Tag Archives: Walden Pond

Catch a Lightning Bug

By Corinne H. Smith

“Have not the fireflies in the meadow relation to the stars above, etincelant [twinkling]? When the darkness comes, we see stars beneath also. … Do not the stars, too, show their light for love, like the fireflies?” ~ Thoreau’s journal, June 16, 1852

This month, I’ve made a habit of walking in the early evening. Around 7:30 p.m. I head west. I move from my native suburban-scape to the confinement of small city streets: first passing 1950s brick homes set back on sizable yards, then pacing past older row houses with front porches crammed full of chairs and toys. Eventually I turn a corner and come back. My circular route is about 20 blocks long and takes most of an hour to finish. Along the way, I seek out Nature. I’m apt to encounter bounding squirrels and rabbits, squawking robins and catbirds, and weeds and wildflowers in bloom. I consider this walk an exercise for both physical and mental health. I look forward to it.

But one day in the middle of June, I got a late start. The sun was dropping quickly as I made my way toward it. Already the day lilies and other light-attuned flowers were closing up for the night. I figured I wouldn’t see much out and about. I knew my route well by this time, so I was in little danger of stumbling or fumbling, no matter how dark it got. Still, I know I walked a little faster than usual so I could get home before true nightfall. Silly me, I didn’t think to bring a flashlight.

As I hustled past a strip of edge woods, I stopped abruptly. Had I seen a little light in the foliage? Or were my eyes playing tricks on me? Was it already the season for lightning bugs? I waited a few seconds, and a tiny light blinked on and off again. Yes! A lightning bug! Were there more? I waited … and rejoiced that there WERE more. When was the last time I had seen a lightning bug? It seemed like years. And when was the last time I CAUGHT one? Oh now, that would be more like decades.

Not a stop on Corinne's walk, but we like the bugs' motion.  Photo: Bigstock

Not a stop on Corinne’s walk, but we like the bugs’ motion. Photo: Bigstock

For the rest of my walk, I craved the sight of the lights. I scanned the open yards and the areas near bushes. All of a sudden it seemed as if lightning bugs were beginning to rise out of the grass, everywhere. (I’ve never called them “fireflies.”) I couldn’t believe it. Was this their first night? Or had I been too house-bound to notice their arrival? It was, I was embarrassed to admit, the latter.

Henry Thoreau thought the lightning bugs shined like stars come to earth. (His journal entry posing this idea sounded similar to the time he saw clouds reflected in Walden Pond and wrote, “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”) But I didn’t look skyward to see if the stars had come out yet. My eyes were focused at ground level. I loved seeing these little flyers and their lights. I was a block from home when I decided that I wanted to catch a lightning bug before going in for the night.

“Where there was only one firefly in a dozen rods, I hastily ran to one which had crawled up to the top of a grasshead and exhibited its light, and instantly another sailed in to it, showing its light also; but my presence made them extinguish their lights. The latter retreated, and the former crawled slowly down the stem. It appeared to me that the first was a female who thus revealed her place to the male, who was also making known his neighborhood as he hovered about, both showing their lights that they might come together. It was like a mistress who had climbed to the turrets of her castle and exhibited there a blazing taper for a signal, while her lover had displayed his light on the plain.”
~ Thoreau’s journal, June 14, 1851

Leave it to Henry to create a medieval metaphor for the mating rituals of the lightning bug. I laughed at the thought of him running after them. But then I did the same thing. It sure is a challenge: to see in the dusk and to discern tiny dark and flying bodies against the dark background of the yard. The trick is to focus on one light. Let it blink a few times. Find and follow the moving body with your eyes. Then put your hand below the bug and lift it up. With any luck, the critter will be in your palm. Blinking.

I ran after one and missed it, and ended up with an empty hand. I homed in on another one and missed again. Fortunately, I was alone on the street; I hoped no one was watching from a window. Darn it, I used to be able to do this when I was growing up. Catching lightning bugs should be easy. How could I forget the technique? This should be just like riding the proverbial bicycle.

As often happens, the third time was the charm. When I brought up my hand, a lightning bug was in it. I held my breath as the little guy walked to the tip of one finger. I said hello, told it how beautiful it was, thanked it for letting me catch it, and wished it well. It spread its wings and took off into the air. I watched it blink away.

I was still smiling when I unlocked my door and walked back inside.

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

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

Teaching @ Distance

Words Over Water

The appointed time approaches. I am, I think, set. My notes are aligned before me; books I might need are at hand; I’ve changed from sweatshirt to collared one; my computer-camera is aimed my way, its mic amped up. And the sign we bought as this house’s first purchase will appear in the upper-left quadrant of the screen. SIMPLIFY, it says. Say it twice to make it quotation. A sign…and a command. Something to live up to. Nice touch, I think.

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An odd underwater sound, like air escaping from a submerged shoe, signals the start; I click the phone icon, and there in dark forms they are – my class. I think that phrase to myself, adding a question mark. I know one person in the room. The rest are there, I suppose, for the myriad reasons that bring us all to our commitments, largely to commitments made for us.

Some 3500 miles away, it is 4:30 in the afternoon, and outside the sun is leaving the city streets. Wine and cigarettes must issue a siren’s call. Here, I’m pressing into late morning, and our short sun is working on what little December warmth it can conjure. Coffee is still ascendant.

As ever, I think, noting that my eyes look squinty, my face puffy on the small embedded screen on my desktop. We are not made to be photographed by a camera looking up as gravity pulls us down.

But, having settled the lights in their Paris classroom and greeted each other, we say it’s time to begin. Here, I say silently, comes Henry, and I begin limning some of Henry Thoreau’s subtractive practices I’ve thought through during the past few days. “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest art,” he wrote in Where I lived and What I Lived For. And a page later, he pounded twice on the nailhead of advice: “Simplify, simplify.” And then, a little later, for those resistant (or asleep) among us, he offered the repeating rumble-stroke of “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.”

“That ought to suffice,” he might have said, laying down his hammer/pen and imagining us, his readers. “They should get that, at least.”

And, of course, they do get this pruning of life to its “necessaries” to make room for the work chosen, for the I-work of becoming and making.

As I talk and lay out a sketch of Henry Thoreau’s move to and “experiment” at Walden Pond, I begin to sink into the familiar rhythm of story and teaching. I read some more of Henry’s words, offering paraphrases on the side as I travel a good deal from line to line; I pause and scan the room before me. Teaching makes me alive to how Thoreau’s words may sound for others, what they may mean. But every so often, motion draws my eye outside the borders of the screen – birds arc toward the backyard feeder; a woodpecker hammers at a pine; the squirrel is back eyeing the feeder; I suppress the urge to chase. Good dog.

Strangeness settles over me. I was going to write, “an estranged feeling settles over me,” but that isn’t so. The familiar book, the voicing of tentative understanding, of question, the partly-visible audience in dark relief on the screen.

I ask a question and watch the familiar scene of students turning to each other to see who will speak – I’m at home in two places.

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Filed under Arts, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Living Deliberately, The Roost, Thoreau Quote, Walden