They Say It Was My (re)Birthday

Birthday one at the pond: Henry Thoreau is 27 and an eight-day resident of Walden. His journal that year offers no record of revelry on the 12th, no record, in fact, of anything. But one suspects a bit of a celebratory mood or moment in the aftermath of his 7/4 move that would become a rebirthing of self. July’s elastic light and Walden’s cool waters must have made this birthday feel expansive.

One imagines Henry Thoreau at the door of his cabin looking, perhaps, at a little early fog on the pond. Like our fog this morning. Where shall I walk today? When? Perhaps first I’ll watch the sidle of early light as the sun climbs the back of Pine Hill; perhaps this will be the morning later caught so clearly in Walden, where Thoreau is “rapt in a revery amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness” until noon. O, the possibilities.

Looking up into July's pines

Looking up into July’s pines

Henry Thoreau has awoken to no one, to the empty slate of this day; he will be its script. And he will be also its writer, later to become our writer, whose words will lead to a million Waldens. That’s quite a (re)birthday present.

Afternote: Thoreau’s journal picks up again 170 years ago today, on the 14th. It’s a rainy morning and he has this to say: “What sweet and tender, the most innocent and divinely encouraging society there is in every natural object, and so in universal nature even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy man…While I enjoy the sweet friendship of the seasons I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me. This rain which is now watering my beans, and keeping me in the house waters me too.”

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Walking (Off Dinner)

By Corinne H. Smith

“I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. … But sometimes it happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is. I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” ~ Thoreau, “Walking”

I ate too much. I was staying at a friend’s place. We went out to dinner, we had a great conversation, and I ate too much. As she drove us back, I told her I would have to go for a walk to work off dinner; otherwise, my clothes wouldn’t fit me the next day. So she stopped the car at an athletic field a few blocks from her house. She recommended that I walk around it. I got out and headed down the path. She wished me well and turned toward home.

According to a sign I passed as I was walking, this series of fields totaled 44 acres. They were edged by large trees. Sugar maples, mostly; with some pines, locusts and silver maples added in. I trudged along their outskirts at first, feeling heavy. I was loaded down with food (which had been delicious, by the way). But I was also replaying parts of our conversation in my head. My friend and I had been tossing around ideas for a few future projects. Many possibilities surfaced at the dinner table. Saying them out loud triggered more, and I had written them down. As I now put one foot in front of the other, I began to create a mental to-do list to follow up on our plans. If Henry Thoreau had been beside me and had known what I was up to, he would have admonished me for being out of my senses. I wasn’t paying attention to the nature around me.

Halfway around, I picked up a pine cone. I tossed it back and forth from one hand to another, matching this action with the rhythm of my pace. The cone’s scales were prickly. Each one was capped by a sharp point. They didn’t exactly hurt my fingers, but I sure noticed they were there. Not knowing where the needles would land next was something that kept me aware of myself and kept me moving forward, as the sun kept dropping a bit lower in the western sky.

The walk's two finds

The walk’s two finds

I began to hear a few birds in the trees. A cardinal was perched in one. Several chickadees called from another. A mourning dove echoed its slow mellow tones, from farther away. I was the only human circling the fields, but other creatures were here, too. I saw some of them flying, or landing in the fields, looking for dessert.

As I passed a typical New England stone wall, my gaze followed the straight line of its leveled-off top. I stopped at a lump. A brown and black-lined lump, with eyes. A chipmunk! I hadn’t seen one in a good, long while. It looked at me, and I talked to it. It tolerated this interchange for a few seconds, then it leapt into a crevice and peeked out at me, blinking. I talked to it again, and kept on walking. A gray squirrel was bounding along the other end of the wall, under an oak tree. He may have been hunting old acorns or something else. He blended in so well with the wall and the dusk, that I couldn’t tell what he was doing.

When I got to my starting point, I decided to keep on going. I was still stuffed. The weather was nice. The trees were nice. Why not make another round?

The pine cone still popped its needles into my hands. I saw little birds I couldn’t identify, scrutinizing the dirt. When I reached the stone wall, I saw another chipmunk in another spot. Or maybe it was the same one I’d seen before. This time, I could talk to it a bit longer before it darted between the stones. What a cutie! The gray squirrel was still at the other end of the wall, doing whatever he was doing. Since this part of the block was wooded and shady, I couldn’t see him well.

When I reached the starting point again, I knew I could handle a third time around. A few minutes into this decision, I spied something light brown on the ground. A nest! A small one, at that. I looked up at the tree it had fallen out of. I couldn’t tell where it had come from. It was tiny and perfect and fit completely on just my fingers. Who had built it? Where were they now? And where were the little ones that the nest had been built for? It was beautiful. It was soft and intricately woven. I picked it up and carried it along. It made a good companion to the prickly pine cone. My real question to myself was: Why had it taken me three times past this place to see it?

nestbottom

When I reached the stone wall for the third time, I saw the chipmunk – or another one – engrossed in eating something dark. I talked to it, and it was too involved to consider me a threat. It stayed put and continued gnawing. The gray squirrel was still concerned with squirrel business. I would never know what he was up to. I picked up two plastic bottles that someone had dropped or tossed out of a car. I had passed them twice. Now they would be recycled.

Soon enough I walked into the front door of my friend’s house. She and her husband were sitting in the living room. I told them that I had done three laps around the fields. “That’s three miles!” my friend said. Really? It hadn’t felt that long.

“And look what I found!” I said. I showed them the tiny nest. They admired it as much as I had. I put it and the pine cone next to my laptop for inspiration.

I had walked three miles. I felt better and lighter. I hadn’t solved any of the world’s major problems – or even any of my own. But I had picked up four things to bring back home. I had eventually paid more attention to nature than to my business concerns. So in the end, Mr. Thoreau may have approved of my saunter. The treasures I had found also reminded me of a quote by another great philosopher, the Native American named Black Elk: “The power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.”

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On Regard of Self Rather Than Self-Regard

As noted in our previous post, summer’s central month always makes me think of Henry Thoreau settling into his “experiment” at Walden. There must have been a pinch-me feeling to awakening pondside to the birdsong and early light.

I often wonder what Henry Thoreau would make of our era-of-the-selfie. We know from the outset (page one) of Walden, Thoreau was no stranger to himself, to the sort of self-examination that’s needed to figure out how to live. He warns us of his upcoming centrality in his book with these words: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew so well. I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.”

But the picture of him that forms as one reads is not a face smiling for his own camera; rather it’s more of praise song for life’s particular possibilities and gifts, as lived by one person with an inclination for the universal.

Thoreau goes on to offer requirement: “Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life…some such account as he would send to a kindred from a distant land.”

Here then, in that and summer’s spirit, are a few postcards from my distant land to something other than my face. If I were to take a selfie, it would be of my legs, to be used as illustration for a card of thanks.

Postcard Paeans (to My Legs)

Today I propose
an amble, a walk, a
run; today let’s be
away. Let’s lope
to the e
that joins us,
let’s match motion
with its e,
and let’s fete e’s
very way across
this day.

Bear with me or simply
bear me up this little
rise I can’t quite see
over. Every day
I ask, every day
you unbend
set me
upright,
then
on.

Legs-eye View

Legs-eye View

Two
of you
for one
of me that
seems rich
seems offer
of more
hope
than
hop.

And there’s this: hope
that the strung
muscle holds
its tune
permits ongoing
twoness and
keeps cadence
with motion’s
song.

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