A blog at Thoreau Farm
written & edited by Sandy Stott
“I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.” -Walden, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”
A poem to which I return from time to time is Billy Collins’ Marginalia. Collins writes about margin-notes he’s found over a reading lifetime; one favorite explains a smudge by saying, “Pardon the egg-salad stains, but I’m in love.”
It’s not a book, but the sea’s edge also holds comment, as does the edge of day.
At day’s end I go down to the sea for late January’s added minute or two of light. On this day, the low sun is nested in a slate and pastel backdrop, and the news of the recent coldsnap drifts by as a slurry of near-ice. Tomorrow, the bay will be transformed; it will carry a cloak of ice that will rise and fall with the 9-foot tide. And soon miniature bergs will litter the shoreline, tossed and thrust up by collision and wind; we will look arctic along our edge.
As I watch it the sun also looks for a moment like a smudge, a fingerprint on the sky’s margin. Yes, I love the little added light as night comes on.
I’m in my morning sun-chair, and today, approximately a month after solstice, the sun’s strong enough to wrinkle my brow as it bears in from the southeast. Every so often it slides behind a thin pine; then, ticks later, it’s back, and, faintly, it warms. “It will be long coming,” seems the promise of more light and warmth given, “but it will be.”
It occurs to me that I have a new way of measuring time’s passage. I have a woodsclock. That “clock” is the small stand of white and pitch pines outside my southeast window. As the sun rises along its shallow, winter arc, it slides behind this irregular grouping of trees; their shadows shift bluely over the snow. Today, they began their passage pointing in my direction, fingers of shadow amid shafts of light. Then, as the sun worked across the southern sky, they shifted toward parallel. Finally, now, as late morning comes on, the shadow-digits have begun to point away from me before disappearing entirely as larger trees block the sun’s light.
Time, my woodsclock says, to rise and shift the focus of my day.
By Corinne H. Smith
“Mr. Stewart tells me that he has found a gray squirrel’s nest up the Assabet, in a maple tree. I resolve that I too will find it. I do not know within less than a quarter of a mile where to look, nor whether it is in a hollow tree, or in a nest of leaves. I examine the shore first and find where he landed. I then examine the maples in that neighborhood to see what one has been climbed. I soon find one the bark of which has been lately rubbed by the boots of a climber, and, looking up, see a nest. It was a large nest made of maple twigs, with a centre of leaves, lined with fiber, about twenty feet from the ground, against the leading stem of a large red maple. … There was quite a depth of loose sticks, maple twigs, piled on the top of the nest. No wonder that they become skillful climbers who are born high above the ground and begin their lives in a tree, having first of all to descend to reach the earth. They are cradled in a tree-top, in but a loose basket, in helpless infancy, and there slumber when their mother is away. No wonder that they are never made dizzy by high climbing, that were born in the top of a tree, and learn to cling fast to the tree before their eyes are open.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, April 22, 1860
Gosh, Henry. I guess early spring would be a decent time to search for nests, especially if you hope to find brand-new offspring. But I prefer mid-winter, when the nests are empty. In fact, I think this is one of the joys of the season. Right before our eyes, Nature has unveiled evidence of random spring and summer residences. Months ago everything was hidden by leaves and shrubbery. Now the curtain has been lifted and we can see back stage. The sight reminds me of a better known Thoreau quote: “The Universe is wider than our views of it.”
These days, I delight in walking and driving around the countryside. I scrutinize each lacy silhouette against the white winter sky, looking for a clump or knot. The first one I noticed was the robin’s nest in our front yard. It lay next to the utility lines, a few branches away from the place where they had built one the previous year. They may have even taken some of the material from the old nest to make the new. But how did it ever stay in place, wedged between only a few young cross shoots? Their engineering skills amaze me.
This cup of interwoven twigs and grasses was vital when it once held a parent bird, eggs, and then nestlings. But it was only necessary for raising the kids. When everyone could fly, they left. Now that architectural marvels like this are open to the wind and to all kinds of precipitation, they’re beginning to fall apart. Eventually they’ll just disappear into the fabric of our local habitat. This is Life. This is Nature.
I spied a tiny nest in my neighbor’s bushy roadside border. Who had lived in it? I wondered. Many of us had walked within inches of it on our way to the grocery store up the block. No one saw it then. Sadly, I suspect that not many of the passers-by see it today, either.
A tall sugar maple down the street stretches itself high across our road. Now we can spot a small nest sitting on one of those overhanging limbs. Every one of us drove beneath a bird family every day without realizing it. What a wonderful sight it is now! But how did those guys ever hang on in a storm?
Then there was my major discovery while raking up leaves in the backyard. Pausing in my task to look up, I saw a large and leafy squirrel nest perched near the top of our white pine. (Unfortunately, it doesn’t photograph well, even though it is clear enough to the naked eye.) These critters sure are smart, building their condo right next to an oak tree that can supply them with an almost endless supply of acorns. Now I know why I’ve seen so many fuzzy gray bodies bounding across our back yard lately. We are co-boarders of this property.
Seeing these nests has led me to consider minimalism. These animals need only a few basic resources to survive. Compare their homes to our own, filled with clutter and crap. Do we really need so much stuff? Probably not.
I suppose we could learn a lot from the birds and the squirrels, and from the other feather- and fur-bearers we share this planet with. All is takes is the sight of an old nest in a tree to get me thinking.
“Skated to Baker Farm with a rapidity which astonished myself, before the wind, feeling the rise and fall – the water having settled in the suddenly cold night – which I had not time to see…a man feels like a new creature, a deer, perhaps, moving at this rate…I judged that in a quarter of an hour I was three and a half miles from home without having made any particular exertion, – à la volaille.” Journal 1/14/1855
And that seems just the expansive note to counter winter’s deepness, where often we read and feed our way from afternoon’s light and evening’s dark. Today that deepness burrows in as cold of the nose-webbing, frost-feathery sort. At first light it was 10 below zero, and the rhododendron leaves were curled in tightly on themselves like so many little cigars; the birds were boisterous at the feeder: fill it again, they seemed to say. The snow looked confident in its new blue shadows.
By noon, however, a gray lid had slipped over the sky, and, as I streaked wax on my x-c skis, the light was flat. I would ski down a narrow woods road to the edge of a tidal marsh, and then run along its flank to the tundra of a local golf course, where I would loop back to my start-point. Cross-country skiing, like its cousin, skating, depends upon a mix of traction and slipperiness. On a good day the way the snow crystals impress themselves upon your skis’ waxed bottoms creates just enough bond to allow you to push off; then your ski glides forward over the glassy crystals. And then you press down your ski and kick off a next stride. And a next. When all is well with this subtle bond-and-glide between wax and snow, you fairly float along the surface, warmed by the effort and aware only of the cold by way of the wind you generate in passage.
So too the edged grab then glide of skating (which has, or course, become its own form of x-c skiing, though my skis are the classic sort).
There are, of course, other days, ones of slippery labor, when there’s no bond and you flounder in place. Or there’s so much bond that the snow clumps to your skis and you are reduced to lumpen-footed walking of the most awkward kind – imagine no toes on your six-foot feet.
But let’s live in today’s ease of flotation over snow, traverse this bit of winter borne up on a surface that must be as close as we ever get to walking across the tops of clouds.
“Without having made any particular exertion, – à la volaille,” as Henry said.
Not long ago, as winter settled heavily over us, I read in our local paper of a distant snow-story that made me smile. The story featured an avalanche, some snowmobilers and a moose. Not much room for good result with those variables, but here was surprise.
On a Sunday, three men, Marty Mobley, Rob Uphus and Avery Vunichich, set off on a snowmobiling outing some 50 miles northeast of Anchorage Alaska. Enough new snow had fallen to make the men wary of the slopes that rose above. Avalanches, even small ones, move with a speed and power that can outrun snowmobiles (or skiers) easily. As they drove through a pass on their way out, the three men noted a slope marked with both ski and moose tracks.
An hour later, on the way back, they arrived at the same slope and found that it had avalanched. When they saw movement the three men hurried toward it; that movement resolved not as a skier, but as a nose sticking up (barely) from the snow. And that nose was a moose nose.
The three men retrieved their shovels and began to dig. Some minutes later they had uncovered enough of the moose to allow it to move. The moose stood; the men stood back. Then, the moose ambled off.
Imagine for a moment the moose packed in the snow. Avalanched snow sets quickly, firming up like cement; the moose was stored beneath it like an exhibit, but his nose must have scented the three men as they approached and then began to shovel. All those minutes of unnatural nearness until he could rise and resume the usual distance between moose and men.
And imagine the men working their shovels carefully along the sides of the stilled moose; imagine the man who brushed lightly the snow away from the great marbles of the moose’s eyes.
By Corinne H. Smith
“Action from principle, — the perception and the performance of right, — changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary. … A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.” ~ Henry David Thoreau, from the essay now known as “Civil Disobedience”
It was a moment of peace and magic. Forty of us stood on the muddy flood plain of the Conestoga River in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. A woman walked around and blessed us with a smoking bundle of sage. A Native American man drummed and sang. The tones and the smoke called up the memories of the Susquehannocks who once lived in this place. Snowflakes breezed through the air. A bald eagle flew over, as if in silent support. The time felt sacred. The act felt like The Right Thing to Do.
We had come to this site to protest the building of a high-pressure natural gas pipeline. Behind us loomed a large red drill assembly that workers had been operating only minutes before to test the geological make-up of our bedrock. What they were finding was a lot of quartz and schist. This was no surprise to us. Once we arrived and surrounded their implements of destruction, the men shut off the machinery and retreated to their vehicles at the top of the hill. We could see them calling the authorities on their cell phones. We had clogged the process with our whole weight, and without touching anything or anyone. Now we waited for what would come next. It would probably include the appearance of the local police.
This pipeline is still in the proposal stage. But residents along its path have been protesting it for months. The goal of this Oklahoma-based company is to transport tons of natural gas from the fracking fields of northern Pennsylvania to a harbor in the Chesapeake Bay, where it can be exported and sent to other countries. The goals of our community members are to protect the land and our way of life. Carving a 42-inch pipeline through some of the most productive farmland in the country, as well as through conservation land and Native American archaeological sites, seems to be an ill-advised and unnecessary endeavor at best. Especially when no one here – except our governmental officials – will ever benefit from the project. This area includes the most seismically active portion of the state, too. People this morning had been talking about hearing booms and feeling shakes during the last two weeks. Perhaps the earth is already responding to the intrusion.
So far, our efforts have been limited to written and spoken words. I wrote my official protest letter to the Feds before the deadline last fall. I mailed copies to my legislators – all of whom had gotten thousands of dollars’ worth of campaign money from the pipeline company. I wrote a letter to the editor, and it was published in the local newspaper. I joined my township’s protest planning committee. I put an anti-pipeline sign in our front yard. I spoke on the subject at several township supervisors’ meetings. I’ve been lightly involved in the opposition. But apart from the sign in the yard, it’s all been a lot of talk, talk, talk.
Then came the e-mailed announcement, couched in secrecy. It revealed the details of a “non-violent, direct-action event.” We were asked to show up at this exploratory drill site at 9 a.m., to disrupt the work, and to see what happened as a result. We were advised to keep the time and place a secret, so that the workers wouldn’t be tipped off in advance. And the organizers were clear about the risks of arrest. We would be walking on presumed public land, owned by the regional electric company and not posted as private property. But if the police could prove otherwise, we could be arrested. Anyone wanting to avoid the threat of jail could leave the site at any time without harsh judgment from any of the others. But we had had enough Talk. It was time to Act.
I read the message, and I knew I had to participate. I had never done this kind of thing before. But what kind of Thoreauvian would I be if I didn’t stand up for the land and its people, and to simultaneously work to subdue the interests of one single greedy company? I wanted to do this. I needed to do this. I also knew I had to draw the line at arrest. I had a 12:30 p.m. appointment that I had to keep, without fail. I could give the cause my best three hours. I hoped that it was enough.
So there we stood, in the cold and muddy marsh, along with members of the news media, waiting for the police to come. When they did drive up an hour later, the gray-haired chief was nice enough on the surface. He told us that he supported our First Amendment rights and the chance to express our opinions about what we believed in. But we were trespassing on the electric company’s land, he said. We were interfering with the company’s work. He warned us that if we were asked to leave and didn’t, we could be arrested as a result. Our leaders gave him a list of ordinances and issues that we wanted answers to. The chief accepted these papers, then walked back to the top of the hill to talk to the company workers, township representatives, and whatever other authorities he could drum up by phone. We just had to wait.
Our group gathered for a pep talk. Odds were good that arrests would be made when the chief came back and issued his final warning. How many of us were willing to stand firm? Some people quickly raised their hands. A few others looked at their phones and planners, figuring out the importance of the other commitments they had on tap for today. One voice said, “This is just our first work stoppage. There will be more opportunities to do this in the future. Is what we’ve done today enough for now? Or is this one so important that we should go all the way?” He was leaning toward leaving, I could tell. He looked like the kind of guy who could keep a busy schedule.
But another opinion chimed in. “If not NOW, then WHEN?” Murmurs of agreement answered her. In the end, though, we each had to make our own decision. Should we stay or should we go?
When the chief returned after an hour of negotiations, he brought us disappointing news. The permit issues that we had insisted upon didn’t apply to the pipeline company’s work because it was a utility. And the electric company still considered us to be trespassers. I didn’t listen to the rest of his explanations. I quietly turned and walked away, heading down the road to my parked car. Another woman hustled past me a minute later. “Are they arresting people?” I asked, without looking back.
“Yes,” she said.
“I thought they would.”
I got in the car and quickly drove straight back into the Real World, where life and business appeared to have proceeded without interruption from what we had done, demanded, and accomplished this morning. All sorts of feelings surfaced. I was proud to have participated in the protest. But I had twinges of regret about choosing not to be arrested in the end.
I wondered and worried about my fellow protestors for the rest of the day. It turned out that eight of them had been arrested. By early evening, they had all been released and were said to be back home “eating pizza,” our leaders told us. Our story – THEIR story, really – was front page news the next day. The protest had been picked up by the Associated Press and by a variety of environment-related news outlets, too. We were sort of famous, temporarily. I could find myself in the background of some of the photos floating around online. I was glad that I had been there.
What did I gain from this act of modern-day civil disobedience? A lot of self satisfaction in supporting a cause I believe in. A new anti-pipeline button. A small piece of schist-encrusted quartz that I picked up as a memento from the mud near the drill. And the reassuring scent of sage embedded in my winter coat. Still, no arrest record. And yet, after the pipeline company files its official proposal with the Feds in March, we may still have many such “direct-action” challenges ahead of us. I will likely have to make another tough decision on another day. And quite frankly, I’m not sure which way I’ll go. We’ll have to wait and see.
Corinne H. Smith is the author of “Westward I Go Free: Tracing
Thoreau’s Last Journey.” She is at work on “Henry David Thoreau for
Kids: His Life and Ideas, 21 Activities,” to be published by Chicago
Review Press in Spring 2016.
“But the murders in Paris were so specific and so brazen as to make their meaning quite clear. The cartoonists died for an idea. The killers are soldiers in a war against freedom of thought and speech, against tolerance, pluralism, and the right to offend—against everything decent in a democratic society. So we must all try to be Charlie, not just today but every day.” – George Packer, The New Yorker Website, 1/7/15
Today’s killings took place where I walked a few weeks ago, and they took place in a city whose openness to such walking is a statement of both charm and conviction. In his post on the New Yorker website, George Packer gets it right, I think. Each day, when I get up and begin again, I need to say, “Je suis Charlie.” To myself, to those I care about, to those I meet.
I suspect that Henry Thoreau, who had the tongue to say it well, would agree.
There’s a story aslant in our local woods, its angles evident to any walker who pauses to consider. A number of the balsams and white pines under 20 feet in height are tipped variously in imitation of the better-known “drunken forests” of the far north. Those trees, living in the soil above permafrost, aim, as their peers world around do, at the sun. But sometimes – more often lately as the far north warms – when the permafrost melts in planes or pockets, the soil above it drops unevenly. And, of course, the trees follow. The treescape then resembles a geometry problem gone wild.
All of this came into focus after a little wondering while wandering the other day. What, I wondered, can be up with all these partially downed trees? The obvious suspect was our Thanksgiving snowstorm, a sullen fall of white cement that did the usual pruning of limbs and outing of power. Such evidence is everywhere in the neighborhood, awaiting spring clean-up. But the tipped trees took a little more thought and sifting of images; when I recalled a photo of a drunken forest, the story came clear.
Our lesser conifers caught the same heavy Thanksgiving snow as their bigger relations, and, as the storm wore on, they bowed before that weight and wind’s additions. Then, under the stress, the little neighborhoods of their root-balls began to give way, pull from the earth. “Root-ball” is really the wrong word for our conifers’ attachments, because it implies depth. Firs in our old glacial lands spread their root-fingers across the forest floor, rather than diving down where nutrients are spare and rocks are plentiful. Maybe root-hands is a better phrasing. And so, until the ground freezes and a locks in their holds on the land, little firs are prone to being partially uprooted, tipped by top-weight.
Just so our nearby drunken woods, now added headache hung over from the “revels” of our holiday storm.
By Corinne H. Smith
“How far the woodpecker’s tapping is heard! And no wonder, for he taps very hard as well as fast, to make a hole, and the dead, dry wood is very resounding withal. Now he taps on one part of the tree, and it yields one note; then on that side, a few inches distant, and it yields another key; propped on its tail the while.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, May 10, 1853
On the last day of 2014, I went for a winter walk with a friend. It was intensely cold in southern Vermont – too cold for us to walk the long path we preferred, even though no snow covered the ground. Instead, we sauntered briskly around his neighborhood and came back around to stand in front of his home.
He introduced me to one of his neighbors, and the three of us chatted out in the middle of the street. All the while I was distracted by the soft tapping of a woodpecker on a nearby tree. My companions didn’t seem to be bothered by it. They did hear and acknowledge the sound when I mentioned it to them. While they talked on, I scrutinized the tree that I believed the sound was coming from. It was taller than a three-story house, so there was plenty of bark-covered territory to inspect. Still, I didn’t see the bird. Where could it be? I had to know.
Locating a woodpecker is a study in both acoustics and movement. You must both listen and look. I turned away from the human talk to sidle closer to one side of the tree. I examined every inch of its edges, looking for any small silhouetted and bobbing outline. No bird. But the tapping never stopped. It sounded as though someone was constantly worrying a baseball into a worn catcher’s mitt, over and over and over again. Our conversation hadn’t stopped it. And my quiet stalking around the trunk didn’t slow it down, either.
I made it to the other side of the tree and did another surface scan, beginning at the bottom. Finally I caught movement connected with sound, very close to the top. The woodpecker was hanging onto a cross branch that reached high over us. Unlike Thoreau’s bird, this one was focused on just one section of just one limb. It was digging deep for insect food on this cold day. All I could see from ground level was its white and mottled tummy, and the motion of its head and beak attacking the wood.
Now I could point it out to my friend. “Can you see red, or any other identifying marks?” he asked, squinting into the sun.
I didn’t have my binoculars or bird books with me. “No. Just his white tummy, from this angle and distance. Although there are people who could tell you what the species is just by listening to the pattern of the taps.”
“Unfortunately, I am not one of them,” I admitted.
Another neighbor came out for a walk. When she saw that we were all looking up, she pulled her head back to do the same and asked, “What are we looking at?”
“A woodpecker,” I said. I raised my arm and described which branch he was on.
“Oh, yeah, I see it. Nice.” And she power-walked away.
Sure, this woodpecker was easy enough to spot when someone else showed you exactly where he was drilling. I had done all of the work to “find” this guy. I was frustrated at how casual this discovery was for everyone else around me. If the air had been warmer, I would have watched this bird for the better part of an hour. By myself, no doubt.
Maybe woodpecker-watching isn’t just a lesson for the eyes and for the ears. Maybe this little bird is a teacher of humility, too.
“Each town should have a primitive forest where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation. All Walden Woods might have been preserved for our park forever, with Walden in its midst, and the Easterbrooks Country, an unoccupied area of some four square miles in the north of the town, might have been our huckleberry field. . . . Journal, 10/15, 1859.
Let’s begin the new year with praise for the Commons – what we hold in common, what we hope in common, what we walk in common.
Five or so years ago, I took a walk into our town Commons, a two-hundred-acre stamp of wood- and wetland set aside for wanderings and recreation. Already, after a few years along these trails, I was growing attached to them and to the trees that always awaited me there. So the sound of saws snarling unsettled me; as I walked deeper into the woods, the saws grew louder. Near the heartland of the Commons lies a pitch pine barren, once a common finding in our area, now a rare one. The cutting was going on there, and, as I approached I heard the familiar crack followed by the gathering rush of toppling as a tree went down.
No little outrage quickened my pace. The saws of the world, even here? I said to myself. Even in the Commons?
Here is the moment to remind myself that it’s always good to get the full story before boarding the express to outrage. Here is compression of that story: the cutting in progress aimed at large white pines that had overshadowed their smaller pitch pine neighbors; the Commons were “in succession,” shifting into their next stage. But the pitch pines and their barren were now unusual, deemed worth preserving, and, with some thinning, they would thrive. Okay, I thought, let’s see.
To ring in this new year and celebrate its possibility, I went for a walk in the Commons. The air was sharp, the sky open faced. And in the barrens heartland, the pitch pines rose from the general scrub like columns of gray smoke; then their thick needles poked the sky. The barrens had an expansive feel that infused me with hope for what’s ahead. Here and there, I could see the aging stump of a white pine, and from one I looked aloft, imagining the 80-foot tree that stood there and the way it would have obscured the sky.
The selective cutters had done well, I thought. In one tiny grove, more than 50 pitch pines aimed at becoming full trees; each had been given a chance; a few would become the grove’s dominant trees. And the barrens, with its wide spacing of trees would provide walking reminder of what once was usual in our area.
Our Commons now has its uncommon barren and its common paths, where I and others have a place to wander throughout the coming year. What we hold in common is a place both rare and usual; it is where we often walk to find ourselves.
Best wishes for the Commons of 2015.
Every so often, events, or words, fall and align themselves just so. You may be muddling along amid the little collisions of a day, making a mess of this or that, when you are taken over by a moment of grace, when, after a moment, you look out and say, “that is, or sounds, as it should be.” Part of what has kept me attending to Henry Thoreau over time is his habit of finding and recording such moments; he teaches me to be alert for the same.
And so it was that during a recent holiday drive from family to family, we slipped a disc into the car’s audio system and began to listen to a recorded essay sent my way by a teacher-friend some months before. The silvered disc had been in the car all that time, but I am slow to change habits, and I’d never adopted the one of listening to prose on tape or disc. Slow study, I know. Let’s just say that the delay in listening to Franklin Burroughs read his essay Compression Wood made it all the more pleasurable.
Summarizing Burrough’s essay – 52 minutes in reading – is beyond the scope of this post, but I want to both recommend it and think a bit about a moment early in the piece. Here’s the moment:
“It probably doesn’t make much difference whether you stay home or light out for the territories. Even Thoreau, who strove to shrink the gap between vocation and location to the disappearing point, often felt, as he said, ‘a certain doubleness, by which I stand as remote from myself as from another,’ and that enabled him to see Concord as though it were a distant land from which he was writing home to a kinsman. Something about writing, or even about the committed kind of reading that is a vicarious form of writing, takes you well away from your life and makes you homesick for it.” – Franklin Burroughs, Compression Wood (first published in The American Scholar, Vol.67, No. 2, Spring, 1998)
Here, of course, is Henry Thoreau, whose spirit runs through the essay even as his name does not reappear. And there is the beauty of the phrased summary of Thoreau’s effort “to shrink the gap between vocation and location to the disappearing point.” But what compelled me was a full-body feeling of assent that to write or read well, to find your way to some truth, requires moving “well away from your life,” where you can then be “homesick for it.”
Yearning, it struck me, is a fine way to be awake to your life, which vibrates then like a plucked string. Every day when we write or read or walk, we create this distance. And then, with some luck and commitment, we find our way home. This seems a good way to aim toward the new year.
Added note: I’ve provided a link to a podcast of Burroughs essay, which contains a territory expansive and wonderful. It is a perfect companion when you are going somewhere.
Today is short work. That seems appropriate to Thoreau’s 12/21/54 entry on Americans’ love of jest. But what catches my eye as I read through the entry is the paragraph before it; it shines like a mirror of my own thoughts:
We are tempted to call these the finest days of the year. Take Fair Haven Pond, for instance, a perfectly level plain of white snow, untrodden as yet by any fisherman, surrounded by snow-clad hills, dark evergreen woods, and reddish oak leaves, so pure and still. The last rays of the sun falling on the Baker Farm reflect the clear pink color. I see the feathers of a partridge strewn along on the snow a long distance, the work of some hawk perhaps, for there is no track.
“So pure and still.” Yes, and there is also the strew of feathers to remind us of life’s action, of what may fall from the sky. Still, it is time for a walk in the woods.
Those of us who walk the woods prize the sense of solitude we find there, with its expansive chance to breathe and watch without speaking. And yet – also true, I think – we rarely feel alone, in part because we become keen in our tracings of other animals whose prints, feathers and tufts of fur are everywhere. And woods-walkers also develop a heightened sensitivity for movement, especially that on the periphery of vision, where once, (in the old world, and, perhaps, in the new) predators kept track of us. All of that is part of the everyday walking world.
Here, on the other hand, is another sign of presence that is rare and random, yet common enough to make me wonder if you too find it on occasion. Yesterday on my way to local woods, I came upon a small balsam fir. Okay, not uncommon; this is, after all, Maine. But this one twinkled with strings of tiny colored lights, even though it was far enough into the woods to be unlinked with any particular house. And no extension cord ran long yards over the ground to point to such linkage. Easy enough then to conclude that the lights were battery-powered. But whose presence did this sudden holiday tree signal?
The lights winked in the dark woods, growing brighter as the sun slid behind the trees and the early dusk came on. I felt a smile play across my face. Usually, I’m not wild about human announcement of presence in our common woodlands, but here at the winter solstice in diminutive form were reminders of the communal light we share; here were dots of color dressing the dark. They felt like tiny kin to the companionable yellow light cast from the window of a hut on a winter night.
Every once in a while – and that is as often as it should happen – I happen upon some little lights or other ornaments in the woods; they are kin to a quick smile from a stranger passing by in a crowd, reminder of the light side of who we are.
Best wishes to all for the solstice/holiday season.
A recent conversation sent me, as many do, to consider what Henry Thoreau had to say on the matter. The trigger-question was about what separates art from life. Or, put differently, how does an artist integrate her or his art with life? Or vice versa? This is an age-old question, but also one that each generation bumps into. And it seems more pressing with the proliferation of art objects and us. What’s necessary, an artist may ask.
It seems to me that Henry Thoreau saw his life as his primary artistic expression – “to affect the quality of the day, that is the highest art.” Thoreau sought to be awake to and to affect the quality of each of his days. He deemed being so awake and aware the hardest of assignments.
Yesterday, while I was walking, I mulled the question further. It strikes me that a problem with art is captured by the word “representation.” Thoreau, for example, wrote to represent the experience and experimentation that he sought out every day during his Walden years. But when we pull apart the word, we get re…presentation, or presentation of something again. So, in a representation life is not art, it is instead an attempt to present some of that life again.
I think that Thoreau worked on this question near the end of Walden in his story about the artist from Kouroo. This artist sets out to make a staff – note, it’s not a representation of a staff, but the object itself. The artist’s goal is that the stick be perfect, and he is willing to spend whatever time necessary to achieve that perfection, because, as Thoreau writes, “Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life.” p.326, (Princeton Edition)
As the artist sinks into his work, time disappears, dynasties fall, all of earth’s history passes by. I make of this that the markers – minutes, hours, years, etc. – of usual life vanish. And the artist enters a timeless act of creation. As he works, and whole eras and worlds go by, he concentrates on his staff; his whole life becomes the work.
When he finishes the staff, the artist looks up; everything is different. He is elsewhere. His staff is not a representation. It simply is, as is he.
So, perhaps when we create work in a way that means we “do nothing else in [our] li[ves],” the division between art and life disappears. We are present, as is our art.
There are also Thoreau’s thoughts about “volatile truth” at the top of page 325 in the Princeton Edition. Here’s he’s reflecting on the immediacy of creation and how its “residue,” the leftover language on the page, is inadequate to the moment it sought to capture. This again points to time’s passage as widening the gap between life (lived in the present) and art (re…presentation from the past).
And, finally, here’s a short scene from a recent visit to the Picasso Museum. Perhaps, it’s just me, but I find myself distracted from the art on the walls by the people surging around me; they seem to mimic the art, to take on its characteristics, but in more compelling fashion. Life becomes what I watch; I get separated from it. The distinction between what’s on the wall and what’s around me blurs, the framing gets rearranged. Then, I come to my senses.
At the Picasso
At the reopened Picasso
Museum, bobbing amid the incoming
tide near the man with the out-
sized nose and the woman tipped
sideways by her chest and
every one is breaking up is
about to leave the frame
when I smell the orange and
turn – the woman next to me
peels it idly (like any breaker
of rules); the whole room
rushes back into place.
Sometimes a spate of occurrences becomes confluence. For me, a series of news stories and movies built from older news stories have been that confluence. In language, the two streams flowing together are best caught by two verbs, “survey” and “surveil.” Readers of Thoreau will, of course, see the link in the first word. Surveying landscapes of all sorts was both a living and a habit for Henry Thoreau, and I’m guessing that there were times when his watching made folks in Concord uncomfortable, but not, I think, in the way the intrusive second verb does.
I worry about photos.
It’s not the selfie I worry about; that’s just another form of handprint on the cave wall, runes on the rock, or paint scrawl saying, Kilroy was here. Sometimes I even link such markers with Thoreau’s opening apologia for the lens of “I” in Walden. It’s the other eye that bothers me, the Cyclops of camera peering (mostly down) from light poles, buildings, from the flying-eye drones, or set like a stoic beside the worn path in the woods. Why do we insist increasingly on such peering?
And then, there is the eye staring at me right now from top center screen. Is it off? Should I worry? Last summer, for the first time, I read of a writer who tapes a covering scrap over that eye, goes all Odysseus on it and blinds the beast…every day…just in case. And I looked up after reading, and I began to wonder…
Can you see me now? How about now? Now? I take some comfort in what a dull movie I’d be, what a sleep-inducing study. Still.
When I was a boy, my father became the family photographer, taking thousands of shots of us all. His always-request was that we look off into the distance, away from the camera, and we all grumbled at this posing, even as we waited avidly for the year-end albums that came of his hobby. There was also a mild discomfort in the uncertainty of what would appear when a photo was developed. How would you look? Who would you appear to be?
I recall, at some point, reading of various indigenous people who, when introduced to the camera, refused to have their photos taken because they felt the image-taker would steal their souls. There seemed to be a sliver of sense in this fear, not that soul would be stolen, but that it would be exposed. And later, as I began to take my own photos and looked especially at the portraits of Walker Evans and other “Depression-era—photographers,” I understood that exposure was the point. Catching people in ways that let light into the darknesses of their (and our) lives was the aim. I wondered then if this was a sort of stealing.
But all of this usual sort of photography was in service of memory – “Remember when…” No one was being recorded to control his or her behavior; no one was being surveilled.
Not so today, as recent revelations about broad habits of surveillance have made clear. This posting could now aim into the murkiness of CIA and corporate surveillance; it could consider the tension between freedom and safety. Surely my viewing of Citizenfour has intensified that thinking. I’m guessing I’ll go in that direction soon, just not today.
Instead, I’ll go (with Henry) to the woods, where my habit of looking for lions shapes my mind and walking. To be clear, I know there are no lions (yet) in my daily woods, so this column heads into territory I hear of daily via the Internet. It considers the famous LA-area lion, P-22. Here’s a recent headline: “P-22 coughs up a hairball from the deer he’s eating.”
Caught at his meal by a trailside cam, P-22 stands, I think, for all of us being surveilled unaware, unblinkingly. Instead of walking our way to a fleeting sighting with its awakening frisson of closeness, we have bland recording; we have a hairball that must be hacked back up. Are we meant to see in such a monotonous, unblinking way? Without the effort of walking there? Should we too be seen this way by the lenses now everywhere in our lives?
As noted earlier, I feel ambivalent about the invasive nature of much photography, even as I look at its pictures with a sort of wonder and hunger to know. But what I’m certain I can’t sign onto are the unannounced lenses of an always-looking world, whether they are posted trailside or borne by drone overhead. I don’t like the certainty that I am always being framed even as I can’t see the framing eye. I like to walk to outlooks from which I can look out, survey a slice of the world. I don’t like the feeling that, as I walk, I am being surveilled.
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.
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.
By Corinne H. Smith
In November 1860, Henry David Thoreau walked around the neighboring town of Boxboro to inspect an old-growth woodlot owned by Henderson Inches. He was fascinated by the oldest oak trees he had ever seen. He made two separate trips in eight days and did a lot of trunk measuring. “I can realize how this country appeared when it was discovered,” he wrote on November 10th. “Such were the oak woods which the Indian threaded hereabouts.”
The oldest tree I ever met was a craggy and shaggy sycamore that lived a few miles from my childhood home. Our Girl Scout troop visited it once, probably in the late 1960s. We were told then that it was either the oldest or the largest tree in the state. Or was it the country? I forget. I remember that its arms stretched over the front yard of a farmhouse that was otherwise surrounded by cornfields. One huge branch almost touched the ground. We could have climbed up and sat on it, but we were warned against doing so. Someone was worried that the branch would break off under our weight. Being an avid tree climber myself, I was disappointed. The tree was great to look at. But I longed to clamber over that one branch and to sit among its massive leaves for a while. I would have been careful. I wouldn’t have broken it.
Fast forward, forty years. Now most of the cornfields are gone from this area. They’ve been replaced by a four-lane highway, strips of businesses and eateries, and a road leading to the Old Sycamore Industrial Park. It’s ridiculous. I feel a sense of indignation whenever I pass by the intersection.
I voiced this opinion to a childhood friend recently, as he and I were riding along the main road. “It’s too bad that the only legacies left of the tree are its name and its picture on that stupid sign,” I said.
“What are you talking about? The tree’s still there,” he said.
“No, really? I assumed it had fallen down or had been plowed under.”
We made a quick turn onto Old Tree Drive, passed a few faceless facades of warehouses, and then turned left into a small parking lot. Sure enough, there they both still stood: the farmhouse and the sycamore tree. I was amazed. The developers had chosen to leave them alone.
And yet: time and circumstances had aged the tree a great deal. Fresh leaves showed that the tree was still alive, but much of its main trunk had deteriorated and was missing. It seems never to have grown straight up toward the sky. Instead, it grew out and across the yard. The low main branch I remembered was now supported by a short post, and part of it had long settled on the ground. The higher main branch also rested on a large support timber. This sycamore was an even older man now, receding and wasting away, needing crutches. But it was still hanging on; still taking in carbon dioxide and giving us fresh oxygen in return. Thank you, Tree.
In the days that followed, I grew curious about this sycamore. Was it the oldest or the largest, within any political boundaries? I did some brief research. A contributor to a 1944 state tree book called “Penn’s Woods, 1682-1932,” said that this one was ‘Pennsylvania’s Most Massive Tree.” Local newspapers occasionally ran stories about the tree, but the articles didn’t include any accolades. I clicked on some web sites that documented the oldest or biggest trees in the country and in the world. But no one had yet registered “our” sycamore on these species lists. And I didn’t have any numbers to make accurate comparisons. So I did what Henry David Thoreau would have done. I went back to the site outfitted with a tape measure, a camera, a notebook, and an assistant.
We measured the girth – or, what remains of it – at 25 feet around. The low branch is about 70 feet long and is generally about 7 ½ feet in circumference. We can estimate that its age is somewhere in the 300-350 year range, taking it back to a time when this place really WAS part of Penn’s Woods and was merely a colony. I registered the tree on an international Monumental Trees web site. According to the lists assembled there, this one may not be the oldest or the biggest sycamore tree in Pennsylvania. One in Lansdowne may beat it out by 100 years.
Our sycamore may not be an award winner or a “witness tree,” but it has witnessed quite a lot. We can be proud of its history and its stamina, and we can admire it for as long as it is able to live with us. And yes, I still desperately want to climb over that low branch. I haven’t … yet.
(Thanks to Paul Martin, Jr., for his help in this rediscovery.)
No, I’ve not been soaking in Walden water, or any other water, as our winter comes on, but I have been re-immersed recently in Henry Thoreau’s words. Prompted by an invitation to explain Thoreau’s experiment in living to 20 graduate students at Institut des Hautes Études en Arts Plastique (IHEAP) in Paris, I’ve returned to Walden, and, as always happens when I reread this deeply familiar book, I’ve been amazed by its insights and universality.
At the same time, I’ve been challenged by the “seminar” that lies ahead this week. Not only will it be via SKYPE, not for me a familiar way of being with others, but the group of artists from around the world I’ll be working with reportedly have only the slightest sense of who Henry Thoreau was. And, as added complexity, a number of them will be working in a 2nd language.
How to bring Henry into sharp and real focus in our 90 minutes?
IHEAP’s focus for this year’s program is a help: soustraire, or subtraction, as method for and in support of creativity and art is the year’s theme, and I’ve found it a fine lens for looking at Henry’s Walden experiment. After all, Walden is all about subtracting the usual or familiar from life in pursuit of awakening and then adhering to the real, and Thoreau, crucially, has to subtract the expected self in favor of finding a real self.
Hmmm…I’ve just reread the last sentence and found myself saying, “show me what you mean.”
Okay, here’s example: Henry Thoreau, possessor of exceptional physical and mental vitality, and – very rare for his day – a college education, would have been expected to be a central figure in Concord. He became just that, but not in the way local society would have imagined. Rather than becoming a “select” man of the town, at 27 Henry decamped for a nearby pond and set up solitary living. “What’s that Henry (or David) Thoreau up to?” many must have muttered. Added to that consternation was Thoreau’s determination to become a writer. “He’s gone off the tracks,” more than one Concordian must have declared. And indeed he had (as well as going off on the tracks, but that’s a pun only Henry would like.)
What more did Henry subtract from his life so that he might develop his insights and art? Here’s a partial list of identities not pursued or subtracted: husband, father, teacher, householder, pillar of town society, rich man, majority member, all-day worker, church-goer, elected official.
And what subtractions might you add to this list? Or remove from it?
Thinking of creativity and art as subtraction has been fascinating; it is, among other things, another application of Thoreau’s famous advice: “simplify, simplify”; it is also acknowledgement that we are in need of less rather than more in this age of surfeit.
I’ve resisted the obvious, but in the end I’ve found it impossible, and so here is a short piece about Monet and Thoreau. There are many shared affinities – water, light, immediate Nature – but the catalyst for me has been a painting Monet did in 1882.
I first saw Église at Varengeville at a small museum during a recent sojourn in Paris. A few days earlier, we had, as seems appropriate for such a viewing, walked a number of miles to reach The Marmottan, another small museum not far from the Bois de Boulogne. There, we had eased through rooms of paintings Monet left to his son, who, in turn, left them to the French people. Unlike the crowded center-Paris museums with their famous Impressionist stock, this old house of a museum had only a few visitors. At one point I found myself alone in an oval room, surrounded by paintings of plants from Monet’s Walden in Giverny; no one else breathed; the air seemed to quiver with color and light.
All of this brought us to the Luxembourg Gardens museum, where I was again amid throngs. Perhaps you have this experience too, but I find myself distracted by people in museums – I often end up spending more time watching people looking at paintings than I do looking at the art itself. I think of it as the “ert” watching the inert, or the other way around.
Anyway, amid the crush, I reached three paintings labelled “Effet du Matin,” and the mention of morning and its effects rang, as it always does, the little Thoreau bell in my mind. I began to study Église at Vargengeville, and then, even given light jostling, I was alone in its colors and light.
The church sits atop a high cliff that falls to what seems to be ocean, and it – the church – looks like a hat sizes too small for the cliff it tops. That stone is the painting’s real subject, I think, and it is alive with morning light, its streaks of color rising from what looks like kindled flame at the painting’s base. The eye is drawn to the cliff and lifted; the heart is uplifted too.
That seems the effect of light in this best season of the day, the time of awakening. Even after we left the museum, I kept returning to Effet du Matin, just as, given a morning mind and luck, we see fresh light each day.
By Corinne H. Smith
I eased through a birthday last week. I say it this way because I didn’t celebrate the occasion. This year didn’t carry a momentous number ending in 0 or 5. And once you hit the half-century mark, you have no need for fanfare. No reason to get dressed up and have a party with school friends, with a big birthday cake and candles and a rousing game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey, like we did way back when I turned seven. It’s now just a day like any other. I was determined not to play it up.
Then again, I allowed Facebook to out me. The quick online greetings started early. I ignored them as best as I could and logged off to go to my job at a used bookstore. One of my co-workers came in later with a strange expression on her face.
“Did Facebook lie to me this morning, or is today your birthday?” she asked.
I nodded. “Today is my birthday,” I admitted.
“Then I have a small birthday present for you,” she said. She handed me a candy bar. It was the exact brand and size that she has seen me nibble on every workday for a year and a half. It was the perfect present. I thanked her for this considerable generosity.
Truth be told, I had already gotten quiet birthday wishes at work the previous day. They came as I was cataloging a book. I opened the front cover and a card fell out. I’m used to this happening. People leave all sorts of items behind in donated or abandoned books: bookmarks, receipts, subway tickets, postcards and such. This greeting card had on its cover a painting of a bluebird in front of a forsythia bush. The scene was bright and almost too colorful and Spring-like for this all-brown November day. “Especially for You On Your Birthday,” it read. Coming into my hands within 24 hours of my own anniversary, this card seemed to be meant for me. Inside was written the name of the previous owner (who is now deceased, I know) as well as the signature of the friend who had sent him this card. I couldn’t return it to its original receiver. I didn’t know who the sender was. I felt only slight remorse at commandeering the card. I slipped it into my bottom drawer so that I could take it home.
At the end of the day, when I walked into my kitchen, I put the card on the table next to my two others. I had gotten these through the mail from long-distance friends. One was funny, and the other one was nice and heartfelt. Both reflected well the people who had sent them. They made me smile.
I looked at this third card and wondered if I should have just dropped it into a recycling bin. It was pretty enough. But it was too flowery for my style and too much like an old-person’s card. I am not an old person. I wouldn’t have given this card to anyone. And I would have shrugged it off as a mistake if one of my actual friends had seen fit to send me one like this.
To keep, or not to keep? I opened the card again. This time I saw a small paragraph on the bottom left that I had missed seeing earlier. It defined the picture on the cover. “Eastern Bluebird. The bluebird ‘carries the sky on its back,’ wrote Henry David Thoreau.” Now I laughed out loud. I didn’t have to read the rest of the description. I knew that this card had come directly to me from Henry. What other explanation could there be? It’s a keeper. Thanks, Henry.
Though far from Henry’s or our own woods, we keep seeing or hearing things or moments that nonetheless summon him to mind. The most recent is a reported sighting on the outskirts of Paris. First tabbed as a tiger on the loose (from where seemed uncertain), the Paris cat has now been downgraded to unknown feline, even as any number of gendarmes continue to search for him/her.
Still, a grainy photo and clear set of prints suggest something beyond an overweight tabby – estimates of the cat’s size, based on its tracks, range between 100 and 150 pounds. Enough cat to get your attention, bien sûr.
This photo provided by the town council of Montévrain on Thursday shows what was initially described as a tiger. Credit via Associated Press
Thoreau, of course, lived in a landscape shorn of its large carnivores, but, as his writing make clear, he was an avid tracker of wildlife. And his readings of these signs fired his imagination; they helped him see and write about a narrative world.
An American, who when home follows closely the reported tracks and resurgence of our native lions, I naturally have been keeping track of the Paris cat. My native New England is rife with lion-rumor these days, and I figure to see one there during my lifetime. The suburbs of Paris are older ground, however, and so this visit from the wild has had people and news outlets agog – schools with armed guards, people told to stay indoors, car doors locked, various experts quoted.
And the course of response has taken a predictable route too. Something akin to panic has morphed into brow-raised cynicism even as the cat has been assigned more usual proportions.
But the avid attention speaks also of a hunger Henry Thoreau knew too – the wild is a tonic and a hope – an I’m guessing that any number of us following the story hope the Paris cat will vanish into the countryside, where we will imagine he lives on, even as we await his next visit.
I begin this post at the edge of the woods…and with some trepidation. It’s not the trees that cause pause; rather, it’s writing about the Frank Gerhy-designed arts center that appears to have landed beside the Bois de Boulogne just outside the city limits of Paris. In short, I am writing a long way from the 10’ X 15’ house that contained Thoreau’s examined sense of necessity and architecture pond side at Walden. And, as if to double the danger, I’ll be writing about La Fondation Louis Vuitton named for the maven of a focus on and sense of fashion that would surely not find its way to approval in Henryland.
Still, there seems to be more than a fragile link between the ways in which Henry Thoreau and Frank Gehry imagined space. So.
Upon approach I see a ship – of the air? washed in from the sea? – apparently at rest. Its curved, glassy sides look as if they have been opened for airing after a long voyage; it looks also like approaching the nose of a huge and complicated blimp that is powered by sails.
As is often true when you go to see sensation, we join the queue that straggles back beyond the sign that promises a 30-minute wait. Still, on this transparent day with temps in the 50s, our queue-mates are in good moods, and a number of languages rises companionably above the line. I toy with a usual fantasy – is this the crew selected for lift off? Are these the ones with whom I’ll leave this world for whatever’s beyond it? I’m sure the ship-like image of the building and our line’s position right beneath one of its exfoliated, glass sides nudge my mind in that direction. I am, in many senses, a long way from home. And I am nearing the head of the line.
Thoreau too liked to inhabit houses of the mind, creative spaces whose “rooms” often soared. There is the famous “big house,” imagined over pages in Walden (see quotation below). And there is the Spaulding Farm in his essay Walking. Both of these conjured structures featured big space for Thoreau’s large dreams and ideas. Sometimes, I’ve felt that Walden itself is a big house that the reader is asked to leave on his last morning of reading.
I sometimes dream of a larger and more populous house, standing in a golden age, of enduring materials, and without gingerbread work, which shall still consist of only one room, a vast, rude, substantial, primitive hall, without ceiling or plastering, with bare rafters and purlins supporting a sort of lower heaven over one’s head…A house whose inside is as open and manifest as a bird’s nest… Walden
But back to the Bois: As noted earlier, the Vuitton Center looks like a landed ship – from the air or the sea. It’s glassy surfaces seem so many fins or wings partially deployed and at rest…temporarily; it seems immense – it is. We pay our Euros and make our way into a soaring lobby that features a thirty-foot tall rose. It’s not often (never?) that I have walked out into a building, but that’s the feeling I have now: I feel as if I am leaving this world for another, perhaps only to see this world more clearly when I get out there.
Okay, I think, prepare for an outsized experience. And now, once in the “ship,” even though approach has been to strangeness, I feel good, embarked on adventure. The building/ship has a core and a purpose – its 11 galleries display art in various forms and narratives and, somehow they are never crowded – height has something to do with this. But for me, the deepest pleasure lies in walking up various stairwells and corridors and ramps with openings and sky always happening or materializing around a corner. I feel lifted off, transported.
Architecture doesn’t affect me in this fashion often, but this “ship” does. I want to return when it’s storming to see how it sheds water and furrows on into the sky.
For me November has always brought the advent of sight’s season, especially in the woods; often, what has been hidden by leaves – a burl, a nest, an old sign – comes clear. And the long-boned outlines of the land also appear. Then, there is the thin transparency of November’s light; on a cloudless day, it is the clearest glass. Yes, the span of daylight is short, but vision’s length and depth more than compensate for that.
The other day, I was poking around in Thoreau’s November Journal writings, figuring that he too might have found revelation in the month’s light, when I came upon this:
Day before yesterday to the Cliffs in the rain, misty rain. As I approached their edge, I saw the woods beneath, Fair Haven Pond, and the hills across the river, — which, owing to the mist, was as far as I could see, and seemed much further in consequence. I saw these between the converging boughs of two white pines a rod or two from me on the edge of the rock; and I thought that there was no frame to a landscape equal to this, — to see, between two near pine boughs, whose lichens are distinct, a distant forest and lake, the one frame, the other picture. In November a man will eat his heart, if in any month. Journal, 11/1/52.
A different sort of November day, to be sure, but no less lovely in its grays and greens and browns. Here too was Thoreau in the museum of his vision, finding “frames” for the “pictures” hung liberally there. He walked his woods with no less reverence than the slow, heel-clicking strides of museum-goers as they cross polished stone floors and contemplate painters’ visions.
But what stopped me was the final sentence in this passage – what does it mean to eat your heart? And what in November might incline one that way?
It’s common enough to say “Eat your heart out,” when we think we have something others want. Well, okay, but envy seems unrelated or a small reading of Thoreau’s sentence. Somehow, I thought, it is the unequaled nature of the “frame” that triggers his observation. And the image of Thoreau stopped near the edge of the Fairhaven Cliffs, looking at this loved landscape came clear to me. There he was, and here I was, looking through his eyes at a landscape hung just so; here, contained by the lichened boughs, was the best world, a world to swell your heart.
For a while I could live on that expansive vision, in that framed, chosen world. Perhaps feeling such affectionate surplus is what it means to eat one’s heart.
But you may see through other eyes, see it otherwise. If so, let us know.
By Corinne H. Smith
You never know when or where you will meet another fan of Henry David Thoreau. Even if the person may be long gone and may have left only a few clues behind.
In my part-time job at a bookstore specializing in art books, I recently came upon a unique catalog from 1965. It consisted of black-and-white illustrations of artwork by an artist named Viktor IV. I had never heard of him, and we certainly didn’t have any other books about him. From what I could tell, he then lived in Amsterdam and created unique pieces out of wood and other materials. This was a small and quirky publication that was probably self-published. Normally, I wouldn’t have thought too much of it. But the three-line dedication at the top of the opening page took me by surprise:
What? Wait. Who WAS this guy? I had to do some online research to find out.
Viktor IV was the professional name of New York-born artist Walter Karl Gluck (1929-1986). As a young man, he traveled around the world before settling down in Amsterdam in 1961, with the intent of being a photo-journalist. It is said that the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy had a profound affect on him. He immediately decided to become a full-time artist instead of a photographer. After he made a collage based on the assassination, he renamed himself Viktor IV. He set up his studio and home on a small ship docked in one of Amsterdam’s waterways. And he soon became one of the art community’s notable characters. People got used to seeing him riding his painted bicycle or walking around the city, in bare feet and dressed all in black, with wild white hair and a bushy beard, looking for inspiration.
Viktor’s early art was created from driftwood and other found pieces in the river. He assembled decorated wooden panels that he called “ikons.” But he didn’t limit himself to small creations. He also put additional structures like extra masts, towers, and rafts on and around his ship. As long as he didn’t block the entire waterway, he was free to add to it as he pleased.
Throughout his life, Viktor kept a set of artist journals filled with writings and drawings. He later developed these into thousands of individual pieces of artwork. When Viktor eventually became intrigued with time-keeping, he devised what he called “Bulgar Time,” and designed a clock to run backward. You can see a virtual example of the clock on his web site at http://www.viktoriv.nl/en/home.html. It’s a tad disconcerting at first to watch the hands move the wrong way, but it’s fun.
Sadly, Viktor drowned one day while making underwater adjustments to his flotilla. He had gotten tangled in the ropes beneath his ship. He was 57 years old.
Reports say that the two people who were the biggest influences in Viktor’s life were Dutch painter Anton Heyboer and American writer Henry David Thoreau. He read “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience” at some point in his youth. How Henry led Viktor specifically to Amsterdam is not spelled out in the brief bios I read. What IS clear is that Viktor IV followed his Different Drummer, and he found his own Walden. He discovered not only where he needed to be, but what he needed to do in life. This Thoreauvian lesson attracts both the heart and the head.
Maybe today Viktor and Henry are floating in a boat somewhere, looking for driftwood, nodding to each other, and laughing about time running backward. Good for them.
By Ashton Nichols
I have a sad story to tell today. It is about one of those red-tailed hawks that I have written about in an earlier piece on The Roost, perhaps; or, perhaps not. Not so long ago, I was out in the locust and pine woodlot behind Creekside, and I saw a splash of brown and white against the green of the grass underneath one of our largest pine trees. Pine needles littered the ground, but this different brown stood out, a deep burnished color set off by the white lines that surrounded it. As I drew closer it was clear: this was a hawk, a dead hawk, and a big one, lying under the pine tree with his wings splayed and his head cocked to one side, unnaturally crooked as though he had tried to look too far behind him. A red tail.
“He is so beautiful,” I thought to myself and, since I was alone, there was no one to talk to in any case. What can I do? I knew it was a Federal offense to possess even the dead carcass of a raptor. These birds are so valuable as species, and especially as consumers of carrion, that even American citizens can only report dead raptors and then let the Department of Natural Resources take over. Otherwise, we would be awash in the bodies of small, dead mammals, rodents of all kinds: rats, and mice, and voles, and more. But then I remembered something else: Dickinson College, where I teach, has permits–both state and federal–that allow for the obtaining raptor specimens, as long as they will be used solely for educational purposes. Of course, what else would I use this hawk for? Not just to sit on my mantel like a hunter’s trophy. Not just to hide away in a private collection of once-living specimens. Here was a beautiful creature, dead now for who knew what reason, and starting to rot back into the ground unless I intervened. So I did.
I got a large plastic trash bag and spread my hands wide on both sides, lowering the bag down over the body of the hawk. I picked him up, and I thought for a moment that he moved, but then I checked his eyes–one was clouded, the other one was closed–and so I was assured that he had breathed his last breath. (I keep saying “he” in full knowledge that I do not know his gender; sexing birds is very difficult, primarily because their sex-organs, such as they are, are all internal, and they are very often very hard to see and even harder to determine). As fast as I could I got him to our out-building, a large nineteenth-century, chimneyed structure that was used as the summer kitchen back in the day when Creekside was built. Once there, I placed him in the refrigerator’s freezer, closed it tight, and called Dickinson to make sure that I had access to our permits.
I did have such access, and several weeks later I contacted the best taxidermist in South-Central Pennsylvania to help me out. We met and made a plan, and he took the hawk and placed it into his own freezer until he had sufficient time to work on it. Birds are perhaps the most difficult of animals to stuff, primarily because of their feathers, evolutionarily adapted scales–from their lizard-skin days–that often “slip” when even the slightest bit of rot has begun to decay the cells around the follicle. The follicle is a small cavity, just like the one that holds your individual hairs into your head, but in a hawk’s case the follicle keeps the feathers from falling out. The taxidermist assured me that I had gotten him into my freezer in time, and he would make a fine mounted specimen. At least, that is what the taxidermist said.
Several months later I had my result, and here he is:
He is as beautiful a specimen as you will ever see, stuffed in the perfect way that makes me worry–and ask my students–about why it is that human beings like to take dead animals, return them to a lifelike condition, and then display them as though nothing has ever happened to them, as though they are still alive. I have been to natural history museums from New York to Naples, from Philadelphia to Florence, from London to Bologna, from Edinburgh to Rome and, in all of these settings I have wondered what it is that causes humans to track down these creatures, capture and kill then, and then finally display and exhibit them as though all of them are still among the living creatures on the planet.
I have no definitive answer to these questions. “I have killed and mounted this creature, so I am in control of its life,” is, of course, the most obvious answer. In colonial settings, we might say that every colonizer wants to say, at some level, “Look at what I have done; I have gone to the wilds of Africa [or Asia, South America, or the Arctic realms], and I have brought back these creatures and dominated them to such an extent that I can show them off to you now in a mighty civilized city.” But perhaps such an explanation is not sufficient. Perhaps we all collect, and kill [I work hard never to kill], and then display these creatures simply out of a desire to know them, a desire to possess, not out of greed, but out of a longing for knowledge, a longing for understanding. If I have this creature, then I am a part of this creature’s world. “I want to know you,” we seem to be saying; “I want to know you as well as other members of your species, and other species around you, know you.”
“Let me into your world,” we seem to be saying; and here is as close as we can ever get:
It’s been said that Henry Thoreau would walk miles to visit a tree, and, over time, I’ve come to understand the lure of arboreal friendship and walking for it. The tree, after all, can’t come to me. There’s a large white pine I like especially at the bend of a trail that descends from the Andromeda Ponds behind Walden toward Fairhaven Bay; I run my hand across its rough bark at each passing.
The other day, during a walk in the Luxembourg Gardens, my eye was drawn to two large trees – conifers of some sort, they looked decidedly foreign in this setting, and, even given good size, they looked young. I bent to read the small sign by the path side and found they were sequoias. And that, of course, set me to wondering how two redwoods had arrived in the middle of Paris.
Not long after I’d begun this wondering, I’d learned that there are redwoods all over Europe, the largest of which is Scottish and now reaches some 54 meters into the air. It is said to be “growing quickly.” Europe’s redwoods don’t yet match the sky-scratching height of our tallest trees out west, where a sequoia named Genesis rises 86.2 meters to the current record, but after only 160 or so years, they are on their way. The temperate U.K. and Belgium and France seem favored locales for redwoods in Europe.
What also caught my attention was the timing of an apparent enthusiasm for planting these monumental trees. The largest of the lot date from the 1850s, a time when, an ocean away, Henry Thoreau was traveling a good deal in Concord to visit woody friends of his own.
Discovered only in 1852 in California, the giant sequoia rapidly became a tree-to-have in English Gardens, which were fashionable in the 2nd half of the 19th century throughout much of Europe. The gardens, influenced by Romanticism, had intentionally wild sectors to them, and the sequoia came from the wild Americas. That it promised also to be monumental seemed in keeping with a European mindset.
Whether Thoreau paid much attention to this woody discovery and its hopscotch migration eastward, isn’t clear. His journal doesn’t attend to the June 27th, 1853 felling of a huge sequoia (reportedly over 300 feet high and 1,224 years old) in California – a media sensation; eventual fallout from it and other cuttings helped lead to John Muir (who lionized Thoreau) and the 1872 founding of the park at Yosemite, and then on to the national park system.
It seems that, faithful to Concord and his local focus, Thoreau spent his time and ink thinking about trees he knew.
But Thoreau does mention the sequoia in the writings that became Faith in a Seed:
“What would Pliny and Evelyn have said of that eighth wonder of
the world, the giant sequoia of California, which springing from so
small a seed (the cones are said to be shaped like those of a white
pine, but to be only two and a half inches long) has outlasted so many
of the kingdoms of the world?
If we suppose the earth to have sprung from a seed as small in
proportion as the seed of a willow is compared with a large willow
tree, then the seed of the earth, as I calculate, would have been
equal to a globe less than two and a half miles in diameter, which
might lie on about one-tenth of the surface of this town.”
Almost every day during this sojourn, I walk over to see the two sequoias. Still in their youth – I estimate they are 20 to 25 meters tall – already they have begun looking down at many of their elders; it won’t be long before they see much of Paris. It’s good to make new friends.
Thanks to Corinne Smith for unearthing the quotation from Faith in a Seed.
“I try one of the wild apples in my desk. It is remarkable that the wild apples which I praise as so spirited and racy when eaten in the fields and woods, when brought into the house have a harsh and crabbed taste.” Journal 10/27/1855
Today, we drive south, board a bus, wait some, then board a plane, sit some, sit some more, doze (we hope) through compressed night, rise and deplane, find a taxi, emerge at the steps of an apartment far from our home in Maine. That catalogue of travel doesn’t read as attractive, but this is a long planned for and sought trip, a month of residence in another place, and its point is similar, I think, to Thoreau’s in his journal entry above. If we will taste the spirit and raciness of a place, we must be there. Trying to import that place to Maine won’t work.
Or put a little differently: when we import much of our lives, we don’t live them in place. But when we go to a place, we can go there to live, to eat its “wild apples” in place.
So, while our month ahead isn’t in Thoreau country, the spirit of our approach to the city and streets of Paris is born of his sense of walking and being fully in place. We will look for apples (and chestnuts) along the streets.
“…he uttered a long-drawn unearthly howl, probably more like a wolf than any other bird. This was his looning…” Journal 10/8/52
One of my favorite moments in Walden is Thoreau’s “pretty game, played on the smooth surface of the pond, a man against a loon.” The passage comes from a long entry in his journal that captures the game’s exuberance and the way a day afloat feels. The longish post that follows, some of it in the company of loons, felt suffused with a companion exuberance.
I hear the first loon a mile or so after I’ve begun. The October sea heaves with the remnant swells of a storm, but the sky is bluest clear. And so the water sparkles as if shot with diamonds. A breeze from behind sets up a chop that, running sideways to the swell, jostles some, but as long as I pay attention, I’m within my ocean-going comfort zone.
The call peels up from nearby water; it is, as has often been said, unearthly or otherworldly. But that seems right because, a mile offshore and in this needle of a boat powered only by hand, this is another world. Not quite laughter, it is surely announcement. I try to respond, but I am a stuttering impersonator, hardly loon at all. The loon calls again, and now I see him, floating high in the water, distinctive in plumage and profile. “Hello, brother,” I say.
He is the first of eight loons on this seaside leg of a long circumnavigation I’ve begun. Having summered and raised kin on inland lakes, they have come to the sea for fall, and as their calls and numbers accumulate, and as the sun warms my right side after a near-frost night, I feel loon blessed for the five-mile sea-run to the river I will ascend. What better companions?
The loons float the water effortlessly, and, as I settle into this paddling, I begin to mimic them, feeling the water’s various wobbles easily, starting to become “of” rather than “on” it.
I put in for a rest-stop on Rogue Island. Who wouldn’t, after all, want a little time with a rogue? From land, I look up, eye the sky. There, in serene circles, floats an eagle. One wing flap in a minute. The day must be generating thermals; he rises still and I return to my boat.
With the tide’s easy hand behind me, I go up the New Meadows River. The swell, absorbed by islands and fingers of land, doesn’t follow, and soon I am paddling quiet water with long strokes, free to look around. The maples and oaks shimmer their golds and reds amid the green companion pines. I slide from familiar waters into those I’ve yet to paddle; I check the chart to see where Sheep Island ends and Long Island begins, musing as I do about the number of Sheeps and Longs along Maine’s coast.
And – rare moment for this sort of unhurried day – I check also my watch: the only time pressure I feel stems from the need to reach the westward turn of Gurnet Strait before or at slack tide. The tide floods in the direction I’m going, but once it turns to ebb I could face a struggle getting through. As it empties the coves and inlets around it, Gurnet Strait is said to max out at up to 7 knots; in full-muscled, short-lived sprint, I can manage 4.
I bend to this effort, pressing my paddle forward and lengthening the forward reach of my stroke; the scenery becomes peripheral, but I also like this work and the mild excitement of racing the tide. An hour later, as I pull into a eddying pocket this side of the bridge, I can see the tide has begun its ebbing flow. But it is early in the cycle, and I push through the building 2-knot current, pass under the bridge’s odd, geometric shadow and then on into wider water where the current weakens.
Gurnet astern, I begin to to descend the long throat of water that leads to the Ewin Narrows, and, as I do, I flush eagle number two from a waterside pine. Unlike his earlier cousin, this is an immature eagle, and he seems a trifle grumpy about having to fly. Perhaps the pickings are easier in this thinlet – fewer competitors, the big-folk out at sea.
And now I pick up the outflow of tide. I had envisioned a gentle float on current out to the sea and my starting point, but the wind thinks otherwise: against forecast, it presses up from the south and into my face at 10+ knots. “Really?” I say aloud to the empty water and absent sky. Really. The 15 miles accrued announce themselves in my shoulders. “Really?” they say. “Yes,” I answer. “It looks like wind all the way.”
And so I float south, pushed on by the low hand of tide and held back by the high hand of wind. When I don’t paddle, I go precisely nowhere, and so I break the deadlock and paddle toward the sea.
Just as I have been circling the limits of this island, the sun has shifted through the sky, and now it warms my same right side from the southwest. My left side continues its cool day – air temps in the 50s, water temps the same.
The bridge where the Ewin Narrows open out into Harpswell Sound marks the 5-miles-left point. Riding some quick water, I scoot beneath its high span and into the small standing waves that current and wind have fashioned. They are happy distraction from the slow soldiering on into the wind, which, soon enough, colors again the late afternoon. Morning’s loons and tailwind? Gone. The ice-smooth river to slide over? Gone. The miles usual? Surpassed…long ago. Okay, okay…keep on.
But what, dancing in seeming formation, are those ten sails down the Sound? Some seaborne Opera of the Sound? One too many energy bars mainlined? Fantasized fairy-rescue? Hard to tell. As I press on, they seem to draw nearer, and faintly I hear a whistle; it seems that every time the whistle blows the sails change direction. How quaint, how picturesque, I think…until I realize that, riding the same wind I am fighting, they are headed straight at me and closing fast.
I begin a hurried ferry across current and sound; the whistle – now clear – sounds every 20 seconds; I hear the taut sails; they draw near like an odd flock of oversized birds. Now, I can read the word “Bowdoin” on the sails. The word “irony’ flashes in my mind. I will be crushed by a fleet of choreographed collegiate sails, not by the usual kayak-worries: the Portland tour boat, or some dyspeptic lobster guy, or some speed-addled cigarette-boater. The whistle blows again, and they veer away, racing by at every knot of wind I’m fighting. The launch bearing the whistle-blowing coach chugs by after them, and in the relief of now empty water, I aim for a nearby islet.
Wyer Island barely rises above the water; it holds a clutch of small trees and its grass bends in the wind. I stretch and peer at the three rippled miles remaining. I crunch a few grains like a horse recently unbridled; then, I go back to my seat, seal myself in and shove off.
The wind has shifted 20 degrees to the southeast. There has been no hiding from it on either side of the Sound. On, like the deepest sort of snow-trudging, this walking on water…sort of. I cut through small waves; others slap my boat and splash over me. No loons, no eagles, just the waning day, which is pretty enough with its high cirrus and still-brilliant sun and peak-colorful trees…if I raise my eyes to them.
Then, a mile from return, the wind drops, cuts out; the water goes quiet in a minute, and I am sliding once again across glassiness. Light spangles the surface. And the world’s only cribstone bridge, which rises right above my little launch-beach is close enough so its huge granite blocks are distinct.
A duck idles out of my way; two men sit companionably on a dock and squint at the falling sun; a mile across the Sound someone shuts a door. I glide up to my little beach and sit ten feet offshore; I hover there, waiting for the right moment to land.
By Corinne H. Smith
My part-time day job is to do cataloging for a seller of used books. Recently I was up to my ears in old children’s books at my desk when boss Kevin walked into the work room. He had been sorting through boxes of “new” arrivals in another part of the building. He had a smile on his face and a book in his hand, and he held it out to me.
“Here’s something I think you may want to see,” he said. I saw a slip of white paper sticking out of the book as I reached over my computer to take it.
As soon as I touched it, I said, “Wow.” The brown covers, both front and back, had intricate textured carvings. Bright gilding appeared on all three open edges of the pages, not just along the top. The spine had five metal rings in it. It was heavy. Now THIS was a book designed for reading and for keeping. “Homes of American Authors,” read the gilded letter titling. The flyleaves were made of marbled paper in hues of yellow, red, and blue. The title page said that it had been published by G. P. Putnam and Company in 1853. Wow again.
Kevin knows of my obsession with All Things Thoreau, so he often deflects relevant books to me. I’d never seen a copy of this one before, though. I figured that the slip must mark a mention of Henry. But from 1853? The book Walden wouldn’t be published until August 1854. Thoreau would so far have been known only for writing a few essays, delivering some lectures, and selling fewer than 300 copies of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. What could this be?
The marker was tucked between pages 246 and 247, in the Emerson chapter. Of course! In the middle of the discourse about the famous resident of the big white house on the Cambridge Turnpike, the author chose to ramble a bit about one of the regular visitors to the place. It’s just one paragraph, and it’s obvious that the writer knows Thoreau. He finds it unusual that Henry hasn’t yet kicked up any arrowheads on the Emerson property:
The site of the house is not memorable. There is no reasonable ground to suppose that so much as an Indian wigwam ever occupied the spot; nor has Henry Thoreau, a very faithful friend of Mr. Emerson’s, and of the woods and waters of his native Concord, ever found an Indian arrowhead upon the premises. Henry Thoreau’s instinct is as sure toward the facts of nature as the witch-hazel toward treasure. If every quiet country town in New England had a son, who, with a lore like [English naturalist Gilbert White’s] Selborne’s, and an eye like [French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de] Buffon’s, had watched and studied its landscape and history, and then published the result, as Thoreau has done, in a book as redolent of genuine and perceptive sympathy with nature, as a clover-field of honey, New England would seem as poetic and beautiful as Greece. Thoreau lives in the berry-pastures upon a bank over Walden pond, and in a little house of his own building. One pleasant summer afternoon a small party of us helped him raise it – a bit of life as Arcadian as any at Brook Farm. Elsewhere in the village he turns up arrowheads abundantly, and Hawthorne mentions that Thoreau initiated him into the mystery of finding them. But neither the Indians, nor Nature, nor Thoreau can invest the quiet residence of our author with the dignity, or even the suspicion of a legend.
Wow again! Not only did this author know Thoreau, but he was a true friend and a fan who could wax poetic when necessary. He took a bit of literary license, since Henry’s time at Walden was from 1845-1847; and by 1853, he was living with his family in the yellow house on Main Street. Still, I wanted to know: Who wrote this piece?
I went back to the title page to find out. It unfortunately read “by various writers.” However, another page contained the names of eleven contributors, one for each chapter. Among them was George William Curtis (1824-1892), a New England-based author who wrote for Putnam’s Magazine. He lived for several years in Concord and also for a short time at Brook Farm. I’ve since learned that he was the one who penned this quick but nifty profile of Henry, embedded within his description of Emerson’s home. And it’s one of the earliest casual mentions of Henry in print media.
The old engraved illustrations in this book are simply stunning. In addition to Emerson’s house, there are pictures of the Old Manse and the homes of the Alcotts and the Hawthornes. A few pages were missing from the Emerson chapter, unfortunately. And the more I handled it, the sorrier I felt for this book. The front cover had entirely broken away from the spine. The back cover was threatening to do the same, as I discovered when I turned the book sideways to look at the engravings. The spine material was loose. All of the outer edges were worn. Some pages were aging and had a bit of foxing around their edges. It wasn’t the best gem in the jewelry box. Still, I was grateful that Kevin had taken the time to see if the name of Henry Thoreau appeared in it.
“Wow,” I said to him, after examining the book for the few minutes that seemed like a lifetime. “This is very cool. Thanks for sharing.” I handed it back to him. “No, no,” he said, with his arms at his sides. “I can’t sell a book in that condition. You can keep it.”
We all do it. At some point in our readings of Henry Thoreau, we begin to imagine his life beyond its span. And then it isn’t long before we bring him to our neighborhood and our time. “What would Henry make of that?” we wonder. And then we wonder if we said it aloud.
This morning over coffee – yes, unnatural stimulant; water should do as elixir, I know – I wondered what Henry would make of a short clip I watched on boston.com. (I’ve put in the link below.) I’ll leave aside the whole discussion of watching life from remove for a while, and simply wonder about one of the “actors” in the clip.
The 40-second clip opens with an aerial view of an urban setting. The camera, borne aloft by a drone (quadcopter, it’s called) looks down over some hard-used playing fields by a river. The viewer suspects the drone’s ‘human companion’ is somewhere below on the playing fields.
A hawk soars by and appears to take an interest in what’s sharing his airspace. Effortlessly he veers its way; then, there’s the approach: still simply soaring, the hawk arrows in, at one point tilting his wings nearly 90 degrees to maneuver. He grows larger in the lens; the sky become hawk. Just so, if you were a duck. A few yards away, the hawk switches to talons first, flaring his wings. “Contact,” as Henry would say. “Contact.”
The drone begins to tumble down. Its camera catches the hawk lifting away. Then the drone is on the ground, the playground. Fittingly, the drone lands upside down, its world inverted.
Aside from reveling in the hawk’s takedown of what promises to be another noxious invention, what would Henry make of this moment?
One suspects a complicated response (including appreciation for the mechanics and optics of the drone), ending perhaps with a simple injunction: be wary of what distances you from the world.
Flying drones is an extension of the model airplanes that used to drone endlessly over the fields next to my boyhood house. Stuck on the field below, kids dreamed of flight, perhaps of becoming pilots, joining themselves to the long skein of bird-enviers in our race. But, of course, they had to use their imaginations to get a plane’s-eye view of our neighborhood.
Drones with their cameras change that. They take our eyes and mind where we can’t be, but, in doing so, they make us less aware of where we are. All our inventions that remove us from contact with what we see and sense pull us too from life. Our immersion in what isn’t would worry Henry, I think.
Here’s the link; see for yourself and let us know what you think: http://www.boston.com/news/2014/10/10/hawk-drone-video-captures-hawk-attack-quadcopter/fuZU493QFWyov65VoCbQWP/story.html?p1=Topofpage:Carousel_sub_image
by Ashton Nichols
Think of an insect three inches long that makes a sound so loud it keeps you awake at night. When we traveled to a beautiful spot on the Delaware Bay recently, that is what we encountered. Think of another insect, half that size, which has inspired poets and painters the world over. Many of us have this first creature in the trees near our homes, and this second small animal near our hearths, along the flowered edges of our homes and our gardens. Cicadas and crickets–the singers of the bug world.
The cicada makes the loudest sound of any insect on earth; not one louder insect sound has ever been recorded. A cicada can reach 120dBs, which is equivalent according to the experts to: a riveter, a wood chipper, thunder in a summer storm, a diesel engine room, and a Fourth of July fireworks display. That’s loud! The female cicada makes no sounds whatsoever, and of all of these loud males, the Australian cicada buzzes louder than any other cicada…bububuuuuuzzzzzzzzzz! An astonishing sound.
Here is what John Keats said about the warm sound of the crickets by his hearth: “from the stove there shrills / The Cricket’s song, in warmth increasing ever.” Keats wrote these lines in a beautiful poem entitled “The Poetry of Earth is Never Dead.” So the poet, who is perhaps the greatest wordsmith of our language since Shakespeare, finds this tiny black bug to be a creature that can make a sound that warms us, even in the cold and dead days of winter.
The level 130dBs of sound is described by the experts as “deafening” and also as the “threshold of pain.” We all know what it is like to hear a sound so loud that our ears literally hurt. We have all turned up the stereo headphones too loud, or we have stood too close to dad when he was firing up the chainsaw right next to us, or we have been in the fifth row of a Led Zeppelin Concert in 1969–right in front of that bank of Fender amps–and, although we said we loved it, it really did hurt our ears. So imagine a little insect that can make a sound only 10dBs below this “threshold of pain” and then imagine dozens of these, or even hundreds of these, in the trees and shrubs around you on a late summer night.
Of course, there are other insects that make memorable sounds: grasshoppers, bees and wasps and mosquitoes and midges all buzz, and some buzz loudly. But I say that crickets and cicadas carry the day. They have the voices that do not die and, as Keats said two centuries ago, they are still “increasing ever.” We hope so. Although climate change may expand the range and population density of certain species, it will also upset the balance of many insects and most of their sound-making fellow species. Like the poet, I want to hear my nearby cicadas and crickets for years to come.