The North and South of It – Impressions while Voyaging toward Spring

I didn’t go looking for this entry. Yes, I decamped from our snow-caked north and drove south for some family visiting. And yes, as happens to many who drive south at this time of year, I had a time-lapse experience of spring – it arrived as we wheeled down from the Cumberland Plateau into the lower lands of North Carolina, where the grass showed a first green and the maples burned with the gaudy red haze of their flowers at distance. But all of that, even in its visual richness, is predictable. That’s why so many northern cars are loose on southern roads at this time of year.

What brought me to keyboard was an evening reading from early March, 1855 in Thoreau’s journal (a worthy book to bear into spring, yes?). On consecutive days – March 8th and 9th – Henry Thoreau also visited the north and then the south as part of a series of expansive March walks. “To the Carlisle Road,” he writes at the head of the 8th’s entry, which is another way of saying to Estabrook (or Easterbrook) Woods, which lie due north of town.

And then on the 9th, he’s at a spring favorite, the Andromeda Ponds – ah yes, there they are on the USGS quadrangle close by Walden, south of town.

Perhaps it is my own pining for spring as this remarkable winter eases (slowly), but Thoreau’s early March of ’55 reads poignant to me. Every day he goes out, and on most days he mentions that he hopes for a bluebird.

And it is appropriate, I think, that each day begins with Thoreau’s boat: “This morning I got my boat out of the cellar and turned it up in the yard to let the seams open before I calk it. The blue river, now almost completely open…admonishes me to be swift.” 3/8/55

Then, on the 9th, he writes, “painted the bottom of my boat.”

Boatwork Ahead

Boatwork Ahead  Photo:Bigstock

It is clear that Henry Thoreau is ready for some voyaging, and his walks to the north and then south seem to fit this yearning, as he notes also that “I walk these days along the brooks, looking for tortoises and trout, etc.”

Perhaps part of my impression stems also from a descriptive paragraph on pines and their amber drops of pitch. On the 9th Thoreau is also once again on the far side of Fair Haven hill, stepping over and balancing on newly felled “great white pine masts.” The cutters have been at it again, laying bare more Concord landscape, and it is typical of Thoreau that he doesn’t avert his gaze. Instead, he looks closely, and, amid devastation, he finds beauty. And question.

“I was struck, in favorable lights, with the jewel-like brilliancy of the sawed end thickly bedewed with crystal drops of turpentine, thickly as a shield, as if dryads (?), oreads (?), pine-wood nymphs had seasonably wept there the fall of the tree. The perfect sincerity of these terebinthine drops, each one reflecting the world…is incredible when you remember how firm their consistency. And this is that pitch which you cannot touch without being defiled?”

Boats, beauty amid loss, the call of water – the world opens out into spring, and we voyage out to it.

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Like Roosters

Guest Post by Kayann Short

“I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.”    –Thoreau, Walden

On a trip to Cuba a decade ago to research sustainable agriculture, I arrived too late at the guest hostel in the southern, rural part of the island to see much of the palm-treed hills surrounding us in our small valley. Early the next morning, however, I got my chance when I was awoken by not one, not two, but what sounded like hundreds of roosters crowing all around me. I dressed quickly and went outside to find that roosters roamed freely in this village, strutting as lustily as Thoreau’s chanticleer. Roosters are undoubtedly more intent on alerting other roosters to their territory than on signaling transformation, but in El Valle del Gallo, as I called this place, I experienced the power of roosters crowing in unintentional symphony at the dawn of another day.

Recently I heard a story on National Public Radio about two women who own a small boutique in a Tehran mall. The women’s best-selling items might not seem radical: shirts, mugs, and pillows with roosters on them. Yet their roosters feature feathers drawn from the words of a Persian poem celebrating a new dawn. Like an earlier t-shirt the women offered with the word onid, or hope, the rooster items draw mixed reactions. According to the report, some customers don’t believe there’s hope for their country right now, while others want to believe in a new future for Iran.

These women were hopeful because they remembered a more open time in their country; the items they sold offered the possibility of a brighter day. These women’s belief in renewal touched me because I, too, retain an optimism that often seems naïve in the face of the world’s problems, a hopefulness based on the idea of a better future that was once voiced by young people of the 60s and 70s. “All we need is love,” sang the Beatles, “Love is all we need.”

In the early 1970s, Stonebridge Farm on Colorado’s Front Range was home to a small commune of hippies. Living in a tipi, bus, barn, and old farmhouse, they raised cows and chickens and sold milk and eggs to the small town nearby. Their back-to-the-land experiment was short-lived, but their work contributed to the farm’s organic stewardship. Twenty years later, my partner and I started a community-supported farm on the same land. For the last 24 years, we’ve been building the kind of future we’d like to see, one based on a reciprocal relationship with the land and community-based support for organic food production.

We raise chickens at Stonebridge, but since we don’t breed our own chicks, we don’t need rooster services. Last spring, we bought six chicks that were supposed to be egg-laying hens. But almost from the beginning, I suspected that one of the blue-green egg-layers would grow up to be a rooster. Its legs were longer and feathers more pronounced than the others; it looked regal, as if it were wearing a pair of 18th-century pantaloons and a tapestry jacket, just the type of braggart Thoreau had imagined. “ER-er-er-ERRR,” it crowed one day as I passed by the coop, making its intentions—and gender—clear. Luckily, chicken-loving friends were willing to adopt Ajax to replenish their breeding stock.

Ajax considers dawn Photo: Peter Butler

Ajax considers dawn
Photo: Peter Butler

I love my hens, but since hearing the story about the Iranian shopkeepers and their rooster t-shirts, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the louder fowl of the species. Metaphorically, as Thoreau knew and wrote, we need roosters to arouse the sleeping into action, voice inconvenient truths, and lead the call for change.

Today, social networking provides roosters more perches from which to crow than in Thoreau’s time. That may not make it easier to be a rooster – the risks of raising an unwelcome alarm will always exist – but more roosts means more roosters crowing together about the big things we’re facing like climate crisis, violence in communities and nations, and an ever-deepening gap between the have-mores and the have-lesses.

We roosters may be individualists, but with so many crowing at once, a collective message forms and surely it rises above the cacophonous din. Like the roosters of El Valle del Gallo, we raise our voices together with hope for change. By pairing personal acts with collaborative action, we establish that “hope” can be more than a slogan on a t-shirt. If we care about the day, the future and the world we’ll leave behind, we need to be like roosters and wake each other up.

Kayann Short, Ph.D., is the author of A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography (Torrey House Press). She farms, writes, and teaches at Stonebridge Farm, the first CSA in Boulder County, Colorado.

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The Resilience of Pines

By Corinne H. Smith

“I noticed a week or two ago that one of my white pines, some six feet high with a thick top, was bent under a great burden of very moist snow, almost to the point of breaking, so that an ounce more of weight would surely have broken it. As I was confined to the house by sickness, and the tree had already been four or five days in that position, I despaired of its ever recovering itself; but, greatly to my surprise, when, a few days after, the snow had melted off, I saw the tree almost perfectly upright again. It is evident that trees will bear to be bent by this cause and at this season much more than by the hand of man. Probably the less harm is done in the first place by the weight being so gradually applied, and perhaps the tree is better able to bear it at this season of the year.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, January 3, 1861

I thought of Thoreau’s description of pine resilience when nine inches of wet snow fell on our region last week. All of our trees were quickly and thickly outlined in white. But in instances like this one, our backyard white pine is always the tree most affected. Normally its lowest branch reaches straight outward or lifts itself slightly skyward, from four feet up. After the storm, its farthest-most needles touched the ground.

pine1

With the forecast of warmer temperatures, I knew the snowy covering wouldn’t last long. I didn’t despair of the white pine’s fate, as Thoreau did. Sure enough, within 48 hours, the surface snow had melted and slid off every branch. The tree was back to normal, at least in outward appearance.

pine2

Seeing this simple process: Is it any wonder that Henry Thoreau used examples from nature as metaphors for human behavior? In challenging times, can’t we exhibit as much resilience as a pine tree once covered in snow?

Now, of course, I’ve seen myriad trees damaged by powerful hurricanes and ice storms. I’m sure many in New England were hurt badly with the weight of the snows of this season. And yes, under extreme circumstances, both trees and people will break.

But isn’t it more likely that both will bend and bounce back? I think so. I think we can learn something of ourselves from the pines. Some folks are fond of saying, “What doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger.” The flexibility of the pines illustrates this principle. Just let that snow slide away in its time, and then spring back.

Or forward. Ah, this leads us to another metaphor … and just in time!

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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Living Deliberately, Nature, The Roost, Thoreau Quote