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”
By Corinne H. Smith
“Went to what we called Two-Boulder Hill, behind the house where I was born. There the wind suddenly changed round 90° to northwest, and it became quite cold … Called a field on the east slope Crockery Field, there were so many bits in it.” ~ Henry Thoreau, Journal, January 31, 1860
One morning at the end of March, six people accompanied me on a nature writing walk to Two-Boulder Hill, behind Thoreau Farm. We were armed with our journals and open eyes, ears, and minds. We were awake and alive. We wanted to see what we could see, on this muddy day that happened to overlap both winter and spring. The sun was shining and the robins were bobbing for worms in the front yard when we started out. We hoped to beat the expected heavy rain, which we had heard would arrive by afternoon. Off we went.
Following Thoreau’s advice, we were also determined to leave behind all of the big concerns of the day, including the unrest in Ukraine, the search for the Malaysian jetliner, and the devastation left by that massive mudslide on the opposite coast. “I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit,” Henry wrote in the essay called “Walking.” “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?” Yes, for at least a few hours today, we wanted to shake off the village and return to our senses. If we each found something nifty to write about, so much the better.
We stepped carefully around a few remnants of winter: some random patches of snow that had hardened into thick, slick ice. And we considered with wonder this landscape that had been covered for months with more layers of white. We found spots where we could only suspect that something tragic had happened. The sight of several piles of gray fur with no visible skeletons raised more questions than it answered. Several scat deposits lay in the middle of our path as well: one from a rabbit (perhaps), and another from a coyote (perhaps). (Note to self: Next time, bring along an animal tracking book that identifies such droppings.) The green fungi on a fallen log caught our interest, too.
We crossed what Thoreau called “Crockery Field.” Its tall grass from last summer had been flattened by the snow. If you looked closer, though, you could see bits of green moss peeking out from underneath the sharp tan blades. The story goes that before Thoreau’s day, this place was owned by a man who worked at the Middlesex Hotel on Monument Square in Concord. He brought home the slop bucket from the hotel kitchen in order to feed his hogs. That’s why Henry found bits of the hotel china in the dirt. More pieces may still be here.
We spent a good long while at Two-Boulder Hill. Each one of us found a sitting space where we were inspired to write in our journals. Some climbed up onto the actual boulders. From the nearby woods, we could hear the sounds of occasional birds, like cardinals, chickadees, crows, and woodpeckers. Sitting as we were in the direct line of Hanscom Field’s east-west runway, we also had low planes flying over us, on their way home. Each one of them had a different voice, too.
I scribbled some of my own thoughts into my notebook. Then I began to notice a growing rustling. The sunlight had faded, and the air had chilled. The shrub oaks on this hillside were still holding on to their brown leaves from last fall. A sudden wind was now blowing through them. I turned back to see what Thoreau had written in 1860. “There the wind suddenly changed round 90° to northwest, and it became quite cold.” I tried to orient myself and imagine the compass directions. Was this wind coming from the northwest? Maybe. I smiled and shook my head. We had wanted to follow in Henry’s footsteps. We sure had. We were experiencing something very similar to what he had felt at this very spot, 154 years ago. Wow!
When our group came back together for the return trip, I wasn’t the only one smiling. The others had felt and heard the wind change too. We all got the Thoreau connection. We couldn’t have planned our adventure any better.
The clouds were really rolling in when we got back to the house Henry was born in. Sure enough, the rain began soon afterward. Our timing was perfect.
We shared a few of our own impressions with the others. The fifth-grader had picked up a cool rock that she deemed as being “igneous,’ having just learned the three categories of minerals. We encouraged her to take it to school the next week. Then we parted our temporary and pleasant company. Each one of us left with a lot to think about. And none of it would be broadcast on the evening news.
We near May, and it’s the Himalayan silly season again, the narrow slice of time before the monsoon makes already extreme weather impossible for climbing. And in the various base camps beneath the planet’s grandest mountains, expeditions are arranged like little summer camps for adults. I say this because most of the climbers there are with commercial expeditions led by guides who function as counselors – they make all the decisions, set the schedules, assess the ground and sky before them. And the “campers?” They follow along, plod and haul themselves, or are guide-hauled, through unimaginable weather and terrain; occasionally, often in clusters, they even lose their lives – it is after all an extreme camp. But mostly they do as they’re told. Some come back having “climbed” to the world’s highest summit.
Today, at noon and under the springiest of skies, I stepped from my door and set out on foot for local woods. I had in mind an hour’s run, mostly of trails softened by recent rains and outlined by a cold front’s scrim of snow. Some minutes later, I reached the old railroad grade that runs alongside the Assabet River, and I turned upstream. The grade is slight and only a few root-bundles disturb its reliable surface. And so it wasn’t long before I’d fallen into a lulling cadence and my mind had drifted free. I had mountains on my mind, mostly from my habit of carrying a topo map with me for those spare moments when I’m waiting for something – a class, a colleague, a pizza. My maps usually feature the White Mountains or local USGS quadrangles, but recently the Himalayas have been in my pocket.
Perhaps that’s because I’ve been thinking about the long ago, when my parents realized a lifelong dream and walked 175 miles from Kathmandu to the Base Camp of Everest, took in those awesome uplands from 16,000 feet (took hundreds of photos too) and then walked the 175 miles back to Nepal’s capitol. I was in high school at the time and relieved to be allowed to stay there. And, of course, they brought back maps, which I read avidly. For my parents an essential part of the dream was walking the Himalayan landscape and approaching Everest under their own power. Yes, they had a Sherpa guide and small party of porters, but this was 1965, well before the trekking era set in; only sporadic expeditions of real mountaineers or oddball dreamers visited in those days.
For some reason, around that time, and despite a fascination with and affinity for the upland world, it became clear to me that I was happy confining farflung mountainscapes to maps, that I liked my local hills enough for a lifetime. And that, unlike many of my younger self’s convictions, has held.
Many years later, when Henry Thoreau’s writings became walking companions, I found expression for the deep local travel that I had intuited as a teenager. It began to seem to me that where I walked and ran was all one landscape, and that, when I traced the contours of one of my maps, I could also use my feet to follow on nearby trails. One day in midwinter I was looking out at the roof-dumped snow just beyond a plate glass door; up its vertical ice, a cold-stunned fly was climbing, making his way higher across the seracs and up the gullies. Surely, that fly was on his own Everest; it was nearby.
So too is mine. No need to hire planes and outfitters; no need to arc across the world; just unfold the local quadrangle and aim for those two bunched contours you’ve never visited…or the ones that puddle like silk dropped to the floor. They all run together underfoot.
By Ashton Nichols
On a huge abandoned tractor tire, in the scrubby woodlot back behind the house, I find a jet-black wooly-worm style caterpillar, as long and as thick as my thumb, his prickly bristles pin-sharp to the touch. An hour later, I return to the spot and he is gone, having wandered off somewhere to weave his thick cocoon, hiding deep in the dark underbrush that separates one large farm field behind us from another.
My field guide tells me that this is a Giant leopard moth larva, Hypercompe scribonia (archaic: Ecpantheria scribona), a member of the family Saturniidae that ranges from southern New England to eastern Mexico. These are among the largest of all moth species in North America, and the family includes such beautiful giants as the luna moth, the cecropia silkmoth, and the two-eyed Polyphemus moth. We used to catch these and mount them in cigar boxes when I was young, amazed at their size and wild coloration, stunned by their furry antennae and always wondering at their astonishing lifestyles.
This caterpillar has hibernated here in our woodlot all winter, and now that it is one of the first warm days of April, he has emerged from his underground hiding place to feed for only a few days. Then he will get to his busy work, forming a dense and silky cocoon in which to metamorphose (what a verb!). He will emerge from his chrysalis stage in two or three weeks, now a fully-formed moth, ready to fly off and find a mate, fully developed and prepared to continue a life cycle that has been going on for who knows how many millions of years.
How can this small creature change so much—from this prickly black and red larva to a delicately winged flying machine—and how can this change possibly happen so quickly; it takes less than a full month. Where do his caterpillar body parts go? What happens to all of those prickly spines and those jagged caterpillar mouthparts, what becomes of all of those wooly worm legs? There were certainly many more than six of them. The adult moth will have just six perfectly formed legs. And what about the bright red rings that marked off his caterpillar segments; where have they gone? Where have all of these earlier parts disappeared to in their cocoon stage?
He emerges from his cocoon as a beautiful black and white adult with shining blue and yellow stripes on his abdomen. Sometimes this iridescent blue—almost a sapphire shiny blue—continues as spots on the top and back of his head. Such metamorphoses remain one of the truly great mysteries of nature. What genetic forces, what chemical combinations, what signals from chromosomes and developmental triggers transform that jet black and fire-engine red caterpillar into this stunning adult creature, with its delicate white wings, its fat orange abdomen, and its oh-so-sapphire blue spots. I do not know.
In his Journal for February 19, 1854, Thoreau says that it is the “mind of the universe” that is responsible for the creation of each moth’s cocoon, for the fashioning of “each particular object.” He adds that, “a kindred mind with mine” determines “how cocoons had best be suspended.” As for me, I just wonder as I wander.
Ashton Nichols holds the Walter E. Beach ’56 Distinguished Chair in Sustainability Studies in Environmental Studies and Science and is a Professor of Language and Literature at Dickinson College.
By Corinne H. Smith
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” ~ “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” WALDEN
At the end of our house tours, we encourage our visitors to consider how Thoreau’s philosophies apply to their own lives. How have they chosen to live deliberately? How have they turned thought into action? To share their answers, guests write their declarations on cards and tack them up on our bulletin board. In the “off season,” we collect selections to share with our online audience. Here are our favorites from our visitors in 2013. (To go back and read the ones from 2012, click here.)
- Ride a bike. The world becomes simpler …
- Listening to the land helps me learn how to live on my own.
- I try to speak up when I think my thoughts will make a difference. I listen to my instincts when I am not sure what to do.
- Realizing the great abundance and blessing I have – by just being aware. I have decluttered and simply given away “stuff,” realizing that relationship with “stuff” is not as important as relationship with people. (G)
- We checked off all we could from our own “list” and have now opened our home to teach about solar power / farm living. We can all do more, but at some point have to share “how” and hope to pass it on.
- We try to eat sustainably for our own health and for the environment. We keep up with current issues and thoughts and occasionally delve into history for insight.
- I try to maintain an open enough mind, so that even those who may cause me to doubt the goodness of humankind, also have something to teach me about my own nature.
- By having a nice walk into the wood of Mendon every weekend.
- I try to stay in the moment, especially by going on nature walks and paying attention to Life! (TR, Waltham MA)
- I teach, always from the perspective of the silenced. “Much Madness is divinest Sense…” ~ Emily Dickinson
- I try to treat others as I would want to be treated and RESPECTED.
- I make sure I find some time every day to listen to the birds and see what nature has brought into my backyard. It brings me peace and happiness – Living deliberately. (Amy, Stoughton)
- I have stopped using plastic where I can – storing in mason jars. I deliberately make friends and spread kindness and positivity. (Karen)
- Take care of the place you live and know where your consumption materials come from and where your trash goes. (Oliwa)
- I turn the heat way down at night without my wife knowing.
- I was an English teacher for 31 years and called my classroom “The Athena Academy.” I taught my students that the goddess of wisdom had gray eyes because that is where wisdom lies: in not thinking in black and white but instead in the infinite shades of gray. This was central to my teaching approach – deliberately echoing some of Thoreau.
- I use my time in ministry with students – helping them mature, grow in their knowledge of God and their values. I find my greatest connections with God through nature and meditation and am motivated to love others and have compassion because most men live lives of quiet desperation. (Corrie O.)
- Run with my dog off-leash through the woods observing flora and fauna, reflecting each night in the wonders I live in. Grow herbs, fruits and vegetables organically with our own compost. (Sandra B.)
- I have chosen a career that is in line with my values and also would meld well with Thoreau’s ideas. I have always strived to live simply with relatively few possessions, and put more energy and intention into human and natural interactions. (Anoush)
- Do what you love; love what you do.
- I am living the life I’ve imagined!
- By staying attuned to the needs, both physical and emotional, of others. By not taking too much, thereby leaving enough for others. “Leave only footprints, take only memories, kill only time.” (MS, Kauneonga LA)
- Live as if today was the last day you had. Absorb as much as you can, enjoy the learning. Make your life and the lives of others more meaningful in a way that better suits your interests and talents. (Jolante)
- What did Thoreau say? “…only when I came to die, to find out I hadn’t lived.” So I thought about what I wanted to be sure to have “done,” “been,” “experienced,” “felt” – and then I spelled it out and am trying to be “deliberate” now.
- I believe Henry would smile just knowing how much he influenced my generation. (Bob M.)
We feel inspired by our friends’ examples. What about YOU, blog readers? How have YOU chosen to live deliberately? Our online bulletin board awaits your input.
Every mile has its measure
but of course counting’s not the game;
you left the numbered life behind – the price
tags the thumbed texts the ten tattooed digits
of your first phone – for a foot-won world where
for once this ramp of rock offers
easy answer and you can look ahead
into the glacial tumble of stone and
see one two three see four see maybe five
points where your foot will land – first that humped
turtle-rock then that mudded swale (its
soft skim you know is inch deep only) then
left foot lifts straight to the flattop (poles
set to drive down) from which flexed toes allow
you to spring ninety degrees right your boot
canted to forty-five your thigh a coil
and then you soar you bear only air be-
fore settling softly on the tablerock
of step five where there’s no pause where already
the bright wrapping’s off and the land ahead
is yours to puzzle out – solve, solve again.
By Corinne H. Smith
“The geese have just gone over, making a great cackling and awaking people in their beds. … How indispensable our one or two flocks of geese in spring and autumn! What would be a spring in which that sound was not heard?” ~ Henry Thoreau, journal entries, March 28 and April 15, 1852
I remember the first time I heard the calls from a flock of Canada geese. I was waiting for the bus to take me to elementary school. It was a cool morning. I had just walked the length of our gravel alley and had turned down Rohrer Avenue to stand at the intersection. All along the way, I heard the barking of dogs. It seemed to be a distant sound, made up of a lot of voices, a lot of different dogs. More than we had in our neighborhood, that’s for sure. It lasted for longer than dogs usually barked, too. I looked through the yards around me, searching for some activity in the bushes or on the ground that would show me who these odd guys were and what they were up to. And that’s when a movement in the sky somehow caught my eye. It was a line of big birds flying just above the treeline, heading north. As I watched them go, my young mind suddenly put the image and the sound together. Aha! Not dogs, GEESE! I had heard about them. If I had been a cartoon character, I would have earned the honor of having a light bulb switch on above my head.
Here in the lower valley of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, I hear the sounds of Canada geese on a regular basis. (Even decades later, I still think first of dogs.) Many of the birds stay here all year long. But some must still migrate from one place to another. They traditionally follow the path of the river north, from the Chesapeake Bay to upstate New York. Where they eventually end up, I’ve no clue. Perhaps at a man-made pond next to an office building.
But other voices are calling from our skies these days, too. Some of the flying lines are made up of white bodies, not brown. Snow geese! I saw them feeding on the ice-covered fields that farmers had just spread manure over, too. They were nibbling on whatever little critters flourished in the natural fertilizer. Good for them. Our snow was melting fast, but the ground was still frozen. They had found a good food source, in spite of the weather conditions.
Then one day last week while I was sitting at my desk at work, I heard a different sound coming from outside our windows. I knew it was something flying. At first I was reminded of the other-worldly call of the sandhill cranes, which I was used to hearing when I lived in the Midwest. But they don’t venture this far east. I opened the window for a closer look and listen. These birds were white but they were huge, and they had black bills and faces. Tundra swans! I’d never seen or heard them before. I confirmed their identity and call with Cornell’s “All About Birds” web site. They were heading for a nearby marshy wildlife management area, where reports said that thousands of others had already gathered. Groups of tundra swans continued to pass over us for the rest of the afternoon. At first, I ran over to watch each one of them, stunned in amazement. Then as time went on, I merely looked over from my seat at my computer, to catch a glimpse of the birds through the glass. Imagine, being “too busy” to stop and watch something I’d never seen before. I quietly chided myself for my sorry behavior. And kept on typing.
Yes, everyone is on the move. They’re all following the path to home. The birds are just the most noticeable ones, and they indeed create a stirring sight. But really, we ALL have the homing instinct. And at this time of year, it seems to move inside of us, too. Don’t you just want to jump in the car or lace up your shoes and GO somewhere? I sure do.
Corinne is scheduled to lead a nature writing walk called “Seeking Wildness” this Saturday, March 29th, from 9 a.m. ’til noon, beginning at Thoreau Farm. Walker-writers welcome.
Equinoctial Flight – 1855 and 1977
For us the cold keeps on, even as the light grows. So too it was for Henry Thoreau in March, 1855. Near the equinox that year, Henry crossed Fairhaven Bay on foot, estimating that he could probably do so for another “4 or 5 days.” Ice still skimmed over recent daymelts.
But light and life were everywhere and Henry was abroad on foot often, and his evening entries stretched out too. One in particular formed an equinoctial narrative, complete with plot and characters played out over two days.
On March 22nd, Thoreau wrote of his afternoon walk:
Going [along] the steep side-hill on the south of the pond about 4 P.M. on the edge of the little patch of wood which choppers have not yet leveled…I observed a rotten and hollow hemlock stump about two feet high and six inches in diameter, and instinctively approached with my right hand ready to cover it. I found a flying squirrel in it, which, as my left hand had covered a small hole in the bottom, ran directly into my right hand. It struggled and bit not a little, but my cotton glove protected me, and I felt its teeth only once or twice.
Thoreau carried the resisting squirrel home with him rolled up in his handkerchief, and, as we would expect, made a study of him. Once home in his room, Thoreau released the squirrel, holding him only by description, which, as we would also expect, was precise: “Color, as I remember, above a chestnut ash, inclining to fawn or cream color (?), slightly browned; beneath white, the upper edge of its wings (?) tinged yellow, the upper dark, perhaps black, making a dark stripe.” Flying or “sailing,” however, wasn’t easy in a room’s confines, where walls and slippery surfaces mystified and subdued the little squirrel; when it grew quiet, Thoreau noted, “In a few moments it allowed me to stroke it, though far from confident.”
Then, on the 23rd, he
carried my squirrel back to the woods in my handkerchief. I placed it, about 3:30 P.M., on the very stump I had taken it from. It immediately ran about a rod over the leaves and up a slender maple sapling about ten feet, then after a moment’s pause sprang off and skimmed downward toward a large maple nine feet distant, whose trunk it struck three or four feet from the ground. This it rapidly ascended on the opposite side from me, nearly thirty feet, and there clung to the main stem with its head downward, eyeing me.
Well, yes…as would we all.
Thoreau then did what one would expect: he marked the spot of initial ascent and measured each flight as the squirrel “skimmed its way like a hawk between and around the trees.”
The long, detailed wonder of this entry struck me as having the essence of spring in it. It took me back also to this little story of flying squirrels, set in the New Hampshire woods of 1977:
In this winter of storm, the tough iced hide of March snow still covers the sun slope. I’ve made a chair of my old, gut-strung snowshoes, and while my dog, Wally, noses and snuffles around the bases of beech trees, I lean back, close my eyes and feel the sun take my face and then my mind. Adrift in the play of warm air laced with fingers of cool, I half-dream; my breathing slows. Finally my mind quiets; images and thoughts slide beneath the surface.
When I open my eyes, I’m looking up into the branches of the hillside beeches. A cerulean sky backs a dark gray canopy. The sun has edged west to my right cheek. No wind stirs. Wally lies curled in a ball of sleep. My fingers play idly with his copper fur; he wakes and stretches. A squirrel emerges from a near tree’s trunk and climbs ten feet to a branch where it sits, tail curved. Wally tracks it with his eyes. The squirrel runs out along the branch and jumps. I blink, straighten up. A squirrel with a death wish! I wonder. The tiny body hangs against the blue backdrop, then begins to fall. But then the squirrel spreads its legs, and folds of skin unseen before form air-catching arcs; it soars downhill fifty feet, heading for a smash-up with a trunk, when, bare feet away, it pulls its head up, bent nearly to its back, stalls in midair, then settles onto its sharp claws and climbs this next tree.
In the afternoon sun a whole troupe of northern flying squirrels emerges and strings together this grove with flight. Wally runs to ground from tree to tree, but they never fall.
Note: I found news of an intriguing experiment in support of flying squirrels at the following blog-address: http://newsforsquirrels.blogspot.com/2013/05/why-did-flying-squirrel-cross-road.html
by Ashton Nichols
Do you have a crazy cardinal? We do, and he is so crazy right now that we are starting to worry. Let me begin at the beginning. We had our first crazy cardinal when we moved to the countryside of Virginia . . . in 1978. Since then, whenever we have lived even a mile or two from town, we have had one crazy cardinal, or two, or three, every winter. How do we know? It is easy.
Around this time of year, almost like clockwork, in late February or early March, a banging sound begins on our windows. It sounds at first as though a neighbor might be throwing something at the window, whether we have neighbors or not. Then it sounds so repetitious that we realize that it must be a big branch banging on the glass, or falling icicles, or some other repeated natural sound. Then we remember, Cardinal . . . winter . . . crazy cardinal.
Bang! There it went again, just now, while I was typing this sentence. Bang! . . . and again. I am not making this up. He is banging into our lodge-room window right this minute. And before that he was banging against the dining room glass, and before that, when our car was parked in the driveway, he was flying from a nearby forsythia bush . . . bang . . . into the glass of the passenger window. Then he would see his reflection in the side mirror and, bang, he would fly into that reflective spot. He would even rest on top of the side-view mirror, waiting until he saw his reflection in the larger window again, and then . . . Bang! There it went again. Just now.
These cardinals are not really crazy. They are just being good cardinals, almost always male cardinals. They are doing their cardinal jobs in spite of all of the reflective glass surfaces we humans have added to their natural, usually non-reflective, environments. In springtime, each male cardinal wants to carve out his territory. He wants a territory and then a mate, and then a nest, and finally baby cardinals. He begins by clearing his territory of all other cardinals, especially other male cardinals. When he sees a male cardinal, whether it is another male cardinal or the reflection of a cardinal–even himself!–he attacks without pausing, and he attacks again and again until the competitor cardinal is gone. Unless the competitor is him.
In the wild, this means that a successful male chases all of his competition away, so that each male cardinal is left with the female or females in one special area and he can get on with the business of mating and creating this year’s cardinal family.
Bang! There it went again, bang! Twice in ten seconds. The only way to stop him is to put a piece of cardboard on the offending glass, move the car, or wait for the sun to shift the reflective surface. I had better go get the cardboard now, and let this poor cardinal get on his with his mating, his nest-building and fathering. After all, I want to help him to be a good cardinal. These crazy cardinals actually seem to be the smart ones.
Ashton Nichols holds the Walter E. Beach ’56 Distinguished Chair in Sustainability Studies, Environmental Studies and Science and is Professor of Language and Literature in the Department of English at Dickinson College
By Corinne H. Smith
This winter I have been so busy watching and worrying about the little birds hunkered down in our evergreens, that another resident of our yard completely escaped my notice.
This story begins with the tall shrub that stands in front of our picture window. I don’t know its species or even its common name. It gets pink flowers in the summertime. It’s not a Rose of Sharon, a hydrangea, or a rhododendron. For now, let’s call her Eleanor. She had been cut short before we moved here. She spent most of last year growing tall and wide and leafy. I’ve since roped her in a bit in order to train her to grow up instead of out, because she’ll have to clear the roofline this year. I will admit that she does bloom nicely.
All winter long, Eleanor just resembled a vertical stack of bare sticks. I’ve been looking past her for months to admire the falling snowflakes. Only recently did I notice a lump on one of her branches. I trudged outside in the snow to get a closer look. It must be an insect gall. Some little critter has been spending the winter safely tucked inside it. And whenever it senses that the time is right, it’ll eat its way out and join the ecosystem of our fine neighborhood. Who knew? Not me, until now. Our mailman brushes past this bush six days a week as well, without giving it a glance. The gall blends in with the landscape.
All I know of galls is that an insect deposits an egg into some sort of plant matter in the fall. The plant secretes something that encases the egg, thereby unduly protecting it and giving it a future food source. A gall may look cancerous, but most of the time, it doesn’t result in an adverse effect to its host. And specific insects choose specific plants. The two are somehow perfectly matched. I usually associate them with goldenrod. I almost always find a marble-sized mass stuck in the middle a few stalks standing in a patch of goldenrod. But now that I have another example right in front of me, I think of how amazing this entire process is. And wouldn’t you know it? When I went outside to take a photo of it, I found a second similar gall on another branch of Eleanor, too. One of these days, we’ll have two new residents.
Our old friend Henry Thoreau found galls on goldenrods, too. But most often he spied them on oaks and willows. In his journal on June 1, 1853, he spent a few lines considering this phenomenon.
“It is remarkable that a mere gall, which at first we are inclined to regard as something abnormal, should be made so beautiful, as if it were the FLOWER of the tree; that a disease, an excrescence, should prove, perchance, the greatest beauty, — as the tear of a pearl.”
Thoreau must have taken some time to ruminate on galls and their greater meaning. Nearly two months later, on July 30, 1853, he wrote about them again. By now he could find a related human-sized metaphor.
“[An insect gall completely changes] the destiny of the plant, showing the intimate relation between animal and vegetable life. The animal signifies its wishes by a touch, and the plant, instead of going on to blossom and bear its normal fruit, devotes itself to the service of the insect and becomes its cradle and food. It suggests that Nature is a kind of gall, that the Creator stung her and man is the grub she is destined to house and feed.”
Well, I don’t know that we have to go THAT far.
Nevertheless: Two specific insects who have been attracted to this specific bush – Eleanor — have used her to their advantage for many months. Soon they will leave as anonymously as they arrived. The only notice I’ll have is to suddenly see a small hole in each one of these hive-like cases. And then they will be gone, off to do whatever tasks are left for their little insect souls to do. They’ll get no fanfare, no trumpets, and no applause. And I’ll bet that not even the mailman will notice.
Come to think of it, that does sound a lot like us.
These days the morning light has me looking up and out. Despite the ongoing cold – it was one below zero again this morning – the advent of each day whispers, “spring,” and I can, if I want, raise a glass of evening wine to the cloud calligraphy on a backlit sky. On both ends the days stretch out like a dog awakening from a long nap.
This oncoming spring has a special tang to it in that I’ve decided it is the one in which I will finally “graduate” from high school, moving on to the sketched lines of what’s next. That approach has me paying close attention to the present, of course, and it has me also in a summary mind about my many accompanied readings of Thoreau. Here’s a little of that thinking.
Teaching Henry Thoreau to high school students has prepared me for it: “He saw so far into the future. How did he do it?” A look of unguarded awe defines her face.
It’s a couple of months into the semester and we are near the end of Walden; “Economy” and its long consideration of “necessaries” is fading memory, if it is memory at all. And my student is in the grip of wonder at this writer who saw so clearly, both across Concord’s fields and over time. I often ask myself this question too: how did he do it?
Early in 2013, without aiming at answer to this or any other question, I decided to accompany my passage through that year with Henry’s in 1854, publication year for Walden; without being overly rigid about the day to day, I would read his journal for those months, keeping rough time with it. It seemed a companionable prospect, and it was. In the edition I read, this volume ends on August 31st. For a school-teacher this seemed fitting.
But what occurred to me over those months was how Henry Thoreau’s close and clear-eyed look at his daily world coalesced and became a vision of the larger world…and where it was headed.
The close examination “Economy” is, of course, a key to seeing forward – what exactly is necessary, it asks. And once that’s determined in its spareness, in its simplicity, then, then there is time to look up. And out.
When the flowers will out; when the birds will return; when each individual will become her- or himself. Thoreau was both scientist extrapolating and poet imagining – that’s at least some of how he did it.
By Ashton Nichols
Like many, if not most, readers of The Roost, we have recently had the coldest cold-snap in recorded memory. In our neck of the Eastern woods, the mercury has hovered in the single digits for days, and it has reached 0, and 1, and 2 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s -18, -17, and -16 (or thereabouts) Celsius for you more sensible European counters) at night. The days have not been much better, single digits for almost a week and more cold forecast into February.
Today we had a warming spell: 15 at sunrise, then 20, 25, and now 35 outdoor degrees on my indoor/outdoor thermometer. In our wood-heated home, the indoor temp is a wonderfully warm 67 F. We were standing at the kitchen window, just a few minutes ago, drinking our afternoon coffee when my wife said, “Look at those birds, they are bathing in the snow in the birdbath. “
And there, sure enough, were a dozen or so English sparrows, sitting on the hard frozen surface of their summer birdbath, with 2-3 inches of recent powdery snow on top, and they were shuffling and fluffing, and pecking, and doing all of the things that birds do in the summer when their birdbath is full-up with clean fresh, and always unfrozen, water. But now it was icy cold winter.
We had never noticed this phenomenon before, so we stopped what we were doing, and we stood at the kitchen window, and we watched those cute little birds taking their icy cold birdbaths in the fluffy cold snow all around them. They shook their chests as hard as they seemed able, they kicked the snow up onto their fluffy breast feathers, they hopped a little and ruffled their feathers a lot, and they made nice little circles of open space on the hard-frozen water beneath them.
I went outside to make sure that the water had not started to melt and, sure enough, it was as hard-solid as an ice skating rink, with only the tiny sparrow claw-marks and striped feather strokes pushing the snow away from the frozen ice surface beneath. After I came back inside, the birds would return for a minute or so, then something would spook them and they would fly off again, into the nearby trees, waiting for the chance to return to their snowy ice bath; after all, it was still winter.
Birds bathe, not because they want to be clean as we humans do, but because they need to get the dirt and the lice and the mites out of their feathers, partly so they do not weigh more when it is time to take to the air, but probably most of all because those other little living critters must make them crazy as they nip and nibble and latch onto the bird’s skin underneath that tight surface-covering of feathers. Ornithologists also report that bathing is essential in order for birds to retain necessary oils in their plumage, oils without which the birds could neither fly nor survive.
So here were out little creek-side sparrows (we live within sight of the creek), with no birdbath-water in sight, bathing in the snow on an icy birdbath in order to retain those precious oils and keep those nasty parasites at bay. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge might have said, these little birds were “miracles of rare device.” As Henry David Thoreau did say, “I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment [. . .] and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.” That is how we felt today, watching our local sparrows snow-bathe in front of us: honored and distinguished, lucky to have chanced upon this little moment of sparrow-life that still seemed so special to us.
By Corinne H. Smith
“I have been into the lumber-yard, and the carpenter’s shop, and the tannery, and the lampblack factory, and the turpentine clearing; but when at length I saw the tops of the pines waving and reflecting the light at a distance high over all the rest of the forest, I realized that the former were not the highest use of the pine. It is not their bones or hide or tallow that I love most. It is the living spirit of the tree, not its spirit of turpentine, with which I sympathize, and which heals my cuts. It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.” ~ Henry Thoreau, “Chesuncook,” The Maine Woods
I used to live in a second-floor apartment that had a view of a driveway, a garage, a woodshed, a hillside, and a sunken backyard complete with garden cottage. Standing in the midst of it all was a full and picture-perfect Douglas fir. A Christmas tree allowed to go wild, perhaps. She stood almost three stories tall.
I called her Momma Tree because she supplied shelter for many of the birds in the neighborhood. Cardinals, blue jays, juncos, chickadees, sparrows, and mourning doves all hid in her dusky green depths, at one time or another. When the nearby bird feeder was stocked, everyone politely took turns launching to it from her branches. Oh, a few squabbles erupted every once in a while. The noisy blue jays often seemed to be the culprits behind the disputes. But Momma Tree was a comforting presence to all. It seemed rude to start a fight at her fingertips.
One day, the air was filled with big wet snowflakes. Hour after hour, they kept falling. Hour after hour, they combined to lay down a beautiful blanket of thick, heavy snow. By nightfall, Momma Tree was covered. Her once-perky arms now aimed straight down toward the ground. She still stood tall, but she was burdened. I wasn’t sure if she would recuperate from the encounter.
The next day arrived with a bright blue sky. The sun popped over the hillside in full blast. When I looked out the window, I saw a poof! of snow falling off Momma Tree. A sunbeam had helped her begin to shed the weight. I plopped myself down with a cup of tea to witness the rest of the show.
If you asked for an explanation from the guys on The Big Bang Theory, they would assess the scene as a sample of pure physics. Sunlight hits a snowy evergreen branch. The warmth on the dark green needles and brown bark turns the adjacent snow into water. The process of melting causes a frozen chunk to release its grip and slide off the branch. Suddenly relieved of this weight, the flexible arm of needles bounces back and upward. Since a body in motion tends to stay in motion, the up-and-down swaying lasts until its momentum can fade to stillness again. In the process, more snow slides off that branch. When the falling snow or the branch hits other branches, a chain reaction takes place. More branches sway, and more snow falls. An occasional light breeze may aid in the process, too. Soon the whole tree appears to be alive, shaking off its cold and unwanted covering as easily as a dog sheds suds after a bath. It’s just that easy.
I watched Momma Tree shuffle off that snow until the sun sank behind the farthest hill. She was almost entirely green again. All of her branches had bounced back but for one. It still carried a frozen mass that looked like a white Persian cat, with its eyes closed in sleep and its nose flush to the tip of the greenery. Its fuzzy legs dangled down on either side of the branch. That part re-froze when the temperature dropped overnight. It took Momma Tree the rest of the week to rid herself of the icy snowcat. Then she was back to normal.
Of course, I know that trees are living things. But until that afternoon, I had never seen a tree actually do something, really undertake a task. Momma Tree had a “living spirit,” all right. I felt honored to have seen her in action. I felt an even greater connection to her from that moment on.
Don’t believe that a tree can move on its own? Watch a snow-covered evergreen on a sunny winter day. The poof! you see as the first sunbeam hits the ice will be your invitation to pay attention.
I moved away from that address in July 2012. That’s the last time I saw Momma Tree. Before I left, I walked out to thank her and to wish her well. I heard the wind whispering through her needles in reply. I think about her from time to time, and I wonder how she’s doing. How many birds is she boarding? How did she deal with this last snowstorm? I will never forget the priceless lessons she taught me: about the aliveness of a tree, and of the value of time spent on one winter afternoon, just sitting and watching.
After the latest storm blew through (leaving a good deal less than hyperbole’s prediction), we thought it a good day to strap on winter’s big feet and snowshoe out to a nearby point for a look at the February ocean. Back in post-thaw January, when the cold returned, the whole salt bay had been iced over, and some of the cast-up chunks of sea-ice had been the size of Volkswagens. What, we wondered, might the rising sun angle have wrought, even amid the long cold and repeating storms?
After the usual remembrance and wrestling with our bindings, we ‘shoed up over the plowed berm and out along the track into the woods. The winter-blue sky was deep and the northwest wind stripped sleeves of snow from the trees, seeding the air with snow-grains that curved and recurved like flocks of tiny birds. Snowshoeing is slow going, and it took us about a half-mile to remember this. But then we stopped trying to stride forward (which catches the toe of your ‘shoe, pitching you forward) and fell into its deliberate lifting rhythm. We were in no hurry.
Under the few inches of new snow, the recent rain-crust cracked, dropping a half-foot at every step in oversized indentations. We were leaving monster tracks; some explorer, stumbling across then for the first time, would be wary – how big must this creature be to leave such tracks? As we ‘shoed on, leaving a path of possible wonder, I fell to thinking about our far western cousin, Big Foot himself. (There have, I’ve read, been sightings of Big Foot in every state, except Hawaii.)
Grainy fabrications aside, all we have of Big Foot are his (or her) tracks. But unless some descendant of the Merry Pranksters is out there in the dark woods of the Pacific Northwest, strapping on outsized feet and striding gleefully through any available mud, there is something/one out there. Big Foot was on my mind because I’d recently read (here is the Thoreau connection) Robert Sullivan’s old Big Foot article in Outside Magazine. (Sullivan, you may recall, is the author of the recent The Thoreau You Don’t Know, one of my favorite modern works about him.)
From the article, originally published in Open Spaces, an attractive journal also from the northwest, a few things became clear: first, Sullivan – always drawn to quirky subjects – must have smelled a book in Big Foot. But, as he visits with various Big Foot searchers (and “researchers”), the loopy nature of the Big Foot community comes clear; circles of rivalry and self-reference form the spin of excitement and myth that keeps Big Foot alive. And yet, despite the outsized estimates of his (or her) size – upwards of seven feet and perhaps 1,000 pounds – Big Foot remains seldom seen. And undocumented.
All this mulling and slow ‘shoeing brought us to the sea, which shimmered under the race of wind and the angled sun. We walked along the bluff above the water, and as we did, we followed also fresh coyote tracks, three or four coyotes if I read the overlays well. Partway out to the point we reached a point of convergence – the tracks radiated out from a short slide down the bank next to an overhang; we must have been right above the den. Pulses a little elevated, we waited. The wind kept hurrying through the woods; the sea sparkled; we were awake to the possibility of other lives.
Then, we walked on. Any tracks we crossed were now heading the other way. Thoreau often sketched the tracks he found into his journal; they were the calligraphy of other lives, their sentences. And from these sentences emerged a sense of a world both real and mythic.
We ‘shoed on, leaving our big-footed tracks.
By Corinne H. Smith
I should have known that the place would be packed with cars and people, because our newspaper had run the story on the front page. Dozens of bald eagles had been spotted fishing in the open water by a dam in the lower Susquehanna River valley, the reporter said. The rest of the river was encased in ice. But with temperatures rising, the scenario could soon change. The ice would melt, and the birds would find other fishing options and would leave. What else could we do? We don’t usually see eagles around here. So off we went, for an eleven-mile countryside drive downriver to the Safe Harbor Dam.
It was noon by the time we got there. We earned a front-row parking space only because someone else was leaving when we arrived. Bunches of avid birders were lined up along the shoreline. Some of their scopes and lenses were longer than my arm. A few low and quick conversations murmured in the background. You could identify the many amateurs, like me. We just wheeled our little binoculars toward anything that was in the air. Turkey buzzards, gulls, crows, whatever. Could you see a white head and white tail? No? Darn. Where were all of these silly eagles, anyway?
I’m not totally new to these sightings. I’ve seen bald eagles in the wild on a few occasions. Most often it was when I lived in the Midwest, within a few hours’ drive of the Mighty Mississippi. River towns in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin hold eagle-watching days at this time of year. Whenever the surrounding landscape is blanketed with snow, the eagles flock to fish the dams. I once saw 15 bald eagles sitting in a tree at Guttenberg, Iowa, and watched as they took their turns diving down to the water. That’s a special and vivid memory for me.
But there’s nothing quite as spectacular as the unexpected encounter. On a murky winter day in December 1996, I was driving south along the Mississippi River from Minnesota to Wisconsin. The river was to my left – looking like a flat white meadow — and my car and I darted among the high sandy bluffs. Suddenly I saw a large black bird flying at our level, over the river. My mind zipped through a series of mental flash cards to identify it. When it matched the size with the white head and tail, it sent the answer to my mouth. “Oh my god, that’s an eagle!” I said out loud to myself, several times. I got a real-life shiver along my spine. And then he wheeled out of sight.
Henry Thoreau may have felt this same magic when he saw a bald eagle flying over Fair Haven Bay in the Sudbury River in April 1854. He had recently bought a new spyglass and suddenly found a good reason to use it.
“Saw a large bird sail along over the edge of Wheeler’s cranberry meadow just below Fair Haven, which I at first thought a gull, but with my glass found it was a hawk and had a perfectly white head and tail and broad or blackish wings. It sailed and circled along over the low cliff, and the crows dived at it in the field of my glass, and I saw it well, both above and beneath, as it turned, and then it passed off to hover over the Cliffs at a greater height. It was undoubtedly a white-headed eagle. It was to the eye but a large hawk.” ~ April 8, 1854
Two weeks later, he saw it again:
“Lying on the ground with my glass, I could watch him very easily, and by turns he gave me all possible views of his wings curved upward slightly the more, like a stereotyped undulation. He rose very high at last, till I almost lost him in the clouds, circling or rather looping along westward, high over river and wood and farm, effectually concealed in the sky. We who live this plodding life here below never know how many eagles fly over us. They are concealed in the empyrean. I think I have got the worth of my glass now that it has revealed to me the white-headed eagle.” ~ April 23, 1854
But back at Safe Harbor on this day, among all of the other glass-wielding watchers, I found I didn’t have the patience or the proper attitude for eagle-watching. The sun was too bright. The birds weren’t hungry or restless. They weren’t flying or fishing. Some of them sat in trees on little islands that were too far away for me to focus on. When I caught a glimpse of a golden eagle flying overhead, I didn’t point him out to anyone else. He could remain anonymous and unremarkable this time. The stars of this show were supposed to be the ones with the white heads and tails. I eased back behind the wheel and slowly maneuvered us and our car out of the congestion and back into the open countryside. I’ll come back when the eagles outnumber the people.
I Meet the Happiest Dog
In the white air
of this storm
Perhaps it is the full air, all that cold contact with snowflakes that must feel like so many cold noses, but whenever I meet dogs while walking through snowstorms, they seem inordinately happy. This goes especially for capering labs, who set up also resonance with the memory of our yellow lab, Elmo.
A walk, any walk, was the day’s celebration for Elmo, but snow was a holiday – snow was for snuffling and rolling; snow was the right substance for “tossing a nutter,” the sudden break into sprinted circles that mystified us even as he blurred with speed and stirred snow. When he stopped, Elmo would look at us expectantly – why, his eyes seemed to say, aren’t you running in circles? How can you stand still? Then, he’d bark once and be off, following whatever thread of scent or thought ran ahead of him.
The other day, walking the river as it snowed, I met Elmo’s chocolate cousin (many times removed). He stopped, looked up happily, expectantly. “Grrrreat!” he seemed to bark; then, he was off, snow flying up from his paws, the whole forest within reach.
Henry Thoreau referred to most dogs as “Bose” or “Trey,” common canine names in his day. Here, I think he missed out. There are few (no?) better companions for “cross-lots walking,” the sort Thoreau preferred.
by Ashton Nichols
Thoreau Farm, and its new blog outlet, “The Roost,” are important sources for information about the links between human life and the natural world. These are the same links that Henry David Thoreau worked so hard to explore and explain in the nineteenth century. My latest book, Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism: Toward Urbanatural Roosting (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) explores a number of those links in detail. Most importantly, I argue that we need a new concept, and a new word to describe that concept. The new word we need is “urbanature.” The concept this word describes is the idea that nature and urban life are not as distinct as we have long supposed. Here is why.
Hawks are roosting on skyscrapers near Central Park East and Central Park West. Peregrine falcons are feeding on the Flatiron Building, and owls are nesting throughout Manhattan. Meanwhile, thousands of environmentalists board carbon-gulping airplanes and fly thousands of miles (carrying tons of Gore-Tex) to get “back to nature” in Montana. At the same time, the World Wide Web tells us that Thoreau said, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” Over 600 websites say so. But Thoreau did not say, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” He said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” This difference–”wildness,” not “wilderness”–makes all the difference.
Urbanature (rhymes with “furniture”) is the idea that all human and nonhuman lives, all animate and inanimate objects on our planet (and no doubt beyond) are linked in a complex web of interconnectedness. We are not out of nature when we stand in the streets of Manhattan any more than we are in nature when we stand above tree-line in the Montana Rockies. When nature-lovers say they long to return to nature, they are making what the philosophers call a category mistake. As Tyler Stalling has recently noted, “There is no ‘real nature’ to which to return. Rather, in the face of burgeoning technologies such as nanotechnology and genetic manipulation, the once defined border between nature and culture is obsolete.”
We are never fully cut off from wild nature by human culture. This is the central aspect of all true ecology. Nothing we can do can ever take us out of nature. There is nowhere for us to go. We are natural beings from the moment we are biologically born until the moment we organically die. Instead of describing the nonhuman world anthropocentrically—in human terms—we now have many good reasons to describe the whole world ecocentrically [eco-: oikos, house]. Our nonhuman, natural house is the same place as our fully human, cultural home.
Urbanature includes the biggest of big pictures: birds on buildings, fish in fishponds, chemists making medicines, mountaineers climbing mountains, every dolphin and domestic dog, every gust of solar wind and every galaxy. To be “natural” originally meant, “to have been born”: natura—“birth” and also “essence,” as in “the nature of the problem.” The human-made is no less natural because it has been shaped, no less born or essential because it has been fashioned by human hands. The bird makes a nest, and her nest is no less natural than the bird herself. Human hands make a house, and the house–or even the skyscraper–is no less natural than the human hands that shaped it.
Thoreau fits with this idea so well because his hut at Walden Pond was a mere mile-and-a-half from Concord. He could walk into town for dinner with his mother or a conversation with Emerson. Indeed, he was arrested and spent his famous single night in jail during his two “wild” years at Walden. These details are important because–along with his successors: Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard, and Terry Tempest Williams, to name just a few–Thoreau and these other nature writers remind us that life away from the urban world is only part of the nature-writing story.
Urban culture and wild nature come to much the same thing: Urbanature.
Ashton Nichols is the holder of the Walter E. Beach ’56 Distinguished Chair in Sustainability Studies & a Professor of English Language and Literature at Dickinson College.
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In 1855 January was as variable as the one now winding down. Near its end, Henry Thoreau wrote, “What a Proteus is our weather,” and then went on to say, “Let me try to remember its freaks.” The list that follows tracks Thoreau’s close relations with all weathers, though I was heartened also to read this: “January 17. Forget.” Ah, even Henry Thoreau, he of the wide-bodied journal-memory, forgot things.
What also runs through Thoreau’s journal that month is his fondness for skating. At every opportunity, and they were many, Thoreau is out on the meadows and rivers on his skates; it seems his winter’s walking. So, it was unsurprising to reach Jan 31st and find Henry out early on that cold day, already attaching his blades to his feet and, after trying “my boatsail on the meadow in front of the house” setting out up the Sudbury. The boatsail got left behind because, though he could “go well enough before the wind,” he found “I could not easily tack.”
And so Thoreau set off, and as I followed his account of skating upriver, I thought, How different (as usual) from other skaters was Henry. That tossed me back to my own skating memories, mostly from childhood, and the way skating was often confined. Either it was rink-bound, or, even as we skated on our ponds and meadows, enclosed by land and/or conjured, snow-lined banks. And, enjoined still by our parents, we skated only on secure ice. So, we skated in circles and ellipses. Who among us skated upriver? Let alone followed its winding course for 12 miles?
What caught and kept me in this day long ago was Thoreau’s sense that he was adventure-skating – where the bridges and causeways crossed the river he found “on every shore there was either water or thin ice which would not bear.” Okay, we’ve all seen how melt traces such the footings and beams of such structures. Time then to turn back. Instead I read this: “I managed to get on some timbers of a bridge, the end of a projecting “tie” ?, and off the same way, thus straddling over the bridges and the gulf of open water about them on the edge of the thick ice, or else I swung myself on to the causeways by the willows, or crawled along a pole or rail, catching at a tree which stood in the water, — or got in.” Ah yes, “in.” That too.
For me this small story is irresistible, both for its persistence and for its absence of complaint – nothing about soggy clothing, cold hands, uncooperative ice. No woe, o no. The day ends, however, with this advice applicable today, I think:
You were often liable to be thrown when skating fast, by the shallow puddles on the ice formed in the middle of the day and not easy to be distinguished. These detained your feet while your unimpeded body fell forward.
By Corinne H. Smith
In the 19th century, they flew in flocks so enormous that they filled the entire sky and seemed to go on forever. They were Passenger pigeons, Ectopistes migratorius. And Americans considered them to be just as endless a natural resource as the water and the trees and the rest of the terrific bounty found on this continent. This opinion prevailed until the last individual, a captive pigeon named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914. With her death, a once prominent species went famously extinct.
Henry Thoreau was quite familiar with these birds. In June 1861, he and traveling companion Horace Mann Jr. examined several wild pigeon nests that they had found in basswood, oak, and hop hornbeam trees in the prairie land near Minneapolis. When the men later steamed by riverboat up the Minnesota River, they passed through a remnant of the Big Woods, the noted old-growth stand that once covered 2000 square miles. Here the trees on either side of the water were “all alive with pigeons & flying across our course,” Thoreau wrote. You can almost imagine the sight and the sound of a thousand beating wings.
Back in Concord, Thoreau saw smaller flocks and individual Passenger pigeons in the wild. But several men he knew also built “pigeon-places” designed to attract large numbers of birds. They offered good nesting spots and plenty of food … until large nets were strung up and dropped to catch and to kill as many birds as possible. Entries in Thoreau’s journal describe these local outposts.
“Saw a pigeon-place on George Heywood’s cleared lot, — the six dead trees set up for the pigeons to alight on, and the brush house close by to conceal the man. I was rather startled to find such a thing going now in Concord. The pigeons on the trees looked like fabulous birds with their long tails and their pointed breasts. I could hardly believe they were alive and not some wooden birds used for decoys, they sat so still; and, even when they moved their necks, I thought it was the effect of art. As they were not catching then, I approached and scared away a dozen birds who were perched on the trees, and found that they were freshly baited there, though the net was carried away, perchance to some other bed. The smooth sandy bed was covered with buckwheat, wheat or rye, and acorns. Sometimes they use corn, shaved off the ear in its present state with a knife. There were left the sticks with which they fastened the nets. As I stood there, I heard a rushing sound and, looking up, saw a flock of thirty or forty pigeons dashing toward the trees, who suddenly whirled on seeing me and circled round and made a new dash toward the bed, as if they would fain alight if I had not been there, then steered off. I crawled into the bough house and lay awhile looking through the leaves, hoping to see them come again and feed, but they did not while I stayed. This net and bed belong to one Harrington of Weston, as I hear. Several men still take pigeons in Concord every year; by a method, methinks, extremely old and which I seem to have seen pictured in some old book of fables or symbols, and yet few in Concord know exactly how it is done. And yet it is all done for money and because the birds fetch a good price, just as the farmers raise corn and potatoes. I am always expecting that those engaged in such a pursuit will be somewhat less groveling and mercenary than the regular trader or farmer, but I fear that it is not so.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, September 12, 1851
“Brooks has let out some of his pigeons, which stay about the stands or perches to bait others. Wild ones nest in his woods quite often. He begins to catch them the middle of August.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, July 18, 1854
“They are catching pigeons nowadays. Coombs has a stand west of Nut Meadow, and he says that he has just shot fourteen hawks there, which were after the pigeons.” ~ Thoreau’s journal, September 14, 1859
While Henry Thoreau kept in contact with the owners and operators of these pigeon-beds, he was most interested in what the birds ate. He wrote down what kinds of seeds the men used as bait, and what evidence could later be found in the birds’ stomachs. “It is a wonder how pigeons can swallow acorns whole, but they do,” he noted, on September 13, 1859. They must have been truly remarkable creatures. And because Heywood, Harrington, Brooks and Coombs were not the only folks who kept pigeon-places, the pigeons are now gone.
In 2014, we can use the centenary of the last Passenger pigeon as a time for contemplation about sustainability. Certainly we now understand that species come and go, within the natural dynamics of our earthen environment. But Martha’s kind suffered a man-made extermination. How many other deliberate and preventable extinctions have happened in our lifetimes? How many more will we tolerate? How and when will we memorialize the future disappeared: the last Cave salamander, the last American emerald dragonfly, the last polar bear? Now is the perfect time to reflect and consider and act, and to learn from the mistakes of the past.
To learn more about “Project Passenger Pigeon: Lessons for a Sustainable Future,” visit http://passengerpigeon.org, or “Like” its page on Facebook.
“The delicious soft, spring-suggesting air, – how it fills my veins with life! Life becomes again credible to me. A certain dormant life awakes in me, and I begin to love nature again. Here is my Italy, my heaven, my New England.” Journal – 1/7/55
January does have a way of making us look forward – to longer light, to easing cold, to the whole green future presaged by thaw. Thaw presses us ahead in time and imagination; we shift from our endurance shuffles with their little steps to avoid slippage and our necks pulled in toward bare-headed strolling. Even the sky seems to draw a little closer. We feel expansive. And, paradoxically, we also feel returned to the present moment; rather than trying to hide from it, we feel the very air.
So it was for Henry Thoreau during 1855′s January thaw, and so it has been for me. Along the nearby Sudbury River each morning a column of fog has mimicked the water’s passage, a gray and gauzy snake of tangible air. It flows; the water opens.
The other day, amid all this “spring-suggesting air,” I bumped into an article in the Boston Globe recommending that we attend to our “online lives,” with an eye toward what will happen to them after we die – offline that is.
That odd juxtaposition got me thinking about my growing unease with things-online, where one is never present, never alive in the very air of the moment. It’s bad enough to be distracted from the place where we live, but if we are now to begin planning for our online afterlives, how much wider will the split between our real and conjured lives grow?
As he walked on that January day in 1855, thaw brought this to Thoreau: “On the same bare sand is revealed a new crop of arrowheads. I pick up two perfect ones of quartz, sharp as if just from the hands of the maker.”
I think I prefer such a line of walking, where the past can join the present, to the leaping away and forward of online time. I prefer to be here rather than there.
Endnote: yes, there is the irony of hoping that you read this piece as online posting. I genuflect to that irony. Then I go out the door and down to the river.
By Corinne H. Smith
In the “Time is But a Stream” post of December 31, 2013, I wrote about the Susquehanna, my neighborhood river. I included a beautiful photo of it taken by my friend Bob Hollis on the blue-sky afternoon of December 21. Ever since, I’ve continued to look at the river, to think about it, and to consider Thoreau’s metaphors about rivers and eternity and how time flows by and with us. And we, with it.
Then the “polar vortex” hit. When I next peeked at the river from our second-story office window, I saw solid white instead of fluid gray. It had frozen over. Single-digit temperatures had turned this mile-wide liquid stream into a chunky ice-covered meadow. What an amazing sight it had become! And so quickly, too. I could barely stop admiring it. I could barely stop smiling at it. I had to go down to its edge and take a closer look.
Of course, the Susquehanna wasn’t completely frozen. Areas of open water lay next to the nearest bridge. And somewhere beneath the ice, a current was still heading for the Chesapeake Bay, fifty miles away. Fish and other critters must still be surviving in its chilly depths. But when I looked downstream, all I could see was the jagged white stripe of a cold and arctic landscape. “Surreal” was a word that came to mind. I almost expected penguins and polar bears to materialize on the horizon.
This wasn’t the first time I had seen changes to a major body of water in winter. On my first-ever visit to Concord, Massachusetts, in December 2000, I found Walden Pond under a seamless layer of snow. If it was truly the “earth’s eye,” as Henry Thoreau considered it, then it had quite a blind or albino gaze that day. I’d also seen a snow-covered Mississippi River separating Illinois from Iowa, during the years when I lived in the Midwest. You had to know where the river was, back then. Otherwise, the space was just as flat and white as the buried cornfields beyond its steep banks.
No, it was ice that capped the Susquehanna this week, not snow. Occasional sunlight sparkled off a myriad of sharp and crusty points. It was as if the roof of a cave had landed upside down in our midst. Or, closer to home: it resembled the shaggy crystals that hang along the sides of a kitchen freezer that hasn’t been defrosted in a while. (I know of what I speak.)
This unusual sight was enough to prompt a few Thoreauvian metaphors and philosophies to swirl in my head: how unforeseen challenges can suddenly change the consistencies of our lives; or how time can seem to be suspended, or even stopped, when we least expect it. And yet we all go on; we have no choice but to somehow “go with the flow/floe,” and pause when it pauses. Yes, the river was even more beautiful and interesting and thought provoking to me than it had been before. I felt as if it were putting on this special show for me alone.
Then, a few days later, the local media took notice. The state of the Susquehanna was a top story on the six o’clock news. Was the ice dangerous? How were the ice chunks moving downstream? Would they cause flooding when the air temperature rose and the ice began to melt and move? Were any of the river-edge residents in the adjacent cities and towns in jeopardy? Authorities were said to be “watching it.” Well, so was I. Join the club, I thought. Where were you when the first ice patch materialized?
While their concerns were no doubt valid, they bothered me. It seemed narrow-minded and nearly rude to focus on the hazards of the ice, and not the marvelous beauty of it all. As is too often the case, the newsfolk brought their negative brand of reality into my icy fantasy world. The Susquehanna may flood, or it may not. And we’ll just have to deal with what comes with our now-warmer temperatures. Either way, Thoreau was right. What a piece of wonder a river is!
Susquehanna River, January 12, 2014
In my 22nd year, I spent an end-of-the-road winter in a wood-heated house with no insulation or plumbing. Well, there was a hand pump, but its leathers froze when true cold arrived, and, that winter, true cold never left my midstate New Hampshire valley beneath the mountain I saw as a friend. So, I burned my semi-dry wood, melted snow and adapted to bathing once a week on a plywood sheet in the dooryard. I learned to choose windless days for that.
My nearest neighbor was a half-mile away, and most days I wandered the valley and ridges on snowshoes and thought about what I might write. Writing had been, ostensibly, the reason for moving there, but really I’d moved into winter’s absence because of an absence of ideas in the aftermath of college.
Rescue from aimlessness arrived when it snowed sufficiently. Then, my neighbor, Donald, who was also the town’s road agent, would pull up in the town plow and hire me as co-driver. Really, I almost never drove; my job in the shotgun seat was twofold: keep Donald awake; dig the wheels free when he slid into a ditch. I grew reasonably adept at both, telling Donald long, convoluted stories about hippies – with my long hair and beard, I was the valley’s sample – and their reasons for wanting to drop out into valleys like ours, or making dopey jokes, which made him laugh enough to stay on course…most of the time. When Donald slept or caught his blade on the edge of a ditch and we yawed into it, I’d dig out the wheels, while he napped or strung a come-along to a tree across the road. Then, we’d struggle out and return to freeing the 65 miles of town road that were Donald’s domain.
But this is a story about a storm when Donald never arrived. In fact, it was an 8-inch snowstorm that no one plowed, and I was reminded of it during the recent uber-cold snow that fell on us all. Here, in Maine, the temperature topped out at minus 2, even as snow filled the air; in the evening it was minus 7 by 9:00, and that was a few miles from the sea. Inland, temperatures dropped as low as a stunning minus 42.
A long life of weather-watching has given me a broad sample of experience, but this week’s frigid snow is only the 2nd such snow of my life. The other was the day that Donald stayed home.
That morning I dug myself out from bed’s thick covers to start the stove. I’d grown acclimated to waking to sub-freezing temps indoors, but as I felted kindling into the firebox, I felt uncommonly cold. I lit the paper understory, fitted the circular lid over the firebox and opened the drafts. Then, I shuffled over to the window to look at the thermometer. The window was frosted and iced thickly over, and I grabbed a butter knife and set to scratching. Zero seemed a good guess, and so I cleared the ice from the window near where zero might lie. Nothing. No trace of red. Scratch, scratch – minus 10. Nothing. Scratch, scratch, scratch – minus 20. Still, nothing; whoa. Scratchscratchscratchscratch – minus 30. Is that a hint of red? Scratch, scratch – 33 below.
Well, that was my thermal lowpoint (and it stands still today), and I dressed and went out into this wonder. It was absolutely still. But the trees were in voice, or, more accurately, full complaint. Snaps, groans, pops and general tension echoed all around me; it felt as if the whole sky weighed more than usual. My nose-hairs webbed immediately and my breath caught in my throat. The winter I knew felt transformed; the cold had made the land alien.
Later that day it snowed a windless snow, a snow so light that 8 inches later I cleared it from the doorway with two sweeps of a broom.
This week’s snow was that light.
By Corinne H. Smith
In my five-and-a-half decades of taking breath on this planet, I’ve lived within the boundaries of some of our major American watersheds: the Chesapeake Bay, the Ohio River, the Great Lakes, the Upper Mississippi River, and the Connecticut River. But it’s only in this last year that I’ve paid almost daily attention to the water course now flowing closest to me, the Susquehanna River. Mostly because my weekday office sits just a block away from it.
Though I rarely go down to its edge, I often look at the river from our second-story windows. I’m amazed at how its appearance differs daily, even from this distance. In dramatic weather, it changes hourly. Here its mile-wide span must surely affect our own east-bank weather, especially on those days when fog or snow flurries swirl around our building. Not bad for something that begins in Cooperstown, New York, as a stream small enough to jump across. (Yes, I’ve done this.)
Henry Thoreau seems to have written most often and experienced his most introspective moments when he was near water. I don’t believe this was by accident. Yes, he documented the seasonal growth and infinitesimal changes in his local flowers, plants, bushes, and trees. But he knew that – the sky, notwithstanding — nothing on earth illustrates drama better than a body of water. He learned this information firsthand, after paddling the Concord and Merrimack Rivers for two weeks and after living at Walden Pond for two years.
Many quotable passages about rivers and lakes can be found in Thoreau’s writings. Here are a few of my favorites:
“A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. The fluviatile trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows.” ~ “The Ponds,” Walden
“For the first time it occurred to me this afternoon what a piece of wonder a river is – A huge volume of matter ceaselessly rolling through the fields and meadows of this substantial earth making haste from the high places, by stable dwellings of men and Egyptian pyramids, to its restless reservoir. One would think that, by a very natural impulse, the dwellers upon the headwaters of the Mississippi and Amazon would follow in the trail of their waters to see the end of the matter.” ~ Journal, September 5, 1838
“A river is superior to a lake in its liberating influence. It has motion and indefinite length. A river touching the back of a town is like a wing, it may be unused as yet, but ready to waft it over the world. With its rapid current it is a slightly fluttering wing. River towns are winged towns.” ~ Journal, July 2, 1858
Naturally, nothing can beat the following quote. And in my mind, it has absolutely nothing to do with the act of catching a fish.
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.” ~ “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” Walden
Metaphor was one of Thoreau’s favorite literary devices. An ever-moving river makes a terrific symbol for time and eternity. Here Henry gives us two concepts (and many more, if you read the rest of this passage in the book). The first is that each one of us could be the hook at the end of the thin filament of a fishing line, cast into the current of Life. We each make an inconsequential drop into the watery world. Plop! We’re just that tiny, in the grand scheme. But we’re invisibly connected to the other little plops – uh, people – who are traveling downstream, too. We’re all in this together.
The second idea is about living Life fully and deliberately: “drinking” at this stream. Thoreau goes on to say, “I would drink deeper.” I interpret this wish as saying, “I would like to stay on this earth as long as possible and do more exploring into it. There seems to be not enough time to do and see everything that I want to.” We all feel this way sometimes.
No matter where he went and what others he saw, Thoreau’s favorite river remained the Concord. Maybe its attraction was not just that it was his hometown waterway. Maybe it was the pace of the Concord that was more to his liking. Its current is often barely discernible. Just like the courses of our daily lives and the progression of Life.
As this year winds down, I think I’ll spend a few minutes sitting beside the Susquehanna, just watching. I can contemplate the passage of time: the past, the present, and the future, all at once. I can consider my own small cast and what adventures may lie ahead for me at the next curve. The river doesn’t know 2013 from 2014. It just flows on from one day and month and year to the next. It heads for the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, doing what it has done since the last glacier receded. When it meets an obstacle, it either passes around it or, if the object is light enough, it carries the weight along until it can find a place to drop it.
Another nice example to follow.
On one of the year’s last days, I leave home to walk to the sea. At the driveway’s end I turn right, then soon right again until I reach the end of our cul-de-sac. There, I join a woodland path that threads first through new developments and then into the Town Commons, established in 1719. I am on my way.
Though my proposed walk was a trifle shorter than John Muir’s walk to the sea in 1858, I think the same impulse set each of us walking. Muir famously walked from his Wisconsin home to the Gulf of Mexico, a months-long, thousand-mile venture, the first of his many long walks in a lifetime devoted to first learning and then preserving the natural world (founding The Sierra Club in the early 1900s). But on this first walk, Muir was leaving home to see the ocean, and he was leaving home to find himself. A thousand miles seemed little as obstacle to two such goals.
I too set out to see the ocean, and the icy four miles of trail and road I had to walk seemed short enough. The previous day’s rain had washed away the season’s early snows and all that remained was the foot-beaten track of gray ice, uneven and slick. No one else was afoot in the woods; the sweep of north wind rushed in the high pines.
Like Muir I had walked away from home to be alone. Muir was leaving more than I and for longer, however. Behind him as the miles multiplied faded the defining force of Muir’s Scottish father, a dour, strict man who established order with day-long, pioneer labor and evening and Sunday worship of Calvin’s God. Muir and his siblings lived lives of tedium, exhaustion and fear as they hacked a life from the Wisconsin woods.
My happy home amid a fringe of white pines in Brunswick, Maine contains none of what oppressed Muir, but it does hold the predictable me; the paradox holds that you must leave home to find yourself (a truth certainly apparent to all of the students I teach as they look outward at college and its surrounding world). Re-enacting this departure daily has always seemed to me a necessity. Otherwise I become too sure of myself, too certain that what I see and feel has the inevitability of fated truth.
The trees in the Town Common stand and wave between forty and seventy feet in height, and it was their collective voice I listened to as I walked south. Trees, of course, walk nowhere (unless you count Tolkien’s ents); they are masters of staying put, sending down fingery roots that, over time, sometimes exceed the tree’s airy reach. Few of us linger with trees, especially as we pass beyond the age of imagination, when climbing them seems a discovery of both distant worlds and a trusted relative. On this day, however, even with the sea calling, I stopped with a few and ran my hands over the rough corrugation of their trunks. Looking shyly both ways first, I half encircled one big fella with my arms, pressing my cheek to its bark’s roughness. Its tonnage rose above me; its girth exceeded my longest reach; I felt satisfyingly small. Then I walked on and emerged from The Town Common onto a series of backroads that lead to the sea.
Why did Muir choose the sea? I can’t recall whether, in his essay, he said so or not. But in mid-walk among the fields that open down to Middle Bay, I sense what Muir may have felt: expansive freedom and a return of sorts to some lost, original place. I go to the sea daily when I’m in Maine, and it never loses its strangeness. Well, let’s see: here we have familiarity and strangeness, an odd, perhaps self-canceling combination, yes?
Thoreau – forewalker to Muir – knew such mixtures – he called it being awake.
Today’s post is inspired by Corinne’s recent meditation on winter’s first shoveling following hard on fall’s last raking. In her post, Corinne invoked Thoreau’s “inspector of winter,” and that got me thinking about the sorts of inspections winter encourages. Surely one is of what lies overhead. Here then, is one inspector’s report. What inspections must you make to satisfy this season?
Shoveling the Sky
The sun inclines toward evening and
what wind there was lies down, the way
deer yard up to winter sleep in the
protective pines. From the ladder’s top rung
I shovel a way onto the roof and step
cautiously into its field of snow its broad
expanse pitched slightly (sun-state design)
to the southwest’s rumor of spring
and filtered sun. Here is settled sky,
the layerings and leavings of a dozen storms,
each weighing on its forebears, winter’s journal,
finally ice. With my shovel I am precise, cutting geometries – squares, rectangles, and everyone’s
favorite, the trapezoid, its four lines happily
askew in the irregular world. Even with my
back-saver shovel, its shaft bent so
the blade levels for easy lifting,
I have to divide each sector into three passes,
ten pounds that I can heft and hurl 500 times
and the blocks of snow fly with the direct
intelligence of stone; they thud repeatedly
adding to the haystack corpus of old sky
that rises now near roof level. Each block
a million flakes sliding from the slick
shovel a brief comet trailing its tail
of spray arcing over the gutter –
gone, already the next chopped free of the fallen
sky; I am the roof-god coiled, his shovel beginning
its rotary swing – who would have thought
the sky could weigh so much?
What keeps it aloft?
By Corinne H. Smith
One day I was raking leaves. The next, I was shoveling snow and ice. Just this quickly did we move from Autumn into Winter.
“Live in each season as it passes,” Thoreau wrote in his journal on August 23, 1853. “Breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each. Let these be your only diet drink and botanical medicine.” He continued at length on the subject, promoting the intake of the foods that surface throughout the year, in a paragraph that would find favor today with folks aimed toward holistic health. “For all Nature is doing her best each moment to make us well,” he claimed. “She exists for no other end. Do not resist her.” This remains good advice, no matter which century it comes from.
I like to go back to his opening credo: “Live in each season as it passes.” He surely didn’t mean just to “live” or to “survive” in each one. He could have easily substituted the words “embrace” or “appreciate.” The changes are going to happen anyway. Why resist them? Why not enjoy them, and see what new fruits they have to offer?
As a confirmed Winter Lover – yes, one friend has even dubbed me a “Snow Queen” – I have little tolerance for fellow Northerners who hate this weather. I freely admit it: I love winter and snow. I can understand how bitter cold temperatures and reduced light can wear upon a human body and spirit. But snow? Snow is beautiful. It evens out the landscape and covers up its imperfections. It says quietly, Look at the freshness I can create out of a place you thought you knew. Snow is good for plant life and for our water supply. Even shoveling it can be a joy, if you time the action and your own movements wisely. And if you don’t know how to drive in it, then stay home. Don’t clutter up the highways with your quirky quick turns or bad braking techniques. Or at least don’t complain when you end up in a ditch. The rest of us will move along just fine. Slowly and surely, and with good tread on the tires. And that’s okay.
Why do our TV broadcasters seem utterly surprised whenever snow and ice appear? They treat the intrusion as an enemy invasion, making it the top story of the day. They send reporters out amongst the falling flakes, where they point to a convoy of maintenance vehicles that have been sent out on a mission to do combat: to either plow away the offensive stuff, or to spew something on the surfaces to allow speedy and necessary travel to resume as quickly as possible. Experts are brought in to tell us how much longer the inconvenience is expected to last. I’m guessing, until at least the end of March. We live in the North, and this is winter.
Now another Thoreau quote comes to mind: the one where he touted his self-imposed title of “inspector of snow-storms.” If he were here today, we’d give him a job. We’d dress him up in an L. L. Bean snowsuit, give him a microphone and a ruler, and aim a camera at him. Inspect away, Mr. Thoreau. Tell us how bad it is out there. Give us a reason to change our plans and to stay home tonight. What if he instead looked at us, looked at the snow, shrugged, and said, “Live in each season as it passes”? What a relief that would be!
This time, our first snowfall was expected. The flakes came steadily, almost in theatrical fashion, falling nicely and evenly and with perfectly vertical orientation. This was no blizzard. And we had no need to go out into it – though at least six NFL teams had to work in it, and their games were fun to watch. The only task I had was to walk a block to the nearest grocery store for milk for the next day’s breakfast. I enjoyed the perks of suburbia as well as the peacefulness of a nice snowfall.
Yes, at this time of year, I like to lie awake in bed at night, listening to the tapping of sleet and snow against the windows and on the roof. I hear the heavy metal scrape of the local snowplow resounding throughout the neighborhood, and the truck’s orange warning light swirls around my bedroom walls. ‘Tis the season, and I’m living in it. I can even say I love it.
I know there are still leaves lying beneath the snow. I should have raked them a week ago, when I had the chance. But you know what? Winter has arrived and has made the world beautiful. I am living in this season now. The leaves will have to take care of themselves.
One of the pleasures (and occasional curses) of deep familiarity with a book is our tendency to “see” it in other readings. While this tendency may at times make us into so many Procrustes (the mythic Greek blacksmith and (of course) son of a god, who showed his hospitality by stretching or cutting his visitors to fit his guest bed rather than adjusting the other way), more often, it enlivens our readings and adds new visions to them.
Here’s one such mash-up brought to me during recent reading. I wonder if you have the same sort of experience when reading Thoreau?
Thoreau and Bly – What We Drag Behind Us
In A Little Book on the Human Shadow (Harper and Row, 1988), Robert Bly writes about what we express and what we hide as we grow to be our adult selves. Chapter 2 is a short essay entitled “The Long Bag We Drag Behind Us,” and, for me, the image has always made me think of Henry Thoreau and his move to the pond. Bly suggests that, as we grow and decide what parts of us to show, we put the other parts – often those that are socially difficult – in our bags. But, of course, because our bags are full of us, we must take them along wherever we go. It is labor to drag such a bag behind oneself.
Each time I read Walden with students, this image returns to me. There, in 1845, is the 27-year-old Henry Thoreau, building his 10′ by 15′ house in the woods by Walden, and as he works – getting “well pitched” by the “tall arrowy pines” that are becoming this house, another sort of ‘bag’ – he must be thinking about what he will put into it. What will he carry out from town in his cart? How will he furnish it? What, in short, is “necessary?” Who will he be out here?
What Thoreau makes clear in “Economy,” his long stumbling- block of an opening chapter, is that answering these questions carefully is vital to the life that will follow. And so some 60+ pages into the book, he thinks about furnishing his house:
Furniture! Thank God that I can sit and I can stand without the aid of a furniture warehouse. What man but a philosopher would not be ashamed to see his furniture packed in a cart and going up country exposed to the light of heaven and the eyes of men…
And – no surprise – Thoreau goes on to tout a minimalist approach to such possessions. He wants his cart to be light, easy to pull; it is practical advice. But then a shift in imagery and tone arrives, and the reader realizes that Thoreau is – no surprise here, either – intent on making metaphor of his thoughts on furniture:
If you are a seer, whenever you meet a man you will see all that he owns, ay, and much that he pretends to disown, behind him, even to his kitchen furniture and all the trumpery which he saves and will not burn, and he will appear to be harnessed to it…
Here is a version of Bly’s long bag we drag behind us, a mix of possessions and pieces of self that we feel we must have and, at the same time, hide. Such work – this walking and hauling of self out into our own lives.
Perhaps this is what Thoreau means when he nudges himself (and us) toward realization – when we both realize who we are and what choices we have made to become that person. And, in doing so, we make that person real. Perhaps then, we unpack, sell off what we don’t need and set off lighter into our lives.
By Corinne H. Smith
“Of course it is the spirit in which you do a thing which makes it interesting, whether it is sweeping a room or pulling turnips.” Henry D. Thoreau, Journal, November 26, 1860
Last week with this positive attitude in mind, I headed outside and grabbed the rake. The community pick-up trucks were due on Monday, and I had many hours’ worth of work ahead to gather up all of our leaves and deposit them on the front curb.
Our big back yard is home to four large trees: a red oak, a sweet gum, a white pine, and an indeterminate deciduous tree whose leaves turn black and curly. Two houses west, a tall maple litters the landscape with progeny that comes our way with every wisp of the wind. Get the picture? I had raked and gathered just two weeks earlier, but now I found myself wading through another thick layer of leaves. They were back. Let the games begin.
Could leaf-raking be undertaken as a transcendental activity? I thought so. I dismissed the use of the landlord’s gas-powered leaf blower, which was stored in a nearby shed. Such devices are an affront to the eyes, ears, and nose, in my opinion. And too many of my neighbors relied on them. I wanted to be deliberate, be outside, be quiet, and become one with this small part of the world. For just a little while.
It was a bright but brisk and windy November day. I soon had to go back inside to get my winter gloves and scarf, though I was dismayed when I could not find the matching woolen hat. My ears would have to suffer. The wind also gave the leaves their last chances to dance and to fly. I often found myself herding a flock instead of leading a charge.
Eventually my brain ceased to dally with its daily cares and instead focused on sounds. We’re never far away from the mechanics of civilization. With my full attention drawn downward, I could still hear a small plane flying overhead, regular traffic on a nearby highway, an occasional siren from a passing ambulance, and the pointed stops of buses that carry our suburbanites to the nearest city. At least these buses are now powered by natural gas and not by diesel fuel.
In the midst of it all, the act of raking itself created a satisfying sound. It was soothing to listen to the flat wooden fingers as they stroked the leaves, the grass, and the ground. By comparison, the same action turned suddenly harsh when the rake moved across the wooden deck and the asphalt driveway. Over them all, I kept an even pace. Rake, rake, rake. Drop batches onto a plastic tarp. Drag the tarp to the front sidewalk. Slide the leaves onto the sidewalk. Over and over, again and again. Even thrice-weekly workouts at a gym didn’t exercise the kinds of muscles I was using now. I would be sore for days. But it was a good, healthy feeling.
A few lines of noisy Canada geese steered across the sky above me. I stopped to watch as one group turned itself around and headed back to where it had started. Silly geese. Then little birds came to inspect the territory I had just uncovered. Juncos and tufted titmice looked for tiny unearthed goodies. We shared the yard for the rest of the afternoon.
When I was finished, hours later, ours was indeed the largest and tallest leaf pile on the block, and I was darned proud of it. When I admired it from our front picture window, I was reminded of another familiar Thoreau passage:
“Every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection. I love to have mine before my window, and the more chips the better to remind me of my pleasing work.” From“House-Warming” in “Walden”
And so this woman could look at her leaf-pile with a kind of affection too, knowing that its bits and pieces would soon be transformed into mulch. Someday it would all help something else to grow, somewhere else.
We section off time to mimic the sun’s rolling passage, and we shape our round days to resemble each other in the way close cousins sometimes do. Slowly, it often seems, imperceptibly, we roll along until we reach a marker that signals difference. We step step again, and suddenly, we are in new land- or timescape.
So it is for me when the month of light, November, ends and the month of late afternoon, December, begins. A December day feels always on the verge of darkness to me, and to counter that feeling, I begin to brew afternoon tea, and I look for a long book.
I experienced a similar feeling recently, when I left the light-filled pages of Walden after an Nth reading.
On a Monday early, we went to Walden Pond as punctuation for our readings of Walden. On Friday, we had closed the book. “The End,” Henry writes (and a student pointed out). I’d never paid attention to those two words, though, given the long drafting of Walden, I should have. There they are, set apart as if to say, “okay, no more comfort of linear travel along these lines of print. Out with you; get out of the little rectangle of my house, out of your house too, out under the light of the morning star.”
And outside those close confines, here each of us is, in the bumbled world of jumbled experience and time, or in the jumbled world of bumbled time and experience.
“O,” we say, disconcerted by the simultaneity of it all, “let’s begin again; let’s reread; we’ll even study!”
“No,” we hear. “I mean The End, when I write it. Time to live,” he answers.
And so, there, beyond The End, we were. We had special permission from the state park to arrive and park and visit the house site before official opening. I had secured that permission after a test walk on the trails that approach Walden from the west had convinced me that the sneaking that appealed to me took more time than we had.
Sanctioned, official, upright, we crossed Route 126 and descended to the pond, bearing right then along the northern edge. The water level was the lowest I can recall, opening a fringe of sand that nearly circled the pond. Tendrils of fog rose from the water like gray snakes. It was, as always, perfect. We walked in silence and in file.
Then, the “morning star” rose over the ridge to the south of Pine Hill. The train shot through.
Time reassembled itself. We boarded for December.
Perhaps I’ll offer confession later, but for now, a dropped jaw will have to do.
On November 7th the business world, at least its stock market manifestation, was agog with the public’s chance to buy into the future. At least the future in 140 or fewer characters. Offered at a mere $26 per share to begin, Twitter’s stock price soon reached the 40s, the sort of rise that suggests some interstellar tangent. Okay, we’d seen this wild, financial optimism, this placing of bets, before.
But what does Twitter do? “It shares,” might be one answer. “Shares what?” we ask, as we reach for our wallets. “It allows me to share what I am doing in real time.” Whose voice is that, we wonder. “Never mind,” says the exchequer of the wallet. “This stock is hot.”
As is often true when society sends up its party balloons and celebrates self, I turned to Henry Thoreau for perspective. He too wondered about our need to know the minutia of others’ lives, their daily gossip, even as he stopped into town to hear it and read newspapers avidly. Henry understood that our appetites, even for morsels of “news,” could get out of hand quickly.
And, of course, he did offer his “experiment” at the pond as example of pursuit of understanding and elevating “I.” But he avoided the short, banal expressions of “tweeting.”
Thoreau’s sentences often exceed 140 words; and when he does go short, we read Walden’s, “Our life is startlingly moral.” Or, “There is nothing inorganic.”
These are koan-like sentences to ponder.
I’ve read between lots of Thoreau’s lines and through his Journals, and I’ve yet to find this: b-fast porridge rockin the pond; AT back w/ “borrowed” Iliad; may walk later w/ EC; wonder bout my beard.
I’ll keep my wallet holstered.
Estabrook Woods: In November the downed leaves make a noisy pathway, and they hide the roots and stones, forcing me to pay attention. This repeated phrase is my late fall mantra. But sometimes, when I do look up, I find pale beauty in the understory. With the leafy canopy gone, light streams into this lower region, and there, it finds the pale fire of the burning bush and the parchment delicacy of the ferns.
In its suburban yard incarnation the burning bush is often just that, a fiery flare of red leaves that, depending upon the individual bush, either burst into short-lived flame or burn steadily for days. But in the woods the bush is a subtle fire, a pastel murmur of flame that keeps in it hints of green until deep autumn.
Now seems the right time to acknowledge that the burning bush is an invasive species; in some states (our Massachusetts, for example) it is even an outlaw. Nurseries are forbidden its sale, and occasional posses of citizens root out clusters where they are found.
Here, I may start a fire of my own, but, in this case, I can’t summon alarm. In fact the whole invasive species argument seems to me arbitrary, as the floral and faunal history of the world seems one of migration rather than homesteading. Yes, I will agree that in some cases where a purple loosestrife or a water chestnut crowds out all competitors and changes a whole land- or waterscape, I feel regret. As a fan of goldenrod, for example, I rue the way some late summer fields that used to say gold now speak purple. (Added note: recently I read – and now can’t rediscover – that goldenrod is the most (or second-most) noted plant in Thoreau’s journals).
But are not we also an invasive species? Certainly in our subgroups we are, riding like so many Huns or Visigoths into the “open” territory of some other peoples and animals and declaring it open for our business.
In any event, each fall as I walk these woods, and especially as I reach the old limekiln site along the Carlisle Road, I spend time with the pink and pale fire that burns in the understory air and lights the ground. If you step into the midst of this cluster with the sun slanting in from the west, the light is so intense it feels warm, even as the wind rackets coldly in the bare branches high above.
Added note: help, by the way, is on the way. A horticultural scientist at the University of Connecticut has developed a sterile version of the burning bush. Soon, perhaps, as sales of these popular bushes continue, their seeds, spread by birds who eat them, will fall on the cold earth and nothing will rise from them.