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”
When you invert your head, it looks like the finest gossamer stretched across the valley, and gleaming against the distant pine woods, separating one stratum of the atmosphere from another. Thoreau, The Ponds, Walden
There are few passages in Walden that better seize students’ imaginations than Henry Thoreau’s implicit command, “when you invert your head!” There it is, nested in its brevity among Thoreau’s long sentences, like a literary speed bump. “Wha…who put that there?” you say after settling back into your reader’s seat and checking the rearview mirror. For a moment, you may have been airborne; surely, you are awakened.
And, perhaps – he hopes – you are inclined to consider Thoreau’s advice. How do I invert my heard, you wonder?
Time for a field trip. In class, we’d close our books, and I would give students 3 minutes of “travel time”; we would meet at the Sudbury River, along the school’s border. By this point just beyond midpoint in Walden, we’d taken enough “excursions” to render students either compliant or wryly amused. We gathered on the thin, mudded shore, and the Sudbury, so slow that in flood it sometimes reverses direction, eased by, its flat waters reflective of the day’s white sky (if you were looking).
“Okay,” I said. “Here’s vital tutorial. It will change your life. Which is another way of saying it will change your perspective.” A few eyes roll; others look down. “He’s off,” whispers one boy, and a ripple of agreement shivers the group’s fringe.
I divide them into two groups, so that no one has to go silly alone. “Okay, line up along the shore with your backs to the river,” I say. “Then, spread your feet beyond shoulder-width. Now, bend forward and lower your head to where its top touches the ground in front of you and, supporting yourself with your hands, look steadily at the river’s surface through your legs.
“Is this for real?” asks one girl, inadvertently using one of Thoreau’s favorite words. “Yes,” I say. “It’s to help you realize perspective.”
A long minute passes. A few grunt with effort at this awkward stance. Still, all eight of them stay with it.
“O,” says the girl on the end. “The world just flipped. It’s upside down. Or maybe right side up.” “Yo,” say another. “Me too.” General agreement breaks out, and the second group begins looking for a place to begin.
Later, we talk this moment over, and they have much to say. It’s not lost on them that Thoreau’s invitation to inversion takes place just beneath the famous “earth’s eye” paragraph. Which requires only the shortest leap to the open-eyed habit of wonder that Thoreau hoped his readers would awaken to in their daily lives.
November’s end and December’s advent seems just the time for inverting one’s head, for bringing sky to ground.
First snow, early darkness – it’s book-reading season, and my purpose here is to lure you into reading the essay in this post’s title. Whatever I can offer for summary and comment pales beside the essay itself, and perhaps I should stop here, say simply, “Go, read this for yourself.” But command is no lure at all; it summons, if anything, our reflexive no-selves, well muscled from age two on. “Eat your vegetables; take a lap; brush your teeth; time’s up…” “No,” we say well before thought gathers. No? Okay, no command then.
So, here’s a bit of what I think Mary Oliver is up to in her luminous essay Steepletop, published in her first book of prose, Blue Pastures, in 1995. And why still, this whole sentence later, I think you should read it.
As a newly-minted high school graduate who is looking for a way out of Ohio, Oliver goes to visit Steepletop, from 1925 – 50 the New York state home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and her husband, Eugen Boissevain. Millay has died (as has Boissevain), and her sister Norma has taken up residence as holder of the family name and legacy of this poet who was the first woman to win the Pulitzer, an honor she got at age 31. There, through a series of visits that become finally residence, Oliver finds her first home away from home, and she finds a sort of older sibling figure in the poet’s sister and literary executor, Norma Millay. A young, aspiring poet, Oliver is taken in, but not, we learn in the essay, deceived by the stories she hears of Edna Millay’s tempestuous and brilliant life.
We as readers know also that Oliver herself has gone on to win a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award; she has become one of this country’s most loved poets. But in the recollections of the essay, all of that lies in the future as Oliver casts back to her memories of a time of genesis in her life.
And that sense of Oliver-in-making is what draws me into the essay, even as that is not its overt subject. It is written by a mature Oliver, one who has recently turned (submitted?) to the requests of prose, even as her poems are her central expression. That the writing is luminous in its particulars may go without saying, but I say it anyway: the writing shines in sentence and phrasing.
Steepletop makes central the story of Edna Millay’s grand passion for and with George Dillon. Millay’s long-running and then abruptly-ended affair with Dillon emerges to the young Oliver in family fits and starts, as told by Norma Millay. Oliver listens, then listens some more; her habit of attention, the wellspring of her poetry, is clear.
Here’s a small, but indicative moment: partway through her essay, Oliver offers a footnote. It concerns the 1931 publication of Millay’s Fatal Interview and Dillon’s The Flowering Stone, both of which draw from the long tempest of their affair. Oliver says she “knows this to be true.” And then she demurs, invokes a “mist that surrounds it forever,” that always obscures some essential truth or truths, some unknowable part of a life or lives.
To invoke obscuring mist so clearly, to make the reader know that all can’t be known, even as this story carries one on and much is known, that there is mystery at the heart of all heartsongs seems to me a good description of Mary Oliver’s gifts as a writer. In the clearest language she brings us into misty mystery, where we feel at least as much as we see.
There is, of course, much more in this essay, and in its volume, Blue Pastures. Earlier, I shed command. Now, I offer instead invitation: come read this essay…this book. It is a fine early winter afternoon’s companion; pair it with a cup of tea and take it to your favorite chair, where lamplight pools in the late afternoon dark.
For hours, on fall days, I watched the ducks cunningly tack and veer and hold the middle of the pond, far from the sportsman…but what beside safety they got by sailing in the middle of Walden I do not know, unless they love its water for the same reason that I do. Thoreau, Walden
Even before I crest the small rise I can hear them: the ducks are talking. Their conversation sounds easy, easeful, the sort your hear at the outset of a party before everyone’s in full voice and all subtlety drops away. Recently, they have clustered on this little pond on the way to the Commons in a density brought on, perhaps, by hunting season – how do they know this residential water is off limits? – and perhaps by recent nights’ icings. It has dropped to 19 degrees, and the skim is still firm in the shade this afternoon. And there’s a hint of snow in the little dells beside the trail. I think they should get a migratory move on, but they seem unhurried.
As my head appears, the low muttering morphs to notice, each duck-voice distinct. “Do you see that?” they quack. “Over there, That, That, That…Quack, Quack, Quack.” I half-expect them to point with their bills. And those near the pond’s edge paddle from it toward their brethren in the middle or along a farther fringe. A few beat their wings, as if to show that they can fly…and will…but then they drop to paddling too. Perhaps they know I have no gun; perhaps they know that this neighborhood is sanctuary; perhaps, as I bend away along the trail, I have stepped beyond their necessary duck-space.
The ducks go back to mutter; they discuss my arrival and veering away, and the sound crosses the water, skips off the new ice. I thumb through the worn pages of my memory for the word that describes a gathering of ducks on water. Flock? No, that’s in flight. Is it covey? No, that’s quails, I think. Ah, I’ve heard ducks on water called a raft; yes, I think so. The other word available turns out to be a “paddling.” Descriptive yes, but does “raft” or “paddling” convey what I hear, which could be the sound of so many Hucks and Jims talking as they float? Not really.
What then to call this talky raft?
Here are two possibilities: colloquacky; or maybe quackoquy. Or perhaps you will summon and share a better word.
All part of the fun of walking without aim – you can make the world up as you go.
This is a very beautiful November day, — a cool but clear, crystalline air, through which even the white pines with their silvery sheen are an affecting sight. It is a day to behold and ramble over the hard (stiffening) and withered surface of the tawny earth. Thoreau, Journal 11/22/60
I awoke today to the first froth of snow rimming the yard. It was gone in the time it took to drink my coffee. But it serves as announcement. Still, the season shifts a little more slowly on the nearby ocean, and not long ago I was on it in search of slowed motion. Being near the ocean as the year ebbs (or floods) gives you access to two seasons, the foot-stepping one of the land and the slow follower of the water.
For the most part, the water-season’s over. Boats are shrink-wrapped and tucked away in storage; only the wind-flung leaves animate the waves as they reach for the shore; and all the osprey and eagle nests that sowed the air with birds are empty. Still, on a day when the winds stay away, and after the slanting sun warms the air a little, I sometimes rack my boat on the car’s roof and go to the sea.
To be clear, as the waters cool, I am wary. The ocean buoys are flirting with 50, and even in the calm bays the temps aren’t much higher. A bath in that sort of water can quickly become a one-way plunge. But I have a drysuit, which makes me feel a little like an astronaut – sans the helmet and Houston – and I’m not about to embark on a “test-piece” of paddling toward some extreme, so some float-time seems okay.
On this day, even in the afternoon, the sea-world seems to have exhaled and dropped into a nap. What ripples there are on the waters emphasize their calm and the tranquil sky above. Paddling on such a surface has the feel of sliding across polished glass, and I begin my circuit of little islands by making the day’s long letter – the V of passage.
As the point of this V I aim at little Scrag Island, and its northern headland, a cliff that looks like a big ship’s prow. There, I drift for bit, watching the silent rock, admiring how the fifty-foot pines somehow find holds that keep them upright and growing an annual foot or so. The absence of any “quick-life,” – birds, boats, us – keeps me at this scene where pine clasps rock; I feel no hurry. When I do paddle on, the shore sliding by on my left, it is simply for the pleasure of this easy sliding.
There is, I think, no large message from this day, other than its glimpse into the longer spans of time where tree and rock simply persist. But there is the expanse of water and sky, the stretch of vision that seems, as I float, back on time’s tide.
Though you are finger-cold toward night, and you cast a stone on your first ice, and see the unmelted crystals under every bank, it is glorious November weather, and only the November fruits are out. Thoreau, Journal, 11/22/60
Today is one of those fruits.
Each day, it seems, brings the dissonant grinding of large gears – much of what rolls usually forward, socially, environmentally, personally seems instead stuck or damaging. And the noise can be deafening, disheartening. I’ve said often that, at such times, I turn to Henry Thoreau’s emphasis on the local and the little for the sometimes-thin music of necessary hope. Today and its troubles ask for this music.
And that has me paging back a few days to a conference I attended in early November. Perhaps it was the narrowed focus of The Alpine Stewardship Conference, sponsored by The Waterman Fund and hosted by Maine’s Baxter State Park, but there, in the company of 100 alpine-enthused others, I heard and felt hope, even as I also learned more about the fraught future of the northeast’s rare alpine zones. I’ve spent a lifetime in the northeast’s mountains, and so neither the zones nor their stresses were new to me. What was new were some of the visions and stories I heard. That the conference and its stories took place within easy eyeshot of Katahdin, or, to reverse the image, under Katahdin’s gaze, gave them added resonance for someone whose idea of a travelogue is Thoreau’s The Maine Woods.
That those woods and their preeminent peak are recognizable to Thoreau’s readers these 170 or so years after his first foray to Maine is my first good story. Yes, the woods have been cut more than once, and land ownership and corporate wobbles (leave aside, for now, climate change) threaten this huge area, but it retains a core that keeps it stable and offers hope. That core is Baxter State Park, a 200,000+ acre gift from former Maine governor Percival Baxter, offered over more than 30, mid-20th-century years and guided by a trust’s charter that, to me, is enlightened and inspired: “The park is to be preserved in its wild state as unspoiled wilderness…” That Park management is carried out by leadership that seems equally inspired is simply good news for anyone who likes a foot-won wild.
Baxter’s long story requires (and has gotten) more than one book’s length. Here’s a facet that lifts me: the huge, mountainous park is there for public recreation – Baxter wanted the people of Maine (and elsewhere) to be able to enjoy these lands. But another value informs our use (and our access), and that is the value of wilderness. The public is invited, but our use must not compromise the wildness of the park. It is “to be preserved in its wild state.” And so, we are limited – in our numbers, in our uses, in short, in our tendencies to overdo. Sure that creates a need for reservations and some gnashing of tourist teeth, (not to mention a thorough gumming by some libertarians), but it also creates a wilderness experience unmatched in our region.
Already, I stray to the limits of posting, and so I’ll close here, with a promise to return to some of these alpine uplands – the northeast holds a counted eleven – and some of their little stories – animals, plants…ants! – in later posts. Meanwhile here’s to the trust of Percival Baxter, to his current trustees and their staff and friends. And to looking up…and little hopes.
Here are three links for a deeper (or loftier) look:
Baxter State Park: http://www.baxterstateparkauthority.com/
Friends of Baxter State Park: www.friendsofbaxter.org
The Waterman Fund: http://www.watermanfund.org/
By Corinne H. Smith
Nature will bear the closest inspection; she invites us to lay our eye level with the smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain. ~ Thoreau, “Natural History of Massachusetts”
It’s still leaf-raking season out here in the suburbs. Every two weeks, the township truck comes through and inhales all of the leafy street-side hills we have carefully assembled. It’s magic. When we come home from the day’s work, the leaves are gone. The neighborhood is neat and clean again. Our bounty is on its way to the next county, where it will become compost. And yet: when you look at what’s still hanging in our trees, you know that this is a cycle that will need to be repeated. Over and over again.
I am a classic procrastinator. So I spent one recent chilly Sunday outside with my trusty hand-held rake, scraping furiously at the lawn to give up its colorful, curling, crumbling bits. No whiny, fossil-fuel-gobbling blower for me. No whirling dervishes of tornadic leaves. The Monday truck visit loomed large on the calendar, and I needed to put in some sweat equity. I couldn’t even SEE the grass, for all of the leaves — oak, sweet gum, Japanese maple, and several unknown others. And these were only from the trees in my own yard. Yellow litter from some sizable sugar maples rushed in from other spots up the street.
I worked around the football game broadcasts of the day. (I do have my priorities, after all.) And I sacrificed most of a late afternoon game to get back to the more-demanding task outside. Rake, rake, rake. Build those piles. As soon as the sun dropped below the horizon line, though, the air got downright arctic. I had to pull up my jacket zipper. Soon I had to turn on the outside lights to see what I was doing. I can tell you that there’s something quite tactile and sensory in the act of raking leaves in the dark.
But before the darkness descended, I made a new discovery. Naturally as you rake, you pay close attention to the ground in front of you. Your goal is to see the grass, the ground, or the sidewalk again. You watch for these familiar sights. Well, as I was cleaning off one corner of the front yard, I was pleased to see it becoming all green again. Except that it wasn’t entirely green. Suddenly I saw several little yellow flowers that I had never seen before. In November?
This part of the lawn is made up mostly of violets, clover, and wild strawberries. I’m used to seeing little purple flowers, white flowers, and tiny red berries here in the spring and summer. This yellow one was something new. I dropped the rake and knelt down to take a closer look. I hardly took an “insect view” of the plain. I’d say it was more like one of a rabbit or a groundhog. But I got close enough to know that this plant was new to me. It had clover-like leaves, but not a clover-like flower. And it was vine-like, in its own tiny way. I pulled out a sample, took it inside, and put it in water to keep it fresh. Then I came back to the raking — now, with a fresh eye for what could be hiding beneath the leaves.
Later, as I watched the Sunday evening football game on TV – because again, I do have my priorities – I brought out all of my nature guidebooks. I wanted to identify this new yellow flower. But my favorite books let me down. All of them pointed instead to yellow wood sorrel, known as oxalis. I knew this plant. It had brighter and flatter green leaves, and it grew in a clump. It was even edible. No, I knew this new one was different.
Finally I picked up a guidebook I rarely use. I turned to the oxalis page, almost in futility. I hoped a picture nearby would match my sample. And there it was: CREEPING wood sorrel! “A creeping plant with smaller flowers and leaves than the preceding. … Usually found as a weed around greenhouses.” Well, mine grew next to the driveway. I’m glad to meet you and know you, creeping wood sorrel. I won’t soon forget you.
This week a brisk wind blew through the neighborhood, and once again I must rake in time to meet the Monday township truck. I wonder what new discovery I’ll make in this go-round? Surely, I’ll be giving the uncovered ground “the closest inspection.”
I awaken this morning with the same deep sadness I felt as I went to sleep; I feel as if I have been hollowed out. The murders in Paris, apparently by zealots with automatic weapons, exceed the horizon of my understanding. Trickling into the hollow they have left is numbness that tends toward astonishment. I feel stony now in this aftermath.
As a reaching across emptiness, I go back to the streets I’ve walked many times, to the garden where I like to sit. I admire the French for their capacity to create space, and light in that space, for their ideal of sharing that space, for their attempts to share that ideal even as they (like me, like we) are flawed. Here then, in sympathy and solidarity, is a short walk and sit, along those streets, in that garden.
“At present, these burning bushes stand chiefly along the edge of the meadows…They take you by surprise, as you are going by on one side, across the fields…” Thoreau, Autumnal Tints
A spate of frosts and winds and rains have brought down most of the oak leaves, which, even before those comings, had given up their fire for the muted season’s brown hues. In the woods the understory-evergreens are decked out in these browns; they wear them as epaulets, caps, sometimes cloaks. And yesterday, I saw a gray squirrel bearing a whole mouthful of them up tree. The bunched leaves were much bigger than his head, and, at first, I thought I’d come upon a deranged squirrel – did he really think he could re-leave the tree, turn back the season? Or, perhaps, conjure acorns from oak leaves? But then reason displaced fancy’s O, and I figured that he was really lining his winter quarters, going through the season’s checklist like any winter-wary citizen.
On the fringe of a field around a small interloping tree, I saw a mat of deep maroon speckled with what seemed, as I drew closer, to be leaf-ghosts. There, at intervals, lay outlines of the palest white. They looked like little crime-scenes chalked on a dark backdrop; once, they seemed to say, there was a leaf here.
I bent down and reached for a ghost. A little to my surprise, it came away in my hand, and when I turned it around, there was the same maroon I’d seen first, the day’s deepest color.
I carried two away to check my tree book and see if my guess – red maple – was right. And I wanted a photo of the ghost-side, which still seemed impossibly white, the white of absence itself. Or the brightest fire.
Locked Out of … or Locked In to Routine
By Corinne H. Smith
I walked out the back door and closed it tightly behind me. Then I looked at what I had in my hands. My wallet, my pen, and my notebook. Something was missing. My hat, first of all. Anyone who knows me can attest that I always wear a cap when I go outside. This was distressing enough. But my ring of keys was missing, too. My keys! Uh-oh. I had just locked myself out of the house.
It was 7:30 a.m. I had already planned my morning. I would eat breakfast at my favorite local diner, which was a drive of about one suburban mile east. It would be good to listen to the usual background banter between the head waitress and other customers I knew. I could spend a leisurely hour there and do some creative writing at the same time. Then I would drive about two miles west to get to my 9-to-5 job. I would stop at a convenience store along the way to buy something for lunch or for a mid-day snack.
But now – no keys. No way to drive anywhere. I checked the back door of the house, and it was shut tight. Pushing and shoving it didn’t help. I walked to the front door, and it was sealed too. No windows were open, not even a smidgeon. I circled around to try the window above the kitchen sink. Nope, I couldn’t open it from the outside, either. My cat jumped up on the counter and meowed at me from the other side of the glass. She looked as if she wanted to help. Too bad she didn’t have the wrist-action necessary to turn the 1950s-era crank. What now?
I knew of only two duplicate keys. One was in the hands of a friend who lived about six miles away. The other one belonged to the landlords, who lived about four miles further. I don’t carry a cell phone, and I hadn’t memorized the numbers for the key holders. At least I had money and my I.D. with me. I could take the bus to the friend’s house. But he had a lot of commitments these days, and there were no guarantees he would be home, even at this early hour. I decided instead to just start walking the one direct mile toward my workplace. I could call and e-mail both my friend and the landlords from there, after looking up their numbers online. And I could eat at another diner along the way. After all, this self-anger and mild distress was making me hungry. Off I walked.
I wasn’t fuming too much about my situation, but I was far from calm. In the grand scheme of the whole world, I knew being locked out of the house wasn’t as serious a problem as those that other people were facing today. This one was solvable. Still, I found myself charging down the street while thinking, thinking, thinking, to the quick beat of my heart and my feet. I had marched several blocks before I stopped myself. What was I doing? In answer, I heard, as I often do, from Henry Thoreau:
“I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. … It sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is – I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” ~ “Walking”
The Universe had granted me the chance to walk more than 20 blocks on a perfectly nice and unseasonably warm day in early November. I should make the most of this opportunity. My house key issue would surely be resolved before noon. I had no need to gnaw on this bone. So, deliberately, I put it aside and enjoyed the rest of my walk. I said hello to people and dogs sitting on their porches. I caught sight of small homes and businesses I had never noticed before. I ate breakfast at a diner that I don’t normally patronize, and I got to hear all kinds of interesting talk going on around me. I filled up a page in my notebook. I made it to work a little after 9 a.m., completely unscathed and in a far better mood than I had been in an hour earlier. Then I spent most of the next eight hours typing into a computer database, searching online for additional information, and putting things away. Locked into my usual routine, as it were. But by choice.
“When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and the shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them – as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon – I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.” ~ Thoreau, “Walking”
I contacted the landlords. One of them took a duplicate key to the house at lunchtime. He hid it in a place we had agreed upon. I could keep it as an extra so that this problem wouldn’t happen again. Life was good.
At closing time, one of my co-workers offered me a ride home; I politely turned her down. I thought I deserved another long walk – this time, in the growing dusk. And I took a slightly different route home, remembering Thoreau’s fondness for following circular routes in order to see continually differing landscapes. Now, aromas wafted out from the homes and businesses. Someone was cooking hot dogs. Someone else was doing laundry. The air above the sidewalk was briefly sweet with the lingering waves of the cologne of a passerby who nodded. I have to admit, though, that it felt strange not to have the weight of the keys in my hand or in my pocket. I felt lighter, but slightly off-kilter at the same time. (I’ll leave further analysis of the weight of the keys to you, dear readers.) And still, I said hello to people on porches who were doing last bits of business in the fading light.
“Warm, huh?” I said to a man who’d just moved his garbage bin to the side of a house.
“Yeah, it’s really weird for November, hain’t it?”
He opened a front door as I continued on my way. To an unseen person, he yelled, “Hey, step outside here once.”
Yes, I thought as I kept on walking. Please step out. Breathe the air. Walk into the dusk. Had that person been locked in all day, too?
Full dark had descended by the time I reached the house. The shiny key was waiting in its hiding place. I unlocked the door, walked inside, and greeted the two cats, who immediately demanded to be fed. To them, it had just been another day. To me, it had been something special. Something I should do more often, and more deliberately. I just needed a nudge from the Universe to do it.
Not so long ago the full moon drew one of our largest tidal swings through the nearby bay. Nearly 12 feet of water coursed in and out, and I went down to have a look. What I found was a journal of change. Its lines were written with light and water and feet; and, as I looked more closely ice too. Such a journal put me in mind of Henry Thoreau and his journals of change.
The whole bay on which I float often was mud to the horizon, and dotted here and there were clammers, who, during this tide, had a chance to dig in beds that are usually submerged. A lot had opened up, even as the season feels devoted to closing inward.
Here are some visual notes from the day, with brief interpretations beneath. You may, of course, read them differently, see different stories. Let us know what you see.
The following is Lucille Stott’s original letter to the editor, an edited version of which was published in this week’s New Yorker, the 11/9/15 issue. Lucille is a charter board member emerita and former president of The Thoreau Farm Trust.
“In attempting to offer a provocative rereading of Henry David Thoreau’s life and work, Kathryn Schulz has instead succumbed to hackneyed stereotypes and common wisdom. A closer, more sensitive reading reveals a complex man deeply connected to family and community; an eccentric, to be sure, but a passionate man of genius, without doubt.
One of the lesser-known realities of Thoreau’s life was his warm relationship with the children of Concord, who gathered around him in his prime and brought him gifts on his deathbed. Edward Emerson, the son of Ralph Waldo, became concerned by the misconceptions that surrounded his friend, the kind that Schulz perpetuates in her unfortunately titled essay. He might have been writing directly to her when, in his 1917 book, Henry Thoreau: As Remembered by a Young Friend, he calls Henry “the best kind of an older brother.”
Emerson says he felt compelled to write about Thoreau “because I was troubled at the want of knowledge and understanding, both in Concord and among his readers at large, not only of his character, but of the events of his life—which he did not tell to everybody–and by the false impressions given by accredited writers who really knew him hardly at all. When I undertook to defend my friend, I saw that I must at once improve my advantage of being acquainted, as a country doctor, with many persons who would never put pen to a line, but knew much about him — humble persons whom the literary men would never find out, like those who helped in the pencil mill, or in a survey, or families whom he came to know well and value in his walking over every square rod of Concord, or one of the brave and humane managers of the Underground Railroad, of which Thoreau was an operative. Also I had the good fortune to meet or correspond with six of the pupils of Thoreau and his brother John, all of whom bore witness to the very remarkable and interesting character of the teachers and their school…. I wish to show that Thoreau, though brusque on occasions, was refined, courteous, kind and humane; that he had a religion and lived up to it.”
Schulz has done us something of a service, I suppose, in demonstrating that the transitory buzz of “gotcha” criticism can never erode the lasting pleasure and value of deep, contextual reading.”
Here’s the link to all 5 of the letters to the editor; Lucille’s letter is the 5th: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/11/09/the-mail-from-the-november-9-2015-issue
For me, it’s that month: even as many of us have grudgingly pushed the hour hand back a notch and adopted a hunch-shouldered shuffle to get across the icy months, I find November the month of transcendent light. True, that’s often a tough sell, but let me explain, in words, and also with some photos of remembered Novembers.
Just yesterday, when the whole region seemed afflicted by the form of jet lag that is the time change, I went out into the gathering dusk of 4:00 p.m. A lid of stratus had slid over the low sun, and only the rusty oaks held still their leaves. The few dog walkers I met had indeed pulled in their necks like retreating turtles, even as their dogs knew the real story: they were bounding about open mouthed, sniffing the day’s many messages. But we’ll leave the dogs for another story.
As seems to happen often at this time of year, the clouds had left a low slot of open sky on the southwestern horizon, and when the sun slipped into that slot, the light rushed through it and across the fields, finding there a fringe of oaks. The oaks, all muted russets and yellows, lit suddenly like flares; their light flew up into the sky and back into our eyes.
A few yards away, I heard one dogwalker say, “Whoa! Look at that!” And the canid tribe broke into general exclamation. And their necks stretched out from their upturned collars.
So it is in this season of clear light, which hurries through the thin-branched woods and catches every scrap of color that hangs on or floats in the wind. Its short days emphasize the need to go out, to extend yourself.
Thoreau, of course, was often out in November, sampling its light, stretching its days.
By Corinne H. Smith
“In the Lee farm swamp by the old Sam Barrett mill site, I see two kinds of ferns still green and much in fruit. … To my eyes they are tall and noble as palm groves, and always some forest nobleness seems to have its haunt under their umbrage. Each such green tuft of ferns is a grove where some nobility dwells and walks. All that was immortal in the swamp’s herbage seems here crowded into smaller compass, — the concentrated greenness of the swamp. How dear they must be to the chickadee and the rabbit!” ~ Thoreau’s Journal, October 31, 1857
I like ferns. I think they invite good vibes and happiness. You can’t stay in a bad mood when you look at a fern. So when a pair of beautiful specimens started growing in the shade of the north side of the house last year, I was pleased. They stayed green and leafy for the entire summer. And they grew. And they grew some more. By the time fall arrived, the ferns reached the windows. I could look out and admire them from my very own bathroom. I marveled at how tall they’d gotten. Sometimes I got the urge to cut one of them down, grab it by its thick woody stem, hold it high, and wave it back and forth as I paraded around the neighborhood. But that would have meant the sad end of it afterward, too. So I let the ferns alone. And what about their woody stems? I should have considered them an important clue.
My ferns lost their fronds in winter. They looked like twin palms standing naked in the snow. I noticed that a third and smaller one stood nearby, too. I worried about their survival. I shouldn’t have. Spring brought them all back again. This time, they had fewer fronds along the bottoms of their trunks and more at the tops. And they began to grow even taller.
When several people came by to help me with lawn clean-up, my first piece of advice was to let the big ferns alone. Don’t cut them down, I said. The workers looked puzzled. I knew they would understand as soon as they walked behind the house and saw the fronds. And they did. No ferns were harmed in the taming of the yard. And still they grew.
Scientists tell us that ferns were once the main and largest plants on the planet. Their growth, death, and decay contributed to the formation of coal deposits during the Carboniferous era. One source I found said that their fronds were “clustered at the top of a treelike trunk, sometimes 30 or 40 feet in height, rather than growing directly from the rootstalk.” Well, this described my backyard ferns exactly. And now I was finding smaller versions of them on other parts of the property. Was I growing Ur-Ferns here? Were these individuals part of a species left over from ancient times? If so, how and why had they parked themselves behind my house? Were they going to take over the place?
I found an answer of sorts one day during my early evening neighborhood walk. As I sauntered along the sidewalks, I kept my usual eye out for squirrels, rabbits, and birds. But I noticed some of the greenery, too. Four blocks away from my house, I saw something so powerful that I had to stop. A large tree I had walked past for months suddenly demanded my attention. I could barely believe my eyes. The “leaves” of this tree looked exactly like my beautiful ferns. I stared at them as my brain processed this new information. Evidently my big ferns weren’t ferns at all. They were young trees. They could even be related to this one. What a revelation! My saunter slowed to a thoughtful trudge as I turned around and made my way home.
“It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know. … If you would make acquaintance with the ferns you must forget your botany. You must get rid of what is commonly called knowledge of them.” ~ Thoreau’s Journal, October 4, 1859
I guess I forgot my botany, Henry. Ferns wouldn’t have woody stems. They wouldn’t grow as high as the house. I got out my guidebooks to identify them. It turns out my ferns may instead be mimosa trees. They’re all going to keep growing taller. Soon, I’ll have to pull out the smaller ones popping up behind the shed and along the fence. But the twins behind the bathroom window? I’m going to leave them there. I’m going to assign their fate to a future caretaker of this property. And I’m going to keep enjoying them while I’m here.
And so, after some days chasing language or responding to it, it seems right to go in search of water, especially a brook with its line of expression that shapes slowly what the land will say. Not far from my door, there is such a brook, and, even as the map says that the brook goes, finally, nowhere – it has no marked outlet and seems simply to go back to ground – it is expressive, shaping a little gully that is often rife with tracks. Always the muddy spots show passage of my big-footed brethren, but clearly, deer and foxes and coyotes and skunks and raccoons follow this way of water too. Though the gully is only around 20 feet deep, it has the feel of, it is, a secret little world only a few hundred feet from the trimmed lawns and still-lively gardens of our neighborhood.
On these fall days, it is also a collector of colors, so many that a listing would exhaust both writer and reader; they lie in contrast to the dark mud, and they float in lines or patchy quilts over the thin water, which both catches and reflects. And where the current holds sway, the tan sands show through and the sky reflects on itself. So much visual action that words are chased away, and I wonder, as I often do, at the painters who can catch the glimmerings of such a show; theirs is a talent I admire.
But no more words: here’s news from the gully, a few prints along the way of the day.
I Know, I Know…
I should be moving on, out into the glad day, on to what is immediate and away from the parsings of a small mind. It is, after all, October and the tints in all slants of sun are especially vivid after the season of many greens. Still, the recent piece in the New Yorker rankles, perhaps particularly because I so often respect its writers and their analyses of what’s afoot (or wheeling along) in the world.
So, just one more close look at one more of staff writer Kathryn Schulz’s weak readings, and then, I’ll move on. So.
In mid-essay, Schulz tries to work with her central accusation of hypocrisy by assailing Thoreau’s assessment of the railroad – newly put through in 1844 – that passes not far to the west of his Walden house. She finds Thoreau inconsistent, writing:
Nor was he interested in subjecting his claims to logical scrutiny. And that is the second problem with basing one’s beliefs on personal intuition and direct revelation: it justifies the substitution of anecdote and and authority for evidence and reason. The result, in Walden, is an unnavigable thicket of contradiction and caprice. At one moment, Thoreau fulminates against the railroad, ‘that devilish Iron Horse, whose ear-rending neigh is heard throughout the town’; in the next he claims that he is ‘refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattles past me.’
Here, Schulz chooses a contradiction and then scurries on to another, ignoring the context of the railroad passage in the chapter “Sounds.” That fine passage, pp. 114 – 122 in the Princeton Edition, turns on, resolves its apparent contradiction, by using the conditional mood, a mood that seems to escape the little eyes of Schulz’s notice. On pages 115 and 116, in rapid succession, Thoreau offers 5 “ifs,” conditions under which the project that is the railroad, and, by extension, inventive enterprise, might be “heroic”: “If all were as it seems, and men made the elements their servants for noble ends!”; “If the cloud that hangs over the engine were the perspiration of heroic deeds…then the elements and Nature herself would cheerfully accompany men on their errands and be their escort.”
Yes, Thoreau points out, it is possible to live an inventive life, to conjure trains (or, if we were to consider a modern analog, the Internet), in concert with Nature, IF one aligns one’s purpose and thinking with Nature. No stranger to mechanical aptitude and inventive capability, Thoreau knew that our inventions can be marvels. And, he knew also, we tend to make our inventions joust with Nature rather than fit with it. And we tend to apply them to their lowest purpose, accumulating riches, thereby squandering their potential. Thoreau is “refreshed and expanded” by that inventive potential, by the knowledge that we can win with our capabilities, not by the potential for accumulating capital. But he sees the devil in the uses to which we commonly put our inventions. Positive possibility twinned with clear-eyed criticism, with a good dollop of poetry added – that’s Thoreau’s take on the railroad. Schulz, however, misses that train of thought.
I know; I know…time to go outside, time to see the colors fly in the prismatic forest. Time to listen to the pileated woodpecker laugh; he has the right response.
First a link to this long essay by New Yorker staff writer, Kathryn Schulz: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/10/19/pond-scum?intcid=mod-most-popular
Second a short response: That’s an amazing, it seems willful, misreading of Thoreau’s work. Where to begin? For starters, Schulz ignores Thoreau’s repeated purpose, awakening his neighbors, as opposed to trumpeting his own life. She also opens with a 21st-century awareness of the wreck of a famine ship as a way to cast Thoreau as coldhearted, a cheap writerly trick, I think, in that her opening anecdote is hardly from the core of Thoreau’s life and work. Then there is the tired charge of hypocrisy, even as Schulz tries to breathe new life into it. Here is a paragraph from late in the piece:
“But Thoreau did not live as he described, and no ethical principle is emptier than one that does not apply to its author. The hypocrisy is not that Thoreau aspired to solitude and self-sufficiency but kept going home for cookies and company. That’s just the gap between aspiration and execution, plus the variability in our needs and moods from one moment to the next—eminently human experiences, which, had Thoreau engaged with them, would have made for a far more interesting and useful book. The hypocrisy is that Thoreau lived a complicated life but pretended to live a simple one. Worse, he preached at others to live as he did not, while berating them for their own compromises and complexities.”
But really, did Thoreau claim to live a simple life? He aspired to simplify, to make good choices, but he never claimed that he led a simple life overall. His point that he had “other lives to live” after his Walden “experiment” aims in that direction. Thoreau was endlessly complex, and he knew it. He had a global awareness before it was fashionable to admit such. But he also knew that complexity must be balanced by the drive to simplify, to get at what’s meaningful in a world where we can be buried in drifts of information and yearning.
Just as Schulz accuses those who find wisdom or solace or guidance in Thoreau as cherry-pickers of the phrase, she too quotes liberally out of context. And she would have Walden be straight nonfiction, which it never claims to be, and surely isn’t.
I am in more sympathy with Schulz when it comes to T’s critique of government. We seem to be in the process and in the business of proving that narrow-minded principle and individualism lead to chaos; we’ll see. I’ve been long surprised that our radical right wing has made less use of Thoreau than they might have. Still, even in this area, Thoreau’s primary beef was with slavery, which, as Schulz acknowledges, was and remains our central national stain and shame.
Is the rescue of the world to be found in the individual? Thoreau would have it so; I’m not so sure. Especially when the number of individuals exceeds 7,000,000,000.
I am surprised that a magazine that says it features “the best writing anywhere” would go long with this piece. But provocation seems the name of the game in writing, and so there it is.
So much with which to take issue. So directly counter to what I’ve found as a teacher over long years of rereadings. And so missing in the spirit of joy that overflows from Walden and other writings, even in their sharp criticisms.
By chance I had just picked up Autumnal Tints for an annual rereading, and in his forward, Robert Richardson points to Thoreau’s early and sustained conviction voiced first in the Natural History of Massachusetts: “Surely joy is the condition of life. Think of the young fry that leap in the ponds, the myriads of insects ushered into being on a summer evening, the incessant note of the hyla with the woods ring in the spring, the nonchalance of the butterfly carrying accident and change painted in a thousand hues upon its wings, or the brook minnow stoutly stemming the current, the lustre of whose scales worn bright by attrition is reflected upon the bank.” That seems more in keeping with the writer I’ve read these many years.
Surely, however, Schulz has achieved what Thoreau sought in writing – even on a rainy and sleepy afternoon, she has provoked and awakened.
There are other letters for the child to learn than those which Cadmus invented. The Spaniards have a good term to express this wild and dusky knowledge, — Gramatica parda, tawny grammar, — a kind of motherwit derived from that same leopard to which I have referred. Thoreau, Walking
The old way to Killarney: first there is the music in the name; who wouldn’t want to walk toward Killarney, with its lingering “aaar” sound following the hard opening K? To say that I will spend the day walking to Killarney calls up a little mist of romance from my Gaelic ancestors, albeit Scots-Gaels, who are, the Irish tell me, a different sort of Gael. But in the larger world, a Gael is a Gael, and so a sliver of me feels at home here; that feeling will deepen as I reach the wind-washed, treeless mountainscapes later in the day. This will be a day on “the old way to Killarney,” a stretch of a path now called the Kerry Way, and every “old way” leads back as well as on.
As is true for many ways, to reach a semblance of trail on the Kerry Way, you must leave town. Kenmare, in this case. And after some early bumbling that almost sets me on the way to Sneem, I find the street that aims straight into the hills that rise above Kenmare, climbing through new housing that looks down on the town and then cresting the first ridge to find wire-girt fields with cows or sheep nosing about. Behind that ridge stretches a little valley of farms, and then above, there are the mountains that separate Kenmare from Killarney; my way makes for the mountains.
A few kilometers in, I’ve outwalked the tarmac, but not yet (never to?) the wires. Soon the trees too are gone, and sheep speckle two bony mountains that rise before me. A signpost assures me that I am indeed headed for Killarney; I hum a little made-up tune whose only word is “Killarney.” The aptly-named pass at Windy Gap draws my eye and then my feet, and I go up.
The Kerry Way is a 200+kilometer walkers-loop around the Iveragh Peninsula, which holds also the much more famous auto route, The Ring of Kerry. The Way was only completed in 1989, and as it meanders it also intersects with other walking ways that reflect a quiet surge of long-distance walkers among the myriad, motoring public. Chief among these intersectors is the E-8, which travels from Cork to Istanbul, over 2000 foot-miles away. And so a winding line of connection stretches out before me.
But mostly, I feel I am following the present into the past. The way to Killarney is foot battered, and it is more direct than the twisting, newer road that rises from Kenmare with the same goal. Why the new route doesn’t follow the old seems a mystery, but I am glad to be in foot-country and out of even aural contact with machines. The wind has taken over.
The day’s high point blows in at the pass between two knuckled mountains, Knockanaguish and Peakeen. The long grasses that grow the sheep ripple like water and the air washes and swirls uphill with a liquid roar, turning somersaults over the ledges, then leaving the downhill grasses on the other side untouched. Just as we find voice by pressing air over our vocal chords, so too does the wind as it calls against the grasses and rocks. It is a wild language, what Henry Thoreau calls a “tawny grammar” in his essay Walking. Mere words would fly away on this wind, scatter like bits of confetti; there is no writing this wind. It moves like a leopard. But there is listening as this cat-wind yowls the story of this old land, writes itself on the way to Killarney.
Click on this link to hear the wind, see its passage through the gap: IMG_0719
By Corinne H. Smith
“The mice which haunted my house were not the common ones, which are said to have been introduced into the country, but a wild native kind not found in the village. I sent one to a distinguished naturalist, and it interested him much. When I was building, one of these had its nest underneath the house, and before I had laid the second floor, and swept out the shavings, would come out regularly at lunch time and pick up the crumbs at my feet. It probably had never seen a man before; and it soon became quite familiar, and would run over my shoes and up my clothes. It could readily ascend the sides of the room by short impulses, like a squirrel, which it resembled in its motions. At length, as I leaned with my elbow on the bench one day, it ran up my clothes, and along my sleeve, and round and round the paper which held my dinner, while I kept the latter close, and dodged and played at bo-peep with it; and when at least I held still a piece of cheese between my thumb and finger, it came and nibbled it, sitting in my hand, and afterward cleaned its face and paws, like a fly, and walked away.” ~ “Brute Neighbors,” WALDEN
This week I partnered on a Thoreau-related project with a young fifth-grader named Henry. We met at Thoreau Farm and set up our stuff in the first floor parlor. For one part of our project, I needed some water. So I walked into the tiny kitchenette, found a glass in a cabinet, filled it with water, and took it into the parlor.
After we finished our project, I took the glass back to the kitchen. I dumped the water down the drain, rinsed the glass a bit, and left it in the sink. I hadn’t noticed anything else in the sink when I had first filled the glass. But now I thought I saw something small and dark in there. Perhaps, with a tail. I turned on the overhead light to look again. Sure enough, it was a tiny mouse. It was cowering against the stainless steel side. Had I accidentally dumped water on it? I hoped not. I spoke quietly to it and apologized. Then I went back to find Henry.
“I found something in the kitchen sink, Henry,” I said. “A live mouse.” His eyes got big. “Want to see it?” I asked. He nodded.
We walked into the kitchenette, and he peeked over the edge. “Oh, wow!” He hurried back to the parlor to tell his mother what he had seen. She was not a fan of mice. She shivered and stayed right where she was standing.
“I want to rescue and relocate it,” I said. “Will you help me, Henry?” He agreed. We walked back. I noticed that Henry kept his distance, though. He stayed away from the counter and let me, the grown-up, manage the task at hand. I had decided that putting the mouse outside was an unacceptable solution. Where else could I move it, away from the kitchen? The basement.
I grabbed a paper towel. “Okay, I’m going to grab it somehow, and we’re going to take it down to the basement,” I said. I looked at the mouse, who was still cowering. I didn’t know where it had come from or where its nest was. Naturally, there were spots along the edgework that didn’t quite meet the walls. Maybe the mouse lived under the cabinets. Maybe it had run across the counter in search of crumbs, slipped into the sink, and couldn’t find a toehold on the silvery walls. It had been temporarily trapped. Well, the basement should make a fine home for it, too. “I’m going to pick it up somehow,” I said again.
“Maybe you can put it in the glass to move it,” Henry suggested.
“Good idea. Except that I don’t really want to use that drinking glass. I wonder if we have any paper cups.” I opened a lower door and spied a few. I loosened one from the others. I put it into the sink and pushed the mouse into it with the paper towel. I covered the opening so it couldn’t get out.
“Its tail is sticking out of the cup.”
“That’s okay. Let’s go.” Henry fairly ran to the basement door, turned on the lights, and led the way down the steps. I followed, carrying the covered cup.
“Now. Where should I put it?” The basement is semi-finished. The limestone rocks of the foundation jut out from every side. I guessed it didn’t matter where I put the mouse. It would figure out the best place to go, on its own. So I laid the cup on its side near a central wall. I took the paper towel away and peeked inside. Now it was the mouse who had the big eyes, looking right at me. I wished it well. Henry and I backed up. We watched the cup rock back and forth slightly, as the mouse moved around inside. It would be okay. We didn’t wait for its re-appearance. We trudged back up the steps. Our work for the day was finished, all around.
Well, Mr. Thoreau, we didn’t go the extra mile that you did. We didn’t deliberately feed this mouse and let it run all over our clothes. I guess I did kind of play peek-a-boo with it, though. And we saved it for you and put it in the basement. Now we can confirm that one of your houses is once again enlivened by mice.
“Every man, I think, reads one book in his life, and this one is mine,” E.B. White wrote of “Walden” in a 1953 New Yorker piece. “It is not the best book I ever encountered, perhaps, but it is for me the handiest.”
The other day a Google alert that feeds me regular notice of Thoreau’s appearance in media across the web, offered me a link to a reflective piece that had just appeared on Salon.com. Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey’s pleasureable essay opened at the end of E.B. White’s life and then rolled back through his long attachment to Walden and the many copies White owned, read and gave away, including a 1964 edition (complete with a rain-shedding duraflex cover) to which he wrote the introduction.
The traced arc of White’s connection to Walden made me look back over my own, a mostly pleasant stroll through seasons of learning and teaching, and that, in turn, brought on reflections from over three years of writing for The Roost. How many books and writers could both sustain my interest and provide so many points of thinking and writing departure? Answer: one.
If one accepts White’s proposal, the question follows: how do you know when you’ve picked up and read your life-book? For me the answer arrived slowly. My first reading of Walden was hardly a reading at all. Assigned the book in a high school English class, I turned dutifully to it on evening one and fell promptly asleep. The pattern continued through the three weeks we considered sections of the book, and there was also an alarming transference to class time, where my chronic head-bobbing intensified, lowering my teacher’s already low estimation of me. I missed entirely Thoreau’s discontent with the sort of schooling I was sleeping through, and I missed his affection for the outdoor world where I felt truly animated. I did benefit from the cautionary message of this sleepy passage years later when I began to teach Walden, but my first meeting with Henry Thoreau was akin to passing someone of the street.
Jump to college and a reading with a touch more adhesive. I got – mostly by listening to lectures – some of Thoreau’s central critique of his (and, by extension, my) world, and I noted that the place he went for insight and wisdom was like mine, wooded and hilly. All good, but not exactly a scrivmance.
Then there was the long, oblique approach to my life’s work, teaching. By the time I landed in an English Department some 20 years along, I knew quite a bit about teaching and writing and a lot about being outside, but I’d not returned to Walden, though as a journal editor, I’d received any number of pieces to which it was important. Then, a year or two into my English career, my department chair said, “So here we are in Concord, and, since Phil retired, no one’s been teaching Walden. You spend too much time in the woods. How about you?”
Of such questions long affection is born. I arrived at my life-book late, much later, for instance than White did, but, after 25 years of readings, teachings, and any number of epiphanies, major and minor, I’m still turning its pages, still awake to its possibilities. I keep Walden handy.
Henry Thoreau and Pope Francis
By Corinne H. Smith
“To Philadelphia. 7 A. M., to Boston, 9 A. M. to New York, by express train, land route. … Arrive at 10 P. M.; time, four hours from New York, thirteen from Boston, fifteen from Concord. … [The next day I] Looked from the cupola of the State-House, where the Declaration of Independence was declared. The best view of the city I got.”
No, these words weren’t written by Pope Francis during his visit to Philadelphia. They’re from Henry David Thoreau’s journal from November 1854. Our favorite transcendentalist had made the journey south by train to the City of Brotherly Love in order to deliver a lecture at the Spring Garden Institute. It was the only time he visited the place, and it was the farthest south he would ever travel.
Most likely, you have seen some of the footage from Pope Francis’s time in Philadelphia. He was a busy man. Among other activities, the Pope gave a speech in front of Independence Hall. He attended the World Family conference. He rode along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway several times. He attended an evening concert and conducted a mass on a special stage set up in front of the Museum of Art. Thousands upon thousands of people came from around the world to catch a glimpse of him, to be blessed by him, and to eagerly listen to his messages. Many more watched him on live broadcasts from home.
By comparison: Henry Thoreau was hardly famous when he was here. He had just published his second book, “Walden; or, Life in Woods.” But instead of talking up his time at the pond to his Tuesday-night audience, Henry had decided to give the lecture he called “The Wild.” Eventually it would become the second half of his essay, “Walking.” It now includes two of the most quoted Thoreau sentences we know today: “In Wildness is the preservation of the World;” and “In short, all good things are wild and free.”
Thoreau reached Philadelphia on Monday night. He had all of Tuesday to tour the city. Thanks to his escort — Emerson friend and local Unitarian minister William Furness — he hit some high spots. Literally. Mountain-lover Thoreau climbed eight stories to reach the top of the cupola of Independence Hall and to get a higher view of downtown. He also climbed the hill behind the Fairmount Waterworks along the Schuylkill River, in order to see the city from its western edge. Then he and Furness spent time examining the exhibits at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Thoreau was amused to see that the moose on display in Philadelphia was not as large as the one he had seen in Maine the year before.
By comparison: Pope Francis spoke to thousands of people – not only in front of Independence Hall; but also in front of the Museum of Art, which now stands upon that hill next to the Fairmount waterworks. When he rode along the parkway in the Pope-mobile, he passed right by the Academy of Natural Sciences. The museum is in a different building and in a different part of the city than it was in 1854. But it still has a moose on display. It turns out that Pope Francis and Henry Thoreau stopped in some of the same places and followed some of the same routes across the city, 161 years apart.
Alas! According to our best information, Henry Thoreau’s lecture was barely noticed by Philadelphians. No review of it appeared in the newspapers. Even Reverend Furness hadn’t been able to attend it. Furness wrote to Emerson that from what one of his parishioners had said, it sounded as if “the audience was stupid & did not appreciate him.” A scholar in the 1960s was only slightly more polite when he summed up his research on Thoreau’s trip this way: “It is hard to escape the conclusion that his impact on Philadelphia was even less than a soft thud.” (Charles Boewe, “Thoreau’s 1854 Lecture in Philadelphia,” English Language Notes, December 1964.) Henry Thoreau’s message of the importance of having wild areas to explore must have fallen on few and deaf ears.
By comparison: In 2015, it’s good to see that SOMEONE has delivered a series of successful speeches in Philadelphia, and to a massive and receptive audience, at that. And on this American trip, Pope Francis continued to repeat his concerns about saving the environment. What do you know? Perhaps “The Wild” is finally Landing with a loud thud here.
Corinne H. Smith will be speaking on “Henry David Thoreau: From Concord to Philadelphia … and to Us Today,” at the Philips Autograph Library, West Chester University, West Chester, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, October 17, 2015, from 10 a.m. to noon. For more information, see http://wcuhealthsciences.ticketleap.com/henry-david-thoreau-from-concord-to-philadelphia/.
The entrance to the National Library of Ireland looks out over an attractive courtyard that fronts the parliament building. Once inside the library, a quick right turn takes you through a hallway of Joyce photos with a short bio that notes Joyce’s early aspiration as a singer and then down a flight of stairs for a visit with William Butler Yeats. Having long admired Yeats’ poetry, I was eager to get there. As I descended, I heard a voice that sounded like creaky furniture: ” I will arise and go now…” And my mind filled in the next words – and go to Innisfree. The rhythm set up in my head, and I mouthed the words as the old, rough-jointed voice read on. That must be Yeats himself, I thought, and it was. The poem ended, and for the next reading a famous Irish actor took over, sailing me to Byzantium.
Well that was a worthy beginning, I thought, and then I began to nose into the corners of this permanent exhibit, looking over notebooks and letters and manuscripts, with their fascinating cross outs and emendations. Not far in, my eye was drawn by an opened volume with a familiar word on its title page – Walden, it said. And there was Yeats’ personal copy of Walden, with a note beside it pointing to the book as inspiration for The Lake Isle of Innisfree. I read the poem again. Of course…there in its early lines is the cabin that the poet will build, and, a little later, the rows of beans that he will sow. And there, as solace when the poet returns to the gray world of the village, is the memory of the isle, the lake, the “bee-loud glade” to which he can return if he chooses.
It’s an early poem in Yeats’ work, and much greater poems followed, among them the always prescient Second Coming, but the need to step away, if only for a while, resonates for the young Yeats, and for many of us. Often, I think, we read our poets with the same hope.
“To come down to my own experience, my companion and I, for I sometimes have a companion, take pleasure in fancying ourselves knights of a new, or rather an old, order, — not Equestrians or Chevaliers, not Ritters or Riders, but Walkers, a still more ancient and honorable class, I trust. The chivalric and heroic spirit which once belonged to the Rider seems now to reside in , or perchance to have subsided into, the Walker, — not the Knight, but Walker Errant. He is a sort of fourth estate, outside of Church and State and People.” Thoreau, Walking
These familiar words lead us into Thoreau’s famous essay, continuing a run of hyperbole designed, I think, to alert us to the possibilities in the pedestrian, and also in the local. Two feet and a bit of “fancy” are all it takes to slip from the usual into the mythic. Again and again, I’ve found that to be true, as recently as yesterday, when September’s angled light, a windless warmth and the drowsy insect-hum of late afternoon transformed our local woods into another land from which I emerged dazzled at walk’s end.
Today, however, we do leave for another land, traveling for the first time to Ireland, surely a place of mist and myth. How will we make our way there? Thoreau’s essay seems the right guide, supplementing some of our research reading in usual guidebooks with guidance for our spirits. In fact I know of few better ways to find the local particulars of a place, the moments and markets that become memories, than to visit as a Walker Errant.
Both parts of my new/old title count, I think. The foot by foot parsing of way and place bring us to each new sight and corner at the pace of perception. And, as we learn and relearn over time, just as losing our ways can make can make the local foreign, it can also make the foreign familiar.
Travel note: with luck, I’ll be able to check in on The Roost and post an Irish thought or three from time to time. But, if errant wanderings or links prevent that, I’ll look forward to rejoining you in a few weeks.
On September 13th in 1853, Thoreau set out from Boston Harbor on his second trip to Maine. “It was a warm and still night,” wrote Thoreau, “and the sea was as smooth as a small lake in summer, merely rippled.” A little later, he noted about the view from the sea, “We behold those features which the discoverers saw, apparently unchanged.”
This September’s early weeks seem also to be “merely rippled,” the sort of season that invites one out on the water. The summer crowds have dispersed, and as you float in solitude, or paddle languidly, “those features which the discoverers saw” are “apparently unchanged.”
Two Times to the Sea
September 8th: It is warm, and the day is suffused with a late summer, insect-hum; such days suggest pause, equipause, we might call it, in honor of the oncoming equinox.
I come in to Ragged Island from the west on mildly-ruffled water with a light north wind opposing the incoming tide, and I ride on today’s little sea-breathing, the swell that swells only to a few feet and then falls. The stubby rock arms of the coves reach a few meters into the sea, and, on a calm day – this one – they create little protected inlets, where the seaweed sways with the inflow and the tidal rocks draw breath with each outflow.
On either side of me, there’s the emerald backside to shoaling water with its inset of opal-white as swells arrive and lift themselves on the ledges’ backs.
Today’s tide – very high, an 11-foot one – lands me on the sea-grass fringe of the northwest side, where the small beach features a huge drift-log – say 20 inches in diameter – perfect for sitting. I notice that the long arm of rock that reaches west at beach’s edge has a 5-runged, wooden ladder perched atop a broken-off boulder; I don’t wade to it and climb, but perhaps I should have. Ladders have their lure; they go up, the direction of life. But on this day, I’m content with sea-level surveying.
Amid the sea rubble, the remains of a duck, its wingbone disappearing into the mass of feathers still intact, the meat all gone – fly until you’re food.
Sitting on my beach-log and looking over all the little, ground-down pieces of the beach, piled a little deeper at the tideline – wash and grind, wash and grind.
On all sides of this island, the rocks are water-battered and rubbed smooth up to heights of 20 feet; it is talk of towering waves.
Later, I read that a California exercise physiologist (who among other projects, has measured the Vo2 Max of mountain lions) has measured big wave surfers’ heart rates (HRs) and found that they stayed at an astounding 180+ throughout a 3-hour stint of surfing (this at the legendary Mavericks break). Even sitting on the beach looking out at the break, their HRs soared. This makes me wonder what my HR is while paddling, even contemplatively. Probably there is some rising graph that tracks with the liveness of the water I’m riding (or watching). It makes me think back to the wave-battered stones on the island; I feel my pulse jump…a bit.
September 15th: a paddle to and from Little Whaleboat Island. Sightings: 4 loons, and they were either molting or first-year loons; clearly loons, but without the distinctive patterning of neck and breast; also, the water where they were hanging about was rife with little loon feathers. As in years past, they were in the indent of water between Lower and Upper Goose islands. I floated with them and “vocalized,” even getting single note answer from one, though “answer” is too strong a word.
Today, a pleasing mix of quiet and ruffled water: in the lee of the Gooses, and, later, out by Little Whaleboat, the water was nearly calm, with a light brush of west wind. On the way out, between Upper Goose and Mere Pt., the water was bumpy, with tide running out and wind amplifying it a bit from the west. Then, the early crossing to L. Whaleboat was choppy, again with wind running 90 degrees off of tide. A mix of waves from west and southwest, but at a foot+ simply enjoyable.
At all the usual pullouts, there’s empty sand and strand; the flattened grass at the “secret” campsite on the south end of Little Whaleboat is starting to rise; the Goslings have gone quiet, as has the anchorage in their shelter.
One butterfly making its way southwest across the reach of water, making perhaps a knot better than I am. Such stamina. A few seals, curious periscopes. Perhaps the last week for the ospreys, who still keen at my approach, even as their nests are long empty; they hang in the air facing the southwest – perhaps they too feel migration’s call.
Last note: The 60-year-old apple tree I’ve watched for years on my favorite islet is, as this spring announced, truly defunct; already, it is weathering to sea-grayed wood. I looked for shoots of offspring, but the miracle of apple islet doesn’t seem set to repeat itself. The islet reverts from eden to the primrose-lined usual, its “features which the discoverers saw, apparently unchanged.”
Added note: what didn’t happen to me: video of a breaching whale and kayak-folk from the BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-3399
…I frequently had to look up at the opening between the trees above the path in order to learn my route, and, where there was no cart-path, to feel with my feet the faint track which I had worn or steer by the known relation of particular trees which I felt with my hands, passing between two pines for instance, not more than eighteen inches apart, in the midst of the woods, invariably, in the darkest night. Thoreau, Walden
It’s evening, and we’ve gone inside. The day’s colors are damped down; the visual world shows in soft tones tending toward gray. I sit in a pool of lamplight and open a book, reach over and crank the window once to admit a trickle of coolish air and the woods-smell from the pines. The scented air slips in, and with it comes night’s announcement from our resident tree frogs: “TTHHRRRRIILLING,” they seem to trill. “TTHHRRRIILLING!”
The frogs’ call doesn’t exactly invite you out, but it wonders; so now do I. I tend to tuck my days in at dusk, favoring the armchair to the evening amble, favoring, as do many, the light to the dark. There are, of course, reasons for this, among them, post-dinner torpor, accumulated fatigue, and, at times, the bright, visual fire of the screen.
Recently, in high daylight, a fox ran through the yard; it appeared from beneath the rhododendrons and made a linear track across the grass, disappearing by the corner of the garage. I got a good look: this fox was a scruffy affair, with clots of fur hanging off a too-thin body in this season of plenty. His appearance, physical and temporal, suggested some sickness. Foxes are crepuscular in habit, night creatures really, when they are suggestions of motion bearing teeth amid shadows. What was night doing out in the light?
Neighbors immediately thought, disease, and they were probably right; I began to think about daytime visits from visions of the night, and then about my own visits with the night, times when the usual became strange and new, and I was awake to it.
As companion in this wondering, I had also my visits to a local exhibition at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Night Visions (ongoing until October 18th) is an inspired idea and collection that looks at American paintings at and of night from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, the time of transition from old-style darkness to our illuminated contest with night.
A walk through the exhibition is a walk back into another kind of darkness and then back into our own attempts to light the night. Both are, as the tree frogs remind me, “TTHHRRRRIILLING”; they reminded me also of Thoreau’s meditation on walking at night, which deepens to praise of getting lost, as a way awakening and being, finally, found in his Walden chapter, The Village (see passage at this post’s outset). Notably, I think, this meditation also immediately precedes his story of being jailed for nonpayment of taxes – another awakening venture into a form of darkness.
When you adopt a mind of night as you read, you may find that there’s also a fair amount of night-wandering and night-musing in and at Walden. In pursuit of being awake, Thoreau did not confine himself to the day.
And even now, Walden night-swimmers walk in from the west side woods to the little coves near the railroad tracks…not that I have ever done so…to make their acquaintance with the night.
Here’s a link to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s exhibition:http://www.bowdoin.edu/art-museum/exhibitions/2015/nv/
Thoreau’s Journal, September 8th, 1846:
Hard bread—& pork getting short—go up—Mount
Cranberries and blue berries clouds—wind—-rain rocks
September 5th, 2015: A day on Moosilauke.
Cool morning trail, slanting sun, temperature about 50 – Asquam Ridge Trail
I begin along the Baker River, which flows out from Jobildunc Ravine, for an early mile; then, the trail slants away above itself, above the river, whose sound fades as if the dry end of summer has toweled up its last flow. And I am climbing across the slope’s grain, rising easily toward the next angled switch; and so I trace giant Zs into the ridge until I reach its crest, where the trees are smaller and the moss lies thick on the old stones. In one rare mud patch, the gouge of a moose-print, the grains of dirt still moist and fine, the moose just there, no longer here.
Jim is one of those mountains that isn’t. At least that’s true for “listers,” those who like to measure accomplishments one after the other. To make NH’s official 4000-footer list, a mountain must rise 200 or more feet from the col that links it to a higher, neighboring peak. Jim, despite a sizable drop on its west ridge, which joins it to the mass of Moosilauke, falls just short. And so Jim gets overlooked, but he is a fine mountain…or nice bump on the ridge…with a short boreal forest thick with moss and pronounced sense of summit.
From Jim I go to Blue, which truly is a ridgy knuckle and not a faux-peak. Though Blue too has its merits, chief of which is an outlook into the seldom traveled, marbles-in-mouth Jobildunc Ravine; there the Baker River wells from the ground before heading for its union with the Pemigewasset miles to the south.
The approach to Blue also brings me to the Appalachian Trail, or AT, and its iconic white paint blazes; whenever I step onto the AT, I feel the slight buzz of its long strand of connection. Some 1800 miles to the south is Springer Mountain; 300+ to the north is Henry Thoreau’s and Percival Baxter’s Ktaadn. The trail, called the Beaver Brook in this section, is battered as famous ways often are. Where the path on Jim was needle- and moss-softened, the Beaver Brook is hardened dirt and scuffed or pole-scarred stone. For a quarter-mile, where the trail skirts the upper edge of the ravine, it is slow going over great chunks of angled stone, the legos of the recent glacier. Then it is simply a foot-trench up a mild slope to the ice-worn roundness of Moosilauke itself.
Today, the unpeopled Asquam Ridge gives way to the little town that is Moosilauke. It is a warm, late summer day, and it is also first-year orientation for the college that owns this mountain; the top is busy with those who would stretch summer and those who have reached the first moments of this memorable four-year prominence. Dartmouth, for all the feet it brings to Moosilauke, has been a good steward, removing – over time – the shelters that once dotted the summit, lining the trails with scree walls to contain walkers, and providing clear signage to direct the many who would be disoriented. The sedgy grasses grow right up to the scree walls, as do the mountains cranberries in red profusion, and the crowds confine themselves largely to the summit rocks and foundation remnants from the old Victorian summit hotel.
I reach the summit and then walk back north, counting as always cairns. If I ignore the superfluous first cairn right next to the top, it’s five cairns to visit my dad. Eight years ago, we scattered his ashes at this cairn; now whenever I visit, I seat myself on a flat rock facing west, lean back against its cone and talk quietly about whatever life-thoughts I’ve carried up here with me. Today, it’s a usual – the years I’ve walked through and my hope to keep walking toward his 80th and 85th birthdays, both of which we celebrated on this summit. After an irksome, summer run of minor leg injuries, I’ve reached his cairn in 2 1/2 hours, and my legs feel live. “It’s all good,” I murmur, repeating his last words.
The day pivots on this meditative half hour at the cairn; rising to walk again, I breeze by the jumble of rocks and people at the top and on along the old Carriage Road, across a mile of ridge to the South Peak, which is usually less peopled, though today it holds a group of eight 30-somethings, led – it soon becomes apparent – by a linear-talking, earnest hiker who likes the word “scheduled.” They natter on about work; two of them flirt exclusively; their leader gestures at far peaks in a proprietary way. As they rise to leave, a falcon appears, riding a thermal, climbing quickly. I watch the bird, and a few of the group stop and wonder aloud about it. “A falcon, I think,” I say. “They nest over to the west in Oliverian Notch.” Their leader’s “not sure.” And then they leave and quiet washes over this minor summit like a topping tide.
What’s left after lunch on South Peak? The day’s descent, which for the first mile+ faces right into the southern sun. In a word, it’s hot. I opt for gravity-assisted quick-stepping and soon reach the shaded slanting traverse that comes finally to the river down. I reach my car some 5 hours after I set off, noting with a little satisfaction that a lithe twenty-something who set off just before me, and whom I’ve seen cantering along ridges a few times, has just gotten back too. I look back up to the broad ridge where a line of cairns show the way to which I will return.
Post-note: The finest mountain sauntering blog I know is Steve Smith’s – it’s called Mountain Wandering, named after his bookstore, The Mountain Wanderer, in Lincoln NH. Lots of fine photos; quiet, precise writing. Here’s its address:http://mountainwandering.blogspot.com/
Labor Day’s approach joins morning’s slanting light to make me think of work. Centerpiece of many days and visitor to all, work comes in various guises; still, what each of us identifies as her or his real work, what we embrace rather than what we are assigned, can be hard to suss out and even harder to explain.
As a seventeen-year-old, I recall wondering about this question as I wallowed in schoolwork’s many-disciplined demands after a summer of construction work. What would I do for work, eventually, when I left behind the aptly-named homework and summer’s temporary jobs? In the years that followed, I, like many, made my decisions somewhat randomly, and later fell into a form of teaching, which, in time, became my life’s work. It was a work with which I became smitten.
But, throughout a lifetime’s work, the phrase, “real work,” kept appearing with a question mark attached. What was my real work? What should it be? And, as also often happens for me, it took a poet to help this question take fuller shape. Such shape-taking precedes any answer.
Gary Snyder led me into a bar in Texas in pursuit of answer. Snyder, who emerged from the Beat movement and became his own Zen-inflected voice for the wild that Thoreau celebrates in Walking and throughout his other writings, wrote one of the greatest American poems I know, “I Went into the Maverick Bar.” In it a young Snyder, in Farmington, New Mexico to protest despoliation of land and abuse of Indian sovereignty by energy companies, enters a redneck bar, which depends on the very work he’s there to protest. In a quick few lines and images, Snyder limns the curious American admixture of despoiling work and exuberant innocence and remembers his own:
And with the next song,
a couple began to dance.
They held each other like in High School dances
in the fifties;
I recalled when I worked in the woods
and the bars of Madras, Oregon.
That short-haired joy and roughness—
I could almost love you again.
(Note: Try as I might, I cannot get my program to allow proper formatting for this excerpt; apologies. Please follow the link at the end of this piece to read the full poem, properly formatted; it’s worth the click…and more.)
But Snyder resolves that instead of cutting (or mining) a life from the wilderness, he must commit himself to what he calls “the real work” of finding and understanding a home. To do so, he must learn his place (two meanings intended) and relations, or as he put it in an interview with Bill Moyers:
The real work is becoming native in your heart, coming to understand we really live here, that this is really the continent we’re on and that our loyalties are here, to these mountains and rivers, to these plant zones, to these creatures. The real work involves developing a loyalty that goes back before the formation of any nation state, back billions of years and thousands of years into the future. The real work is accepting citizenship in the continent itself.
Snyder’s writing prepared the ground for my later work with Henry Thoreau and the real work he recorded in his journals. Yes, I learned, if ever anyone became “native in [his] heart,” it was Henry Thoreau. His was a daily labor worth celebrating.
And here too, as Labor Day nears, is to your real work, wherever and however you find it.
Links: Here’s a link to Snyder’s poem, I Went into a Maverick Bar: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177249; and here’s a link to his interview with Moyers: http://billmoyers.com/content/here-in-the-mind-daisy-zamora-and-gary-snyder/
In 1846, as summer waned, Henry Thoreau headed north, for his now famous climb of Ktaadn. And as he entered those woods, he found a far wilder world than that of his Concord walks. In a way, Thoreau had gone back in time to an era when large animals populated the woods, an era long vanished in the farm-focus of Concord. Among those animals were bears, seen for their size and power to be fearsome. Now we know black bears as essentially timid animals, even as a few who come to link people with food in backpacks or bird-feeders can become more assertive and garner the label of “problem bears.” We will leave aside that discussion, however, and think only about being in the presence of the large and wild.
As Thoreau worked his way up Ktaadn, he arrived at the belt of black spruce that often defines the highest reach of forest in the north country. These slow-growing, ground-favoring trees can be so thick as to be walked upon (or they can be impenetrable). In this passage from The Maine Woods, Thoreau is atop the trees, looking down:
There was apparently a belt of this kind running quite round the mountain, though, perhaps, nowhere so remarkable as here. Once, slumping through, I looked down ten feet, into a dark and cavernous region, and saw the stem of a spruce, on whose top I stood, as on a mass of coarse basket-work, fully nine inches in diameter at the ground. These holes were bears’ dens, and the bears were even then at home.
This is, atop these trees, a bit of a flight of fancy, because bears don’t generally den at such heights on a mountain, but the point is that Thoreau saw himself in the company of bears. And the mix of treetop-walking in dense spruce and imagined bears made the day exceptional – a few lines later, Thoreau calls it, “certainly the most treacherous and porous country I ever travelled.” Which, given his foot-happy ways, is something.
All of this made me recall one of my own mountainside flights of fancy, when I too found myself in the company of bears
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
At age fourteen I was off in the hills for the day with a friend; there, I encountered my first bear. That he turned out to be imaginary made him no less impressive, perhaps more so.
Brad and I were 9th-grade classmates, and on this late summer day, we were also valley neighbors in the pocket wilderness beneath midstate New Hampshire’s Cardigan Mountain. His parents had a small cape set on the side of Cream Hill, which rose above our ramshackle place not far from the Fowler River. Summer days, which always held “chores” – usually some form of cutting or dragging brush – also promised either time at the river and in its pools or rambles along the ridges that defined our valley.
On that day, we were climbing the north ridge of Firescrew, the sister peak of Cardigan, whose name casts back to an 1855 forest fire that burned off its crown. The fire grew so intense that the twisting screw of smoke rising from it was visible across the state; hence the name. The north ridge is largely unpeopled, even as, a half-mile away, Cardigan is often overrun with families ascending their first “big” mountain by a short route from the west. Over the four miles up to the ridge, Brad and I had seen no one, and a remote feeling had set in. In the quiet and absence, we’d stopped talking and drifted some yards apart. Each of us, I suppose, was in the strange and fevered little place where fourteen-year-old boys consider the world, which holds distant promise and makes immediate demands in unequal measures. Brad was somewhere up ahead; I was wondering about Lyndy, the girl next door, who sometimes responded when I flicked the lights of my room on and off. That was the closest I could get to speech.
All of this wondering was upended when Brad rushed around the corner, his eyes wild his mouth wide. “B…bb…b…,” he said as he ran toward me. Brad stuttered when excited, so I’d learned to wait for the word. “B…b…b…ear,” the conclusive syllable reached me just as Brad did; then they were gone, around the bend below, the sound of his feet dopplering away. I turned to look up trail, thought I heard something and a huge power-surge blew into my brain.
Later, I’d read about fight or flight response to fear, but the mild phrase does little to describe the moment. Below me, the trail bent left, and I ran toward that opening in the trees. But where the trail angled off, I went straight, running over a fifteen-foot sapling and bashing on through branches and bouncing off trunks. I was a human pinball, a panicked one, if pinballs can be panicked.
I would have kept on had I not pitched off a 3-foot ledge and landed face first. Suddenly, it was quiet; I strained to hear sounds of the pursuing bear. Nothing. Then, floating through the trees, I heard laughter. Bruised, scratched and a little stunned, I couldn’t figure this sound – what was funny? who was laughing?
Well, by now the story is clear to you, and it arrived not long after that in my woods. All those Bs added up only to Brad; there was no bear. “B…b…b…but that sure was funny.” Perhaps.
I don’t recall speaking to Brad for the rest of the day, and I took a fair amount of cleaning up and antiseptic when we finally got home. That night I dreamed of being chased by a bear. And, for summer’s remainder, whenever I climbed into the hills, I kept expecting the bear. That he never appeared made him no less real.
But some years later, when I really saw my first bear, I was so attuned to their possibility in mountain woods, that I simply sat down and watched him/her amble and mumble through some blueberry bushes.
So it is in woods imagined and real.
For me, and I think for many, late August always has an elegiac feel: days shorten, school nears and, suddenly, a spray of red leaves appears in a favorite maple. It is also a rich time, of course – harvest alone ensures a feeling of plenty – but summer’s waning shadows it. Still, even as time tightens, I’ve found that I sometimes vanish into late August, entering the woods of experience in one place, and later appearing somewhere, or as someone, else. What happens in the interim can feel like local magic. Here, in compressed fashion is such a vanishing.
And so I wandered a good time
in the pawed blueberry scraggle
of a northern hilltop
in a field nodding too
with rich goldenrod high grass
and I got
my quart or two
by picking out single berries
small blue globes hung
still on raked bushes
by stepping also
into the pressed stalks
where he paused in each patch.
In this way I lumbered
across the hill’s brow
pale back humped to the sun, and
lost track of the hours lost
the wires’ humming voices
lost the delicate hitched chain
of my own thought
lost too my upright divide
from the life
By Corinne H. Smith
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” ~ “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” WALDEN
At the end of our house tours at Thoreau Farm, we encourage people to consider how Thoreau’s philosophies apply to their own lives. How have they chosen to live deliberately? How have they turned thought into action? To share their answers, guests write their declarations on cards and tack them up on our bulletin board. Every once in a while, we collect selections to share with our online audience. Here are our favorites from our most recent visitors.
~ More nature & less stuff! Nature can calm us, protect us, and completely sustain us. We need to care for it now, more than ever. Thank you for the lessons, Henry! ~ Melissa
~ I turn to observe the natural world and share moments and revelations captured through a lens. ~ Raymond
~ I choose to do what aligns most with whatever force it is inside me that compels me to live at all. I don’t hesitate to do things differently. ~ Abby
~ I enjoy being in a private place in nature. I think about the wonderful mixture of gases that I inhale and the biochemical processes of photosynthesis that produce our oxygen, food and water. As I exhale, I thank the plants by giving them the carbon dioxide that they need to live and to continue to extend life on our unique and beautiful planet. ~ Al
~ By continuously reminding myself to come back to the present with no conceptual framework, looking at things (and people!) with wonder and full attention, and realizing the truth and beauty of the unfettered self. ~ Jonathan
~ I make sure I spend some time every day, to listen to the birds & see what nature has brought to my backyard. It brings me peace & happiness – living deliberately. ~ Amy
~ I try and probably fail more often than not. But keep trying because the alternative is unimaginable.
~ I take long walks & hikes. I write poetry. I reared two sons to recognize the earth as their precious second brother. Thank you for such a wonderful tour of Henry’s birthplace!
~ I bought my grandparents old house and am restoring it. Developers wanted to bulldoze it. I am inspired by not only HDT but those who keep his legacy alive! ~ Charles
~ Appreciating and enjoying the little things in life, which really are the big things! ~ Susan
~ I have chosen a career that is in line with my values and also would meld well with Thoreau’s ideas. I have always strived to live simply with relatively few possessions, and put more energy and intention into human and natural interactions. ~ Anoush
~ If you don’t need it – don’t throw it away – find a home for it – someone’s trash = another person’s treasure!
~ I chose to devote my life to helping my fellow veterans, who struggle with their own scars of war, both seen and unseen. I try to tell and show them that someone cares about them very much, and that we never leave our comrades behind. If I can make a difference in their lives, then I have accomplished something worthwhile. ~ JB
~ Using “old technology” in a new way. Rain barrels, battery powered lawn mower, string trimmer
~ What did Thoreau say, “only when I come to die, to find out I hadn’t lived.” So – I thought about what I wanted to be sure to have “done” “been” “experienced” “felt” – then I spelled it out — & am trying to be “deliberate” now!
~ I try not to judge people that my co-workers don’t like. ~ Mandalena
~ I have changed my life to take care of my mother who has dementia, 24 hours a day. ~ Karen
~ Listen to the birds near – and far away – learn their language – teach this to children & sow seeds for the joy of stillness, quiet, meditation for the Thoreaus yet to come … ~ Carolina
~ I believe Henry D. would smile just knowing how much he influenced my generation. ~ Bob
~ Writing a book to bring awareness to the tragedies of war I experienced as a woman & the simplistic travel around the world I needed to do to get my spirit back & how to enjoy nature & other cultures. Respect the Earth.
~ We sold our home & bought a trailer to see the world. To live deliberately takes courage. To say no to stuff & possessions is freeing.
~ Live in the moment, and be as happy as you can be. Surround yourself with people who embrace sanity.
How have YOU chosen to live deliberately?
To see more visitor responses, see our previous compilations:
“…the thonder gan romblen in the Heven with that gristly steven, that Chaucer tells of – (the gods must be proud with such forked flashes and such artillery to rout a poor unarmed fisherman…” Thoreau, Journal, August 23rd 1845
Is there a better summer-storm line than Chaucer’s above? Thonder really does romble. Anyway, I’ve returned to my reading of Henry Thoreau’s first summer at Walden and its resonances with our current summer. Aging August brings me to Thoreau’s thunder-precipitated meeting with John Field, the central episode of what would become the Baker Farm chapter of his book.
Thoreau observes no niceties when describing Field (“An Honest hard working – but shiftless man plainly was John Field) and his wife (with round greasy face and bare breast – still thinking to improve her condition one day) and “many children from the broad faced boy that ran by his father’s side to escape the rain to the wrinkled & Sybil like – crone-like infant, not knowing whether to take the part of age or infancy…” Even as they give him shelter.
In exchange, however, Thoreau does offer them advice, amplified by the time he writes the episode into the published version of Walden: “I tried to help him with my experience, telling him that he was one of my nearest neighbors, and that I too, who came a-fishing here, and looked like a loafer, was getting my living like himself; that I lived in a tight light and clean house, which hardly cost more than the annual rent to such a ruin as his commonly amounts to…”
Here, after all, is one of the desperate masses for whom Thoreau intends his life and book as example; here is a test case: “If he and his family would live simply, they might all go a huckle-berrying…” But the test does not go well: “John heaved a sigh at this, and his wife stared with arms akimbo…”
The thundershower ends and Thoreau sets off, retreats, really: “As I was leaving the Irishman’s roof after the rain, bending my steps again to the pond, my haste to catch pickerel, wading in retired meadows, in sloughs and bog-holes, in forlorn and savage places, appeared for an instant trivial to me who had been sent to school and college…”
Here is crisis, I think, of a sort familiar to us all. Just what am I doing with whatever I’ve been given (it is, we recall from Walden’s first chapter, “difficult to begin without borrowing,”) the tools of school in this instance? All this walking and mucking about, he seems to say, to what purpose?
Thoreau’s answer is lyrical and famous. And, for me, only partially convincing. Still, it is hard not to feel the momentum of that answer; it gathers you in: “but as I ran down the hill toward the reddening west, with the rainbow over my shoulder, and some faint tinkling sound borne to my ear through the cleansed air, from I know not what quarter, my Good Genius seemed to say, – Go fish and hunt far and wide day by day, – farther and wider, – and rest thee by many brooks and heart-sides without misgiving…Grow wild according to thy nature.”
The biblical allusions and language underscore the sacred nature of this answer conjured by “my Good Genius.” The “faint tinkling sounds” seem transcendent chimes.
Still, I wonder what you make of this meeting in the Baker Farm chapter and how its questions fit in your lives?
Other note, related (perhaps) in the way it appeared to me when I was not “at work”: a hummingbird moth, humming and hovering in the bee balm – it looked like an infant hummingbird, a third the size of the usual, except…that it had antennae over half an inch long. Antennae, I thought and wondered? It gave the “bird” a goofy sort of Saturday Night Live retro look. Still, it hovered over the flowers gracefully, dipped its long “nose” in tastefully. Clearly a “bird” with flair…then, later after a search of images, a bug (which put me in mind of “the strong and beautiful bug” that appears at Walden’s end). “What beautiful and winged life.”
Later, two pileated woodpeckers (a pair?) only 10 feet away (briefly, of course, as they flew up and off issuing their wild laughter).