Interview with a pilgrim

by Natasha Shabat

For the past 16 months, I’ve been video-interviewing visitors to Walden Pond. Approaching random strangers at the pond requires going out of my comfort zone. Normally I photograph nature at the pond and post my photos on Facebook — on my own page, on the Thoreau Society group page, on other Concord-related pages — and print them on greeting cards. And, with the encouragement of some Thoreauvian friends, I created a Facebook blog called “Walden Pond People” and turned my camera toward people, talking with them about why they were visiting the pond.

Come summer of 2016 and the Annual Gathering of the Thoreau Society (AG16), I invited attendees to meet me at Walden Pond, Monday morning after the Gathering, to be interviewed at Thoreau’s Cove. I chose this rendezvous point since it’s easy to find, and it’s quieter near the western end of the pond.

Meanwhile, thanks to my Walden Pond photos on the Thoreau Society Facebook group, I had befriended Punit, a man from India, who had been in the U.S. for less than two years and was starting to explore the country.

“Walden Pond is one of my dream places to visit,” Punit told me last April.

In July, Punit traveled to New England to attend AG16. He had never been to Boston, Concord, or Walden Pond and attended AG presentations over the weekend, including mine on “Walden Pond People.” He waited to make his pilgrimage to the pond for when we met at Thoreau’s Cove for his “Walden Pond People” interview.

“I wanted to read more about philosophy. I picked up Gandhi, because of the impact he made on the destiny of India, the future of India, so I wanted to know more about him. When I read his autobiography there was something on ‘Civil Disobedience,’ which I later came to know was inspired by Thoreau’s essay. Another reason why I was attracted to Thoreau’s writings is because one of my friends recommended Walden to me. There were a lot of things which were telling me ‘Hey, go read Thoreau!’ So, first I got my book. I just bought it and put it on the shelf. I didn’t do anything with it!”

When Punit described his path toward Thoreau, he reminded me of my own experience. I, too, had bought a copy of Walden, put it on the shelf, and proceeded to not read it. I simply continued going to Walden Pond to swim, kayak and read and write, as I’d already been doing for a couple of decades.

Punit photo 1

“Yeah, it was a fun way to read a book. I’ve never done anything like that with any other book.”

Punit continued, “But my friends influenced me. They started reading Walden before I did. Then there were three of us reading this book at the same time. There are certain things in the book which are difficult to understand. So what we would do is, we would discuss these with each other through email, or by phone, or during the in-person meetings. Yeah, it was a fun way to read a book. I’ve never done anything like that with any other book. It was a really interesting way to study these ideas. ‘What does this guy even want to say in these lines?’”

As Punit, I was influenced by others finally to take my book off the shelf. In my case it was a bunch of Thoreauvians presenting at AG11, which I had spontaneously attended. There at the Masonic Temple in Concord I was surrounded by people who knew Walden and had plenty to say about it. I was intrigued enough finally to read Walden for my first time. I read it in small bites, chewing on Thoreau’s words, while sitting in my kayak on Walden Pond. I did this over the next six weeks, until I turned the last page on September 1, 2011.

“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.” — Walden, “Reading”

Punit: “I think of Walden, and Thoreau’s writing in general, I think of them as something which is connecting the dots. Think of civilizations which existed in a different time. On a scale of time. Think of Chinese civilization, Indian, or Hindu civilizations, or American, or European civilization. So Thoreau’s trying to connect the dots. As if he were saying ‘Hey! There really isn’t much difference between these different civilizations. The core philosophy remains the same.’”

Punit photo 2

“Think of civilizations on a scale of time.”

After I finished reading Walden that summer of 2011, I, too, observed some dot-connecting, but of another sort: I was overcome by the parallels between Thoreau’s masterpiece and the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes. (More on this another time.)

Punit: “That core philosophy is one of the reasons that Thoreau got inspired by Eastern philosophy, even though he lived so much later afterward. That’s just amazing for me! And since I’m from India, Hindu philosophy especially attracted me to Walden. I think it’s really important to figure out what you want to do in life. This is one of those books which actually helped me to figure that out.

Punit photo 3

“I really like the site of his cabin.”

“Walden Pond is exactly what I was thinking of, how I imagined it to be: a simple place, just trees, pond, that’s it. It’s very peaceful, very nice, very green. Just the kind of place you want to be in when you want to think about the higher purpose of life, bigger things in life. Well, the cabin actually looks smaller than what I thought, so I’m wondering how Thoreau lived in such a small cabin. I would find it difficult. . . .  he was here for a grander purpose, so it probably suited his purposes here.

“I really like the site of his cabin. I think he probably must have walked around the pond a lot of times. Probably there is some specific reason why he chose this as his site. I brought my camera – that’s really important, because I wanted to capture at least a part of what Thoreau felt. And I would love to visit this place again.”

I was impressed with Punit. Imagine living in India, learning about Thoreau as a result of studying Gandhi — and then, eventually, actually coming here to Concord, hoping to see what Thoreau saw and feel what Thoreau felt. Punit had graciously awarded me the privilege of accompanying him on his first-ever pilgrimage to the place where Thoreau wrote Walden. I felt honored.

You can find my video interview with Punit here.

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, The Roost, Thoreau Bicentennial, Walden

Each Town Should Have a Park: Wandering Public Lands Far and Near

By Scott Berkley

 “Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation. … If any owners of these tracts are about the leave the world without natural heirs who need or deserve to be specially remembered, they will do wisely to abandon their possession to all, and not will them to some individual who perhaps has enough already.”  — Henry David Thoreau, Journal. October 15, 1859

On the late-summer day last year when the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument was announced, former Roost editor Sandy Stott was out paddling a kayak in the Gulf of Maine. When he returned to the news that the state of Maine had added a parcel of the immense North Woods to its stock of public lands, the connection to Henry Thoreau, who loved both the northern reaches of New England and the idea of land deeded to the public good rather than held by private interests, was immediately evident. To Thoreau, the purpose of setting aside public lands was to make them “a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation,” as he put it in his journal.

When I met up with Sandy in Maine later in the fall, we went land-ward to the Brunswick Commons, a parcel set squarely between the housing developments which ring that prosperous coastal town and the manicured playing fields of Bowdoin College. The Brunswick town Commons – which have made an appearance on The Roost in the past – are encircled by all the signs of a community becoming more and more of a paved metropolis. And yet the sandy trails meandering across marshlands dense with low sedge and scraggly pitch pines seemed, as I ran through the slanting autumn light, to exist as the beating heart of the town as a whole – a region that spoke back to the encroaching development. Let every town have its forest, says Thoreau; and let it be, by extension, not separate from the town, but at the basis of this larger ecological and spatial community.

This past month, I found myself thinking often of Thoreau’s public-lands dictum and what it tells us about land use in the twenty-first century. In the past four weeks travel took me to two of our nation’s most famed national parks: Yellowstone and Great Smokies. On the move in these hallowed places of wild land, I thought about the historical importance of these National Parks, this one-hundred-and-one year-old idea. Even more, I thought about how the millions of acres in the national park system speak to the tiny parcels of public lands in towns like Brunswick, and how the town-parks speak back to these iconic locales that take up so much space in our collective American consciousness.

On my way to Yellowstone, I found one such town-park in the city of Bozeman, at the south end of the Bridger Mountains of Montana. Over the past few years a local nonprofit, the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, has spearheaded an ambitious trail-building initiative known as “Main Street to the Mountains,” connecting urban bike paths and trails in places like Linley Park and Peet’s Hill to mountain trails leading to the Bridger Ridge. As of next year, when a new connector trail is finished, a trail runner or hiker will be able to go from downtown to Mt. Baldy at the south end of the Bridgers without having to find a way to drive to the trailhead.

A new bridge on the Drinking Horse Mountain trail, near Bozeman, MT.  Photo from gallatinartcrossing.com

A new bridge on the Drinking Horse Mountain trail, near Bozeman, MT.
Photo from gallatinartcrossing.com

Two weeks later, in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, I recalled the significance of Bozeman’s urban trails when I visited Le Conte Lodge, perched near the summit of the park’s second-highest mountain. The continued existence of the Lodge, where up to sixty overnight guests can stay during the March-through-October full-service season, testified to the eleven million visitors who come to the Smokies each year. Le Conte itself is a kind of town, even in the cold and foggy month of March; dozens of dayhikers came to visit the Lodge, even though it was closed for the winter, every day. Bozeman’s trail network creates a park experience even in the midst of urban development, while Le Conte Lodge recalls how humans can interact with expansive wild places on their own terms: by finding a way to make a home in the mountains.

The author out running in the Smokies. Photo courtesy of Ryan Koski-Vacirca.

Back in my hometown of Concord after the second leg of this two-park tour, it was again the familiar, lower-case parks that beckoned: Walden Woods; Fairyland, with its stone engravings of quotes from Thoreau and Emerson; Estabrook Woods, where those two once walked. One quote not engraved was Thoreau’s advice to wealthy landowners, to “abandon” their holdings “to all, and not will them to some individual who perhaps has enough already.” Fascinating word, abandon – as though the common, once given over to the shareholders of a town or country, were a place to be left alone rather than used and appreciated for generations. One hopes that, in this time of increasing socioeconomic inequality and political volatility, the town common is true to its name, binding us together in the shared joy of use.

Scott Berkley, a recent graduate of Middlebury College, has worked for the past five years in the huts of the White Mountains and is at home at all speeds on woodland trails.

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Man versus Machine

By Corinne H. Smith

“For many years I was self appointed inspector of snow-storms & rainstorms and did my duty faithfully – though I never received one cent for it.” ~ Henry Thoreau, Journal, after February 22, 1846

When I heard the sound of a nearby gas-powered engine starting up, I hurried to put on my boots and my coat and to head outside. I wasn’t about to let my next-door neighbor use his noisy and environmentally-unfriendly snow-blower on my sidewalk and driveway.

Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you that I am a snow lover. And one of the activities that I love most is shoveling snow. I cannot explain this addiction, other than to say that I like the sound, I like the solitude, and I like the rhythm of the physical activity. So when I woke up after our most recent storm and saw that more than seven inches of the white stuff had fallen overnight, I was overjoyed. Over the moon, really. But at least I waited until after dawn to go out and to attack the pavement and the driveway.

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Times tested method of snow removal.

There’s a science to shoveling snow, you know. You have to time your approach to gauge the duration and consistency of the storm. Shovel too soon, and you could leave the sidewalk vulnerable to an ice coating that will be too slick to walk on. Put off shoveling until the storm ends, and you will have more snow to remove, and you may also have to crush through a thick top coating of ice. Wait a day or two longer, and that snow will become reluctant cement. Good luck clearing any of it without a pick-ax.

My strategy is to keep up with the snowfall reasonably and regularly. I go out early. Once I do the major work, I have to go back later only for quick touch-ups. Whenever the sun comes out, I let the warmth of the rays do the rest of the work for me. If my timing is perfect, the pavements are bone-dry within a few hours, or at least, on the following day.

It’s impossible to shovel a snowstorm without inspecting it. This time, I was one of only two people out there on our block. Someone three doors down and across the street was shoveling quietly, too. The snow fell straight down, steadily and softly. The township plow hadn’t come through yet. Sounds from our part of suburbia were magnified in the cold air. A murder of crows  flew over me several times, calling to one other. A flock of geese went over, too, but the snowy sky hid them from view. Their’s seemed like voices from the heavens. A woodpecker tapped at a distant tree. A blue jay cawed from the top of another one. The songbirds were huddled in bushes somewhere, I was sure. But some of the other wild ones were out and about.

While I tidied up the walk a bit, a woman with Small Dog in Sweater walked by. I said hello and asked the little one if he was having a good time.

“We’re looking for a place to ‘go,’” his pet mother said.

I laughed. “Well, there aren’t any green patches out here today, unfortunately for him,” I said.

They continued on.

I successfully defended my sidewalk from the noisy neighbor’s machine. (Had he chatted with the woman and dog? No, because he was too busy and couldn’t hear them.) And look at the difference between my part and his! Mine is organic. His is mechanical. Nature doesn’t make straight lines. And he leaves tire marks behind. I leave only boot prints.

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The woman and the Small Dog came back around several minutes later. “Success?” I asked.

“No, not yet,” the woman sighed.

“Oh, well. I know how that feels,” I said. She laughed.

Later in the morning, I heard Neighbor John start up his coughing snow-blower. Although his machine is even more intrusive than the one my other neighbor has, I tolerate John’s because he respects my space. He and I also tag-team on behalf of Mrs. Jones, the elderly widow who lives across the street. Her driveway is more than two times longer than either one of ours. Once John and I have attended to our own properties, we move over to hers. I tackle the carport and its edges with the shovel, and he does the driveway and the sidewalk with his blower. This is actually the only time John and I ever see each other. We live in suburbia, after all.

John waved as he aimed his snow-eater toward her driveway. “Hey, I haven’t seen you since …”

“… last year at this time,” I finished.

“Yeah, that’s right.”

We worked together to get the carport, driveway, and sidewalks cleared off. Mrs. Jones came to the door in her housecoat, and I warned her to stay inside for the day. I also waved off her offer to pay us. John was wearing earplugs – another inconvenience a shoveler doesn’t have to worry about – so we couldn’t talk when the machine was on. Whenever he had to turn it off to maneuver, he and I caught up a bit on personal news.

“Didn’t you write a poem about this last year?” he asked.

“Oh, yeah, I did.” (I had forgotten.) “I’m in the middle of writing a blog post about the snow right now.” (At least I’m consistent in what I get passionate about.)

We were almost done with the job when John called, pointed, and turned the machine off again. “What?” I asked.

“We flushed out a rabbit.” It had taken shelter under one of Mrs. Jones’s yews. “He ran over there.” John pointed to another neighbor’s yard, where another nice bush could provide refuge.

Wouldn’t you know? I had missed seeing this encounter myself. I called over an apology to the bunny to let it know that we were almost done with our work. When every surface was cleared for Mrs. Jones, John and I said our goodbyes and returned to our own houses. I admired our good work on the way back.

The next morning, an early-riser co-worker e-mailed me from the office. “Be careful when you come in,” she wrote. “The sidewalks and the parking lot haven’t been cleared yet.”

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Sidewalk cleared!

“No worries,” I replied. “I’ll bring my shovel.” A good snow-storm inspector is always prepared.

 

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Nature, The Roost