still come in and do other manual tasks instead. Suddenly I saw terrific potential for an extra four or five hours to work on my manuscript at home. So I told the boss that I would see him at 2 p.m. on Monday. And I left to create the perfect, home-based writer’s retreat.

When we rented this ranch house eighteen months ago, I set up my office in a room in the basement. It’s big enough for my desk and printing station, most of my personal library, and most of my research files. The space is quiet and is fairly nice to sit in throughout the year, and it is super cool during these hot and humid days of summer, without having to turn on any air conditioning. It’s got only one window, though. It doesn’t open, and it looks out onto the carport. All I can see from my desk is the left-rear tire of my Dodge Avenger. It’s A Room without a View.

I’m in the midst of writing a book about Henry David Thoreau that’s aimed at a middle-school age audience, and I want to be inspired by nature as I write this manuscript. I want to be able to see leaves and trees and greenery growing around me, as I gleefully tap the keys on my laptop. I want an outside office.

Happily, this house also has an enclosed porch around back. You can reach it only by walking through the carport and using the door that leads to the yard. So far I’ve used it for storing stuff that hasn’t made it into the basement. But past the 10-speed Schwinn and underneath the many boxes and my thick rolled-up sleeping bag is a table and four cushioned chairs. All along I had intended to sit out here and write. I just hadn’t done it yet. So over the weekend, I dragged some of the boxes down the stairs, and I piled others into corners. I cleared off the table and prepared my space. I got it ready for my Monday morning writing marathon. Here I could sit and type and look out at the trees and the shaggy grass that I haven’t mowed for a while. This would be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Local Walden

Local Walden

Henry Thoreau went to the shoreline of Walden Pond to write. Oh, sure, you can say that he wished to live deliberately and wanted suck out all of the marrow of life. But really, he wanted a nice space to figure himself out as the writer he intended to be. His first self-imposed assignment was to write a book about his Concord and Merrimack boat trip with his brother John. So he left the Thoreau home – which could be a busy and noisy one, what with all the visiting aunts and boarders and such – and moved a mile away to a small house he built on Emerson’s lot along the pond. The view from his doorway was a dirt path that led to a lazy tree-lined cove. The only disturbances to this bucolic setting were the occasional trains running along the nearby Fitchburg Railroad line, heading either to Boston or to Fitchburg. Lucky Henry.

I got up on Monday morning in a great mood. This would be the day I would go out and write in the porch! I would adopt a more productive writing routine, and I would finish a nice chunk of Chapter Four. Hooray! But as I ate my breakfast, I heard disturbing sounds coming from outside. Dump trucks, heavy equipment, scraping noises, early morning man chat. Then the beep-beep-beep of a Caterpillar backing up. I looked out of the window to see what was up. That’s when I saw the township trucks and the men in fluorescent green shirts walking around with measuring wheels. Surprise! They were ripping up our road, for who-knows-what reason. They were putting out the red cones to close off the intersection. And there was no telling how long this project would last, or how much noise it would make.

Now, I don’t need complete silence to concentrate and to write. I can sit in a corner of a busy fast-food restaurant and type away for as long as my laptop battery lasts. But today was supposed to be my perfect day for porch writing. I was supposed to hear bird song and the natural nuances of the neighborhood. My suburban sanctuary was suddenly the site of road work. I wasn’t sure what to do.

I trotted downstairs to check on my basement office. I could barely hear the trucks here. It would be a quieter place, and one that would surely stimulate creativity. Plus, all of my reference and Thoreau books were here. No, I told myself. You need to go to the porch, in spite of the noise. You need be outside. You need to make this situation work.

So I came back upstairs and made several trips out to the porch: carrying my laptop, a selection of reference books, a notebook, a pen, and my mug of hot tea. I sat myself down and turned on the computer. The angle of the morning sun made it difficult to see the screen. And if I moved it and myself to another side, the shade made it too dark, and I couldn’t look out to the yard. Well, I’d just have to compensate until the sun rose over the roofline. I squinted out a window. It shouldn’t take too long.

Off and on, I worked on several paragraphs for Chapter Four. But new distraction appeared: of course our wifi connection was still accessible out here. Checking e-mail and Facebook were too-easy diversions, even if I warned myself not to click on them. And then there was the issue of the tea. I had to keep going back inside to the kitchen for more. Granted, when I worked in my basement office, I also had to keep climbing the stairs for more tea. This was a challenge I had to surmount in both places. I needed to find a bottomless source of hot tea to keep me going.

Two feline muses watched me with interest. Maizie, our indoor cat, looked over my shoulder from the kitchen window. Jackie Blue, the little stray kitten I’ve been feeding outside, came into the porch every once in a while to check on me. She swirled around my feet, jumped onto a chair and then on the table, and rubbed against the edge of the open laptop. I stopped her from walking over the keys. I like her well enough, but I was not about to give her editorial control.

I heard the road workers talking and scraping and digging in the distance, with lots of intermittent back-up beeps. But I resisted the temptation to see what they were doing. Gradually I realized that they had given me a gift. Closing the road meant that the regular bus line was temporarily diverted to another street. I wouldn’t hear buses or any of the other traffic that we normally had. And when the men broke for a lengthy lunch, the world got a lot quieter. My creative juices began to flow.

Then I wondered how my writing retreat compared to Henry’s Walden house. He told us that his was “a tight shingled and plastered house, ten feet wide by fifteen long, and eight-feet posts, with a garret and a closet, a large window on each side, two trap doors, one door at the end, and a brick fireplace opposite.” How big was my room? I went back to the kitchen, got the contractor-grade measuring tape out of the toolbox from underneath the sink, came outside and unrolled it across the porch floor. The measurement was about eleven feet by nine and a half feet. In square footage, my space was smaller than Henry’s was. Also, I didn’t have a fireplace, a root cellar, a garret, or a closet as he did. But I was surrounded on three sides by windows and I had four chairs, not just three. (“One for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”) I guess my fourth one was for the kitten.

Somehow, over the course of those four and a half hours, in spite of responding to many distractions and in spite of running back for more hot tea, I was able to get 700 good words added to Chapter Four. Then it was time to close the laptop and the books, and to head off to the day job. I was pleased with my progress. I was pleased with the layout of my suburban writer’s retreat, my Walden away from Walden. I hoped to return to it very soon. But I also hoped that the township guys would be finished with the roadwork by
then. That beep-beep-beeping can back up right over your brain.

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