Tag Archives: Thoreau Farm

The Yellow Flower “not in Gray”

By Corinne H. Smith

When Henry Thoreau came upon a plant he didn’t know, he described it as best as he could in his journal or field notebook. He counted leaves and petals and other parts, and he noted the habitat where it grew. Sometimes he drew a picture of it. Sometimes he could later identify the specimen by consulting his botany books. One of his favorites was “Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States,” compiled by Asa Gray of Harvard. Amateur scientists from all over the country sent samples of the plants in their region to Professor Gray, so he could include them in his next edition. Still, well into the 1850s, not every American plant was known or classified. At times Henry had to admit in his notes that something he had found on his own was “not in Gray.”

I thought of this phrase back in late March and early April, after I saw a patch of beautiful early Spring wildflowers that I didn’t recognize.

I had to deliver flyers to a home-run business in our area after hours. The place was in the midst of having its front steps rebuilt, so the main path was condoned off. I had to make a detour and step across two lawns to reach the sidewalk leading to the porch. That’s when I saw them: dozens of low yellow flowers covering most of the front lawn. They were wonderful! They were new to me. And I probably would have walked right past them if the steps hadn’t been broken. I tiptoed around the plants, took care of business, then came back to look at the flowers again. With no camera in my pocket, I studied them as closely as I could. I wanted to memorize them and burn their images into my brain. Surely once I got home, I could figure out what these flowers were.

But once I drove away, other tasks intervened, and I was distracted. I hoped to go back and to take a good picture of the flowers. By the time I did this a week later, the petals had closed up and they had turned dull. I took some photos anyway, thinking I could match the distinctive leaves with the guidebooks in my home library.

winteraconitemine

This time I took action. I gathered all of my references together – the Grays of today – and I searched for these yellow flowers on the pages. I thought I had an advantage over Henry Thoreau because his guidebooks didn’t include photographs or even line drawings. Mine did. And some were even organized by the color of the flower. Surely I could just turn to the yellow section, and I would spot my new discoveries there.

But I didn’t. Nothing on any of these pages matched these flowers. They were “not in Gray,” so to speak. How could this be? They were growing profusely in that yard. They couldn’t be unique or endangered or rare.

Maybe the owner could tell me what they were, I thought. I found the e-mail address of the business, and I sent a message asking about the flowers in the front yard. A woman named Claire replied a day or two later. “Those little yellow flowers have been popping up every year for at least as long as we have owned this house. (38 years),” she wrote. But she obviously couldn’t offer any more advice.

I was frustrated. How could something this easy become so difficult? I casually searched online for “yellow flowers ground cover.” None of the results looked good. This was exactly the wrong way to go about this investigation. Gradually the right approach came to me: When in doubt, ask.

A passel of my Facebook friends are naturalists or gardeners. I figured someone online could help. On April 7, I posted my photo and posed the question to the group. “Does anyone know what this ground cover is? It had brilliant yellow flowers (multiple petals, more than 4 or 5) two weeks ago. Now they’re gone. But I still want to know what this plant is. It’s growing on a shaded bank of someone’s yard in southeastern Pennsylvania. And the owner doesn’t know what it is. She says it’s been coming up each spring for more than 30 years, though. It’s not swamp buttercup. I can’t match it to anything in my plant books. Darn.”

Bingo! By the end of the day, I had my answer. After several questions from others and a few miscues, Thoreau Farm master gardener Debbie Bier stepped up and supplied the correct name. My new yellow friends were called Winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis. I had never heard of this species. But the online photos matched what I remembered seeing. Yes!

 

Winter-Aconite: Courtesy www.plant-and-flower-guide.com

Winter-Aconite: Courtesy www.plant-and-flower-guide.com

I went back to my reference books and looked up the flowers again, thinking I had missed them the first time. I hadn’t. None of the books listed Winter aconite by common or by scientific name. It’s a European native, which may explain its absence in American books. I was lucky enough to learn of Winter aconite only by sight, by being inquisitive, and by knowing someone who knew its identity.

It’s too bad Henry Thoreau didn’t have access to digital photography and Facebook to help him identify his own stash of unknowns. Using our connections today, he could probably solve the mysteries of every one of his plants that during his time were “not in Gray.”

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

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:

thrushsong

(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