Henry in the Hills

“On the tops of mountains, as everywhere to hopeful souls, it is always morning.” Thoreau – from an early draft of Walden

Recent research, on page and on foot, has taken me to some of Henry Thoreau’s upland excursions, the ones where he traveled a good deal beyond Concord rather than within. In particular, I’ve been reading and imagining about his two journeys into the White Mountains and up Mount Washington.

Henry Thoreau first went to the White Mountains in 1839, beginning his two-week trip with his brother John on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, thereby seeding the narrative of his first book. One might suspect that Thoreau’s climb of northeastern high point, Mount Washington would show as a high point in his notes, but it passes in a single clipped sentence. The meandering rivers get their due, as they do also in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. But Thoreau’s overland mountain tour in 1858 is, in his journal, a different story; its chronicle covers more than 60 pages, and it is rich with detail.

In his dates and in his commentary, Thoreau catches nicely the early history of climbing on our White Mountains. In 1839, Thoreau and his brother weren’t first on the uplands, but they were part of the vanguard of visitors drawn to its transcendent landscape. Twenty-one years later, Thoreau and his companion Edward Hoar arrived at the height of the pre-Civil War tourist boom: now there were two hotels on top of Washington, and, though Henry, per usual, relied on his own two feet, scores of tourists now rode their way up prominent, popular mountains on bridle paths.

White Mtn uplands, where sky and land come close

White Mtn uplands, where sky and land come close

As with many activities that drew throngs, Thoreau later had something to say about mountaintop buildings: “I think that the top of Mt. Washington should not be private property; it should be left unappropriated for modesty and reverence’s sake, or if only to suggest that earth has higher uses than we put her to.” 1/3/61

But what catches my modern eye is his July 8th description of leaving Mount Washington’s summit in the fog, bound for Tuckerman Ravine:

About 8:15 A.M., being still in dense fog, restarted direct for Tuckerman Ravine, I having taken the bearing of it before the fog, but Spaulding [a summit hotelier] also went some ten rods with us and pointed toward the head of the ravine, which was about S 15 degrees W. Hoar tried to hire Page to go with us, carrying part of our baggage, — as he had already brought it up from the shanty [along the carriage road where they spent the prior night] — and he professed to be acquainted with the mountain; but his brother, who lived at the summit, warned him not to go, lest he should not be able to find his way back again, and he declined. The landlords were rather anxious about us. I looked at my compass every four or five rods and the walked toward some rock in our course, but frequently after taking three or four steps, though the fog was no more dense, I would lose the rock I steered for. The fog was very bewildering. You would think that the rock you steered for was some large boulder twenty rods off, or perchance it looked like the bow of a distant spur, but a dozen steps would take you to it, and it would suddenly have sunk into the ground. I discovered this illusion. I said to my companions, “You see that boulder of peculiar form, slanting over another. Well, that is in our course. How large do you think it is, and how far?” To my surprise, one answered three rods, but the other said nine. I guessed four, and we all thought it about eight feet high. We could not see beyond it, and it looked like the highest part of a ridge before us. At the end of twenty-one paces, or three and a half rods, I stepped upon it, — less than two feet high — and I could not have distinguished it from the hundred similar ones around it, if I had not kept my eye on it all the while.  Journal

Thoreau, who was a quick study, then offered comment that reads as kin to the sort of advice a reader can find in a modern guidebook about hiking, or in the lesson-drawing comments of mountain accident analyses.

It is unwise,” he writes, “for one to ramble over these mountains at any time, unless he is prepared to move with as much certainty as if he were solving a geometrical problem. A cloud may at any moment settle around him, and unless he has a compass and knows which way to go, he will be lost at once…To travel there with security, a person must know his bearings at every step, be it fair weather or foul. An ordinary rock in a fog, being in the apparent horizon, is exaggerated to, perhaps, at least ten times its size and stance. You will think you have gone further than you have to get to it.  Journal

There is, in Thoreau’s description, the hint of menace that fog and unsightedness can carry on an exposed mountain. You can quickly lose your way, become wrapped in illusion, which carries you farther afield; all the while the very rocks on which you walk seem to change size, shift shapes, reminding you also that nothing grows up here, that life’s supports are far below, and that you must go there to live on.

Half menace, half promise

Half menace, half promise

Given good facility with a compass, measures of distance and sound footing courtesy of his work as a surveyor and his long walkings, Thoreau leads the way just there; he and Hoar and companion go down unerringly to Tuckerman Ravine. Already his foot habits are making him familiar with the land. But Thoreau also seems aware that they have reached an edge, a place where accident and trouble are close by, a place visited often by modern search and rescue and its narratives of loss. These mountains, he sees, even in early July, can be a terra of trouble.

Prescient, as ever.

Reader’s Note: My research has also led me J. Parker Huber’s delightful 1999 compilation, Elevating Ourselves, Thoreau on Mountains.

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“Useful Passivity”

The title phrase comes from novelist Ian McEwan, and, when I encountered it the other day, it vibrated with a particular resonance. Recently, offered a book contract, I’ve settled into a routine that will, I hope, carry me to completion of my new job: after loosing the little workman of caffeine in my bloodstream, and in the morning’s rising light, I go to the mix of research, musing and writing that shapes each day. But at some late morning point, even if I give myself a pep-talk about resolve and deadlines, the words – mine or those of others – lie inert on the screen or page. I write a sentence or paragraph, reread it, and I realize that I don’t have “it” any more, if ever “it” has appeared that day.

What to do? Like many of us, I first check e-mail, though “it” has never written to me. But yesterday, McEwan’s phrase appeared there in a message from my sister-in-law, who thought I’d like the clip where he uses it. I clicked and listened to find out what useful passivity is. It wasn’t long before I found a link to Henry Thoreau, though the link was in practice and not in name. McEwan was praising time away from task, and I slipped the word “necessary” into “useful”’s place; that gave it more Thoreauvian resonance.

In the short clip, McEwan thinks about creativity and the moments when he arrives at an insight or a subject or a phrasing and the mystery of that arrival. Getting there, he thinks, takes travel, but it’s not the sort of direct line we imagine when we draw a line from A to B. Instead, it’s an alphabet of meandering, of the sort a traveler does in a new country. Or a walker in the new hours of afternoon. Here then was Henry Thoreau’s daily walking habit; there then was my own trail-dependency.

Every day when “it” vanishes, I go out to the day’s trail. Sometimes, I fire up the hammer of my heart and run; other times I amble along in search of foot-digressions. I go up and down. I go sideways, here and there. A flash of color alerts me to an idea, or to a bird. I’m not at work, but work can’t happen without this time outside. “It” is out here somewhere.

Here’s the link to the McEwan clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9LZfX3Y8TI

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The Breath of the Morning Bird

By Corinne H. Smith

The air is full of the notes of birds, — song sparrows, red-wings, robins (singing a strain), bluebirds, — and I hear also a lark, — as if all the earth had burst forth into song. The influence of this April morning has reached them, for they live out-of-doors all the night, and there is no danger that they will oversleep themselves such a morning. ~ Thoreau’s journal, April 2, 1852

Morning has broken like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.
~ Eleanor Farjeon, “Morning Has Broken”

Each spring I look forward to hearing what I call the First Bird of the Morning. He’s the first one to wake up and the first one to sing his song. He sings for a few minutes, then he stops. There’s a momentary pause throughout the neighborhood. (For all I know, the other birds may have groaned, mumbled, and hit their snooze buttons.) After 20-30 minutes of relative calm, the rest of the avian residents finally wake up and chime in, with the First Bird of the Morning leading the chorus. It’s a lovely symphony that filters into the inch of air allowed by my open bedroom window.

Over the past decade, I’ve witnessed different species claim First Bird status. The first year I paid attention to this phenomenon, a robin took center stage. The next year, it was a mourning dove. I’ve heard first melodies from a house finch, a Carolina wren, and from someone I could never quite identify. This year, my First Bird is a song sparrow. And what a singer he is! He seems quite proud to have claimed the first arbor vitae bush next to the carport. He wants to tell the world exactly where his new home is. And his favorite stage of all is the stop sign at the corner.

Yesterday, my morning started like any other. I got up at 5 a.m. and fired up the computer and the teapot. By dawn I had finished with e-mail and social media and had turned to work on current projects. The morning bird music was “on” in the background. I heard the song sparrow again as a soloist after the sun had come up over the horizon. I thought I knew where he would be sitting for his performance. And sure enough, when I looked out the living room window, I saw him perched on the top edge of the stop sign.

sparrowsit

But as I watched him rear back his head and offer his beautiful tiny notes to the sky, I saw something else, too. We had been under a frost warning overnight. No white coating covered the grass, but the outside thermometer still hovered around 30°. Accordingly, each time the First Bird sang, little white puffs of his breath came out, too. I had never seen such evidence of bird breath. I stood transfixed and said “Wow” with each delivery.

Sparrow sings

Sparrow sings

 

It was the smallest possible sighting, really: the exhalation of a warm-blooded creature into the chilly atmosphere that surrounded him. An inconsequential observance, most would say. And yet it struck an immediate chord with me. How often do we remember that these animals are breathing the same air that we are? That their little bodies have functioning life systems like ours do? (Each one “a parcel of vain strivings,” as Mr. Thoreau might say.) Probably rarely, if ever, and not as much as we should. But it’s solid proof that we are all connected by living together on this same home planet. I wonder if he saw MY breath in return when I carried the garbage bag out to the curb a few minutes later.

I grabbed the camera and tried to get photos of First Bird, but I can’t seem to get him in focus. You can get an impression of him, but you can’t see exactly what I saw. You’ll just have to take my word for it. The picture remains clear enough in my own mind’s eye.

GE DIGITAL CAMERA

As I type these sentences now in the following morning, I hear the song sparrow again. Sure enough, he’s sitting on the stop sign. But the air is a few degrees warmer than it was yesterday. I watch intently and I don’t see puffs of his breath. Too bad. I will always remember what they looked like, though. And I will remind myself to always acknowledge that he and I – and all the rest of them — are indeed fellow creatures sharing one single environment.

Editor’s Note: Corinne’s recently released book, Thoreau for Kids, drew a very fine review in the Chicago Tribune the other day. Here’s a link to that review: http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-prj-henry-david-thoreau-for-kids-20160414-story.html

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