Kid Stuff…with Thoreau

Every child begins the world again, to some extent, and loves to stay outdoors, even in the wet and cold…Who does not remember the interest with which when young he looked at shelving rocks, or any approach to a cave.  Thoreau, Walden

A number of years ago, I attended a lecture. Henry David Thoreau’s work was the subject, and the speaker was a prominent academic, an acknowledged Thoreau expert. He lost me early, when he said that Thoreau was an unsuitable subject for anyone under college age – translation: for anyone except people like me or those we teach.

I was in mid-career as a high school teacher and in no little awe of the insight and engagement that swept through the classroom as we read Walden and Walking and Civil Disobedience.

Really? I recall thinking. Would the writer who famously loved kids and celebrated the child’s clearest eye like being locked away with this particular academic? I thought not.

That moment returned to me when, a year or so ago, I got the happy news that Corinne Smith was writing a book called Thoreau for Kids. How just right, I remember thinking. And now that promise has come to publication; Corinne’s book nears its launch this Saturday.

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You all know Corinne as a master, Thoreau-inflected storyteller on this site. And many of you know her previous book about Thoreau’s last journey west, Westward I Go Free – Tracing Thoreau’s Last Journey. Here is a chance to return to the insights and joys of childhood that Thoreau might help you rediscover. And, if you have or know children, here is a chance, complete with 21 activities, for them to discover a writer and presence who can last a lifetime, a writer for all seasons of life.

Corinne’s publisher, Chicago Review Press, has an interview with her at the other end of this link: http://www.chicagoreviewpress.com/blog/behind-the-scenes-thoreau-for-kids/

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Playing Snow-Storm Inspector

By Corinne H. Smith

“For many years, I was self-appointed inspector of snow-storms and rain-storms, and did my duty faithfully …” ~ Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

Saturday’s Big Northeastern Snow gave me a chance to go out and play storm inspector, a la Henry Thoreau.

I had already measured the snow depth in the front yard at 8 a.m. – 15.5 inches – and I had shoveled the driveway. I came back inside and did some reading and some writing. But I couldn’t stop looking out the window and marveling at the diligence of the snow. It was steady, it was piling up fast, and it was beautiful.

Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to be out in it. And I had to prepare myself for the conditions. First I had to retrieve my snow boots from storage in my three-season writing porch. I kicked a lot of snow away from the porch door just to slip inside. Then, when I looked closer at my boots, I saw that someone else had used them. It had been so long since I needed them that a mouse had used the left boot for a home … and an outhouse. I shook out his settlement. The right one was empty and clean. Go figure.

I bundled up in my winter coat, scarf, gloves, and knit cap. I put my camera, driver’s license, and a five-dollar bill in my pocket, just in case. I hadn’t checked the batteries in the camera, though. They died fairly quickly. So I had to rely on myself to be the camera for the trek. I could pay closer attention this way. The photos could wait.

The temperature was in the mid-20s, and the wind did occasionally gust around me. But overall, I was fairly comfortable. The kitchen clock had said it was noon, but it could have been anytime outside. Everything was white and there was no sun. It had been two hours since the snowplow had come our way. And the flakes just kept falling, falling, falling. I took to the middle of the street and trudged up the block. Westward.

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My usual dry-weather walk traces a mile-and-a-half loop through suburbia. Today this probably wasn’t practical. I decided instead to make one trip around our large residential block. Every half block, I stopped, looked, and listened. I wanted to EXPERIENCE this snowfall. The air was filled with flakes. And I was the only person out in it. I guess everyone else was inside, watching TV broadcasts and online videos of the weather-folk and giant pandas having fun in the snow. Go figure again.

Henry Thoreau didn’t happen to wear spectacles. Here he had the advantage over me. It’s difficult to inspect a snow storm when it keeps building up on your lenses. I had to wipe them off with my gloves at every turn. Then I could spot small movements. Little birds hopped on top of the snow near someone’s porch, perhaps picking up stray seed the homeowner had thrown to them. An acrobatic squirrel leaped from an evergreen tree to a branch of a snowy maple, scuttling snow from both. I knew of several bunnies who lived under certain bushes. But they were hunkered down and were hidden from view. Very much like the people in the houses just behind them.

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I listened. The flakes made soft whispers against my coat and on the growing drifts. Off in the opposite direction, I could hear distant beeps from equipment clearing the grocery store parking lot. The wind jostled someone’s wooden wind chimes, adding a light melody to the scene. And when I walked, I thought I heard someone shoveling the sidewalk right behind me. I turned around and saw no one. It took me a few instances of this to realize that it was the sound of my own coat scraping against itself. I laughed. Then I thought of another Thoreau quote that I had read just a few days earlier.

“As I walk the RR causeway, I am, as the last two months, disturbed by the sound of my steps on the frozen ground. I wish to hear the silence of the night, for the silence is something positive to be heard. I cannot walk with my ears covered. I must stand still and listen with open ears, far from the noises of the village, that night may make its impression on me.” ~ Thoreau, Journal, January 21, 1853

Thoreau crunched on ice and snow and was annoyed. I was distracted by my coat. To-may-to, to-mah-to. We both stopped to listen to what was mostly silence.

At the third corner, I came upon a man attending to a mini-four wheeler. It wasn’t stuck, but the motor kept cutting off. He had to get off the seat and fiddle with something to get it started again.

“Need help?” I asked, even though I know nothing of such toys.

“Nah, I’m fine,” he said. “I only live right there anyway.” He nodded to the house on the corner. I took him at his word and kept on my path. Soon I heard his high whiny motor behind me as he took off down a side street. To each, his own method of inspection.

Now I realized I had forgotten to bring along something that was vital to the adventure: tissues. My nose was running to beat the band. I ignored it as best as I could as I rounded the last corner. Still watching, still listening.

As I headed up the driveway, a little brown bird flew out of the carport and into the nearby arborvitae bushes. I knew there had to be others sheltered in that thicket, too. Everyone had a place to weather the storm, it seemed. And I was back at mine, having spent a lovely, leisurely hour strolling through the storm.

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I hung up my snowy and noisy coat, kicked off my boots, and settled in with a steaming mug of green tea and the book I was close to finishing: William Least Heat-Moon’s collection of travel pieces, “Here, There, Elsewhere.” I soon came upon this paragraph and was startled by the connection:

Americans believe in the spiritually redeeming efficacy of travel almost as if it were prayer. We are prone to try to modify our lives simply by just GOING, whether on a walk around the block or on a coast-to-coast trek. And why not? We’re all descendants of travelers who reached these shores from the other hemisphere. Were stars not so splendidly cosmic a symbol, the blue union of our flag could well be composed of little footprints.

What an apt thought!

On this snowbound day, I had been guided first by one American author and validated later by another one. And I smiled knowing that I had left my own footprints on snow-covered streets during a wonderful northeastern blizzard. I deemed the inspection a success.

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Blizzard Watch – Spin and Unspin

And he made no compromise with Time, Time kept out of his way, and only sighed at a distance because he could not overcome him. Thoreau, Walden

For a long time, I’ve tracked storms, and, with the advent of easy access to weather radar, I’ve grown used to watching them spin across our heartland, or up the nearby coast in winter. And, without mastering the mathematics, I’ve also become a second-guesser, reading forecasts and then amending them, though I try to be careful not to say any of this aloud – even the most weather-addled know that such talk is the mark of the weather-bore…or boar.

Anyway, as you have already noted – if you’ve read this far – I’ve broken that social commandment, and I seem poised to go on. Surely, it’s the touted blizzard to our south, blocked from visiting us by cold high pressure to the north. I won’t miss the way such a visit would have sent me up-roof for the first time this winter, but surely the action is elsewhere today. Why such fascination?

Another tempest, another time

Another tempest, another time

For a long time also, I’ve thought about the way the word “tempest” tips us toward understanding strong weather’s central effect. “Tempest” shares its root with all sorts of time-words (tempus), and musing about these links took on some order (or disorder) when I reread my favorite Shakespeare play, The Tempest, also probably his final signature as a playwright. In the play, the magician Prospero does what so many of us pine to do: he upends the order of the usual world and begins again on a charmed island where he will “get it (life, civilization, child-rearing) right.” On his island, he has a clean slate; he will do better.

Except…that he is dealing with people, himself among them. On his island he finds a being of “monstrous” appetite and other habit (Caliban), and soon, after Prospero conjures a tempest to wreck the nearby ship of his exploring countrymen, he has them for company too. It all falls apart: Prospero must, or feels he must, check Caliban, “civilize him” with magic; his daughter, Miranda, falls in love with one of the shipwrecked men; magic, even on a faraway island, seems unable to change, the usual spin of things, who we are and how we live.

Where, you ask, is the link to weather-watching, fascination? It’s in the spin of storm. Now, we know that low pressure spins counter-clockwise; it goes then against time. And time is our way of ordering life; it marks out our usual worlds; we are said to be slaves to it. But when a tempest spins our way, up our coast, it undoes the day, works against usual time. We can’t go about our usual routine, and there we are marooned or moony on our little island; set free from time’s relentless clock, if only for a while.

Here, in Maine it’s an orderly day – 1,2,3,4, the seconds march, their measuring sweeping clockwise. But if you are in the path of our tempest, I hope your island time unwinds the tight clock of the day, that, going the other way, you find magic within. A good day, perhaps, to read The Tempest.

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