Tag Archives: Thoreau Farm

Cold Fridays (or Other Days of the Week)

By Corinne H. Smith

“Mother remembers the Cold Friday very well. She lived in the house where I was born. The people in the kitchen – Jack Garrison, Esther, and a Hardy girl – drew up close to the fire, but the dishes which the Hardy girl was washing froze as fast as she washed them, close to the fire. They managed to keep warm in the parlor by their great fires.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, January 11, 1857

If you have visited Thoreau Farm, you can no doubt picture this scene. An assortment of family members and a few servants were huddled beside the large fireplace in our first-floor parlor. They had abandoned working in the kitchen in the salt-box shed attached to the back of the house. Outside the wind whipped across their fields. None of them knew how long they would have to stay here. And if they had to keep building “great fires,” perhaps we should feel fortunate today that they didn’t accidentally burn down the whole house back then.

Every region has its dramatic weather stories. For winter records, New England has the Blizzard of 1978, the Great Snows of 1717, and the Cold Friday of January 19, 1810. (Perhaps the Winter of 2014-2015 will get a fancy name and will be added to the list.)

Yes, that's cold.

Yes, that’s cold.

Thursday, January 18th, 1810 had been an unseasonably warm day. Some spots reported temperatures as high as the 50s and low 60s. But by sunset a line of snow squalls moved into western Massachusetts “with the power and fury of a tornado,” according to one source. “Desolation marked its course.”

Temperatures plummeted as the storm moved from west to east. By midnight, many thermometers were down to zero. On Friday, they dropped to -14, even -20. And those readings didn’t take what we call now wind chill into consideration. Wind velocities weren’t reported then, but they must have been catastrophic. The front brought a sustained “high wind, cold and piercing in the extreme, and of such force as to prostrate many trees and buildings.” Tree trunks were sheared off at various heights. The meeting house in New Ipswich, New Hampshire, was just one of the buildings that lost its roof. The wind and cold abated a bit by Monday, but the rest of January remained frigid.

Cold Friday was tragic enough that it was written about in town histories. In Woburn, Massachusetts, Joseph and Benjamin Brooks had gone to a nearby woodlot to chop wood that Thursday. On Saturday, they were found frozen to death. In Sanbornton, New Hampshire, Jeremiah Ellsworth’s house was torn apart by the wind. He pushed his way against the gale to a neighbor’s house for help, then returned to his own to rescue his wife and three children. The wind tore the children’s clothes right off their bodies. In spite of their best efforts, Jeremiah and his wife lost all three.

While other New Englanders dealt with dire losses of property and lives, the Dunbars and Minots and their friends stayed safe in this two-and-a-half story frame house we now call Thoreau Farm, built in 1730. According to entries in Henry Thoreau’s journal, members of his mother’s generation brought up memories of Cold Friday whenever the winter was particularly cold or snowy. Cynthia Dunbar had been 22 years old back then: still two years away from becoming Mrs. John Thoreau, and seven years away from giving birth to little David Henry.

As we in the Northeast hunker down to experience our own version of cold Friday, perhaps we can take inspiration from Cynthia and the people of Concord in 1810. They made it through the cold, and we can, too. Let’s hope ours isn’t one for the record books.

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Living Deliberately, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote

Return to Two-Boulder Hill

By Corinne H. Smith

I last led a nature writing walk to Two-Boulder Hill at the end of March. Back then, we had to walk around a few patches of ice, but we still had a terrific time. (See http://thoreaufarm.org/2014/04/a-visit-to-two-boulder-hill/ for the whole story.)

What a difference three and a half months can make! During The Thoreau Society’s Annual Gathering in mid-July, three of us took the same walk. Well, it can never be the SAME walk. We followed the same general path, and we witnessed the sights and sounds of Summer this time.

Charles and Lucy and I met at Thoreau Farm and began walking north. After we passed the Gaining Grounds fields and the woods behind them, we reached a little-used access road. Here we caught sight of flowers that like to live in these kinds of disturbed areas: the yellow bird’s foot trefoil, yarrow, tiny Deptford pinks, and Queen Anne’s lace. We watched as the smallest butterfly we’d ever seen lighted upon a small dark log. Upon further inspection, we thought that its perch may have been coyote scat. We had indeed approached Wildness pretty quickly.

On this steamy July day, with no clouds in the sky, the sunlight was too strong for us to stand in one place for very long. We walked along the trail and looked around for a shady spot to sit. We ended up just plopping down in the middle of the path, only an arm’s length away from one another. But we all had writing experience, and we quickly got ourselves into the proper frames of mind. We watched, we listened, and we quietly wrote in our journals.

We were surrounded by a dense forest that the wind brought to life. Breezes fluttered through all of the trees and branches above us. Lucy noted later that it sounded as if we were sitting at the edge of a big green ocean, with waves of leaves cooling us off instead of water drops.

After about fifteen minutes, I caught a hint of familiar flute-like tones. No! Was it possible? Had we been discovered by Henry David Thoreau’s favorite bird, the wood thrush?

I waited a few seconds, and the call came again. I was sitting a little closer to Charles, and I whispered to him, “I don’t believe it.” He cocked his ears and listened, and we heard the song again. Charles understood and nodded. He lifted his binoculars to see if he could see the bird. We alerted Lucy, too. Somewhere in the overgrown thicket in front of us, a wood thrush sang its beautiful tidbit song.

Thoreau called the wood thrush “the finest songster of the grove.” He wrote glowingly of the bird and its music. His journal entry for July 5, 1852, puts the thrush on an especially high pedestal, for the length of a full long paragraph. “Whenever a man hears it, he is young, and Nature is in her spring,” he said. It was true. The temperature suddenly became more tolerable for us. We listened as the bird came and went: always out of sight, but always sharing its music. I scribbled a rough transcription of the thrush’s jagged but magical melody line:


(You can hear the typical wood thrush song on Cornell’s All About Birds web site at http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/wood_thrush/id.)

Eventually I glanced at my watch. It was time to start walking back. I told my companions that we had to leave. Charles looked at me and said, “I could stay here all day.” Lucy and I felt the same way. Now THAT’s the sign of a worthwhile nature-watching and writing outing. Reluctantly we got up, brushed ourselves off, stretched our legs, and sauntered back to Thoreau Farm.

Charles was inspired to write a poem about our forest visitor.

Wood Thrush

Sitting in woods listening for sounds —
airplanes the winds shifting in the trees
cicada catbird then the faint
silvery voice, “come to me” “come to me”
the winds blow hard tossing treetops
we wait longer then the bird is nigh
“come to me!” yet closer “come to me!!”
I aim binoculars cannot see him
then silence — only the wind remains
this shy liquid-voiced singer
is the soul of the listening forest
~ Charles T. Phillips

This was indeed a day that the three of us will remember. And all we really did was take a walk in the woods.

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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Nature, The Roost, Thoreau Quote

A Visit to Two-boulder Hill

By Corinne H. Smith

“Went to what we called Two-Boulder Hill, behind the house where I was born. There the wind suddenly changed round 90° to northwest, and it became quite cold … Called a field on the east slope Crockery Field, there were so many bits in it.” ~ Henry Thoreau, Journal, January 31, 1860

One morning at the end of March, six people accompanied me on a nature writing walk to Two-Boulder Hill, behind Thoreau Farm. We were armed with our journals and open eyes, ears, and minds. We were awake and alive. We wanted to see what we could see, on this muddy day that happened to overlap both winter and spring. The sun was shining and the robins were bobbing for worms in the front yard when we started out. We hoped to beat the expected heavy rain, which we had heard would arrive by afternoon. Off we went.

Following Thoreau’s advice, we were also determined to leave behind all of the big concerns of the day, including the unrest in Ukraine, the search for the Malaysian jetliner, and the devastation left by that massive mudslide on the opposite coast. “I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit,” Henry wrote in the essay called “Walking.” “It sometimes 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?” Yes, for at least a few hours today, we wanted to shake off the village and return to our senses. If we each found something nifty to write about, so much the better.

We stepped carefully around a few remnants of winter: some random patches of snow that had hardened into thick, slick ice. And we considered with wonder this landscape that had been covered for months with more layers of white. We found spots where we could only suspect that something tragic had happened. The sight of several piles of gray fur with no visible skeletons raised more questions than it answered. Several scat deposits lay in the middle of our path as well: one from a rabbit (perhaps), and another from a coyote (perhaps). (Note to self: Next time, bring along an animal tracking book that identifies such droppings.) The green fungi on a fallen log caught our interest, too.

Green Fungi en Route

Green Fungi en Route

We crossed what Thoreau called “Crockery Field.” Its tall grass from last summer had been flattened by the snow. If you looked closer, though, you could see bits of green moss peeking out from underneath the sharp tan blades. The story goes that before Thoreau’s day, this place was owned by a man who worked at the Middlesex Hotel on Monument Square in Concord. He brought home the slop bucket from the hotel kitchen in order to feed his hogs. That’s why Henry found bits of the hotel china in the dirt. More pieces may still be here.

Crockery Field

Crockery Field

We spent a good long while at Two-Boulder Hill. Each one of us found a sitting space where we were inspired to write in our journals. Some climbed up onto the actual boulders. From the nearby woods, we could hear the sounds of occasional birds, like cardinals, chickadees, crows, and woodpeckers. Sitting as we were in the direct line of Hanscom Field’s east-west runway, we also had low planes flying over us, on their way home. Each one of them had a different voice, too.

Atop Two-boulder Hill

Atop Two-boulder Hill

I scribbled some of my own thoughts into my notebook. Then I began to notice a growing rustling. The sunlight had faded, and the air had chilled. The shrub oaks on this hillside were still holding on to their brown leaves from last fall. A sudden wind was now blowing through them. I turned back to see what Thoreau had written in 1860. “There the wind suddenly changed round 90° to northwest, and it became quite cold.” I tried to orient myself and imagine the compass directions. Was this wind coming from the northwest? Maybe. I smiled and shook my head. We had wanted to follow in Henry’s footsteps. We sure had. We were experiencing something very similar to what he had felt at this very spot, 154 years ago. Wow!

When our group came back together for the return trip, I wasn’t the only one smiling. The others had felt and heard the wind change too. We all got the Thoreau connection. We couldn’t have planned our adventure any better.

The clouds were really rolling in when we got back to the house Henry was born in. Sure enough, the rain began soon afterward. Our timing was perfect.

We shared a few of our own impressions with the others. The fifth-grader had picked up a cool rock that she deemed as being “igneous,’ having just learned the three categories of minerals. We encouraged her to take it to school the next week. Then we parted our temporary and pleasant company. Each one of us left with a lot to think about. And none of it would be broadcast on the evening news.

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