Spring’s Songs – Jonathan Franzen and Henry Thoreau and Birds

A purple finch showed up in our yard yesterday, just hours ahead of the last (I hope) snowfall. And my daily footwork was again suffused with bluebird song. These birds then triggered a rereading of an essay that had caught my eye but then slipped into the welter of partially-read pieces.

Purple Finch (carpodacus Purpureus)

You, if a reader of this blog, have grown used to our stepping onto the springboard of Thoreau’s journal writings; from there, we often dive into something daily, some moment of the local world. Today we climb a little higher, then drop a little farther from the platform of Jonathan Franzen’s recent essay, Carbon Capture, ( http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/04/06/carbon-capture)  in the April 6th New Yorker. From (and in) it, we consider the vast challenge of climate change and the sliver of effect we call personal response. Franzen’s piece, the best response to this calamity that I’ve read, brings us back to Henry Thoreau – not by specific mention, but by its suggestion that local attention and conserving work can be redemptive, can be a daily way forward in a difficult time.

In struggling to come to personal terms with climate change and its vast pronouncement, Franzen writes of birds, of local study and care that echoes Thoreau’s understanding that, when it came to universal concerns and understanding, he had “traveled a good deal in Concord.” Franzen’s central thought is direct: climate change is real and unstoppable; its scale so dwarfs a person’s efforts as to negate them, and so, even as large environmental organizations and figures recommend combating it, focus on climate change draws a person away from work where she or he can have effect, can live a life – working for conservation of habitat for birds and other animals, for example.

As he considers himself and us, Franzen identifies two central strains of thought that divide us: the Puritan, guilty-as-charged school and the positive, life-affirming Franciscan school. In shifting his focus from guilt-inducing efforts to have personal effect on climate change to life-affirming work for bird habitats, Franzen chooses life and whatever measure of joy it may contain. His implied question is a simple one: do you want to live a guilt-ridden, powerless life or a commitment-suffused one?

Franzen is not naive. He knows that climate change will alter habitats, will affect every thing. But he points out that global scale trouble and guilt finally overwhelm and paralyze. If, every time you have an effect – which is of course, every minute – you feel guilty about it, you step finally away from such wearying awareness. If instead, you feel you are working at least some of the time for some small sector of life, local habitat, for example, you can be buoyed by small victories, lifted by your embrace of the local.

Thoreau, of course, knew the lure and redemption of the local. His journal is a record of engagement and, yes, love, of where he walked and what he found.

Journal, April 9th, 1856: 7 A.M. – To Trillium Woods…The air is full of birds, and as I go down the causeway, I distinguish the seringo note. You have only to come forth each morning to be surely advertised of each newcomer into these broad meadows. Many a larger animal might be concealed, but a cunning ear detects the arrival of each new species of bird. These birds give evidence that they prefer the fields of New England to all other climes, deserting for them the warm and fertile south. Here is their paradise. It is here they express the most happiness by song and action.

I have taken a nuanced, developed essay and simplified it (without too much damage, I hope). It is worth reading in its fullness. Just as the birds singing in today’s new snow remind that today is there to live in its fullness.

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Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Neil Sedaka and Henry Thoreau – not your usual pairing. Still, both share a fascination with iced water’s set world. And with the grip it has on us. Both also wrote words, lyrics, that can take over the mind.

So it was that during our one-day spring (55 degrees!) last Friday, I approached our nearby bay at the shuffle-pace I call running. The snow’s remainders lay in thick strips of drift across the tan fields, and, having just returned from southern sojourn, I was wondering what I’d find. In mid-March, when we’d left in search of spring, the ice on the bay was more than a foot thick, and it stretched beyond the islands a mile off shore; I’d watched a family ski on (frozen) water out to those islands. Not, as we can all agree, a usual winter.

Through the barely budded trees, I could see the water, and it was streaked with white. Ice still!, I thought. As I drew nearer, I saw also gaps in that white, leads of open water colored greeny gray. A low rustling sound rose from the bay – ice rubbing ice, wearing itself away. Neil Sedaka’s lyrics popped into my head (and they are still there): breaking up is hard to do.

Out on the water, a pair of ducks paddled up to one miniature berg and clambered aboard, settling into contented crouch as their small world was jostled by others. A sheet of ice as big as a playing field floated seaward, impelled, it seemed, by some invisible force. Gulls cried through the air. The whole bay was alive.

Remnant ice, with the still unbroken sheet  in the background.

Remnant ice, with the still unbroken sheet in the background.

As I left to return to my shuffle, I tried to force Neil Sedaka from my mind by thinking about Henry Thoreau and his break-up stories of Fairhaven Bay, the expanse of the Sudbury River broad enough to behave like the sea sometimes. Invariably, Thoreau’s spring journals arrive at Fairhaven to chronicle its break-up.

The winter of 1856 bore good resemblance to this year’s – March stayed cold, the snow was deep, ice thickened even as the light grew longer. Thoreau was out and about measuring the ice (nearly two feet thick on Walden) and walking still down the Sudbury’s center in late March. Still, as his long entries about spring signs make clear, he was eager for and alive to the new season.

On April 7th he finally was able to launch his boat:

Launched my boat, through three rods of ice on the riverside…Up river in boat…The first boat on the meadows is as exciting as the first swallow or flower. It is seen stealing along in the sun under the meadow’s edge. One breaks the ice before it with a paddle, while the other pushes or paddles, and it grates and wears against the bows.

And on April 8th, he reached Fair Haven Pond:

By the side of Fair Haven Pond it was particularly narrow. I shoved the ice on the one hand and the bushes and trees on the other all the way…For all this distance, the river for the most part, as well as the pond, was an unbroken field of ice.

“Comma comma down doobie do down down,” I half-sang, “comma comma down…” and my feet aligned their steps to Sedaka’s song.

Breaking with this song is as tough as slipping the grip of winter; O, this will not end soon, I thought. And clearly these days later, even as our ice retreats, it hasn’t.

Stranded berg

Stranded berg

Breaking up is hard to do. Comma comma…

Added note: a while later, in a tree at a field’s edge, a bluebird sang, then flew, its sky-blue back flashing in the sun.

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Spring Words

There is, this morning, the long-running voice of water on tin as the snowmelt falls from the gutter through its metal pipe to ground. Our intense winter gives up its ice grudgingly, but the morning sun says it must, and even ice can’t sass the sun on this 50-degree day.

Photo Credit: Bigstock

Photo Credit: Bigstock

Ice and water are on my mind because I’ve been thinking back to the work of teaching. The catalyst is an essay written by a former student, now in college, and sent on at my request. Scott recently reread Walden as part of his studies, and I had wondered in a note what struck him on this pass through. My experience has been that Walden is that rare book that bears rereadings across time and human ages.

So, this morning, as the water ran, I settled into a chair and read Scott’s essay. It was – no surprise to me – insightful and clearly written, but beyond that I was taken by its range. Here was writing that suggested that, for Scott, Walden had become a world in which he was free to wander, that the knottiness of its sentences and propositions had given way to a sort of landscape to be sauntered, known and drawn upon easily.

My experience reading Scott’s work made water of another sort of ice – a teacher’s sense of what happens when his students read a long-studied work freezes at the moment of teaching, in the memory of class. But, of course, students move on, flow on; in truth, there is no ice, no fixed sense, at all in their readings. And I have been reminded of this by the morning work of Scott’s words. A paragraph that makes good sense of Thoreau’s “spring work,” his house-building at Walden Pond follows.

May each of you find the flow of spring in your own mornings these days; it seems, as Thoreau knew, just the right time to construct another year.

“The remade origin-myth of Walden Pond runs parallel to the autobiographical account of how Thoreau set up housekeeping there. The communicative closeness with divinity that Thoreau feels so intently during his recorded year is an outgrowth of the etiology that he forms for his “experiment.” It is not incidental that he begins to build a house “near the end of March,” at a time when the “torpid state” of wintertime transforms into a “higher and more ethereal life”; here begins the narrative of seasonality at Walden, which will conclude itself by coming into the same springtime which nurtures Thoreau’s optimistic impulse. As springtime is the morning of the year, it shares the sanctity of the antemeridian hours. “What should be man’s morning work in the world?” Thoreau asks, fervently, in “Economy.” “Morning work” is both sanctified and sanctifying, and what Thoreau chooses to do in the morning – to build a house and thus found his experiment – gains an equally spiritual dimension. Emerson posits, “The knowledge of man is an evening knowledge, vespertina cognitio, but that of God is a morning knowledge, matutina cognitio.” To work in the morning is hence a higher calling which begets a superior form of understanding. House-building, a seemingly human activity, nevertheless has the potential to make Thoreau conversant with the higher truths of divinity. Long after the house is finished, in “The Pond in Winter,” Thoreau recounts that after a turbulent sleep, “I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and daylight.” This is the “morning knowledge” which he has gained, and for which the pond has acted as an intermediary between his human, questioning state and the godly answer.”                     - Scott Berkley

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