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”
Even when I take some days away from reading Thoreau’s journals, as I have recently, he finds his way into my day.
For some reason February always contains time unaimed, and in it, I lose the linear resolve of reading. In books, line follows line, but in my mind ellipses take words’ places, and whole paragraphs go by in some sort of wooly time. I try again.
Just so yesterday, and I put aside the novel whose words are still novel to me and began to root in a bookcase. I needed something to read that I could read. For 7th time I pulled out Michael Pollan’s Second Nature, a book bought long enough ago to have endured some fading of its cover. Gardening, I thought; why not? Perhaps promise of green would distract me from the austere white that had fallen overnight and seemed to blanket my mind.
Pollan’s book began quietly, but early on there was small, contentious mention of Thoreau. He would, said Pollan wrangle some with America’s prophet of the wild; he would, it seemed, stake out some middle ground where a garden grows, and already the lines of argument seemed clear. Also, I was hooked. Out of my wooliness and into Pollan’s world.
It helped that his sentences were clear and clean, and it helped too that he began with little stories of his childhood and its first exposures to gardens and growings via familial tension between an imperious gardening grandfather and Pollan’s indoor-oriented, weed-tolerant father.
And then Pollan’s contentions with Thoreau offered me a few of my own with Pollan – more reason to read on; the book was now burred to me.
Perhaps you too talk back to books you like. Here’s one little conversation from yesterday:
Pollan: Thoreau is gardening here, of course, and this forces him at least for a time to throw out his romanticism about nature — to drop what naturalists today hail as his precocious “biocentrism” (as opposed to anthropocentrism. But by the end of the chapter, his bean field having achieved its purpose, Thoreau trudges back — lamely, it seems to me — to the Emersonian fold: ‘The sun looks on our cultivated fields and on the prairies and forests without distinction…Do not these beans grow for woodchucks too?…How then can our harvest fail? Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds?’
Surely, Henry, rejoice. And starve.
me: Ah, Michael…At the outset, Henry describes his time and work at Walden as an “experiment”; no less the bean field. And the purpose of that experiment is expansive, is to press understanding outside the narrow rows of his time’s dominant industry, agriculture. Henry’s bean field chapter is, in part, celebration that he will not have to tie himself to a life of beans and starve his mind, that sun can shine on him “without distinction” as well.
I have, of course, done to Pollan what he has done to Thoreau, plunked him down without full context to contend a point. But isn’t that the real fun of finding yourself drawn into a book’s lines, where you find yourself mumbling occasional objection and reaching for a pencil to scribble both retort and praise?
And, most important, I will read on.
Later today the rains will sluice away what’s left of our snow, and we will be back in our “open-winter.” Perhaps there’s a little symmetry at work after our burrowing February last year, but mostly I feel I’m riding a yo-yo, with its dual motions of rise and fall mixed with constant spin. Yes I know that I live in Wait-a-Minute New England, where volatility is the old normal, and yes, I know that El Nino is nosing about in the Pacific and sending, perhaps, his tears our way. Still…the everyday that touches my skin whispers that this air’s unusual. Even when the wind blusters and tries to threaten real winter, the show’s over in a day.
But my readings of Henry Thoreau’s journals remind me that his era also entertained thaws and mildness that sometimes stretched for days. His immediate weather, to which he paid close and famous attention, whispered little oddnesses too.
What Henry Thoreau didn’t have, however, was an eye in the sky; or, more accurately, a peacock fan’s worth of eyes up there. Henry Thoreau surely transcended earth in spirit and imagination, but the day-by-day parsing of change on the planet was seeable only in a local version. Our satellites, flung up at times willy nilly, have changed that – we now see not only the planet’s roundness, but also the ebbs and flows of its processes. There’s now a lot of data on looking down just a few clicks away.
The other day, I was looking back over (down on) this January past, when I came upon a thermal map of our hemisphere for those days. I looked first at where I live…of course…and noted the warmer than normal temps and nodded. But the color scheme of the whole map wouldn’t let me click on to whatever was next. Surely, I thought, the map’s inverted, upside is down, and I looked more closely: the whole arctic and subarctic region was some version of red-verging-to-darkness, meaning warmer (much) than normal; and the whole temperate portion of the US was (Maine excepted) a cool winter blue.
I expanded the screen so the temperature scale was readable. “Look,” the sky-eye records said clearly, “Look at that.”
All of this is old news, I know. But the news sinks in variously for each of us; for me, this map remains vivid and alive in my mind, even as each day’s air and rain and snow touch my skin.
Link to vivid maps: http://models.weatherbell.com/temperature.php
My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; and though I was beyond the range of the ordinary circulating library, I had more than ever come within the influence of those books which circulate round the world, whose sentences were first written on bark… Thoreau, Walden
On the Saturday past, we arrived at Henry Thoreau’s birthplace just as Corinne Smith began her author talk about her new book, Henry David Thoreau for Kids. We squeezed into the only remaining seats in the house’s family room and listened as Smith outlined the process through which her book came together. As I’ve often found, when listening to authors describe their work, that process, which, for Smith, had yielded orderly, attractive result, can be nonlinear, with inspiration and answer to question arriving from many directions and sources. Smith, like many Thoreauvians, has a broad network of Thoreau contacts, and many of them had helped her find answers and activities for her book. A number were in the room.
So too was Henry. Not the Henry who was born in the room upstairs, but a modern Henry, who was one of Smith’s first readers. I’d read first about this young, modern Henry in one of Smith’s blog-posts last year, and now, as one of this book’s intended readers, here he was. That was fun.
So too were Smith’s descriptions of finding some of the activities that suit the book to kids of all ages (many older kids peopled the room too). I particularly liked the outline-the-house activity that helps someone gain a sense of the scale of Thoreau’s famous house at the pond. There, outside the birthplace, was the green outline Smith had made, and even though the reading room was crowded, I knew that we could all fit within the outline.
Memory sent me back to a November morning a few years ago when I had taken 33 students to see sunrise at the pond. First, we had walked out to the house-site, with its outline-posts of granite and the chains that link them. There, we’d all stepped inside the chains, and I’d read from the Walden passage in Economy where Thoreau begins the house’s construction. Some students had said in surprise, “Hey, we all fit in here easily.” And it was true; there was even room for more, if some early visitors had wandered by. That, I thought, is the value of experience, which often brings words to life, and, in doing so, allows us to fit ourselves into that life.
Just so with Corinne Smith’s book: Henry David Thoreau for Kids surely brings its clear, resonant words and ample illustrations to life in its joined activities for kids (of all ages). And surely some of its sentences began their lives written on bark. Your copy awaits you.
Every child begins the world again, to some extent, and loves to stay outdoors, even in the wet and cold…Who does not remember the interest with which when young he looked at shelving rocks, or any approach to a cave. Thoreau, Walden
A number of years ago, I attended a lecture. Henry David Thoreau’s work was the subject, and the speaker was a prominent academic, an acknowledged Thoreau expert. He lost me early, when he said that Thoreau was an unsuitable subject for anyone under college age – translation: for anyone except people like me or those we teach.
I was in mid-career as a high school teacher and in no little awe of the insight and engagement that swept through the classroom as we read Walden and Walking and Civil Disobedience.
Really? I recall thinking. Would the writer who famously loved kids and celebrated the child’s clearest eye like being locked away with this particular academic? I thought not.
That moment returned to me when, a year or so ago, I got the happy news that Corinne Smith was writing a book called Thoreau for Kids. How just right, I remember thinking. And now that promise has come to publication; Corinne’s book nears its launch this Saturday.
You all know Corinne as a master, Thoreau-inflected storyteller on this site. And many of you know her previous book about Thoreau’s last journey west, Westward I Go Free – Tracing Thoreau’s Last Journey. Here is a chance to return to the insights and joys of childhood that Thoreau might help you rediscover. And, if you have or know children, here is a chance, complete with 21 activities, for them to discover a writer and presence who can last a lifetime, a writer for all seasons of life.
Corinne’s publisher, Chicago Review Press, has an interview with her at the other end of this link: http://www.chicagoreviewpress.com/blog/behind-the-scenes-thoreau-for-kids/
By Corinne H. Smith
“For many years, I was self-appointed inspector of snow-storms and rain-storms, and did my duty faithfully …” ~ Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden
Saturday’s Big Northeastern Snow gave me a chance to go out and play storm inspector, a la Henry Thoreau.
I had already measured the snow depth in the front yard at 8 a.m. – 15.5 inches – and I had shoveled the driveway. I came back inside and did some reading and some writing. But I couldn’t stop looking out the window and marveling at the diligence of the snow. It was steady, it was piling up fast, and it was beautiful.
Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to be out in it. And I had to prepare myself for the conditions. First I had to retrieve my snow boots from storage in my three-season writing porch. I kicked a lot of snow away from the porch door just to slip inside. Then, when I looked closer at my boots, I saw that someone else had used them. It had been so long since I needed them that a mouse had used the left boot for a home … and an outhouse. I shook out his settlement. The right one was empty and clean. Go figure.
I bundled up in my winter coat, scarf, gloves, and knit cap. I put my camera, driver’s license, and a five-dollar bill in my pocket, just in case. I hadn’t checked the batteries in the camera, though. They died fairly quickly. So I had to rely on myself to be the camera for the trek. I could pay closer attention this way. The photos could wait.
The temperature was in the mid-20s, and the wind did occasionally gust around me. But overall, I was fairly comfortable. The kitchen clock had said it was noon, but it could have been anytime outside. Everything was white and there was no sun. It had been two hours since the snowplow had come our way. And the flakes just kept falling, falling, falling. I took to the middle of the street and trudged up the block. Westward.
My usual dry-weather walk traces a mile-and-a-half loop through suburbia. Today this probably wasn’t practical. I decided instead to make one trip around our large residential block. Every half block, I stopped, looked, and listened. I wanted to EXPERIENCE this snowfall. The air was filled with flakes. And I was the only person out in it. I guess everyone else was inside, watching TV broadcasts and online videos of the weather-folk and giant pandas having fun in the snow. Go figure again.
Henry Thoreau didn’t happen to wear spectacles. Here he had the advantage over me. It’s difficult to inspect a snow storm when it keeps building up on your lenses. I had to wipe them off with my gloves at every turn. Then I could spot small movements. Little birds hopped on top of the snow near someone’s porch, perhaps picking up stray seed the homeowner had thrown to them. An acrobatic squirrel leaped from an evergreen tree to a branch of a snowy maple, scuttling snow from both. I knew of several bunnies who lived under certain bushes. But they were hunkered down and were hidden from view. Very much like the people in the houses just behind them.
I listened. The flakes made soft whispers against my coat and on the growing drifts. Off in the opposite direction, I could hear distant beeps from equipment clearing the grocery store parking lot. The wind jostled someone’s wooden wind chimes, adding a light melody to the scene. And when I walked, I thought I heard someone shoveling the sidewalk right behind me. I turned around and saw no one. It took me a few instances of this to realize that it was the sound of my own coat scraping against itself. I laughed. Then I thought of another Thoreau quote that I had read just a few days earlier.
“As I walk the RR causeway, I am, as the last two months, disturbed by the sound of my steps on the frozen ground. I wish to hear the silence of the night, for the silence is something positive to be heard. I cannot walk with my ears covered. I must stand still and listen with open ears, far from the noises of the village, that night may make its impression on me.” ~ Thoreau, Journal, January 21, 1853
Thoreau crunched on ice and snow and was annoyed. I was distracted by my coat. To-may-to, to-mah-to. We both stopped to listen to what was mostly silence.
At the third corner, I came upon a man attending to a mini-four wheeler. It wasn’t stuck, but the motor kept cutting off. He had to get off the seat and fiddle with something to get it started again.
“Need help?” I asked, even though I know nothing of such toys.
“Nah, I’m fine,” he said. “I only live right there anyway.” He nodded to the house on the corner. I took him at his word and kept on my path. Soon I heard his high whiny motor behind me as he took off down a side street. To each, his own method of inspection.
Now I realized I had forgotten to bring along something that was vital to the adventure: tissues. My nose was running to beat the band. I ignored it as best as I could as I rounded the last corner. Still watching, still listening.
As I headed up the driveway, a little brown bird flew out of the carport and into the nearby arborvitae bushes. I knew there had to be others sheltered in that thicket, too. Everyone had a place to weather the storm, it seemed. And I was back at mine, having spent a lovely, leisurely hour strolling through the storm.
I hung up my snowy and noisy coat, kicked off my boots, and settled in with a steaming mug of green tea and the book I was close to finishing: William Least Heat-Moon’s collection of travel pieces, “Here, There, Elsewhere.” I soon came upon this paragraph and was startled by the connection:
Americans believe in the spiritually redeeming efficacy of travel almost as if it were prayer. We are prone to try to modify our lives simply by just GOING, whether on a walk around the block or on a coast-to-coast trek. And why not? We’re all descendants of travelers who reached these shores from the other hemisphere. Were stars not so splendidly cosmic a symbol, the blue union of our flag could well be composed of little footprints.
What an apt thought!
On this snowbound day, I had been guided first by one American author and validated later by another one. And I smiled knowing that I had left my own footprints on snow-covered streets during a wonderful northeastern blizzard. I deemed the inspection a success.
And he made no compromise with Time, Time kept out of his way, and only sighed at a distance because he could not overcome him. Thoreau, Walden
For a long time, I’ve tracked storms, and, with the advent of easy access to weather radar, I’ve grown used to watching them spin across our heartland, or up the nearby coast in winter. And, without mastering the mathematics, I’ve also become a second-guesser, reading forecasts and then amending them, though I try to be careful not to say any of this aloud – even the most weather-addled know that such talk is the mark of the weather-bore…or boar.
Anyway, as you have already noted – if you’ve read this far – I’ve broken that social commandment, and I seem poised to go on. Surely, it’s the touted blizzard to our south, blocked from visiting us by cold high pressure to the north. I won’t miss the way such a visit would have sent me up-roof for the first time this winter, but surely the action is elsewhere today. Why such fascination?
For a long time also, I’ve thought about the way the word “tempest” tips us toward understanding strong weather’s central effect. “Tempest” shares its root with all sorts of time-words (tempus), and musing about these links took on some order (or disorder) when I reread my favorite Shakespeare play, The Tempest, also probably his final signature as a playwright. In the play, the magician Prospero does what so many of us pine to do: he upends the order of the usual world and begins again on a charmed island where he will “get it (life, civilization, child-rearing) right.” On his island, he has a clean slate; he will do better.
Except…that he is dealing with people, himself among them. On his island he finds a being of “monstrous” appetite and other habit (Caliban), and soon, after Prospero conjures a tempest to wreck the nearby ship of his exploring countrymen, he has them for company too. It all falls apart: Prospero must, or feels he must, check Caliban, “civilize him” with magic; his daughter, Miranda, falls in love with one of the shipwrecked men; magic, even on a faraway island, seems unable to change, the usual spin of things, who we are and how we live.
Where, you ask, is the link to weather-watching, fascination? It’s in the spin of storm. Now, we know that low pressure spins counter-clockwise; it goes then against time. And time is our way of ordering life; it marks out our usual worlds; we are said to be slaves to it. But when a tempest spins our way, up our coast, it undoes the day, works against usual time. We can’t go about our usual routine, and there we are marooned or moony on our little island; set free from time’s relentless clock, if only for a while.
Here, in Maine it’s an orderly day – 1,2,3,4, the seconds march, their measuring sweeping clockwise. But if you are in the path of our tempest, I hope your island time unwinds the tight clock of the day, that, going the other way, you find magic within. A good day, perhaps, to read The Tempest.
…and not till we are completely lost, or turned around…do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of Nature. Every man has to learn the points of compass again as often as he awakes, whether from sleep or any abstraction. Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves and, realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations. Thoreau, Walden
January holds for me days of writing about being lost. First I’ve been immersed in a second essay about a mountain search for a woman lost in a tempest, and now I’m at work on a series of analyses as I write my Accidents column for a mountain journal. Often, happily, the lost are found. Though, on occasion, one, a few, are not.
Whenever I approach this writing, it puts me in mind of Henry Thoreau’s Walden chapter, The Village, with its wonderful passage on being lost in the woods. There is, of course, a wink of irony there, I think, because whenever Henry Thoreau felt lost, he went to the woods – see this most famous written instance: “I went to the woods…” (You can fill in the ellipsis)…where he did not feel lost at all.
Often, as I parse these incidents where people have encountered mountain-trouble, I find head-scratching moments, where anyone sitting in the chair of rational thought would say, Whoa, how could they…or, if feeling a little needy, I would never…
A man decides on double his usual mileage; a woman goes up when the cold suggests staying down; two teenage girls say, “Let’s go up and watch the sun set,” and forget to bring lights against the dark that follows. Trouble ensues. But the real story’s a little deeper behind the moment, I think.
What Thoreau and Muir and Oliver… and you, I suspect…and countless others understand is the imperative to go out on foot, to visit the elemental world, where, yes, there is the risk of getting lost. But where there is also the greater promise that “we begin to find ourselves…”
I try to keep this daily necessity in mind whenever I write about foot-trouble in the wild.
By Corinne H. Smith
Here’s another Thoreau-related story from my day job at the bookstore. This time I got my hands dirty.
The boss gave me a stack of boxes to go through. My job was to figure out what was in them and to catalogue the volumes into our database. “There might even be some Thoreau in there,” he said. He knew what to say to get my attention.
I lifted the lids and saw that each box contained bound volumes of old magazines. VERY old magazines. Most were from the 1800s, and I had never heard of them. He was right. There could be some Thoreau in here. We were certainly dealing with the right time period.
What fun it was, to handle and read some of these 19th-century issues! They were intended to bring enlightenment and entertainment to people living away from the east coast cities. Here was “The Cultivator: A Monthly Publication to improve the soil and the mind,” with its great mission and tagline. Next was “The Rover: A Weekly Magazine of Tales, Poetry, Legends, Wit, Romance & Art.” I guess it wanted to cover every base. “The Rural Repository” had an even higher goal. It was “Devoted to Polite Literature, such as moral and sentimental tales, biography, traveling sketches, notices of new publications, poetry, amusing miscellany, humorous and historical anecdotes, &c. &c.” Some of these periodicals included engravings of real or fictional scenes. I love this stuff.
I was especially eager to pick up and look through the three volumes of “The Daguerreotype.” Henry Thoreau famously sat for a daguerreotype session with Benjamin Maxham in Worcester in June 1856. I knew it had been merely a short-term career for Maxham, and that he left Worcester a few years later. Maybe I could learn more about him here. But no. The magazine only spanned the years 1847-1849, and it only copied articles from France, England, and Germany. And it had no illustrations at all. None! What a letdown.
I put aside the heaviest and the messiest but matching books for last. Almost all of these volumes had crumbling outer spines. A reddish-brown dust poofed away from the books and onto my hands. In many instances, both the front and back covers had separated from the spines. Some were tied with a black ribbon to stay together. Each book was about two inches thick. They were old, they were in bad shape, and they were substantial. But amazingly enough, the bindings were the only awful part. The pages they were protecting were quite clean and readable. They were almost as pristine as the days they were printed.
This set turned out to be the first 23 volumes of a periodical called “Southern Literary Messenger.” It was published in Richmond, Virginia, from August 1834 until June 1864, when the war intruded enough to stop it. Our run went from 1834-1856. This was a major publication, and it contained literature and reviews of work from both Northern and Southern authors.
Edgar Allan Poe contributed a number of essays, poems, and reviews to the “Messenger” in its opening years, and he even served as editor for a bit. I found “The Raven” in volume eleven, 1845. It wasn’t the poem’s first publication, but it was still an early one. I also read his review of James Russell Lowell’s “A Fable for Critics.” Poe didn’t mention how Lowell chastised Thoreau for resembling Emerson; but he did manage to diss both Lowell and Margaret Fuller simultaneously. (You can read a transcription of his critique at http://www.eapoe.org/works/criticsm/slm49l01.htm.)
What could I find related to Thoreau here? Well, “Walden” came out in August 1854. Maybe there was a review …. And yes, wouldn’t you know it? In the September 1854 issue, I found a combination announcement and review of Thoreau’s second book.
I wonder how many Richmond residents ran down to the store of bookseller and publisher Adolphus Morris after reading this paragraph? How well did Henry’s words sell in the South, back then?
Alas, while this was a new-to-me find, it was not a new one to the realm of Thoreauviana. The text of this review appeared in The Thoreau Society Bulletin in 1954. And yet, it’s still fun to launch such treasure hunts when wading through drifts of 19th-century pages.
Of Fire, Water, Air, Earth in the Winter Mountains
For, as after a rain there is a second rain in the woods, so after a light snow there is a second snow in the woods, as the wind rises. Thoreau, Journal, 12/17/51
So too in the mountains…when the wind rises.
It is almost as if some fire were burning north of Franconia Notch. The north wind into which I point smokes over the ridges and courses down like its cousin water; it is a Niagara of variable white pouring toward me, flying by above. I edge into a pullout, grab my camera, step out and climb some feet up the bank; now I can feel the snow’s tiny grains ticking on my face, hear them on my quickly-inadequate nylon shell. I click off a few hurried shots and retreat to the car, where soon the fire of the engine is shunted back to me by the heater. Too elemental out there to tarry, I think.
Still, I look up into the coursing air, and in the thicknesses and thinnesses of the snows, in their flap and veer, I see the turbulent, liquid quality of air.
The snowfall now on the move again was, like all thus far this winter, a minor one, an inch or two overnight, and I brushed it easily from surfaces; the early morning world was a still-life. This second snow, however, this reshuffling, has a cold edge to it.
I have come north for contact with what Henry Thoreau called the “unhandselled globe,” (Ktaadn, The Maine Woods) and, in a minor way, I get it more than once while watching the wind stir this “second snow” and fling it like veils of dust across the mountains that rise above. Especially when I step out into it.
Within this snow and behind it the mountains are both substantial and in motion, and I am little, but in no little awe.
By Corinne H. Smith
“The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked what I thought, and attended to my answer. I am surprised, as well as delighted, when this happens, it is such a rare use he would make of me.” ~ Thoreau, “Life Without Principle.”
In my work at a used bookstore, I happen upon references to Henry Thoreau on a semi-regular basis, often without warning. Last week he showed up three times. And in each instance, someone offered a unique interpretation of his words.
The first came in a 1927 book called “Handmade Rugs” by Ella Shannon Bowles (1886-1975). Bowles was the author of a number of craft-related books in the early 20th century, including “Practical Parties,” “About Antiques,” and “Homespun Handicrafts.” Later she wrote several books based on geography and New Hampshire. How did she somehow bring Thoreau into her narrative about home-made rugs? Amazingly enough, in the final and concluding paragraph, where she wanted to emphasize how much of themselves the rug-makers put into their work:
Thoreau says the value of a thing is determined by the amount of life that goes into it. So home rug-making will live on, as far as the craftswoman expresses herself in the products of the rug hook, the needle, and the loom.
While this is a nice sentiment, I don’t believe it’s quite what Thoreau had in mind. The sentence Bowles was referring to was from the “Economy” chapter of Walden: “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” Bowles had remembered the idea from the point of view of the creator, and not of the purchaser, as Thoreau had. These are slightly different takes, and both equally valid. But hardly the same. We also have to wonder how Bowles knew of and read Thoreau, since his circle of fame was still rather small in the 1920s. Perhaps being based in New England helped her.
The second time Thoreau came to me was in the fifth edition of “Much Loved Books: Best Sellers of the Ages,” by journalist and literary critic James O’Donnell Bennett (1870-1940). It too originated in 1927, with a 1932 library edition. It was a collection of 60 lengthy columns that Bennett wrote for The Chicago Daily Tribune. Here he extolled the virtues of select classics, including Walden. He practically tripped over his enthusiasm for Thoreau and his work:
Of Thoreau’s masterpiece two wonderful things are true –
No man having attentively read it is ever the same man again,
Second – Nobody ever wrote a book in our tongue like it.
And this was just the beginning. Bennett gushed over Thoreau and Walden for nine pages. He mentioned that he had visited the Concord Antiquarian Society, the predecessor to the Concord Museum. And he was quite familiar with the 20-volume set of Thoreau’s works that was published by Houghton, Mifflin in 1906, as well as Ellery Channing’s biography, Thoreau: The Poet-Naturalist. I don’t believe I’ve read a more devoted tribute from someone from this time period. His concluding paragraph read:
He is the bonniest, gravest, honestest spirit in our literature, and his great book has the sunshine, the crisp snow, the bird notes, the morning light and the morning fragrance of Walden pond bound in with every one of its nearly 400 steadying, exhilarating, comforting pages. It lives and sings.
Wow! When Bennett died, he left his library of 7,000 volumes to The Tribune for use by the journalists. His funeral announcement in the paper said: “He liked to read random bits from such writers as Thoreau, Hazlitt, Tolstoy, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Shakespeare, his personal literary gods.” Bennett sure had a good core group at his fingertips.
The final time Thoreau showed up at the bookstore last week, it was in conversation with a regular customer, whom I’ll call Earl. Earl is in his late 70s, and he likes to talk. When he brought three big, colorful books on European castles to the checkout desk, he told me he was saving up his money to make the trip across the ocean to see some of these castles. We chatted about travel and books and other random subjects. Earl is the kind of person who has been places and has read widely, and this was not the first time he and I had talked.
Somehow my interest in Henry Thoreau came out. Earl seemed pleasantly surprised at this news, probably because it turned the conversation in a different direction. He admitted to me that he had once read the book that he mistakenly called “On Walden Pond.” (See my earlier post about this phenomenon at http://thoreaufarm.org/2013/10/two-ponds-or-two-henrys-one-work/.) I chose not to correct him.
“Do you know what my favorite part was?” he asked.
I shook my head. With Earl, it could have been anything.
“My favorite part was when he said that you should dig deep. I liked that. I think this is what I’m doing with my castle research and with the other historical subjects I’m interested in. I’m really digging into them, and I’m enjoying it very much.”
I commended him on his research and his choices. At the same time, I marveled at the fact that out of the entire text of Walden, the one sentence that resounded most with Earl was: “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” Yet I had no doubt that this was exactly what Earl was doing.
Here were three different voices from three different sources and with three different interpretations. You never know what piece of Thoreau’s work people will take and what perspective they will have on it. I continue to be amazed at how far he continues to reach.
It is, as the Roman god Janus is said to remind us, the time for looking backward and forward. And, for a two-faced god, or a weary human, looking one way inflects the other. In such a state it can be hard to inhabit the present. Resolution hotfoots it into the past or the future.
Enter the walking (or skating) man, Henry Thoreau, who lived the stuff of resolution – “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, and front only the essential facts of life…” – but who rooted that resolution firmly in the immediate. Reduced to a somewhat inelegant phrasing, Thoreau’s life might be contained by this command: Be here fully, now.
What, I wonder, did Henry Thoreau make of New Year’s day?
I pull out all the journals and align them chronologically; I make sure too that I have my buck knife, reserved on indoor days for the opening of still-joined pages, should I encounter some. Then, I begin to leaf through the years 1850 to 1861, years of prolific output and years when Thoreau attached his journal-writing firmly to dates. Specifically, I want to see those years’ endings and beginnings. How did Henry Thoreau ring out the old and write in the new? Did he even mention something as arbitrarily imposed as a “new year?” Or was the calendrical shift seamless, unmentioned as he opened his door on simply another day, which was simply another chance to walk out into and see the world?
Page-turning (and occasional page-slicing) ensues. I work my way through this marvelous decade+ of expression, getting sidetracked sometimes by a flash of insight, an apt phrasing, a shiver of recognition.
It is just as I suspected – there’s no ringing out of old or in of new; these years (and others) are fused as neatly as uncut pages. I draw my knife along one joined set, pulling its edge smoothly, carefully toward me; the pages part. I set aside the knife, and begin to read as 1854 becomes 1855.
Both days are river-days, which is to say too they are outside days:
Dec. 31. P.M. — On river to Fair Haven Pond.
Jan. 1. P.M. — Skated to Pantry brook with C.
And one offers a near-ecstatic wheel of color, a feast for eyes. The other has a slightly grumpy tone. Sounds like the present, like everyday life to me.
Here is each in its entirety:
1/31/54: On the river to Fair Haven Pond. A beautiful, clear, not very cold day. The shadows on the snow are indigo-blue. The pines look very dark. The white oak leaves are a cinnamon-color, the black and red (?) oak leaves a reddish brown or leather-color. I see mice and rabbit and fox tracks on the meadow. Once a partridge rises from the alders and skims across the river at its widest part just before me; a fine sight. On the edge of A. Wheeler’s cranberry meadow I see the track of an otter made since yesterday morning. How glorious the perfect stillness and peace of the winter landscape!
1/1/55: Skated to Pantry Brook with C. All the tolerable skating was a narrow strip, often only two or three feet wide, between the frozen spew and the broken ice of the middle.
Just so life: one day stopped with exclamation; another day threading the tolerable between the spew and broken ice. Always present.
Best wishes to you for the immediate.
By Corinne H. Smith
I was invited to a holiday dinner by a pair of new friends. They live in an expanding housing development that just a few years ago was still a field standing tall with corn. They gave me explicit directions to their townhouse. I was to follow Elmcrest Boulevard to Cobblestone Drive and then their street, Oak Leaf Drive. If I reached Field View Drive or Green Park Drive, I would have gone too far.
Although I had seen this neighborhood from a distance, I had never driven through it. I already suspected that I would see neither elm trees nor oak trees, and that I would not be able to drive or walk on cobblestones. And the “field view” wouldn’t be of a “green park.” It would offer the pleasing sight of endless garages and rooflines, or of mud and machinery and of other houses being built to fill in the empty spaces. I knew I wouldn’t like it. But if this is where these folks wanted to live, so be it. They were my friends, and they were nice enough to invite me to dinner.
When the time came, I made my way to the entrance of Elmcrest Boulevard. It wasn’t as grand as it sounded. And it had nary a straight stretch. Not even one inch. It wound through the place like a drunken sailor: first this way, and then that. Other cross streets turned off at each bend. I drove slowly and focused on the names on the signs, hoping to finally spot Cobblestone Drive. But when Emerson Drive showed up on my right, I started laughing. Really, THE Emerson? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Here in suburbia, almost 400 miles away from Concord, Massachusetts? I glanced at the clock. I had time. I could inspect how Mr. Emerson’s legacy was interpreted here. I made the turn onto Emerson Drive.
As I suspected, both sides of Emerson were filled with houses that were too close together. They were neat and tidy, and they all looked the same. Then Alcott Drive turned off to the left. I laughed again. I could picture poor Bronson shaking his head at the sight. The next left was Thoreau Drive. Of course! It had to be. I turned left. Here I was, driving along Thoreau. It looked just like Emerson and Alcott. Interpret this statement as you will.
The literary theme continued. The streets leading off Thoreau were James Way, Dickens Lane, and Hemingway Lane. Then Emerson showed up again. It had circled around behind the rest. I turned left to get back to where I needed to be. I expected to see Alcott Lane again on my way back. But no. Hawthorne Lane had sneaked in ahead of Alcott. It turned out that Alcott and Hawthorne twisted around each other here. Interpret this statement as you will.
Emerson Drive soon became Walden Way. Really now, this was simply too much.
But to the developers’ credit, the road was just a short pass-through back to Elmcrest Boulevard. The only structure on Walden Way was a common building that fronted a pool and a series of tennis courts. Behind it loomed a small but muddy retaining pond. Once I passed these, I could make a turn and get back to where I needed to be. It took only a few minutes more to find my friends’ house.
The dinner was great, and so was the conversation. We all ate too much. Soon the sun dropped behind the bulldozers parked behind my friend’s backyard. Clouds moved in. I thanked my hosts for their hospitality and headed home.
It wasn’t too dark yet. So I followed the Transcendental route again, this time in the opposite direction: Walden Way, Emerson and Thoreau, with a glance at Hawthorne, Hemingway, Dickens, James and Alcott. This time, I took pictures. I almost wanted to know who had named these streets and why. Were the choices meant as a true tribute to the authors? Or were they merely names to fill up signs? Did the residents know who their streets were named after? I was torn between feeling validated in my love for these writers and being appalled.
And even though it would be a great address to have, I knew I would never want to live along this version of Thoreau Drive. I’d rather live in a house on a street that’s older than me. One that has some character in its framework, and with mature trees towering over it. Many years will pass before you will be able to say this about my friends’ neighborhood. (If ever.) Still, such a discovery allows us a chance for a vicarious visit to the legacies of the Transcendentalists, in a place you’d never expect to find them.
Whether they’d be gratified or not, it turns out that the Transcendentalists are everywhere.
…you too scrolled through the list of favorite poems cited by various notables the other day (12/23) on the NY Times site.
Given some modest holiday travel, some seasonal spirit and the general retrospection of this time of year, I thought it might be fun to offer the same chance here.
Henry Thoreau began his writings as a poet, and, while he made his name as a prose writer, it’s also clear that poetry never left his heart or mind – so much of his work has the stir of poetry in it.
Here then, is a short, predictive poem Henry Thoreau published in The Dial (1840-44). I’ve always loved its reminder:
My life has been the poem I would have writ,
But I could not both live and utter it.
And here is a favorite of mine with a sweet, little backstory.
In my early 40s, I received a slim, wrapped present for my birthday from my father. Though he read little poetry himself, he knew I loved and read many poets and poems. He knew also that Mary Oliver was my favorite. I unwrapped the gift, a copy of The Night Traveller, a hard-to-find early chapbook of Oliver’s poetry. The gift deepened when I opened the chapbook: There, on the formerly blank backside of the cover was a handwritten version of the poem you’ll find below. The handwriting belonged to Mary Oliver, and I found also a little birthday note from her. My father had, with a kind determination he showed all his life, found Mary Oliver and, clearly, touched her with his request for his son.
That gift became a recurring one for me: Mary Oliver became a regular contributor to the journal I edited, and, during that decade, her letters also included various asides about dogs and woodlands, affections we shared.
Some Questions You Might Ask
by Mary Oliver
Is the soul solid, like iron?
Or is it tender and breakable, like
the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?
Who has it, and who doesn’t?
I keep looking around me.
The face of the moose is as sad
as the face of Jesus.
The swan opens her white wings slowly.
In the fall, the black bear carries leaves into the darkness.
One question leads to another.
Does it have a shape? Like an iceberg?
Like the eye of a hummingbird?
Does it have one lung, like the snake and the scallop?
Why should I have it, and not the anteater
who loves her children?
Why should I have it, and not the camel?
Come to think of it, what about the maple trees?
What about the blue iris?
What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?
What about roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?
What about the grass?
And here is another link to Robert Pinsky’s brilliant Favorite Poem Project, begun while he was U.S Poet Laureate. For the project all sorts of people choose and recite a favorite poem; it is simply inspiring, as well as being great fun: http://www.favoritepoem.org/
And you? We welcome your thoughts, favorite poems, links.
“I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” Henry Thoreau
Sisyphus at Solstice
Well that was, as always, a long way down to where the year’s slope relaxes and my stone is still.
But here’s a day of rest at the bottom; then, I get to begin the work I like, pushing this glowing rock uphill, seeing it add to each day a thumbnail’s worth of light on both margins. From here to the stretched light of summer’s a long climb. But that climb begins right after 11:49 p.m. on the 21st.; we top out next year on June 20th.
It’s not that I mind going downhill into this dark nick in time. Every day’s a gift, and I’ve said often that November’s long sightlines make it my favorite month. But like all my breathing brethren, I like also the light that rims each growing day, and I like the easy warmth it suggests may come.
Mostly, however, as I imagine my part in rolling this light up toward the sky, I like the direction – uphill is all about life; climbing is living. And so being put to this stony task seems also the greatest gift imaginable. Who wouldn’t go gladly, day in, day out, to this work?
What is funny, I reflect while testing shoulder to stone, rocking it a little, is that the old gods thought they’d devised the perfect torment when they set me this work. They thought it all added up to nothing. But they, in their haste, gave me a stone that’s round and weighted nicely to my strength. And they gave me – bless them, foremost – a hill to climb. And then, as if those gifts weren’t enough, I got also two days of pause, this near one down here at bottom, the other in the high country of summer light. Solstices.
And I get to do this forever.
Second Solstice Story
The other evening, as a rare (for this year) cold front blew in, we went to a solstice party. Even as we took the narrowing roads that went finally to dirt, the lid of darkness slipped over the land; strings of lights stirred and winked in the wind. The house was warm and food-filled, and the small percussions of exclamation and laughter added to that warmth. We burn words too against darkness.
Later in the evening everyone bundled on coats and trundled back outside…for a celebration of light. A fire burned in an outdoor chiminea, but the wind quickly snuffed the candles and lanterns we carried; a few headlamps flashed on. We listened to the sweet voice of a child as he joined his mother in singing a nursery school song about light. Then, we held copies of a Wendell Berry piece aloft to catch the headlamp light and read together about an enduring sycamore he knows. Our murmur of voices threaded the wind.
Our eyes turned then toward the yard, where our host prepared an unsanctioned evocation of light that he promised would bring “slightly longer days starting soon. Just watch,” he said.
We looked up, as if from the bottom of a long well; the half-moon slipped behind a flying cloud; it was gone. Then, in rapid succession – green, red, blue, gold, gold again – little orbs of light raced up into the sky, where they blew into bright cinders that arced slowly back our way. The Roman Candles gave way then to the fizzing rise of three streaks against the night’s slate, and, above our upturned faces, each opened with a soft pop into starburst. Again, again, again.
Evocation of light drifted over the dark pines and settled down, seeding our minds.
Every month, I drive over to town hall and join 4 or 5 other “commissioners” to learn what conservation issues are afoot in our town and offer opinion or, at times, decision on some of them. It’s a volunteer position to which I was appointed by the town council after submitting my resume and having a 15-minute interview. Most of our work involves review of development plans and easements, with an eye toward how they will apportion and protect conserved land. Or how our town will work with land already conserved and managed by the town. And, though we sit behind official nameplates and are televised on local cable, (where, reportedly, we are watched by some coterie of citizens), our meetings tend toward the quiet.
This week, however, brought a little noisy incandescence to our early evening gathering. Under discussion was a development to be sited on a point that juts out into our nearby, muddy bay. The 4 houses have been planned for nearly 20 years, and approved that long ago, so, despite that lag, they were not the issue. What drew our attention, or, more accurately, drew public comment that focused our attention, was the delicate question of erosion of the soft bluffs along the point and the “hardening” proposed to block that erosion.
Rip-rapping, the dumping and/or positioning of stone, is common practice along the coast, where those who own land look warily at the sea. The sea is, of course, a primary reason why coastliners want to live where they do, but its relationship with land seems often like that of predator and prey. Waves, the ocean’s teeth when stirred by storm, can and do simply gnash land (and dwellings) away.
On a point such as the one under discussion this week – well up the bay and protected from severe storm effects by islands and mudflats – the gnawing away of land is a slow, seemingly gentle, practice. Still, even a cursory glance shows the way repeated rubbings of tide and current can add up to a lot of loss. A little seaside path along the 30-foot high bluff on the point’s east flank illustrates this action: in the ten years I’ve walked this area, erosion’s taken enough of the bluff to drop trees into the sea and force the path 15 feet inland. Left to their own rhythms, sea and bluff would dance slowly inland across this point, perhaps cutting it off entirely in a century or so.
But, of course, we like our houses and landscapes to suggest permanence, even as that’s the last possibility on life’s list. And so: hardening of coast against change; and so: mild controversy at our meeting. Should rip-rap-rock be allowed? Those who would build the four houses say, yea, of course. They want the appearance of bluff security. Careful what you wish/rip-rap for, say others. Studies of coastal erosion show that often hardened coastline in one spot simply shifts erosion to the softer flanks of that hardening; the currents and tides, even the gentle ones up bay, will find a way. They will gnaw what they will gnaw.
Then, there is the possibility of unintended effect on the mudflats surrounding the point. These flats, extensive at low tide, are rich with shellfish; they are fished by clammers who depend for their living upon their consistency. Might the change in point stability affect these flats, either through redirected silt, of via redirected runoff? It’s happened elsewhere. Might a plague of invasive green crabs, clam-eaters linked too to the warming of our waters, make the rip-rap their residence? That too has happened elsewhere. So many pointed questions. To which we will return in January.
All of this would fascinate Henry Thoreau, who walked to his observations, surveyed them closely, measuring often to decimals the works of winds and waters, looking for the stories land and water tell of themselves. Thoreau’s ability to see and tell those stories gets him named often as the father of ecological thinking. For Thoreau, a close look at what was present often allowed him to see back into the past and forward into the future.
When we meet again in January to look at the point proposals, I’ll have walked the land again and tried to see like Henry.
It is clear that I have never been here before – this early winter, 1860 section of my 1906 edition of the journals is rife with uncut pages; drawing a knife carefully along the joined edge of two pages is a little like opening a present or finding a secret glade. I have never seen these words, these observations, before; and yet each is a little window into a world I’ve come to know, to anticipate.
Like many children who grew itchy at time’s slow passage as Christmas neared, I liked the advent calendar. December’s dark days seemed a sort of tunneling toward magic, and the calendar’s little windows lit the way. My more religious grandmother had given the calendar to her somewhat-wayward son’s family, and in one season I had memorized each window’s offering. Still, until each window opened and its little painting appeared, the future felt like mystery.
Now, as I reopen each in memory, I realize that they were refreshingly free of religious iconography, that most of the tiny paintings behind the doors showed birds, pine cones, trees and snow; our calendar was paean to the world beyond the windows, and, during the short days of waiting for first snow and the 25th’s presents, that’s where I went to pass the time.
That you could only open one advent window per day kept time tugging at its reins. The fifth, as I recall, featured a Christmas tree, and sometime during that week, we too got our tree, which then spent the obligatory 48 hours in a bucket of sugar-water outside the backdoor. The candles along our mantle mimicked the green and yellow painting of day eight. Double figures neared, then arrived.
Now, I no longer have an advent calendar, but the habit of countdown remains; I imagine little woodland scenes behind the door to each day; then I go looking for them. And in this season of small windows, I confess that I have been bad, a little. Each day, when I’ve picked up Thoreau’s journal, I have opened more than one page, read more than one window’s words. That turns out to have been unavoidable, because after December 4th, Thoreau recorded little of that December.
The largest door in my remembered advent calendar was, of course, that of the 25th; behind it lay the day toward which we had been counting. The 25th doesn’t appear in Thoreau’s 1860 journal, but the 26th bears mention of what must have been a present received on the 25th. That year Thoreau’s 25th opened to an owl: “Melvin sent to me yesterday a perfect Strix asio, or red owl of Wilson, — not at all gray.”
And, in the next paragraph, Thoreau’s fascination with the details of his gift are clear. As ever, the windows of Henry Thoreau’s calendar opened to the natural world, even when it was brought to him as a present. And this gift-owl was part of a local habit wherein Thoreau’s neighbors brought to him their findings from the woods when it opened its windows to them.
In my long ago calendar, we too had an owl; it was painted into one of the early December days, its large eyes looking out in anticipation. I didn’t know then these little paintings of the owl and the fir tree and the snowy path led to the present I’d receive over a lifetime. But perhaps, when she selected that woodland calendar, my grandmother intuited it.
“Our whole life is startlingly moral.” – Henry Thoreau, Walden
While the race of events makes it hard to maintain focus, I have been thinking often about the climate talks in Paris. They and the questions of climate link us all; something’s stirring there.
A recent NY Times op-ed piece (Koonin, 11/4/15, see link below) about accumulations of atmospheric carbon, measured in tons, brought the childhood song, John Henry, back to mind, and now – we all do this, yes? – it plays as soundtrack throughout my day…“you shovel 16 tons, and whatta you get, another day older and deeper in debt…St. Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store”…dum, dum dum dum dum de dum dum of descending notes.
I write often about various footprints, in part because, for me, each day is, in some or many ways, foot won, and footprints and strides are also measure of our ways into the world. But, even as I look skyward to figure the near weather-future, I don’t often invert myself and see also my feet tracking across the sky, see my sky-prints.
It seems to go against gravity and, perhaps, tempt divinity to look up for sign of self. But, of course, science, which specializes in the invisible, tells me my prints are there, that I am Bigfoot of the above. As are we all.
Up there, my science reading tells me, above each of us hovers an annual cloud of our carbon exhalations; if we are Americans, it weighs, on average, 17 tons. If we are at home on other continents, the per person figure is markedly smaller – Europe: 7 tons; China: 6 tons; world average: 5 tons. Still, as John Henry reminds us, tons are heavy matter.
Used to the increments of each day, I try to shrink my cloud to the scope of my mind, and so I call up my calculator app and divide 34,000 pounds by 365 days, and get a daily poundage. Zow, I think – at 93.15 lbs that’s more than half of a me rising daily. And, even if I am a simplified or restrained American, a Euro-sort-of-guy at closer to 7 tons per annum, that still makes my daily exhalation 38.35 pounds. For feel’s sake, at my local Planet F(itness), I walk over to the free weights and lift the 40-pound barbell. (The 90 pounds I leave racked.) Can that really be? How is it possible that seeming nothing can weigh so much?
So, I look for a way to gain deeper purchase; here’s one: tonight, when company comes, we’ll burn an open fire in the fireplace, for cheer, for warmth. I’ve weighed the wood that will be this fire; it comes in at 20 pounds. Let’s say the leftover ashes will weigh a pound, tops, when I shovel them out tomorrow. Does that mean that – given conservation of matter – I’ll have added 19 pounds of gasses to what’s aloft? Yes, and more: elementary chemistry reminds me that for each carbon molecule, there are two oxygens bound in. And so the mass of my exhalation is even greater than the carbon I burn.
Henry Thoreau got all this in his blunt and startling statement in the Higher Laws chapter of Walden. “Our whole life is startlingly moral,” he wrote. Then, he added: “There is never and instant’s truce between virtue and vice.” Even the breath we take in and the CO2 we give back.
My brain whirrs in wondering: of what are my pounds and tons made? How much driving, heating, eating? How much of the tiny engine that’s me? How can I contain my tonnage, lessen it? I am, I think, the little engine that does; I am combustion on foot.
Still, each day I set out walking. I value the trees that take in my CO2, offer back oxygen. I keep trying to live little, to maintain balance, to shovel less.
Link to Steven Koonin op-ed in the 11/4/15 NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/04/opinion/the-tough-realities-of-the-paris-climate-talks.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=opinion-c-col-left-region®ion=opinion-c-col-left-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-left-region
Got a white spruce for a Christmas-tree for the town out of the spruce swamp opposite J. Farmer’s. It is remarkable how few inhabitants of Concord can tell a spruce from a fir, and probably not two a white from a black spruce, unless they are together…How slender his [the villager’s] relation to the spruce tree! Thoreau, Journal, 12/22/53
In the town hall this evening, my white spruce tree, one of the small ones in the swamp, hardly a quarter the size of the largest, looked double its size, and its top had been cut off for want of room. It was lit with candles, but the starlit sky is far more splendid to-night than an saloon. Thoreau, Journal, 12/24/53
As a boy, I saw the arrival of our Christmas tree as a great event. It signaled a nearness that lit the nondescript (as I saw them) gray days of early December, when my trudge home from school exhausted what was left of the daylight. It was the stockpile of wrapped boxes around the tree that excited me, really; no religious fervor swept through out secular household. The nearest church was a half-mile walk away, and we didn’t make that walk in any season. But the season seized us all.
We bought our tree from a used car lot that gave up on autos after Thanksgiving. My father spent long (too long, I thought) minutes combing the lot for “the tree,” standing them on end, having me reach in through the prickles and hold the trunk upright, while he stepped back and did an appraising 360 of it. “This one’s good, dad,” I’d say, and he’d reply, “Set it down. Let’s look at that one over there.”
That changed when I turned eleven. That year, my parents, after much hemming and hawing, bought an old, wood-heated, unplumbed farmhouse in midstate New Hampshire. Some years and much work down the road, it was to be their retirement home, when they left the school that housed us. Across the road from the house was a deeply-furrowed, failed potato field. That summer, my father announced that that field would, some years future, fund my brother’s and my college tuition. “With potatoes, dad?” I asked.
Not with spuds, it turned out. Instead, during three hot days, we four planted 1,000 balsam fir seedlings, and, as we watered them against summer drought, we waited for them to grow. Each year, while we waited, we thrashed about our new woodlands, selecting a “wild” tree for Christmas.
That wait stretched over some years: college tuitions rose faster than the trees, and it wasn’t until I was a junior that we were able to sell some to the local Lions Club, which, in turn sold them in town. The few hundreds of dollars realized helped buy some gifts, and then, suddenly, the remaining trees were too tall.
As a new-fledged adult, or no-longer-kid, I still drove north each December, and, along the field’s fringe found a tree to cut, haul and decorate. At some point as I hovered near actual adulthood, I decided I would have one last tree and then stop cutting them. (Now, for example, we string lights on our Christmas driftwood, a pale pine branch stripped of all its bark and delivered by the sea, but with its fine fingers intact.)
For this final tree, I looked up and thought, why not a treetop, with its symmetry and leader-finger pointing at the sky? Later that day, small bucksaw in hand, I climbed a 25-foot balsam (yes, one that had been a 6-inch slip in that long-ago July field) and figured on taking its top 8 feet. It was a bit of a struggle past the thick branches, and I had trouble staying close enough to the trunk to climb, but eventually I got there. This top will look good lit, I thought, and I set to sawing, holding on with one hand, cutting with the other.
As many will attest, the crown of a balsam fir is…well…its crown, and, as I completed my cut, I made sure to get a grip on the top 8 feet so they wouldn’t pitch over and land crown first, thereby fracturing and ruining the crown effect. (Perhaps you can spot trouble on the way.)
I finished my cut, lifted the 8-foot section up and tossed it out so its butt would fall first. Then, I looked at my hands: one held the saw, the other held nothing.
Like Wily Coyote, I had time to register that there was a problem; then I looked down. I grabbed for the tree, but already I was falling back. Even as I picked up speed, I had time to think, Wow, this is Darwin-worthy, or, if I wanted mythic, How Icarian. Then I hit the earth.
Post-descent note: an early 6-inch snow had arrived a day before, and so my landing was cushioned; also I hit a flat, mossy patch of ground, had only my breath knocked from me. I lay there looking up; the tree looked down. Since then, I’ve kept to the ground and every holiday “tree” has been a foundling.
Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation … All Walden Wood might have been preserved for our park forever, with Walden in its midst, and the Easterbrooks Country, an unoccupied area of some four square miles, might have been our huckleberry-field.
— Thoreau, Journal, 15 October 1859
Happily, much of what Thoreau thought “might have been” has come to pass in Concord and Lincoln. And many, most, who visit these pages can sign on to such sentiment. But how, in these people-heavy times do we keep other lands free…of us? For many, putting land “in conservation” offers answer. That act can take a number of forms, but one that interests me here is the nicely titled conservation easement.
We are curious, expansive beings, ever nosing here and there, often settling in places where a first visit brings on a rush of exclamation: “It’s so beautiful! I wish I lived here.” And then, sometimes, we set about trying to do so. Beauty draws the heart, and often activates the hands. But once we set to with our building instinct, the results affect that beautiful place, and beauty itself. A little land rush of many of us compounds that effect; a beautiful place can become just another settlement. Conserving, saving, wildness and beauty then requires some way of easing that rush, holding us off.
Enter the easement. An easement in its simple form is a voluntary legal agreement made between a property owner and a land trust or government agency that permanently restricts certain land uses and activities. So, for example, a developer who offers a town a conservation easement on a 30-acre portion of a 60-acre subdivision could say that there will never be any houses or other development on those 30 acres. Once that agreement’s made, it’s up to the town to monitor whether it’s abided by.
Enter next, in my town’s case, the Conservation Commission, checker, among other duties, of easements.
It’s a middling summer day, enough heat to make me rue the blue jeans I pull on as guard against thorns, brush and, the new primary fear, deer ticks, but not so hot as to make you feel under the sun’s thumb. Two of us, members of our town’s Conservation Commission, meet a planning department intern at town hall, then drive to a stash of woodland that extends over 50 acres adjacent to a new development. We three are there to walk the easement boundary that marks the set-aside acres that the developer has said he won’t touch; these acres will be, by contract, forever wild…or, given nearby houses, wildish.
Surprise greets us as we pull up at the end of the dirt road: a logging operation is in full gnaw, its cuttings – 50 or 60-year old hardwoods – stacked by claw in a waiting truck. Quick consultation with the easement language says that part of this forest will also be “working.” Okay, add more “ish” to the word “wild.”
Still, we soon outwalk the cutting, and in the quiet woods fall to our primary task – following the easement borders by finding signs of that border. Those signs are three: best is a town “medallion” tacked to a tree as notice of easement boundary; next is some unofficial but prominent marker – a small cairn, a pipe driven into ground, a strip of orange “flagging”; last is the rusted wire bound of the old field this woodland once was. We fan out. I have a photocopied aerial of the woods; my fellow commission member uses her phone’s gps; our intern has the sharp eyes of youth.
We nose our way along the wiggly border, which, on the map, is a straight line. Just as woodwalkers grow gradually adept at following animal tracks, we get better at spotting sign of easement; this saved patch takes live shape as we walk. What also emerges during our slow passage are some of the woods’ little secrets – a knob of ledge jutting whitely from the duff, a bull-pine rising well above the canopy, deer tracks in the mud of a hidden dell.
In the course of our tracings, a couple of hours slip by; we emerge from thick woods at the top of a field. The high grasses stretch down to a wink of pond, and a breeze stirs the field. To our west, the sky thickens and darkens; thunder grumbles announcement. We search for sign and find a driven metal pipe topped with orange flagging at field’s edge. Both map and gps say the rest of our walk’s a simply crossing of field and walking of road.
Time then to ease back for a moment and watch this conserved field bask in the late summer sun – birds cruise for insects, grasses bend heavy with seed; pines crowd the clearing’s edge. This land’s slow future’s easy to read, a good story lined out for an easement-walker.
The expression “a pitch pine plain” is but another name for a poor and sandy level. Journal, Thoreau, 11/26/60
Morning of fog, a quiet gray in which the jay squalls. And I am thinking of the pitch pines, whose trunks rise like columns of smoke in the midst of our town Commons. My thoughts are born both of the morning’s stillness, which has a treelike calm, and of Henry Thoreau’s attention to pitch pines in his journal from late 1860.
I arrive at my journal readings much as a windbourne seed arrives at its patch of ground, where it will either languish or “take.” It turns out to be exactly a morning for reading about trees. The fractious and fractured world recedes when I consider these columns of patience and the way they succeed in unpromising ground, and today, as in many recent days, that seems necessary.
Often, during passes through our “poor and sandy level” in the Commons, I collect one or two sprigs of pitch pine and carry them home. There, they make a handsome reminder for a week or so before they dry and go over to tan color.
Pitch pines also attract me because they implicitly consider what’s next. Where and how they grow always tends toward a next forest; they are not usually a climax tree. In these entries, Thoreau is working out forest succession, wondering at the way cut-over Concord forest regenerates. And I suppose that by thinking about trees, rather than the news of the world, I am doing the same.
I like too the exuberant needle-burrs that grow directly from the trunk, a “habit shared only by the pond pine,” my Sibley Guide to Trees points out. These tufts look like little explosions of thought from the dark, scaled bark.
Whenever a strong wind has blown through, the woods are full of these little blowdowns. The thick bunches of dense needles that sometimes curve and swirl as they grow must catch the wind and overwhelm the soft joint with the tree. I have a lot choice as I walk.
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.